So we all sort of lurch through life like monkeys on muscle relaxants, paying little attention to the signs that are continually mashed into our faces by a higher authority like God or Oprah.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Admittedly, my mind is often preoccupied with Very Important Things, such as how to corner Bill Murray at a Huskies game and pitch him my idea for “Ghostbusters 3” (a Giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Venkman!) so I tend to be a bit slow to notice my surroundings. In fact, if I had a nickel for every time I almost left the house without pants, I’d have enough money to post bail for walking around without pants. I was reminded of this obvious obtuseness recently with the passing of a good friend, Finley Stalvig.
If you had asked me a month ago if Finley and I were friends, I would have hesitated a bit. Not because he wasn’t a fantastic person, but because, when I first thought about it, I didn’t think we had crossed paths enough for me to make a presumption of friendship. But as I started reaching back through my brain for Finley remembrances, something kind of lovely happened: I’d find one, start focusing on it, only to have another pop up, which would quickly connect to the previous one and then cause me to remember something else entirely. This delightful Memory Reconstruction Scene went on for quite a while until I finally realized the subtle, yet sure influence Finley had on my life.
Finley was an integral part of the Twin Ports theater scene. From directing to acting to designing to producing, Finley excelled at all of it, his warm chuckle always at the ready. I met him in 1984 when I was cast in my very first Duluth Playhouse show. Finley was doing makeup for this particular production and he taught me how to make a fake mustache. “No time to grow a real one,” he laughed as he painstakingly recreated a long, silly patch of lip growth for me. He was professional, he was fun and he taught me that every person involved, both backstage and onstage, was important to a play’s success. And that was the last time I saw him.
No, wait! When I started up Renegade Comedy Theatre in 1991, I worked with Fin in his capacity as arts reporter for the Superior Telegram. Whenever we spoke, he wanted me to identify every single person involved with the show. Not just actors and director, Fin also wanted to know who was doing costumes, who was obtaining props, who was the set, light, and/or sound designer. He even asked about the thankless but crucial job of sound and light board operator. Finley insisted on identifying everyone involved because he knew that they were all artists who were pouring their creative energies into the show and they deserved some recognition. When he eventually left his position with the Telegram, I was sad because I never had any communication with Finley again - WAIT! We did a play together!
Finley was a long-time producer of dinner theater in this town. In fact, I would hazard to guess that he was a local pioneer in that regard; no one was doing dinner theater before Finley. Why would they? The hours were long and the pay was miniscule. He knew the down and dirty details that are needed to produce theater around here: you’re directing, you’re hustling sponsorship money to pay the artists, you are staying up until 2 a.m. to finish painting the walls because you open the next night. So why did he do it? Because he was having fun.
In 1994, Renegade did a production of “True West.” Michael Pallansch and I played the mismatched brothers in this Sam Shepard play and we recruited Finley to play the small but pivotal role of a Hollywood producer who crushes the dreams of one brother while embracing the other. As with everything he did, Fin’s performance was top-notch. Unfortunately, the play wasn’t very well attended and we were unable to pay all the artists. I felt sick about it, particularly for Finley, who had given up a lot of his valuable time to help us out with the show. The week after we closed, I received a note in the mail:
Thank you so much for the opportunity to do a Renegade show. It was an absolute thrill for me to have an opportunity to work with both you and Michael. I have the utmost respect for both of you as actors.
It really was a good experience. We all know you don’t get rich doing theater in the Twin Ports. We all do it just for the love of it. It was an exceptional show and I only wish more people could have seen it, particularly the fine work you and Michael put into your roles. I think Renegade can be very proud of “True West.”
Again, thanks for the opportunity.
Instead of sulking about money or raging about never working with me again, Finley took the time to write a beautiful handwritten note about his experience. That tells you all you need to know about this wonderful man right there.
Yes, Finley was definitely my friend. And I’m the better for it.
Brian Matuszak is the founder of Rubber Chicken Theater and invites you to follow him and his theater company on Twitter at twitter.com/rchickentheater, like them on Facebook at Rubber Chicken Theater, and visit the website at www.RubberChickenTheater.com.