Break Two Legs! Or … The True Confessions of a First-Time Playwright

denis gullickson | talking titletown | may 2016

This early action photo of Johnny Blood might ring a bell with visitors to downtown Green Bay. It's the model for one of the statues on the northeast corner of Washington and Cherry Streets. Johnny Blood is character enough to have an entire stage play built around him and the early Packers legend that he was such a part of as the team pursued its first NFL championship in 1929. Photo courtesy of John Doar.Sitting at the outdoor café two summers ago, pouring over a screenplay manuscript called “Vagabond Halfback," it seemed pretty simple.

It was one of those classic Wisconsin summer days — just steamy enough to make you perspire, not so hot that some ice water couldn't cool you down.

“Let's convert this screenplay to a stage play," I said, “and let's put it on in Titletown!"

Carefree dreams danced in my head of theater seats filled with Packers fans, anxious for Packers history and live football action, 1929-style.

How much work could there be? Heck, I'd seen plenty of plays. I'd even published a few books. I'd told lots of stories. What could I be missing?

Plenty!

First, the basics:

“The Vagabond Halfback" is a full-length, two-act stage play that will premier this summer, August 5-7, at Historic Green Bay East High School. It's a story of life, love and football set against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties in the face of the Great Depression.

It's also the story of the David-like Green Bay Packers doing battle against Goliath-like teams from larger cities.

For the first time anywhere ever, the theater stage will erupt with actual football action.

The play celebrates the colorful life of Packers Hall of Famer Johnny “Blood" McNally and the Packers' own story of survival as the team traveled from small-town sandlots to the gridirons of the early NFL.

Period costumes, authentic football gear, intricate sets, a cast of forty named and forty-one ensemble characters … what's to worry about?

Literary and historical references. Being accurate. Getting the correct permissions. Letting the NFL and three of its member clubs know that the project was moving forward. All the while, crafting dialogue that is authentic, timely and pithy.

And … capturing the essence of the character of Johnny Blood. The man. The legend. The persona. And … creating a character, Genevieve Frechette, who is Johnny Blood's equal.

Oh, and trains and hotels and whorehouses and opposing football fields. Yes, there's the 20th Century Limited, the Hotel Northland, the Reber Street Whorehouse and games at Wrigley Field and the Polo Grounds. And New York's Stork Club. And Grand Central Station Terminal.

And Curly Lambeau, George Whitney “Cal" Calhoun, Otto Stiller, Mike Michalske, Cal Hubbard, Bo Molenda and Jug Earpe. And George Halas, Red Grange, Joey Sternamen. And Benny Friedman, Mule Wilson and Stevie Owen.

Somewhere in the mix, a total of eighty-one characters adds to the richness of the story but creates a casting nightmare of no small proportions. Also included are 110 period costumes — including 1929-NFL football uniforms — with 135 costume changes.

Staging live football action for the first time ever spawns its own headaches and the realization of why no one had done this before; they're smarter than I am.

What could possibly go wrong?

The Good News!

All that could keep you awake at night and … it does. Fortunately, I find myself surrounded by really good people.

There's the board of directors of the newly-formed Green Bay Theatre Company, under which the play is being produced. That board is a great mix of creativity and sensibility. I am delighted to count on that board Beth Bashara, Corrie Campbell, Gail Dockry, Ellen “Odge" Gullickson, Gary Gullickson, Rachel Gullickson, (don't worry, we Gullicksons have been arguing longer than we have been forming a voting bloc), Frank Hermans (readers will recognize this name), Lauren Kalil, Redebra Peters, Michael O'Malley, John Mitchell, James Steinbruecker and Linda Thill.

Whew! That's a powerhouse with just one knucklehead (me) to round out the curve.

Then, there's my director and set designer, Jim Johnson. Now, here's a talented guy. So, talented, in fact, that a playwright can almost relax! Jim is a theater veteran who has designed and built sets, directed and acted in more than thirty productions.

Then, there's the central cast: A skilled, complex Irish lad named Michael O'Malley as Johnny Blood. The lovely, talented, charming, inspiring, fun, hard-working, brilliant (hey, she's my daughter) Rachel Gullickson as Genevieve Frechette, Johnny Blood's love interest and intellectual equal. The sharp-edged Cory Estreen as New York Giants quarterback Benny Friedman. A steady James Steinbrucker as Mike Michalske. A multi-faceted CJ Guzan as Curly Lambeau. The stunning Tori Klein as Gladys Kolman. The creative Ruby Kleinschmidt as Florence the bawdyhouse madam.

Not to fret if you're a young actor or actress interested in getting involved, thirty-some roles remain to be cast.

Calling All Packers Fans … And Actors!

There's something here for everyone. Fans of football, fans of football history, fans of history, fans of Green Bay history, fans of theater, the curious who just want to see if an extravaganza like this be pulled off.

There's the beautiful East High School Theater situated approximately on the site of the former Hagemeister Field where some of the first professional touchdowns in this city were scored.

Then, there's Johnny Blood himself.

Besides the wonderful story of Green Bay and its Packers v. the rest of the known world, much of the success of this venture hinges on the unique — dare one say, “flamboyant" — character of Johnny “Blood" McNally. A man and his persona.

Johnny Blood was known to ride atop moving trains, leap across hotel courtyards to procure bottles of whiskey or money from Coach Curly Lambeau's hotel room, recite poetry to gathering crowds on street corners and even ride alone on the prow of a ship as it cut through the night over ocean waves. He also terrorized opposing teams in the first decade of the NFL.

He didn't slow down in later days.

I've shared this story before, but it's a great story and it deserves to be retold. (It isn't in my book, “Vagabond Halfback," or this summer's stage play.) It traverses the line that Johnny Blood meandered throughout his life. It was told to me by my friend, Mary Zipperer who knew Johnny McNally, aka Johnny Blood, quite well as a friend and distant relative.

It seems that John showed up at Mary's home one Sunday morning — a gorgeous spring day — shortly after Mary and her husband, Jim, had gotten home from church. Jim had lain down to take a nap. Mary was in the kitchen when there was a knock on the door. I'll let Mary take the story from here:

“So I answered the door, Denis, and there was John looking fresh as a daisy in my garden. “Except, I could smell alcohol on his breath — probably scotch. You know it was his favorite.

“I wondered if he'd been up all night or if he'd already started drinking that morning. But it seemed to me like he was too sharp, too chipper to have been up all night — so he must have had a glass or two before he came over.

“I looked at him and said, 'Drinking already this morning, John?'

“With that, he put his hand on my shoulder as if he was going to share something very important with me, looked me in the eyes with all the seriousness he could muster and said, 'Me too, Mary. Me too.'"

There was no way a guy like this could be kept contained to a book — he was bound to bust out.

And, so he has.

Please Join Us on Kickstarter!

So a production like this isn't cheap … or easy. (That's not a slam on the girls in the play's whorehouse scene, by the way.) There is a railroad car, a working elevator, a Manhattan night club, train stations, football fields, the aforementioned period costumes, replica football uniforms … and the list goes on.

Frankly, we could use some help.

So, here's how it works: Find “The Vagabond Halfback" on Kickstarter.com. Find a giving level you are comfortable with. For $50 you can get two advance tickets to a performance of your choice, plus a suitable-for-framing “Benefactor's Certificate."

If that last item sounds familiar, it should. It's meant to hearken back to those stock sales — beginning in 1923 — that kept our favorite football team alive and operating in Green Bay.

There are multiple other giving levels. In fact, if you are an individual or a company looking to underwrite some aspect of “The Vagabond Halfback," we are anxious to hear from you. Contact us at vagabondhalfback@aol.com or via our website at vagabondhalfback.org.


“The Vagabond Halfback" comes to theater stages this summer — beginning with a World Premiere at historic Green Bay East High School August 5-7. Produced by the newly-founded Green Bay Theatre Company, “The Vagabond Halfback" celebrates colorful Packers Hall of Famer Johnny Blood McNally and the Packers own unique story as the team traveled by train from small-town sandlots to the gridirons of the early NFL. It's a historically-accurate depiction of life, love and football set against the backdrop of the tumultuous Roaring Twenties in the face of the Great Depression. Gullickson continues as an educator, author, farmer and horseman.

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