A Taste of 'The Vagabond Halfback'

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | july 2016

‘The Vagabond Halfback’ opens aboard the 20th Century Limited racing through the night. Johnny Blood (Michael O'Malley, right) swings down from atop the railroad car to interrupt a conversation between New York Giants quarterback Benny Friedman (Cory Estreen, center) and Genevieve Frechette (Rachel Brooks, left). The boys go at it, including trying to out-flatter Genevieve to which Genevieve says, "Really boys? If the mud is this deep at the Polo Grounds, you'll have to wear boots instead of cleats." Kathy Gullickson photo.Nighttime. Early January. The famous 20th Century Limited cuts through the darkness on its regular run from NYC to Chicago.

Newly-signed New York Giants quarterback, Benny Friedman, steps out onto the train platform with the intelligent, attractive Genevieve Frechette. He wears a fine business suit; she, a fur coat.

Johnny Blood rides atop the train just above them. Casual attire for the era and a bit light for the temperatures.

“Two men looked out from prison bars,” he says to the firmament. “One saw mud, the other saw stars.”

With that, he tries another draw from his empty whiskey flask and pitches it into the night.

Below him, Friedman expresses concern for Genevieve. “Are you sure you want to be out here? It's chilly.”

“This coat keeps me quite warm,” she says. “Those cars get so stuffy.”

“And crowded,” adds Friedman. “Lots of folks headed home from the East Coast.”

“Tonight, I choose stars!” Johnny Blood shouts as he swings down onto the train car platform, nearly knocking into Friedman.

Friedman readjusts himself. “Oh, it's Johnny Blood. Tramp Athlete. Too cheap to buy a ticket, Blood?”

The contrast and conflict between them is palpable.

“No, Benny Boy. I've got my stub,” says Blood. Then, dismissively eyeing Friedman's well-cut suit, “You run into a better class of people on top the train. Besides, you can ponder two steps beyond the stratosphere up there.”

“Edwin Hubble says the universe is expanding,” chimes Genevieve.

“And I am a boy in spring considering its farthest corners,” says Johnny Blood. “Who are you?”

And, so begins “The Vagabond Halfback,” an original two-act stage play premiering at historic Green Bay East High School August 5-7.

A Town and Its Team

“The Vagabond Halfback” has something for everyone: Fans of local theater – especially those supportive of productions that afford more opportunity to our area's young performing talent. Fans of the Green Bay community and its history. And fans of football, football history, and this town's NFL Packers.

The relationship between Green Bay and its Packers is legendary. It's a serendipitous, synergistic recipe of hometown pride, great history and team success. Every fan watching the Packers play at Lambeau Field on a gorgeous autumn afternoon tastes some of that, whether they realize it or not. Perhaps it's mixed into the beer or bratwurst or something.

But the origins of that love affair between the smallest NFL-member city and its team go back well before that. It reaches into the town team era when “elevens” held dances and bake sales and raffles to raise money for uniforms and equipment. Oh, and stock sales, like those that kept the Packers alive in 1923, 1935, 1950, 1997 and 2011.

In Scene 3, twelve-year-old Polly Nichols exudes the significance of owning an NFL team. After all, she holds a single share of Packers stock purchased in 1923.

Polly's brother, Norbert, has just come bounding through the door of the Nichols' Cherry Street home. With a sense of obligation borne out of being a “team owner,” Polly is listening to the 1929 Rose Bowl on the family radio with her dad.

“You could try knocking on that door,” Polly yells at Norbert.

“I could try knocking on your head,” Norbert fires back.

Catching his sister listening to football, Norbert fires, “Football is for boys.”

Ignoring Norbert's noise, Polly says, “I own a professional football team.”

“That's a bunch of malarkey. And that's practically a professional team you're listening to on the radio. College football is better.”

“I have proof of ownership right here,” says Polly, brandishing her share of Packers stock. “And pro football is the future.”

“The Packers conned you out of five bucks,” says Norbert. “That was all the babysitting money you had. You don't own anything except that piece of paper.”

At this point, their father intervenes. “It's called stock,” he says. “It can't be sold or traded and it has no market value. Still, in essence, your sister does own a small part of the team.”

“See Norbert, you cement head,” Polly scolds.

The Packers, the Giants and the Early NFL

Not everyone is so enamored of a small town with a football team. NFL President, Joe Carr, has his worries about these town teams surviving on the national stage. He's overseeing a league in flux as a result of their constant coming and going.

Players on teams in larger cities aren't so conflicted. In Scene 8 at Manhattan's iconic Stork Club, New York Giants players are seated with team owner, Tim Mara, and Carr. The group – including Friedman, Jack Hagarty, Mule Wilson, Haps Moran and Stevie Owen – are talking about Green Bay, its Packers and City Stadium.

“Played a game there with the Blues in '24,” says Owen. “If you were a thief that would be the day. Everyone's at the damned game. Are there any keys in cow country? Nothing's locked.”

“I heard that kids climbed through the outhouse along the fence to get into that sandlot,” says Wilson.

“Didn't one kid fall in?” Hagarty asks.

“Green Bay is hodunk country – a bunch of Holstein cows,” adds Friedman. “Their games look like farmhands wrasslin' in a slop sty.”

“Another game there were kids and hoboes hanging out of trees outside the stadium,” says Owen. “I saw a kid fall out of a tree. Or was it a hobo? Couldn't tell the difference. Their kids look like hoboes and their hoboes look like kids.”

“Half of 'em sneak in anyway,” says Hagerty. “Hell, players walk in with 'em under their warm-up coats.”

The stage is set, literally, for a showdown between the Packers and the Giants on November 24, 1929, when this production puts live football action on the stage for the first time anywhere ever.

Going into the contest, the Packers are undefeated. But so are the Giants – with just a slight blemish from an early-season tie.

The Giants are healthy and ready to pummel their small-town rivals on their big-city home turf. The Packers are injured and a little unsure. It's David and Goliath alright, except David's slingshot is suspect.

The moviehouse newsreels proclaim the matchup, subtly predicting the result:

“With mere weeks left in the season ... the two teams meet on the field of glory in what should be a game for the ages ... And the outcome ... should be a 'Big One.'”

Clearer yet is the newsboy hawking papers at the Big Apple's 72nd Street and Broadway:

“Giants Face Packers at Polo Grounds today. Get your morning edition. Benny Friedman poised to win. Hot off the presses. Giants and Packers. Morning edition. Packers hurt. Giants ready.”

Johnny Blood and Genevieve

And so it is that Coach Curly Lambeau and his minions – including Blood, Mike Michalske, Lavvie Dilweg, Cal Hubbard and Bo Molenda – head toward the showdown. They've got their work cut out for them. Even the intrepid Blood – whose antics on and off the field have kept things interesting all season – seems a little concerned.

Meanwhile. Blood's got another problem. Sure, he's a lady killer. His good looks alone make him irresistible to most women; his plying of verse usually knocks the rest of them off their feet.

But not Genevieve. She's a poet herself; she knows that the universe is expanding. She's not about to be blown away by a smarmy breeze. A proposal in Kellaher's Bar in Johnny's hometown of New Richmond, Wisconsin falls flat:

“Whose hand holds the gold,” Genevieve asks Blood. “A matinee idol on a movie marquee? A promotion of Edward Bernays? Are you the man I can love?”

“Yes,” says Johnny Blood. “I'll keep life interesting.”

Genevieve wants substance, not something so superfluous as “interesting.” She sees it in there – somewhere. But where, exactly?

So, will Curly and his tiny town footballers leave Gotham with another win? Will the steady Benny Friedman put the whimsical Johnny Blood's nose in the dirt? Will Green Bay keep its football team? Will Johnny Blood win the heart of the one he truly loves?

Trains and train stations, Green Bay history, the Hotel Northland, the Reber Street whorehouse, it's all here.

Get your tickets now for “The Vagabond Halfback” to find out. Find them for $25 with premiums through July 23 at our Kickstarter.com page. After that, they're $30 at “Seat Yourself” or at the door.

Don't Miss It!

“The Vagabond Halfback” comes to theater stages this summer – beginning with a World Premier at historic Green Bay East High School August 5-7. Produced by 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 also continues as an educator, author, farmer and horseman.

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