“Vagabond Halfback” Actors Discuss Roles

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | nov. 2017

Standing near the 20th Century Limited railroad car, New York Giants quarterback Benny Friedman (left, played by Cory Estreen) and Packers star Johnny Blood (center, played by Michael O'Malley) argue over which team will win the 1929 championship while vying for the attention of the lovely Genevieve Frechette (right, played by Rachel Brooks [Gullickson]).Friday, November 3 through Sunday, November 5, the original stage-play “The Vagabond Halfback" returns to the theater stage at Ashwaubenon Performing Arts Center.

The new “Ash-PAC" resides just down the road from Lambeau Field, meaning that, in producing this play, the Green Bay Theatre Company – under the skillful guidance of director Barb Alloy – is bringing this story of Packers history “home" to the Stadium District.

Audiences applauded the play when it debuted last summer at Green Bay East High School – a football's toss from historic City Stadium where the Packers played from 1925 through 1956.

Now, it's your turn to see this story of life, love and Packers history set in the Roaring Twenties against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

Full-disclosure: I wrote “The Vagabond Halfback."

More full-disclosure: My talented daughter, Rachel, plays the female lead.

Even-fuller disclosure: We want to see you in the audience for this rollicking retelling of the Packers first championship season.

A Packers Story

Set in 1929 – the play tracks the on and off-field antics of Packers Hall of Famer Johnny Blood McNally as he leads his Packers teammates to the league title. Prominently featured are Head Coach Curly Lambeau and colorful Press-Gazette sportswriter George “Cal" Calhoun.

Also included are Green Bay landmarks including the Northland Hotel, City Stadium, East High School, downtown streets and a long-gone Preble whorehouse where Madam Florence oversees a “fleet of 'modern' women."

Blood's antics were widely celebrated in the nation's newspapers. Most included wine, women and poetry. Blood, for instance, would rent out an entire house of ill repute like the one in Preble – spending the night reciting poetry and discussing headlines.

Blood's football skills were likewise exceptional; he was one of the first 17 men inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame along with Lambeau.

In the fictional character, Genevieve Frechette, Blood meets his match and their relationship flows and ebbs over the course of the two-act drama.

Other features include live football action on the theater stage for the first time anywhere and a convincing black-and-white newsreel created exclusively for the production.

The play culminates in the Packers-Giants showdown at New York's famed Polo Grounds. Both teams were undefeated and the game constituted that year's championship tilt – since league titles were based on won-lost percentage.

Live football action on the theater stage? Who does that? Here the 1929 Green Bay Packers lineup against the 1929 New York Giants in a simulation of that season's big showdown at New York City's famed Polo Grounds. Watching in the background is Coach Curly Lambeau and Referee Hennessey. The action is repeated Nov 3-5 at the Ashwaubenon PAC. Green Bay Theatre Company photo.  “TVH" Actors Speak

There's something potentially daunting about portraying a historic figure on the stage. There's something equally daunting about portraying fictional characters surrounded by historic figures.

Since this is the first play about Packers history since Eric Simonson's “Lombardi," it is intriguing to hear the thoughts of “The Vagabond Halfback" actors on their portrayals.

Johnny Blood, played by Michael O'Malley, was one of those larger-than-life characters. According to O'Malley, the cultural connections between him and Blood – both strongly Irish – explain part of the draw to his character.

“My father was born in Ireland and I spent parts of my childhood being raised in Ireland," said O'Malley. “There's the inherent turmoil of being Irish."

O'Malley said he saw that in Blood as he studied Blood's propensity for pushing the envelope of life – that wine, women and song piece. It's one of the things he found fascinating about the character he portrays. “It's avoiding the realization that it might be something out of his control. The idea that that demon is always hypothetical is highly relate-able."

Another element that drew O'Malley to the stage play was its intersection of sports and the arts. “There's that relationship between the arts and athleticism," O'Malley said. “Johnny Blood was an amazing football player, but he also loved the arts, theater and poetry.

“And there's always that little bit of a divide of 'which one should I choose?' and I think he made the right choices in that they go on to win three championships in row. But I find myself feeling a little melancholy for the guy as far as 'which one should I choose?'"

O'Malley is also a full-time cast member of Let Me Be Franks Productions.

Like all theatrical productions, “The Vagabond Halfback" has been an individual and collective mental and emotional sojourn. Actors have faced the challenge of assuming another character – pretty standard, actually – but, in this case, a character who actually lived.

“Getting into character," for O'Malley, was a challenge and a joy. “If you just go through the emotions, though, it becomes stale. But if you're constantly going through the decisions, then it kind of makes it more on edge, I think."
How to do it performance after performance is another trick. “I always try to think of a deep love for Genevieve or a deep animosity toward [Giants Quarterback] Benny Friedman or a kind of respect and fear for Curly Lambeau and take all those emotions and try and make them drive the decision of what Johnny Blood is."

The old saying goes that “behind every man there's a good woman." In Johnny Blood's case, there were lots of women – behind, in front and all around. So, what of Genevieve Frechette, who, in this play, is Johnny's equal and stands squarely in front of him?

Genevieve is played by Rachel Brooks (Gullickson) who has earned her chops in New York and in many productions with the Sheboygan Theater Company – most-recently as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady."

“I really love my character," said Brooks. “Because in this play, with all factual characters, I am the only [primary] made up character. So, that's kind of interesting, to be able to make my own character rather than be historically-correct with mine."

In the character of Genevieve, Brooks said she finds a lot to work with – much of it challenging.

“She's really strong. And a very strong woman in the 1920s you didn't find as often." Brooks said. “It's not easy, but she's been through a lot. To get into my character, I think about where she's been in her life. So, I think about where she's been before each scene. What was her moment before? Where did she come from? Who was she talking to?"

“The most difficult part is memorizing my lines," Brooks said. “That's because the language in this play is so beautiful. That you want to make sure you get every word right, because every word is there for a reason.

“As an actress you might think, 'That's not exactly how I would say that, but it's how my character would say that.' So I want to stay true to that."

Brooks also steps outside her normal realm in “The Vagabond Halfback."

“I've not done a lot of plays, I'm more of a musical actress and focusing on my acting more than my singing and dancing as I usually do in some shows has really been really beneficial to me," she said.

Familiar Roles and New

Other performers in other roles have changed over the year. The role of Curly Lambeau, for instance, played by CJ Guzan in 2016, is now filled by Darby Kern.

Tackling Lambeau was something Guzan reflected on during the 2016 production. “The amount of work that he [Lambeau] has to do to hold something together, because without him it would crumble. And how amazing his skills are."

“That attracts other people to him like Johnny Blood, Mike Michalske and all these other amazing football players, but entirely different people. So you have this bashing of heads that I run into a lot performing in improv and theater or just doing art projects and music."

On that individual and collective element, Guzan said of the cast, “We all pick each other up and we challenge each other and we all get better and better."

“The other thing I've gotten out of this production," said Guzan, “Is that excellent quality theater is right here in Green Bay. It's kind of proven a myth now that you have to go to Chicago or New York or L.A., because 'Vagabond Halfback' has proven that the skill of actors and playwrights around here is way better than a lot of people think it is."

Other key performers have returned: Lee Kerwin plays Calhoun and Paul Goska is NFL President Joe Carr. Chris Weis assumes Mike Michalske – Johnny Blood's sidekick on and off the field.

We are fortunate to have many other acting talents: incumbent actors Ruby Kleinschmidt and Anna VanBoxtel, Mitchell Gosser and Blake McLellan and newcomers Kern, Katie Schroeder, Stacie Diamond, David Neese and Noah Krohn.

Last year's director, Jim Johnson, returns in a cameo role.

An exciting recent development worth noting is that the role of Benny Friedman is now filled by Christopher Kuehl, a graduate of Ashwaubenon High School, where he played football and performed on – you guessed it – the theater stage. That means that we are bringing this story of Packers history “home" to Ashwaubenon – home of Lambeau Field – with one of Ashwaubenon's own in such a pivotal role. Now, that's full-circle!

Watch them all bring this story to life Nov 3-5.

You can get tickets through Ticketstar or at the door.

See you there!

Fall is upon us and winter looms. Author, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson continues to write about it all from a horse farm west of Green Bay and cobblestone cottage near Lakewood.

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