On Stage: A Survivor’s Instinct

You might say that Tome’ Cousin has been living his own marathon. He’s been running, yes, but not in the traditional 26.2 mile sense of the world. No, he’s been on a speed chase with destiny since 1988, when he first became enamored with dance marathons.

It is a subject that has enticed so many — the Academy Award-winning They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and the Tony Award-winning Steel Pier (1997) among them. Tome’ himself first did his own marathon piece in 1995 with his Pittsburgh-based company, Physical Theatre Project.

He sought out film actress June Havoc back then. She originally was the Baby June character so memorably found in the iconic musical, Gypsy. But Arthur Laurents’ book never revealed what happened to 14-year old June after she left the vaudeville act that Mama Rose had fashioned.

June, as it turned out, got married and was tricked into competing in dance marathons that sprang up during the Great Depression of the ’30’s. It was a volatile subject that the young performer related in a book, Early Havoc (1960), where she conveyed the manic atmosphere: “The pressure within me was at a dangerous high. My boiler was about to burst. I knew my eyes were pressing hard to get out of their sockets. I had perspired so much that my long hair was as wet as though I had just emerged from the shower. My throat and mouth were so dry that trying to swallow would be folly; I knew I would choke.”

That inspired a musical, Marathon ’33 in 1963, starring Julie Harris and a young Doris Roberts. June would direct, making the cast strap mattresses on their backs to simulate the trying, tiring conditions. It only lasted 48 performances, but she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction. She would write a revised edition in the ’80’s.

It appeared to be in the cards that Tome’ would stumble across June’s story in 1988. But first he would establish his own company here in Pittsburgh, the Physical Theatre Project, in 1991.

He had already contacted June and the producers of They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, asking for permission to use elements of both their stories in a limited run for the non-profit company. Everyone agreed, but Tome’ would have to do original material in any subsequent productions.

The production at City Theater made the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Top Ten in Dance for 1995.

Tome’ eventually headed for New York, then was drawn to iconic German choreographer Pina Bausch at Wuppertal Dance Theatre for two years, where he started to experiment with “what Marathon could possibly be.” He has remained irrevocably intertwined since then.

In the meantime, he appeared in the original cast of Susan Stroman’s Contact on Broadway from 2000 to 2002 and went about establishing a full-fledged career. But Marathon was never far away from his mind.

Production photos by Drew Yenchak.

Then came the perfect storm, so to speak, in 2009. Tome’ met with Peter Gregus, who was starring in Jersey Boys on Broadway and the two men casually decided to write something original. They tossed out a few ideas, but nothing was on paper.

Just days later, Tome’ found out that New York’s Abingdon Theater Company wanted to do a gala fundraiser. As it happened, June was on the board of directors and the performance would take place in the June Havoc Theater.

It was “a no-brainer.” Tome’ submitted pictures and a DVD of his Pittsburgh production. The board said, “Get him.” And when they showed everything to June, she said, “I remember him.”

People like Broadway star Karen Ziemba and Pittsburgh favorite Rachelle Rak volunteered their time. They learned it in three weeks and went on with the show, with Rex Reed as host. Members of the original Pittsburgh cast came in to see it.

Tome’ and Peter decided to go expand it into an original production — Tome’ had some ideas, such as bringing in the ghostly figure of Mama Rose and to use vintage footage in flashbacks. The pair repeatedly visited June at her farm in Stanford, Connecticut.

“It was like old Hollywood glamour,” Tome’ recalls. They had conversations, but he never saw her face-to-face. June remained in her bedroom, calling out to him, while assistants ran in and out with shoeboxes of material, like original photos of the family and costumes belonging to Gypsy Rose Lee.

“Why is this under your bed?” Tome’ asked in amazement. “This is theater gold!”

Things began to come full circle when Carnegie Mellon University invited Tome’ to be a full-time professor of dance in the much-vaunted drama department. He accepted. Point Park University agreed to workshop a Marathon 33 production. Peter took a leave of absence from Jersey Boys for the rehearsal period.

It was full steam ahead — except that June died last March at the age of 97 and her caretaker a few months later. Luckily the June Havoc Trust Fund gave Tome’ exclusive rights to the work and all future works. But there is “a mountain of junk” hiding some of June’s treasures in a storage facility, like fan letters from people who saw her in marathons.

Some of it will still have to wait.

But even after more than 20 years, Tome’’s eyes are filled with passion for marathons. “It was the original reality show!” he exclaims, also noting that it spawned roller derby and mud wrestling during the elimination contests.

Yes folks, it was all planned — the role playing (ingenue, villain, etc.), the fights. “It was the phenomenon of watching something we know is sort of fake, but we’re still watching,” Tome’ says.

A phenomenon that is still relevant, still compelling, even today.

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