18 Nov 1996
The madness of the moment is what Mark Waldrop remembers most of all. There he was, standing with Howard Crabtree (near death at the time from AIDS), and the two were fretting over how to make boas come flying out of dresses.
"I was struck by how focused we were, in the midst of this tragic situation, on silly things--how it seemed so inappropriate, and yet it was so important. I think he lasted the last six months on just wanting to complete this."
The occasion was the final fitting for their cheery revue at the Douglas Fairbanks, Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly. Because of the precarious health of the show's costumer/creator, Waldrop elected himself designated driver and personally bused the five-man cast to Crabtree's Pennsylvania farm for fittings.
"Howard ran the fitting from his bed," Waldrop recalls, "but he got up, came over, got down on his knees and cinched in the waist. He was really just about gone by then. I knew from his lover, Danny Gates, he'd been delerious most of the previous week. You could see that he was willing himself to be present, just telling himself over and over, 'I'm going to finish this.'"
Finished it, he did. On June 28 -- five days after pushing his last pin into his last hem -- he died, age 41, at the starting gate of a unique career.
The memory of that last meeting, for Waldrop, solidified into lyrics which were then set to music by the show's composer, Dick Gallagher, resulting in a number called "Laughing Matters." It is the one sober moment in a show that determinedly listens to its own ditzy drummer. The song recites the ills of our times ("not laughing matters")--and then prescribes just that: "Take your blues and bounce them off the wall, keep your humor--because, in times like these, laughing matters most of all."
Such is the sunny legacy of Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly. Crabtree is not just part of the title, he is also part of the show. Waldrop, who wrote the sketches and lyrics as well as directed the piece, fashioned a central character with Crabtree's name and dizzy demeanor, a Missouri farm boy determined to put on A Big Show like Mickey and Judy did in the old MGM musicals--willing to play both Mickey and Judy, in drag and out, and design all the costumes.
"It's a show," says Waldrop, "inspired by costumes--and, just by extension, the exuberance of Howard's spirit and his desire to just put it out there. Howard was very different from me in that respect. I'm really quite a reserved person, but there was an interesting chemistry between the two of us because of that. He let me go places I wouldn't have had the nerve to go to otherwise. He changed my life, totally.
"Without Howard, it's inconceivable that I would have written a gay revue. I'm just too private. It's as if he pulled that out of me. Working with him gave me permission to be as silly as I could possibly be. And don't you love being silly? You value those people you can be silly with. It's fun, and it's something you don't get to do it very much.
"The thing that's so great is that all this stuff Howard and I dreamed up by being silly -- we're finding that all these other people think it's funny, too."
-- By Harry Haun