In his new memoir, The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered, Benjamin Taylor discusses what it’s like to grow up as a young, homosexual JFK Democrat in Texas in 1964. The exclusive excerpt below is an account of a beautiful creative friendship between the author and Robby Anton.
My best friend was Robby Anton. From him I learned a more whimsical way of life than Taylors or Bocksteins could teach. We thought the funniest thing was to telephone some hotel in the red-light district and attempt, in elevated language, to make a reservation. Or else we’d sit in his mother’s Cadillac and be a couple of stars driving from Fort Worth to New York to open in a Broadway show. While others played ball outside, Robby and I would lie around his house or mine listening to Sophie Tucker, last of the red-hot mamas, sing: “Who wants ’em tall, dark, and handsome! Who cares about glamorous guys!” We loved the great indoors. One Saturday, in a corner of my bedroom, we opened an expensive Polynesian restaurant. On a sleepover at his house, draped in afghans and turbaned in bath towels, we lip-synched highlights from Lucia di Lammermoor, seen at the Fort Worth Opera with a senescent Lily Pons in the lead and an unknown twenty-one-year-old Spaniard named Plácido Domingo as her Edgardo. Ordinary boys we were not. We adored theater and ceremony and pomp and pretense of every kind. We especially loved funerals. One time we put on a funeral for a bookmark.
While there has been life for me after Robby, more than thirty years of it, there was none at all before. His parents were the closest friends of mine—you rarely saw Shirley and Charlie without Sol and Annette—and so it happened quite naturally that Robby, three years older than I, became my first friend, a piece of luck I’ll marvel at till I die: to have been granted from earliest childhood the company of a creative genius.
My earliest memory of him must be from when I was about five and he eight—an eight-year-old artist in the spell of his calling, which was puppetry. He had a stage his parents had brought back from FAO Schwarz (I wailed till my parents got me one like it), complete with a set of hand puppets: an alligator, a glowworm, a cockatoo, a bearded lady, a heavy-lidded ostrich, a monkey with a scarlet maw and so forth. And how, with his effortless theatricality, Robby stirred them all to life! After a few attempts to emulate him at home on my own bare stage, I folded it up and put it away. Under my tutelage the puppets had refused to live. With glass eyes they reproached me.
Yes, I was a flop—who decided, like flops before me, that reflected glory would be better than none at all. So I made myself Robby’s factotum, taking up the slack backstage, operating the lights out front, et cetera. Our audience? Our squirming and benevolent parents, and, occasionally, our guffawing older brothers.
Anything on a stage was rapture. Galvanized by Fort Worth Opera’s Madame Butterfly, we decided to mount a version of our own and commandeered two girls from Mrs. Westbrook’s class, Libby Lee and Angela Tipton, to play Cho-Cho-San and Suzuki. I myself would take the role of Captain Pinkerton.
Libby and Angela were a couple of troupers. They had ballet recitals to their credit and we felt, somehow, that their tutus and tights would look Japanese enough. I’d wear my new seersucker for Pinkerton’s regalia. At Record Town we bought the Angel LP set of Victoria de los Ángeles and Jussi Björling singing Butterfly. The idea was that Angela, Libby and I would lip-synch the whole thing. Robby painted the flats and put me in charge of staging. Who was going to see this opera? That we’d figure out later.
Angela, a fiery girl, felt miscast as Suzuki and hankered for the starring role. Midway through the dress rehearsal, that hellcat spat on us both. Robby said, “You’re gonna get it, girlie!” Libby leapt in. I gave her a hard pinch. Still in their tights and tutus, she and Angela flew out the front door, roller bags clattering behind them. Libby’s had a dud wheel, which for some reason made Robby and me laugh uncontrollably.
“Did you see that wheel?” he managed to say through tears.
“She deserves it!” We fell against each other.
Last we saw, Libby and Angela were waving down some car. Of a nice person, we hoped. More helpless laughter. But our Butterfly had perished in the larval stage.
Many years later Robby said: “Pathetic of us to have employed those girls when what we wanted was to be Cho-Cho-San and Suzuki ourselves.”
It was with puppets that Robby began and with puppets that he ended. That he became in the last decade of his brief life one of the greatest puppeteers who has ever lived is not doubted by those who saw his work of the late seventies and early eighties. This time he made the protean characters from scratch, a cast of tiny finger puppets who broached the darkness, made alchemical discoveries, suffered and were metamorphosed from their illusions. His theater was a single-handed mythology, outside all creeds and yet systematic. William Blake comes to mind as a comparably uncompromising artist and Blake was among Robby’s fascinations. Like the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Robby invented an allegory in which characters embody instincts and faculties. He drew the numinous circle around these human things in order to show, as myth does, how interfused they are with a universe of powers transcending them.
In other words, he had the religious gift (so lacking in rationalistic me). Our journey out of the little world of reason and sense experience and into eternity was Robby’s mature subject. Our alleged mortality he saw as a deceit. He would have understood at once what Blake wrote to George Cumberland in April of 1827: “I have been very near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble and tottering, but not in Spirit & Life not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for ever.” The fallen world was temporary. The true, ever-living world, all around us but unseen, a holy secret, revealed itself through mystical experience. Although a marvelous draftsman, Robby had (again in common with Blake) no interest in landscape or in depicting the human form from nature. I see this now as of a piece with his transcendental preoccupations.
The delicious companion of my childhood had become Robert Anton the grown‑up puppeteer. Everything the Romantics taught about the momentousness of childhood, about original untutored prowess as the source of art, was borne out in him. What happened is what always happens: Maturity intensified by orders of magnitude the early promptings and intuitions. The cabinet of curiosities from FAO Schwarz gave way to a visionary company of the puppeteer’s own making. Twenty-two years ago I tried, in a novel called Tales Out of School, to impart something of what this theater was like. Much the most fantastical thing in the book, it’s the only part I didn’t make up:
On the planks smoke rose from a tiny cauldron. A couple of bowls—The halves of a robin’s egg, really—lay side by side at the foot of a peach tree, two span high, which was coming into flower. Here was a world of smallness made clear by what it excluded. Simpler than the big world, yes; the big world excludes nothing and this makes the big world hard to see. But here in smallness dwelled the promise of a truth.
There came a scratching noise from under the platform. The proboscis of a horseshoe crab poked up through the planks. He lumbered on stage doing a side‑to‑side step. Ah, he wasn’t a crab. He was a puppet wearing the carapace of a crab. Now he shed his shell and was a lovely white-faced lady. The proboscis, unwound, became a head of hair which he—no, she—proceeded to comb out with delicate fingers.
Looking to right and left, she put the peach tree under one arm, climbed into the carapace and sailed away. But here Schmulowicz [the puppeteer] snapped his fingers, summoning her on stage again. He pointed sternly to where the tree had stood. Red in the face, she put it back.
Schmulowicz now produced a little torch, put it in the lovely lady’s hand and, pointing to the footlight candles, bade her light them, which she did. She held the tiny flame back up to him; he blew it out. Then she put the brand, still smoking, under her arm, climbed into the carapace and sailed away. But Schmulowicz snapped his fingers, summoning her back. He put a finger under her dress; she pushed it away. He glowered at her until she complied—hoisting her skirts, squatting, shuddering. At length, she laid an egg into Schmulowicz’s waiting palm; and, in great weariness, went back to her carapace, lay down and slept.
There came a harried headless man on stage—his arms turbulent—rushing this way and that in search of what he lacked. After some groping about, he found the egg in Schmulowicz’s hand, fitted it onto his spindle neck and began to bang at it with his fists. Fragments of eggshell fell away, and now a miniature of the head of Schmulowicz himself was discovered. Big Schmulowicz offered little Schmulowicz a hand mirror into which little Schmulowicz gazed, not without admiration, picking the last of the eggshell from off his head. He looked and looked, growing vain. Then big Schmulowicz snatched away the looking glass and broke it.
Now little Schmulowicz rushed over to the lovely lady, asleep in her shell. Wake up, wake up. He needed for her to admire him, love him, see that he was beautiful. Wake up. She would not. She only turned over. Wake up. Big Schmulowicz intervened, removing little Schmulowicz’s head, putting it in his pocket. And that was that.
The lovely lady turned over, stretched, yawned, arose; but she was no longer lovely. She was a bird of prey, indigo-plumed and with a hooked beak. Her head jerked nervously, as if a quarry were near. Oh, terrible. Then she flew up, perched herself on the crossbeam above the stage—freed (it seemed) of the puppeteer’s mastery. But the life was draining out of her from the moment she took wing. She had flown, and where she had flown she stayed: humped on the crossbeam, quite, quite still, because dead now.
They delighted the eye and filled the mind, Robby’s homemade creatures, who would turn to the deity who’d made them with love, fear, bafflement, the whole range of feeling. Shirley and Charlie must have wondered what they’d wrought in this prodigal son. But along with bewilderment there was love, there was money. The hothouse flower was encouraged to bloom. He had pictures to look at, plays and musicals and movies and operas to go to, books to read, records to listen to: the art of Dürer, Blake, Fuseli, Redon, Grosz; the films of Fellini (especially Juliet of the Spirits and Toby Dammit) and Kubrick (especially 2001); the writings of Paracelsus, Saint John of the Cross, Jakob Boehme, Meher Baba, and C. G. Jung; the songs of Brecht and Weill (especially from Mahagonny) and of Cole Porter (especially from Kiss Me, Kate). The American musical theater was Robby’s Great Code. Expectable in someone of our bent. But “Havana Song” or “Begin the Beguine” or “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” interpreted in the light of Paracelsus? That was new. As in childhood, so again in adolescence and beyond: I was his slave, doing my best to wade through Meher Baba, even immersing myself in the mystical puzzles of Jakob Boehme.
Robby’s puppets lie orphaned in a trunk and will never be famous. But fame and the sublime are only accidentally related. This we must believe, or else surrender to a worldliness honoring only success. Robby’s immense gifts were known to but a handful of people and it may be, given his indifference to recognition, that he’d have remained a close-held secret even if allowed to live out a long life. Once in a while, however, I still meet someone who actually saw a performance of his. It happens less and less, of course, and eventually the next‑to‑last and last of us who saw the thing will die. For now, though, we are a happy few, content to have sat in the long ago before a tiny stage beholding a stupendous wonder of art.
Excerpted from The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered by Benjamin Taylor. Copyright © 2017 by Benjamin Taylor. Published by Penguin Books. Reprinted with permission.