Ted White -- An Appreciation
First of all, there was the girth of the man. Ted White was fat, not just normally fat but cartoonishly spherical, his belt the equator around his globe, the whole mass tapering too quickly down to oddly dainty feet. Somehow, though, he wore his weight very lightly. His was not a manly Falstaffian ballast, but something more feminine, a kid of cherubic foamy roundness. “Fat people are the best dancers,” he once said while demonstrating a soft shoe combination, and indeed, when dancing, he seemed to float across the stage, his weight suddenly weightless, a balloon suspended above happy feet.
Ted White’s weight would become a life-long medical problem, but in his working life as a high school English teacher and theater director, he turned it to his advantage by making it an element of an engagingly comic style. (Students once wished him bon voyage at the airport by holding up a large sign that read, playing on a popular tune of the day, “Cast Your Fat to the Wind”. No offense was taken.) White seemed happy under all of that skin, confident, ebullient and, well, larger than life. To accommodate his measurements, he drove a Cadillac; this in the 1960’s when Cadillacs were as big as canal barges and all but unknown in high school faculty parking lots. He had his initials “TAW” on the front plate. The sense of style was not unnoticed.
If the funny-fat-man persona made Ted White a likeable character and an enjoyable teacher, it was his rigor as a theater director that evoked such awe and loyalty from his charges. An Equity actor in his own right, White strived for professionalism on the high school stage and was contemptuous of the egalitarianism, amateurism and fragile egos that marked the usual school productions of the day.
Other schools would have double casts of big plays so as not to leave anyone out. Not Ted White. If you didn’t get the part, you didn’t get the part. Other schools would have the chorus lined up across the stage seemingly willy nilly. White was a stickler for blocking and a sense of space and energy. Other schools got by with perfunctory choreography. White hired a friend, a former June Taylor dancer, to take it seriously.
White did not mince words during rehearsal. He was no martinet, but he was demanding and the tirade was a staple of his directing style. Many of the boys at this all-boys school had experienced outbursts from coaches on sports teams, but one sensed that the girls, recruited from other schools, had never encountered such blunt criticisms, so bitingly expressed. A yearbook article of the time strives to mimic the cruel shock of these harangues. The article was not meant to expose a flaw, but to pay tribute to his merciless dedication.
Naturally musical but not schooled in music, White relied on his ear and his show-biz instincts as choral director for The Gentlemen of Song, often making up arrangements on the spot and singing the parts as he imagined them. With the addition of winning costumes and a healthy dollop of shtick, the Gentlemen of Song probably made a better impression than their singing alone might have warranted. But White knew what worked dramatically and if he sometimes indulged a tendency to go overboard or ingratiate a bit too cheaply, he was nonetheless confident in his ability to delight an audience. As the theater director, White was called upon to do all sorts of holiday assemblies, and one sensed that, given a banana, an American flag and whatever odds and ends might be lying around the prop room, he could come up with something worthy of Busby Berkeley in a matter of hours.
His office backstage never seemed to lack for a gathering of disciples, students who had been through the crucible of one of his productions and were thereafter hooked and happy to hang out in that dark, windowless little non-space behind the flats, midst the clutter of paint cans and pieces of sets struck from the last show. White would regale with mordant observations, ideas for the next production, funny tales from his own experience or past shows, maybe a send-up of Robert Goulet’s singing…
It was a world apart, especially in the 60’s in an all-boys school, when sports dominated. Ted White, all by himself, provided a counterpoise to the jock monopoly of status. Indeed, White’s appeal was such that his followers included many of the popular athletes. Granting that in an all boys school, theatre provided one of the few opportunities to mix naturally with girls, White nonetheless made the enterprise not only fun, but serious and thus more widely accepted. He managed to bridge, in Oxfordian lingo, the gulf between aesthetes and hearties.
That he accomplished all he was responsible for – teaching English Lit., the design and interminable rehearsals for the straight play and the spring musical, The Gentlemen of Song, staged school assemblies, occasional outside appearances with selected small groups – seems impossible, and brings to mind a typical image of him daubing the perspiration from his brow with a handkerchief, a gesture that in retrospect seems to hint less at his weight than the weight of his responsibilities. One now is allowed to wonder how this bachelor aesthete could not at times feel exhausted by the maintenance of his own energetic charisma, and if his usually gay exterior did not sometimes mask the glum rub of all dedicated teaching: that one’s devotees are intense but transitory and one’s contributions real, but evanescent.
But White was able to keep it up, and the actors in his presence, being young, were enchanted that something so ephemeral could feel so keen, and lived these moments as though there would never be anything but this intense present tense. For these suburban thespians brought up on the Catholic certainties, White’s productions were their introduction to the mysterious culture of the theater and White’s particular gift was to present it pretty much as it existed in the larger world. Here was not just the greasepaint and nerves and scary dangers of emotivity, but also the grayer and more sardonic side: the latent sexiness of it all, the quiet competition and bitchy subjectivity, the mordant humor. Paradoxically, these dark qualities enlightened the experience, spicing the air of the sometimes bland regimen of rehearsals and the players breathed it in and found it all seductive, exciting, transformative. If there is little to compare in life to the participation in a high school musical, there seemed nothing to compare to a musical directed by Ted White.