Saturday, October 1, 2011

Letter to an actress, with apologies and a promise of fried chicken

Dear Dawn,

I'm sure you've long forgotten me. But can you forgive me?

Thirty years ago (yes, 30!), I wrote an unflattering review in the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald of your performance as Lucy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown! Oh, let's be honest: I took a blowtorch to everyone in the cast. What can I say? I was right out of college and it was my first real job and, well, I was a teensy bit full of myself.

I'm way more humble now, and I'm going to make it up to you (and the world). I'll explain how in a moment. But first, please indulge me.

After months of looking for a newspaper reporting job in 1981, I finally landed a position at the Daily Herald. One of my first assignments was to review the local production of Charlie Brown! My editor was Mr. Kern; do you remember him, Dawn? He always smoked a pipe, had pictures of Gary Coleman (the kid from Diff'rent Strokes) on his desk, ran a doughnut shop called Kern's Korner, and would read his mail in the bathroom right after the final press run (though perhaps you weren't privy to this last bit of information). Mr. Kern insisted I review the dress rehearsal. I thought that was a tad unfair and said so, but he was my boss and he was adamant. So it's kind of Mr. Kern's fault, in a way.

A Moral Dilemma

I went to your show, Dawn. And as you well know, I was appalled. We won't dwell on this because I don't want to reopen a long-closed wound. However, the show was so bad, I faced the first moral dilemma of my young career: What was I going to say in my review? How could I be critical of a local theater production in the small city to which I had moved only a few days earlier?

Mrs. Johnson (Yes, we had color film back then;
 I was just being arty.)
The morning after the show, before I headed to work to write my review for that day's paper, I talked over my dilemma with Mrs. Johnson. Maybe you knew her? She was this impish, delightful, elderly widow, from whom I rented a guest bedroom at the time. Mrs. Johnson was and will always be one of the great loves of my life, if for no other reason than she taught me how to make her truly awesome fried chicken. (Do you like fried chicken, Dawn? If so, I'll make some and FedEx it to you.)

After listening to me explain my angst, Mrs. Johnson cleared her throat and adjusted her glasses. "Now Jim," she said with grandmotherly affection, "writing for a newspaper is a big responsibility. The readers depend on you to be honest and accurate, and that's not easy."

"You're right," I said, and off I went to the office, where I sat down and typed these words: “The most annoying characterization was undoubtedly that of Lucy, played by Dawn Collins. Lucy is famous for her character made of crabgrass, but Collins' shrieking portrayal is pure astro-turf. Her voice is as piercing as a chipped fingernail on a chalkboard.”

I Was the Talk of the Town

I cringe, Dawn, as I type these damaging sentences again. Cringe! And I don't think I need to remind you my review caused a big fuss. I was the talk of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, for at least a week. Many of your friends and defenders called Mr. Kern to complain about my review. The director of your theater company wrote a letter to the editor, which Mr. Kern published under the terse headline "Repugnant." In his letter, your director dismissed me as a "fledgling Dan Rather" (though, practically speaking, I don't think Dan Rather ever reviewed theatrical productions.)

The afternoon my review was published, I had to make my rounds. One of my stops was the local rescue squad, where I was to inspect their log of recent incidents, which I would report in the next day's paper. When I arrived at the rescue squad office, it was deserted except for a Bubba-type character, leaning back languidly in his chair.

"I'm from the Daily Herald," I said, as I had never met this person before, and stated my intentions to review the log.

He eyed me warily. "You the one wrote that review about Charlie Brown? In the Hurld?" he asked. (That's how the locals pronounced 'Herald,' Dawn, remember?)

"Yes," I said, uneasily.

"Seems to me you aren't lookin' to make friends 'round here," he replied.

Dawn, I must admit I was rather proud of my response. "I'm not here to make friends," I said. "I'm here to do a job."

He snorted. And then he put his feet up on his desk--right on top of the rescue squad logbook. I squared my shoulders. "Are you familiar with the Freedom of Information act?" I asked. "It's against the law to withhold public records from the media."

He breathed, looked me up and down with disgust. And then, one by one, he moved his feet ever so slowly off the logbook.

Mrs. Johnson Tells the Truth

As you can see, Dawn, I took a lot of heat for my review. And I deserved every bit of it. But I have to tell you one more thing.

That evening, when I returned to Mrs. Johnson's house, she greeted me with the day's newspaper in her hand. "Oh Jim," she said, trying to suppress a smile. "I encouraged you to tell the truth, but I had no idea you'd be that truthful."

"I went too far, didn't I?," I asked.

She thought for a moment. "My husband used to say he could read the Herald every night before bed and go to sleep with nothin' on his mind," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean is, your review...I never read anything so exciting in this newspaper before," Mrs. Johnson said. "It's about time someone told the truth about our little theater group. They won't never any good, anyhow." Mrs. Johnson put one hand over her mouth to hide her grin, then pointed her finger at me playfully. "And if you tell anyone I said that, I'll shoot you."

So that's my side of the story, Dawn. Again, my apologies. I truly hope you've gone on to fulfill whatever dreams you had 30 years ago (but you didn't really dream of becoming an actress, right?). And to make it up to you, in my next blog post, I'm going to publish Mrs. Johnson's fried chicken recipe. It will make your lips smack double-time. You've waited 30 years for this, Dawn; I hope you can wait just a little longer.

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  1. In the 4th grade I played Lucy in the same play as poor Dawn. I'm glad you didn't review my (Although I thought I was wonderful!) What a sweet almost apology post. Can't wait for that fried chicken recipe! Congrats on Blog of Note, I can see why you were chosen.

  2. As a Yankee living in the South, I appreciate your perspective. Still waiting on the Chicken recipe...

    In the meantime, check us out...

  3. Nice story...Once in awhile I can come up with one but not quite the style you display. When reading some writers I find myself repeating some sentences which interupts the flow...not so with yours, I read it straight through with only one complaint. The impact of your apology could have improved if you left the FEDEX part at the end and shipped it 'to Dawn wherever you are' (sort of a take on Jimmy Durabtes' "Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.")
    OK, I just wanted to criticize you for being too critical on Dawn and had to come up with something...
    Here's my latest (true story) here:

  4. I really enjoyed this. Great flow to the story and very intriguing how personal it was. Thank u. I look forward to following.

  5. I liked this story a lot. With all due respect though, this was not much of an apology. You didn't seem very sorry. I would highly advise you not to actually send this to Dawn. I has too much of a smart ass feel rather the standard heart felt appeal most apology letter have. Any way good for you, being the talk of the town is rarely a bad thing.

  6. I hope for your sake Mrs. Johnson's passed on because if she hasn't, I'd start wearing a bullet proof vest! You've gone and told everyone what she said and she sounds like a lady of her word!