Sometimes it seems as though over the years I've perfected my remarkable ability to be in the right place at the wrong time. In 1962 when I chose Breckenridge, Colo., over Vail as the locale for a small theater, I was certain a boom was coming.
I anticipated if we could hang on for three years, we'd see a profit in the fourth season. A burst water pipe in the costume room and a fire at the end of the third season weren't part of the equation.
As far as the Breckenridge Opera House was concerned, the fat lady had sung. So I found a job peddling ice cream bars and bubble gum from a Jolly Jerry van in Denver.
Hardly a day went by that I didn't think of the theater and wish there was a way to go back to happier times.
Once, when I had dragged myself into a particularly deep pit of could-have-beens, I got a phone call from an old friend who had just returned from California. Although I hadn't seen Phyllis for several years, we had played opposite each other many times over the years.
"Here's what it is, Ken," she said. "My director has a style that's completely foreign to what I'm used to, and I'm just not sure whether or not he knows what he's doing. I know I can trust you, and I respect your judgment. Could you come to a couple of rehearsals and tell me what you think?"
I was wildly flattered and agreed immediately. I was even more puffed up when, after the rehearsal, Phyllis introduced me to the cast and crew: She recited some of the roles I'd played, shows I'd directed, plays I'd written, and theater companies I'd founded, along with just about every complimentary, ego-expanding adjective I'd ever dreamed of hearing from anyone.
The rest of the company seemed impressed into respectful silence. I was about to launch into my performance as the ever-so-humble and gracious guest when the 17-year-old apprentice stage manager came bounding up the aisle apologizing for missing the introduction.
As I turned and extended my hand to him, instant recognition flashed across his face. "Oh, I know you. You're the ice cream man!" he blurted.
Indeed I was. And a very humbled one at that.
Since then, life has been kinder, but whenever I realize I've grown a trifle larger than my trousers, I remind myself: "You're just the ice cream man."
I've come to see that it doesn't matter whether you're playing Hamlet or passing out ice cream cones, if you do it as a pro, you're in the right place at the right time.