Charlie Russell portrayed in one man show
Area residents have a unique opportunity next week to attend a world premiere production at the Lutcher Theater. Jim Crump has spent more than 35 years of his life preparing for this event. He wrote the script, built the set and gathered the costumes for “Charlie Russell’s Recollection of the Old West.”
At times he thought this day would never come and on more than one occasion he was tempted to scrap the set at a landfill.
“It’s been a real journey getting here, with many diversions, chunks of time, a good bit of pain, and lots of determination,” said Crump.
In the late 1970s, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, in Fort Worth commissioned a book featuring the illustrated letters of famed western artist Charlie Russell.
The museumdirectorasked the Dallas Theater Center to create a brief, one-person play about Russell to coincide with the book’s release. Two members of the theater company, of which Crump was a member, were to write and direct the 15-minute monologue, with Crump, who was in his early 20s at the time, cast as Russell.
“I had never heard of Charlie Russell when I was working there,” said Crump.
Before the project was completed, the museum director died, putting the project in limbo.
Having over 1,000 hours invested in the project, Crump held onto the idea, thinking it might, still be developed.
“I became enthralled with Russell. I thought he was a great character and he would be a great subject for a play; for a one man show. I kept the idea and kept working at it.”
Decades later, a full length, two act play, begins its national tour at the Lutcher Theater in Orange.
Crump spent three years researching Russell’s life. The process took him too many western art museums that have a vested interest in Russell’s works. He met the artist’s son, and one of his friends, Fred Renner, who grew up, as Russell did, in Great Falls, Mont.
As a boy, Renner had known Russell. Later in life he collected the artist’s work, authenticated and wrote about it.
“I spent a few weeks with Renner and his wife, Ginger, collecting stories and anecdotes about Russell and information on his work,” said Crump.
A couple of years later, Crump had a first draft of the script, and after three more rewrites, he felt the play was marketable. He had no luck finding interest in financing the project.
Crump left the Dallas Theater Center to do freelance work acting in films, plays and commercials.
He also married and operated a small business with his wife, “All the while nourishing hope that someday my Russell play could reach the stage.”
Crump used some of the revenues from the business to attempt producing the work himself, but still without success.
After ten years, his marriage failed.
“I turned my attention once more to the play, armed with enough rejections to plaster the walls of a small house. The more I pursued venture capital, the more I had to use my own resources, until at last, it became a self-funded project.”
The set he built was a replica of Russell’s log cabin studio. “Now I had a script, plus a touring set, dressed out with some props and costumes,” said Crump. He still had no luck in attracting outside funds.
“So, I knocked down parts of the set, folded up the walls and stored it for twenty-odd years. From time to time, I would look at it, add more props, and scrape off the dirt-dabber nests. And sometimes, I would think about hauling all of it to a landfill and dumping it.”
Crump turned to his carpentry skills and built custom, contemporary houses and designed and fabricated custom furniture. “A year before the economy took a dive, I sold my old studio, found a new location, and began to completely remodel, and build anew.” Crump brought the show pieces with him, still frequently thinking of throwing them out.
One day he looked at the script and set again and decided to go ahead and fund the project himself with proceeds from the sale of a few pieces of real estate. He lined up bookings first; wanting to be sure he had a place to perform, before he spent more money on it.
Jim Clark, director of the Lutcher Theater was the first one to call him back.
Clark and his wife Linda remembered Crump from his days at Dallas. They had also been looking for a way to tie the theater into the Stark Museum of Art’s collection of Russell’s work.
First come, first served. It has taken almost a year to make it happen. “I don’t think there are any overnight successes in this business,” laughed Russell in a phone interview. “If I just stick to this one thing, maybe I’ll get it done before a die.”
“I’ve got about four bookings lined up from here,” said Crump. “At this point, I’m having to do all the booking as well as everything else.”
There will be a couple of booking agents attending the Lutcher performance. Crump hopes that they will be interested in taking the show on as a client.
“My original tour plan that I had, since Charlie Russell is real person and there are numerous western art museums that have sizable collections of his work, I thought I would coordinate a tour with these museums.” He felt he could go to the cities and rent a performance space to coordinate shows coinciding with an event at the museum of Russell’s work.
He can coordinate with the Charlie Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont. almost anytime. They have several events a year with a large influx of people. The Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody Wyoming is interested in booking the show for the summer. Cody is adjacent to Yellowstone National Park and its big draw is the Buffalo Bill Historical Society. “They would host the show and they said they could keep us there for several weeks. They say they have over 250 thousand people that come through there in the summer.”
He is also in talks with the Booth Museum in Cartersville, Ga. Another place interested is Shreveport, La.
While most one man shows have very simple sets, it takes a bobtail truck and Crump’s pickup to carry his set. He has two men that travel with him to help with the scenery.
“He spent so much time in this log cabin studio he had built in his back yard in Great Falls to paint in and he had this enormous collection of Native American and cowboy gear all over the inside of the studio. I thought that would be a great backdrop to tell this guys story, so that’s what I did. I built a replica of his log cabin studio.”
His investment in the show is easily in six figures, said Crump. He’s kept track of all his expenses through the years for taxes, but he’s never added all of it together. Crump estimates the project is around $150,000.
Where most one man shows may be just the character walking around telling his story, Crump has six to eight costume changes during the play. Some of them might be just a hat or a vest, but he does also dress as an Indian or cowboy.
“Russell was a great storyteller,” said Crump. “The American Indians thought he was a medicine man because he had this talent. He lived with a tribe of Indians for six months up in Canada. They thought he was powerful because he could draw and sketch and sculpt with this beeswax he always carried with him,” said Crump. Russell was a not just an artist he was a trickster, a prankster, a magician, a tightrope walker, a medicine man, a shaman. “He was just an ordinary guy, but he had this extraordinary talent.”
You can learn about Charlie Russell for yourself at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 12 at the Lutcher. Tickets for the show are $25. Students get a $10 discount. You can order tickets online at Lutcher.org or go by the theater box office. Lutcher Theater is located at 707 Main, Orange. For more information call the theater at 409-886-5535.