I can't remember when I first met John. I suspect that I first saw him performing in a Children's theatre production produced by Fantasy Playhouse. This would have been when John and I were about 14 or 15. We were both pretty hyper people - him far more than me, but he was always over the top :-). I was working on lighting, an also generally doing things backstage. We became fast friends. I think that Kitty (Burns) was friends with John before I was. We ended up having a circle friends we called "the brotherhood", and we were very close. The core group was John, me, Lisa (Kunitz), Kitty, and Paul (Rekoff). Annie Gudaitis, Susan Spencer, Reggie Cathey, and Anita and Maria Wilkie were also part of the close circle.
John and I worked a number of plays together, and they all run together. At that point all of us were working on every local production we could.
One show we did every year for a few years was Nutcracker, with the local Ballet. I don't think John performed in it, although he could dance. I think he was working scenery. Kitty was cast and we hung out. At that point neither John nor I had experienced any exposure to drugs, but we were curious about them. One night John showed up at call for the performance and said he had a bottle of nodoze, and would I like to try doing drugs with him. We were both totally clueless about drugs, obviously. We debated about how many to take each, and I think we decided on four apiece. Now remember we were very hyper all the time anyway. Neither one of us noticed much of anything, and after the performance we talked about how disappointing the experience had been. It wasn't until I got home and tried to sleep that I realized what caffeine was all about. I laid awake almost all night. John and I would recall this later with great humor.
One thanksgiving I was invited to John's house for Thanksgiving. I knew his family casually, but not very well. I always thought his sister Adelle was beautiful, but in my shyness and at that age I would never have acted on this, and I never said anything to John. As I recall, she was a few years older than me as well. In any case, it was never an issue with me, but I always enjoyed meeting her in passing. I remember that his father seemed like quite an authoritarian, and this matches with the overall impression I have from John, although I can't recall any specific things John told me that would lead me to think that. John's room was cool, decorated with things from shows he had been involved with (as were most of our rooms.
Once when I was visiting at John's house, I was helping him work his lines for a play, and was amazed at how much work he put into it. He had a system of using index cards with his cue line on one side, and his first line on the other. I had seen him perform and it always seemed effortless for him, and I hadn't realized how hard he worked to make it that way. He had a talent for learning every line in a show, and very early in rehearsals he would know the entire show before some people were out of book.
There were some wierd sort of traditions that formed as part of the brotherhood. One of these was the singing of "Saturday Night in Toledo Ohio". We would often teach each other strange songs or steps, and this song became common. While working through an all-nighter in the theatre, someone would break into it, and we would all join in. Generally we always had a gallon or two of A&W rootbeer at the theatre, and would all drink from the jugs as we worked. After one show most of us came down with mono, probably from the shared root beer.
I remember being on a prop-gathering trip for a collection of one-acts called "A little summer madness". We went to the local shopping mall in search if a fake turkey, and found one that was displayed in an oven at Sears. We arranged to borrow it, and were walking down the mall with it. Of course, John was carrying it on the platter as if it were real, and we were horsing around with it. Somehow we started goofing on "Lions and Tigers and Bears" from the wizard of Oz. There were three of us (I think Paul was the third), and we started doing "Follow the yellow brick road". John informed me that I was skipping improperly, and showed me the correct step from the movie. I was fairly impressed that John knew the skip, and to this day I owe it to John that I am able to perform "the skip".
John was an incredible mimic, and could make almost any sound with his mouth. He was known backstage for his loud "Awk Awk, Eek Eek, Tookie Tookie". You had to be there :-)
Another thing he used to say is "Kadota!". I don't know how this started or what the history behind it is. [update] Susan has informed me that this is from "Little Mary Sunshine", another production we took part in.
I often ran follow spot for productions, and John and I would always have fun with him as a target for me while warming up. A follow spot operator trains to watch people's (especially dancer's) movements, and be able to anticipate where they would move next. John knew this and had run a follow spot, and would do his best to fake me out.
One performance that I remember that we did together was "Rumplestiltskin". John had the lead, and wore a fake beard of crepe hair which was firmly glued on with spirit gum for each performance. He was always really into the scene where Rumplestiltskin flies into a rage, and during the last performance he ripped the beard off during this scene. During another performance, we were about ten minutes into the first act, with three people on stage including John. All of a sudden, the actors (not John) jumped to a similar set of lines minutes from the end of the show. I was backstage just a few feet away, and we were motioning to the cast but they didn't notice. I saw the look on John's face go from puzzlement to realization of what had happened. The other actors were rapidly approaching a place in the dialog which would have ended all chance of graceful recovery, and John just interrupted the dialog with a loud "Well, I have to go now!", and exited the stage. Now we got the watch the same looks of confusion turning to realization on the other cast members. They sorted it out and got back on track, much to our relief.
Another show we both worked on was "'Livin de Life", a collection of Uncle Remus stories. John played brer' rabbit, and his tarbaby scene was really funny. There was a scene where we visited a with to get some sort of magic potion. For this scene I was hidden in a rolling unit inside the table. When the witch spoke the magic spell, I would fire a CO2 fire extinguisher with confetti in it up through a hole in the bottom of her kettle. As john stodd behind the table delivering his lines, I would tug on his costume and otherwise harrass him, and he would kick me under the table.
We both worked on a production of "Godspell", I would guess that we were about 16 or 17 at the time. We were sitting around chatting as we often did, when John first mentioned being gay to me. To the best of my memory, this is how it went:J: Have you ever wondered whether you were gay?
That was it. There was no real coming out, but that was all that needed to be said.
In 1979 I began working in Rock&Roll, as a roadie. We were back in Huntsville for a performance in November of that year, and I planned a party at my house for the crew and my friends. John and I were runnig around the day before the party (an off day for me), and we talked about how plentiful drugs were on the road. He was extremely concerned about me, and grilled me about whether I was taking drugs or had a drug problem. At that time I realized what a true and good friend he really was. At the party was another crew member (Peter) I knew to be gay, but It hadn't dawned on me that he and John might be interested in each other. At that time I was doing a lot of freelance photography, and had converted a closet beneath my stairs to a small dressing room. John and Peter disppeared after a while, and when I noticed I figured that they had left. Much later as the party was winding down, they appeared, and Peter said to me "Your room under the stairs is just perfect!", with a wink. I believe that John and Peter kept up with each other after that. Peter was a really nice and very intelligent guy.
After John went to New York, I remember him telling how wild the club scene was there. He described elaborate systems of wearing bandannas to indicate one's preferences. It was things like - A blue bandanna meant you liked one thing, and red meant another. Whether you tied it on your left or right hip had meaning. I had the impression that he was pretty wild in the club scene. This was before AIDS, and although I was worried about the emotional impact of promiscuity as I would have been for anyone, there was no sense of any ill that might come.
Later, after gay men began dying of AIDS, but before HIV had been discovered, John came back for a visit, and he was very scared and deeply shaken. No one really knew why people were dying, and there were a lot of conflicting opinions and misinformation. We talked about the devastating impact that AIDS was having on his community, and how the press coverage was all about the "gay disease" and not the deaths of individuals.
The next time I saw John was during another visit to Huntsville. He asked me to drive him around to look at the antebellum mansions, and he would just look at them form the car. I knew then that he was sick, but never really admitted it to myself until I heard that he had full-blown AIDS. I waited for John to bring up his illness with me, and he never did. I wish now that I had done it, but I didn't John died without the two of us ever discussing his illness.
John was bedridden and very ill, and the AIDS quilt came to Huntsville as part of a tour. John's friends got together, and we made a quilt panel for him, and for another friend from Huntsville, Steve Darby. They were made from unbleached muslin, the same material used to make theatrical backdrops. At the presentation ceremony, despite my attempts to prevent it, the announcer mispronounced John's last name as Arcange'li, with the emphasis on the e. I know this always drove John nuts, and smiled when it happened. John was unable to speak on the phone, but his partner Michael said he told him about the quilt panel and John was happy about it. John died within days. I had an enlargement made of a photo of John's quilt panel, and Michael said it was displayed at his memorial service.