John Benneth

Sometime in the spring of 1994, I had returned to Portland after my whirlwind tour of the midwest playing country music.

By tour, I mean appearing in very weird bars and dives, playing songs I had not never heard.

At any rate, back home I saw an ad mentioning that a theatrical project at the coast was looking for actors. With nothing to lose, I showed up at Clackamas Community College, and met John Benneth for the first time.

He had a sidekick, a jolly fellow named, I believe, Don Black. Benneth was tall and thin, Black was shorter and somewhat rotund. As a pair, they were Laurel and Hardy with roles switched–Benneth did all the talking, while Black silently took notes and executed Benneth’s dictates.

Benneth worked well with sidekicks. I should know, as I happily became a sidekick of his for a couple of years.

Anyhoo, to my shock, I was hired–as an actor–to perform in a theater at the coast, in an amusement park called Pixieland.

Pixieland had made a brave attempt to form a sort of Oregon Disneyland near Lincoln City. My understanding is that it stood tall for a couple of years, but by the time I arrived, the place was somewhat shabby.

Benneth’s job was to put together a cast to do melodrama shows. They were about 45 minutes long, and they put up 5 performances per day, starting at noon.s

His obituary is here–

Here are the comments I made at his memorial service–


John’s obituary was nice as far as it went, but I was surprised that it left out an important item–John was an outstanding pinball player.

When we worked together at Pixieland in the 1970’s, he taught me this technique where you can trap the ball with the flippers, and then flip it with great control and aim it where you like.

He would comment on his own play, but that didn’t compare with how he commented when you were playing.

He would stand behind you while you played and comment on your performance like a coach or sportscaster. “Foolish flipping. Dangerous bumper action. Crazy cushions. Losing control. Ooo–downball! Bonus match!”

There’s nothing more helpful than having Benneth standing behind you alternating shouted compliments and insults to improve your pinball game.

Metaphor for how he worked with you. And I should know. We worked together on many projects.

How did this all start? In the summer of, I believe, 1974 I saw an ad that they were looking for actors. I auditioned.

This happened at Pixieland. Lacked a timidity gene.

Introduced me to PG Wodehouse. Throw a brick.

Thoughtful landlord

Songwriter inspiration–producer like Hal Prince?

–You Are the Man
–Nothing But a Dance Hall Girl
•Laughing Gas
–When a Girl Falls in Love
–The Stagers Do
–Mark of the Fox
–Sargeant Garcia Song: Wine
•Count of Monte Cristo
•The Night That Panicked Portland
•Studio Z
–Studio Z Theme
–Helter Skelter
–Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam
•Mysterious Planet
–Mysterious Planet Theme

He was also an interesting manager of actors. One time for the melodrama show, he spread the rumor that Hollywood actor Paul Newman was going to going to be in the audience. This was believable because a movie with him had been shot nearby during that era.

And sure enough, just as the show began, a mysterious character slipped in and sat in the front row at the far right of the house. He was with an attractive female, and was bundled up with dark glasses and a hat. The word was that that person was Newman, and that he might be scouting for acting talent.

It was nice to see actors begin to skew their performance more and more stage left, until, at the end of the show, the group scenes had all performers clustered hard stage left, almost crawling over other to reach the front of the stage.

None of the actors were later contacted by anyone, and it was confirmed that Paul actually attended. It was said the mysterious individual looked a bit like David Benneth, but who knows?


Interviewer Firesign Theater

Difficult speech. So much Bennethania. I could on for a long time with similar stories. You might check my blog where I have written a post dedicated to our friend.

But let me finish with this. About six months ago, John called me from California, and we talked for an hour. I don’t believe I had spoken with him for maybe 10 years or longer.

This was, to say the least, a wide-ranging conversation. He mentioned his adventures doing Mark Twain, and he talked a lot about his family.

But he also began talking about projects we should do together, and for a while I was back in that weird house on Long Street, on a Benneth-fueled creative roller coaster trying to divide reality from fantasy, and not succeeding.

It was an exhilarating conversation, but unfortunately it was the last time we spoke together, and of course, I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the last few days.

I’ve worked with a handful of very creative people, some of whom are here tonight. These are people who’ve provided opportunity, and ideas, and inspiration, and support, and I’m grateful to each of the them.

But in John’s case, his influence on me is impossible to overstate. It was so strong that sometimes, when I find myself in a screwy situation, I hear his voice in my head, saying “Careful with the cushions, there Newton. Foolish flipper action. Bumpers out of control. And–downball! But wait–bonus…match!”

That voice won’t ever go away.

Rest in peace my good friend John Benneth. I miss you in many different ways.