Welcome to the Moment of Truth, the thirst that is the drink.
This is going to be a mere sliver of the mansion of love and mourning and celebration and remembering that the world’s people who knew Danny Thompson are revisiting right now and will probably carry on revisiting forever. My sliver. And it’s okay if this is only a small fragment of the lore and legacy of Danny E’ward Beano Q. Slotkins Esteban Vincente Harriett Beecher Stowe Thompson.
I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to the Theater Oobleck extended family social media reverberations, but we lost the father and scientist and friend and advisor and brother and stylist and baby and craftsman of us all, Danny Thompson, to a freak genetic ailment. On Monday night I heard he was in the hospital, awaiting a new liver, but in no danger, and on Tuesday morning I woke up to an email to the Oobleck core company members group saying he had died. Mickle Maher was crying. I barely got out of bed that day. Death had to take him quick, I thought at one particularly stupid moment, because with more time he’d have figured out a way to escape the Dumb Reaper. That Reaper is a bozo. He’s not as good a chess player as he’s reputed to be, either. He’s not even grim, he’s just an asshole.
If you don’t know what you’ve lost, world, you’ve lost plenty. You’ve lost everything. You think this is an exaggeration. How wrong you are. Danny Thompson lived as he liked, and loved as he wished, and was just the all-around master of creative flow.
I met him in Ferndale, in high school, although I don’t think he was in high school anymore by the time I met him. Anyway, he went to a different high school than I did, when he did. I met him when I was in high school, but when he wasn’t in a different high school. I remember him having a car, a big powder blue muscle car with weird chrome ornamental spheres embedded in the hood. It had a Winnebago engine in it, he said. His mother’s boyfriend, Dan, was an auto- mechanic. Danny’s good friend Tony Rowe was a hybrid Native American who had been dishonorably discharged from the army. He’d been stationed in Korea patrolling the DMZ and had punched his CO and broken his jaw. They allowed him to avoid prison if he gave up all his veteran’s benefits. This is how I remember it. And Tony had a friend, Roy. And I’m not sure if Dan, or Tony, or Roy, or someone altogether else had put that Winnebago engine in that car, but apparently it was in there.
Then I saw him at that different high school, in an excerpt from a play, as Beadle Bumble, with my other friend Danny, Danny Baron, who is now my writing partner, and there I first saw Danny Thompson’s miraculous physicality. He could be graceful and patrician. His hands could be anything. He could be anything. As I say, he wasn’t in high school anymore, but he hung around to be in theater. At around that time, he told me that, in the original production of Peer Gynt, they’d flooded an amphitheater to stage a naval battle. I may have that wrong. Or he may have had. Anyway, yes, he hung around Ferndale High School even after graduating, to participate in the theater, much as he did later in Ann Arbor, long after he’d stopped attending classes at University of Michigan.
Danny was from Bon Aqua, Tennessee. Let me tell this my way. I never met his father, who was a fiddle player, who for a while played with Hank “Bocephus” Williams, Jr. His mother, Dolly, was the sweetest human being, even sweeter than Danny, and Danny got a large share of her sweetness. He took me home from college once for Christmas. Dolly is responsible for my eating my first ever Christmas ham. I think that accounts for me enjoying so much eating ham years later, in Chicago, at theater critic Tony Adler and his wife Beth’s Whitmanstide parties. Or maybe, like many other Ooblecks, I just liked free ham. Or maybe it was just me that liked the free ham. I’ll always associate that first Christmas, and that first Christmas ham, with Christmas, and I always try to have a good Christmas because of it.
Danny Danny Danny Thompson. This is for you, Till Eulenspiegel! How can I go on without you? How can the universe go on? You were always latent in it, you emerged and made it yours, and now you’ve gone from it. What function can it possibly serve now, greater than to bring you to us?
Later, Dolly married her boyfriend Dan, in a wedding at the VFW hall, and all the Ooblecks were invited. As the bride and groom stood at the altar, Dolly’s brother came in, in overalls, bare feet, and a shotgun, playing the hillbilly, and hollered, “Where’s that short-legged man’s s’posed to marry my sister?”
Then we had all the food and danced around and around to the polka band. It was one of the biggest of hoots. It was a wonderful day.
Danny made plays and poems and could do any movement, make any gesture, and make any noise; he made paintings and drawings and sculptures and collage films and collage sculptures and noise collages and radio plays. He cooked country ribs. He loved opera. The first poem of his I read was “Sewer Church On Sunday, Weasel Death On Monday.”
He was passionately involved in every facet of the theater. Per theater artist, David Isaacson:
Danny's perfectionism was legend. Oh the late nights potchky-ing over the "Anywhere Else Than Here Today" set, or some costume or prop or video collage! Hey, it's 15 minutes to curtain, where is Abby Sher's burlap dress for Antistasia? Ah, Danny shows up with it, having cleaned it, fixed it, restored it to perfect burlap-ness.
He invented cocktails. He toured the British Isles with his and Greg Allen’s parodic, saturnalian faux Beckett plays. He played Ben Johnson opposite me as Shakespeare in Edward Bond’s “Bingo.” Again, David Isaacson:
Over the years, I cast Danny as Roberto Rossellini, Vaclav Havel, Bill Clinton, and Jean- Paul Sartre. It was not just that he could do "voices" (though omigosh, he could, he was an astounding mimic); he inhabited those roles. They were caricatures, in a sense, but never reductive caricatures. They were caricatures that revealed a deeper humanity and truth, like Daumier caricatures.
He finally nested into love with Meredith Neuman, who among other things is a pastry chef and a Japan scholar and a professor of American Literature at Clark College in Worcester, where we had all imagined they would grow old together, and now the stupid universe has fucked that up. Yes, it’s fucked up before, but this time, it’s gone too far. Really bigtime, this fuck-up. This time, it’s personal. Like, it hurt people’s stomachs, this fuck-up. It made everyone cry. It stings like a blizzard of needles in the face.
Rodney Curtis, friend from Danny and my other friend Danny’s high school, recalls the following, and I think we’ll all recognize the Danny we knew:
One of the funniest things, nope, the funniest thing I remember seeing Danny Thompson do live was at a gas station. We were filling up his car and he walked — all suspicious- like — past the paper towel dispenser and with one quick motion, swiped a towel and shoved it under his coat like he was shoplifting it. Goddamn, I pert' near laughed outta my 1970's shell. I've related that story to my family and friends over the years and it gets lost in translation. But I know you can see him doing that move, simply for an audience of one.
He's right, I can see him. Even so, you had to be there. I really had to be there. I spent a lot of time with Danny and ate and drank and made a lot of art with him, but not as much as I wish I had. I wish I had more time with him. I wish. I wish he were here even if only to continue making my friends happy. Even if only to continue making Meredith and their friends in Worcester happy. Oh, hell, do I wish that. I can’t stand this. But I’ll try to go on because Danny would say, oh! you know what cheese makes the best grilled cheese? What cheese, Danny? What cheese? A person can be heartbroken and full of love, devastated and euphoric, at the same time, people have done it all through history. Get some new socks, have some tea. Listen to some Louis Jordan. Watch those movies on that thumb drive I sent you, that should carry you through a few years.
Look at those hills. The wildflowers.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day.