JANUARY 1999 |
CHRIS WILLIAMS, an announcer at a Christian radio station in Baltimore, Maryland, is a contributing writer to Renaissance Online Magazine.
The same loving horde that had laughed uproariously minutes before at the celluloid images of Peter Rutledge and Rodney Till now sat quiet.
The boys were on stage, doing their famous "Invisible Dog" routine.
"But Rodney," razor-thin Peter said as he petted the air. "Can't you see him?" For thirty years this was the cue for his rotund partner to give an incredulous look of disdain. Instead, Rodney simply hesitated and went on to his next line.
"And do you have a license for your dog?" he said flatly, in a tone devoid of the sarcasm it needed.
"Sure!" Peter exclaimed. He fumbled through the pockets of his trademark pepper and gray suit until he pulled out an imaginary document.
"Here it is!" he said, tweaking his bow tie proudly. At this point, the script called for Rodney to fake a swoon and fall to the stage. This was the cue for stagehands to lower the curtain.
Even though they had done this sketch hundreds of times before, Rodney merely slumped his shoulders and shook his head. An uneasy buzz could be heard throughout the theater.
Ever the professional, Peter ad libbed a simple walk-off.
"C'mon," he said, grabbing his partner's beefy hand. "I'll show you my pet cat and pet bird, too." To a mixture of polite applause and disappointed boos, he led Rodney out of the spotlight.
Back in their cramped dressing room, Peter demanded an explanation. "What were you doing out there?" he snapped. "Changing the end of that routine is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa!"
Rodney dabbed perspiration from his forehead with a towel, He sat mute but his eyes were tinted with annoyance.
"We let a lot of people down," Peter continued. "As a matter of fact, We've been going downhill for several weeks !" The wrinkles that furrowed his once baby-like face were hard and straight. Like a caged carnivore, he paced back and forth as he finished his lecture.
"Our fans pair good money to see us, What you did tonight was almost unforgivable!"
"Oh yeah? I quit the act!" Rodney blurted out. To punctuate his announcement, he goose-stepped backwards and plopped his ample body into a wooden chair next to his dressing table. There was a quick snap-crack and in an instant, the chair was reduced to kindling.
The grizzled comedians looked at each other and started to laugh. It was a pratfall worthy of vintage Rutledge and Till.
"Cheap chair," Rodney quipped.
"What's this nonsense about quitting?" Peter asked, helping Rodney off the floor. In all their years together, they hadn't ever even mentioned breaking up.
"I'm exhausted," Rodney answered, brushing himself off. "I haven't felt right since the first night of the tour I'm running on empty."
"Ahhh," Peter said soothingly. "We don't perform again until Thursday. A couple of rounds of golf and you'll feel different."
Rodney shook his head.
"No. It's over," he said, his voice trailing off. Peter studied his partner's eyes and saw a weariness he hadn't noticed before. He had been too busy writing scripts, devising gags and answering fan mail.
"Forgive me," Peter said softly. Rodney threw an arm around his shoulder.
"Don't reproach yourself. Everything you've done has been tops with me," he said.
I respect your decision, but what about the contracts?" Peter asked. They had signed to make appearances for six more weeks.
Rodney lit a cigar, and after several slow puffs, agreed to finish the tour, minus the physically-draining slapstick. They worked until dawn on a makeshift act, relying on corny jokes and bad puns along with a singing routine featuring a falsetto rendition of "Shine on Harvest Moon" by Peter. The boys also decided not to announce their retirement. Rutledge and Till wanted their performances judged on merit, not through the prism of nostalgic sympathy.
Audience response over the final nights was tepid. Fans wanted action, motion and nonstop zaniness. In love with the past, they failed to sense the passing of an epoch and didn't want to be reminded of their own mortality. So, to the sounds of yawns and disappointed catcalls, the curtain came down on one of comedy's most enduring acts in Philadelphia.
Peter settled in California. Convinced that Rutledge and Till would perform together again, he busied himself by devising new routines. He was certain that after a few months rest, his partner would be itching for a reunion.
Rodney headed for his home state of Georgia, He fancied himself a bit of a southern gentleman and was an expert on ante-bellum architecture, He played a lot of golf and appeared to enjoy life as a retired, ex-movie star.
They spoke to each other frequently on the phone. Often, conversation would drift to show business and the old days.
"Do you remember when we signed our first contract with MGM?" Peter asked two months after their retirement.
"You bet. I went out and bought a blue Cadillac. Mr. Mayer thought I was wasting my money," Rodney replied. (Lois Mayer was the head of MGM studios at the time.)
"He just thought that was a lot of car for a young fellow," Peter laughed.
"Hmpff. It was none of his business!" Rodney snorted good-naturedly.
"Those were the days, weren't they?"
"We sound like a couple of relies. Let's take our act on the road again," Peter suggested.
"No. Never again," Rodney answered tersely. This response disappointed Peter but he remained hopeful about the due's performing future. They went back to the insignificant chit-chat that means everything to close friends. Rutledge and Till discussed sports, grandchildren, stock prices, weather, politics and doctor bills. And when they were done, the boys wrapped-up the conversation with their well-known benediction:
"Goodnight, Mr. Till."
"And goodnight to you, Mr. Rutledge!"
Peter had only been off the phone a few seconds when a shrill ring pierced the quiet of a sultry, summer evening.
It was Rutledge and Till's agent, Mike German.
"Stanton Communications has offered a three picture deal for a lot of money," German said. Peter's heart pounded; they hadn't made a movie for twenty-three years.
"How much money?" Rutledge asked.
"A guaranteed million per film plus a percentage," was the reply. Peter let out a long whistle.
"Outstanding!" he exclaimed. "Now all we need to do is to get Rodney to forget this retirement business."
"Well... they want you," German finally said. "Not Rodney. They said he's washed up." These words hit Rutledge like a punch in the gut. Rutledge without Till? In his mind, it was unthinkable.
"If that's the case, I'm not interested," Peter said.
Mike German chuckled. His relationship with the duo transcended percentages and mundane financial matters. Years earlier, Peter had graciously donated him a kidney in a time of acute medical distress. "You're crazy," he said. "But I had a feeling you'd say something like that. Let me know if you reconsider, OK?"
"You have a better chance of skiing in Hades," Peter quipped.
After they hung up, Rutledge headed back to his desk to finish writing a special holiday routine featuring Rodney as Santa Claus and himself as a dimwitted elf who keeps accidentally breaking toys.
He sharpened a fresh pencil and worked until 2:30 in the morning. At that time, he disconnected the phone, slipped off his shoes and curled up on a nearby sofa to sleep. At 6 a.m., he was roused out of slumber by the front door chimes.
Disoriented and groggy, he stumbled out to see who would be calling at such an ungodly hour.
Probably a fan, he thought and manufactured a smile. When he opened the door, his eyes were stabbed by the bright light of a hand-held TV camera.
"Good morning," a husky female voice said. "I'm Renee Martin from Channel Two. Do you have any comments to make?"
"It's a little early for an interview," Peter responded, holding up a hand to shield his face. A microphone was inches from his lips.
"How long did you know Rodney Till?" Ms. Martin asked, dragging the mike chord across his feet. Peter thought that was a strange question.
"What's going on? I don't understand," he said, poised to slam the door in the intruder's face.
"Rodney Till died last night. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage," she replied. "I assumed you already knew."
It was an unusual funeral, somber yet bittersweet funny at times. Mourners whispered favorite Rodney Till memories to each other. Peter sat like a widow, red-eyed and greeted well-wishers. Before they closed the casket to transport it to the grave site, Peter reached out and grasped one of Rodney's cold hands.
"Goodnight Mr. Till," he said. "And good-bye."
Contemplation and introspection were impossibilities on the return flight from Georgia. Peter signed countless autographs, and graciously accepted condolences from people who only knew him from his films. In the few moments he had to himself, Rutledge vowed to stay busy for the rest of the days he might have left.
Once home, he unpacked his suitcases. To quell a gnawing hunger, he whipped up a turkey sandwich and when that task was dispatched, Peter set about to satisfy another longing. After putting his dishes in the sink, he made his was across the carpeted hallway to his in-home office.
Peter eased into his creaky swivel chair and lifted a pencil to his chin. He clicked on the desk lamp and began to organize his thoughts. The words poured onto the legal pad in front of him in torrents. Whenever he outlined a new Rutledge and Till routine, the ideas flowed easily.
As a moth silently expended its energy on the artificial light that illuminated Peter's work area, the only sound audible was the jot, jot, jot of the pencil of Rodney Till's friend.
* * * *