Thursday, November 05, 2015

Thank you John A. Hardman

It is impossible to tell a life story in the limited space of a blog. This is just a flash in time,  a moment in the incredibly creative life of my friend John Hardman.
I was 16 years old working in the Southern Palace Theatre at the Six Flags Over Texas Campus Revue during the first summer of what became my career as a ventriloquist/performer. Since the Southern Palace was an amphitheater we only did shows in the evening. I really knew nothing of what went on at Six Flags during the day.  Turns out magic was happening.
I wasn't working at Six Flags very long before somebody asked me if I had seen the puppet show over in the BoomTown section of the park.  The puppet shows took place during the day, on an opposite schedule from my shows so one day I came to work very early to check it out.
It was an old style puppet wagon designed to fit the theme of the old west, sitting off by itself on the side of Boom Town's Main street.  Other than a bleacher for no more than twenty people and a sign indicating a 4:30 Show time there was nothing around the brightly colored wagon but the smell of theme park popcorn.  I was thirty minutes early and with the bleacher empty I picked the best seat in the house.  It was good to be early because by 4:20 every seat was filled and younger members of the audience were spilling over, seated in front.
With no more fanfare than the curtain to the puppet stage opening, the show began. A hand puppet slowly took the stage. I was prepared for a presentation geared toward the kids who sat near the front.  It was a snake/dragon puppet of sorts with wide eyes and a furry top knot.  There was nothing unusual about the puppet, but the magic was not in the way it looked.  You can't judge a snake by its skin.
After the puppet surveyed the audience for a few minutes he spoke,
"Howdy, my name is Argyle." And it began.
There was no pandering to the children, no set routine, no story with a fairly tale twist, just Argyle talking to the audience. It was more like a comic working a comedy club than a puppet working a puppet wagon.
"Where you from?" The question solicited several responses from the more vocal of the kids.  Argyle continued with something like this:  "You're from Texarkana huh. I crawled through there once.  Not much to do there unless you are a monk. I saw a bunch kids hanging out at McDonalds.  They ordered a million hamburgers just to watch them change the sign." At the time every McDonalds advertised how many million they had served right on the golden arches sign.  The crowd laughed. The parents laughed because what Argyle said was funny, the kids laughed because Argyle was just funny.
"Hey you... you there in the front, the one with the funny haircut. Let me give you some advise. When your barber says next.... get out of the chair."
And so it went with the expert timing of Argyle's slow and deliberate delivery. The laughter from the crowd was drawing more people to the area of the puppet Wagon.
Argyle saw a kid wearing one of the personalized hats they sold at Six Flags. He read the name which had been sewn on the front.  "Hey what are you doing with Tommy's hat on?" The eight year old was a little embarrassed that he had been pointed out in the crowd, but insisted it was his hat. "Let me see that hat... bring it up here."  The kid hands the hat to Argyle who takes it in his mouth and places it on the stage.   Argyle examines the hat carefully for a moment, then engages the kid with snake banter. As he does jokes with the kid, the hat moves on its own power stage left. This catches Argyles eye. He grabs the hat gently by the brim and slides it back to its original place.  Another joke to the kid and the hat moves again. With a look to the hat that draws giggles from the crowd, he once again drags the hat back to the starting point. I'm not  sure how many times this happened but enough that all eyes are now on the hat in anticipation of its next move.
At just the right moment, that magical moment of timing which only a comic mind can execute, the hat moves one last time. Argyle is ready and with the full force of his head he smashes the hat flat on the stage, like it was a coke can under an elephants foot. No one is more startled than the kid who owned the hat.  Argyle picks up the pancaked hat, hands it back to the kid and without apology or explanation and says, "Here's your hat back, Tommy."  The crowd roared with laughter, and as a testament to the love ability of Argyle, even the kid with his new hat completely smashed laughed just as hard as the rest.
I hung around long after the show had ended and the crowd was gone to meet the Wizard behind the curtain.  It was John Hardman.  John was the nicest guy, joyfully showing me the inter sanctum of the wagon.  Inside was the complete cast of a Punch and Judy show.  John said he was originally hired to do that traditional show, but Argyle was so popular he did not do Mr. Punch very often.  However, if I could stay over for the next scheduled show he would perform it for me.  I did and he was good to his word.  Although I knew the history of the Punch and Judy show, it was the first time I had ever seen one performed.  I was blown away again.
This began a friendship with a man I would come to admire more and more over the years. I would move on from Six Flags over Texas to the wild west of Hollywood show business.  John would become the creator and star of among other shows, the Christmas Show at North Park Shopping Mall. His "Scrooge" character became as popular as Santa Claus in North Texas.  Scrooge had the comedy timing, the conversational style and the quick wit of Argyle because they were both born of John's genius.
I got some quality time hanging with John over the last two years at KAX, a conference of family entertainers held near the Steve Axtell studio in Ventura. I was able to tell him how much he influenced me as we both looked back on our life in puppets.  We were looking forward to more time together in a couple of months, but yesterday he left us all.  I immediately thought of my old hero Argyle. Even if there are no personalized hats in Heaven I'm sure John is making them laugh.
John rest in peace and I hope we will meet up again some day. You are an original and we may not see your like again here on this stage.
As you were,


B Greene said...

Jay, those are Wonderful memories of John Hardman. He was truly a talent and gentle/man. I, too, remember John from my Ride Operator days at Six Flags Over Texas, as well as from my Personnel Manager days there at SFOT in Arlington. "Processing-in" the many Live Show performers such as yourself on a specific Saturday in February each year was always a fun event in the Personnel Office. Similarly, as a "Lessee" (Leased show performer) John Hardman's first visit each year for I.D., etc. was always like seeing an old friend again for the first time. Fond memories of a fine man and talent gone too soon. Go with God, John A. Hardman. Great send-off, Jay Johnson! Bg

Jeff Martin said...

What a great story. May he rest in peace.

Outhouse Mouse said...

Until yesterday I had never known who was behind Argyle, but was always curious.

My brother had told me about the Argyle Show, and at first I thought that I'd rather be using my time for going on the rides. I went to the show, and any thoughts of rides quickly left my mind. I still remember from that show, Argyle "messin'" with a young dating couple seated in the middle. Argyle would talk with them, heckle someone else, and get back to the couple. What I recall most was when Argyle asked the young man if he was having a good time at Six Flags checking out the girls. "No", the man said. Argyle quickly asked him, "So, you're having a good time checking out the guys?"

Like most people who attended the show, you went to laugh at the things Argyle would throw at other people. It's certainly different when Argyle aims at YOU, as I found out. I happened to have worn one of my favorite shirts; a red & white plaid,long sleeve western style shirt. I was standing off to the side, near the back, as Argyle searched the audience. That's when he spotted me. "Everybody, look at that guy wearing the red and white plaid shirt. Looks like he made it from a table cloth!" I wanted to die 3 times, but couldn't help but laugh, too!

If Texas ever creates it's own Smithsonian Museum, Argyle The Snake would need to be in it. Thank you John Hardman, for putting smiles on our faces.

Scott Land said...

John was a complete gentleman. Always producing. Always honest with his view. He employed a lot of first time performers... A complete showman. Thanks Jay for the intimate description... John did influence your work.