The Last Word – The Gilded Age

Marcus Fisk writes about his experience in film and stage productions over the years.

Opulence, of just daily life? (Photo: Preservation Society of Newport County)

Alexandria, VA – Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises? That is a peculiar condition of society which enables a whole nation to instantly recognize point and meaning in the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the mouth of a distinguished speculator in lands and mines this remark: “I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.”

The Gilded Age, Mark Twain

As I grow older, I am becoming what is known in the theatre as a more “seasoned” actor – the opportunities to perform on stage have decreased. My hair is grayer now, my gait more leaden, the lines in my face more pronounced, and my once crisp memory for lines – well, let’s just say it ain’t what it used to be. My acting method? Just say the damn lines ad nauseum until they stick.

Over the decades, I have been fortunate to perform in some 40 stage productions in Colorado, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, and here in Virginia. I have thoroughly enjoyed nearly every production.

Now, I’m not a member of Actor’s Equity Association (professional theatre union), nor am I a member of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), but for someone my age, there seems to be a lot of work in television and film.(1)

This kind of acting is great for a guy like me approaching senility (it sure feels that way) because the dialogue is crisp, the lines tend to be short because audiences don’t “do” wordy anymore, and, as opposed to the stage, if you “go up” on a line (flub, forget, space, drop, etc.), someone yells, “cut,” and you re-shoot the scene. In today’s high-tech-infused productions, it’s easy to fix what’s gone astray.

I had the good fortune recently to be cast in two “film” productions (2). In the first, The Bootlegger, I portrayed a Coast Guard Commander conducting an investigation of the death of three rum-running suspects at the hands of the Coast Guard (3) during prohibition. I had a defined character, lines to memorize, and the Narragansett Bay location was perfect for the story.

Entrance to the world of The Gilded Age. (Photo: thenewportbuzz.com)

Fast-forward to fall 2020. I was contacted by a talent agency to be cast as “background” for the upcoming HBO series The Gilded Age, being filmed in Newport, Rhode Island. I was initially excited since it had a major cast, including stage and screen actors Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon. I was cast as a workman in the ballroom of one of the fabled Newport mansions, the Breakers, the former home of the Vanderbilts.

To prepare, I had COVID tests (five in two weeks – these folks are serious!), a costume fitting, and then I reported to the set for my big scene. The level of detail the production was going into to ensure authenticity was amazing. Hell, I was just an extra – “background” – and they spent over two hours getting me ready for my one scene. (4)

I had been on a tour of the Newport mansions before, and between takes, I enjoyed looking at the rooms of the Breakers. Film equipment, crew members, and actors were everywhere, but it didn’t detract from the opportunity to look at the gilded splendor of those rooms. I remembered the stories of the “summer cottages” – the people, their lifestyles, their cultures, their society – and it struck me just how similar our country is today. Not so different from the robber barons of what Mark Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age.”

A lawn party at the Breakers, undoubtedly a coveted invitation. (Photo: Newport Historical Society)

The phrase aptly captured the period. Following the Civil War, industrial growth swelled while continental railroads blossomed, financial speculation exploded, and unrestrained political influence intermingled with all to create a recipe for corruption. As a result, unions, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and immigration all took center stage, trying to redirect the train wreck. And although the times they were a-changing, the wealthiest of the wealthy during the “Gilded Age” barely felt a ripple.

“Gilded: …to cover something with gold leaf or gold-colored material to unnecessarily adorn it – to make it deceptively attractive in appearance….” (5) It was clearly the intent of the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the Rockefellers to further their influence, power, and financial wherewithal. Looking at the paintings of Gilded Age luminaries adorning the walls of those Newport mansions, I could just as easily have replaced them with a picture of a Gates, a Walton, a Koch (select brother of your choice), a Zuckerberg, a Bezos, or an Elon Musk.

As I walked off the set to my car, I looked back at the Breakers, the physical representation of 19th century power, wealth, and influence. These magnificent facades, glimmering and resplendent in the sun, monuments to people now long gone who built them with the intent to shout, “Look at me! Look at me!!”

The Breakers preserved today. (Photo: Preservation Society of Newport County)

Today, those homes are maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Their previous owners are no longer interested or in some cases capable of keeping them up, no longer able to swath them in a layer of gold leaf to maintain the façade. Those people are long gone, but the monuments they erected to themselves remain.

I thought, the players are different now, but it appears the game hasn’t changed in over 100 years.

(1) Like they used to say back during the (not so) Great depression – “Nice work if you can get it.” (2) I am using “Film” loosely. I lumped anything electronic that winds up streaming on someone’s phone, an iPad, or on the big screen into one category. It’s too confusing to explain the technology. It also saves space and time. (3) Some might say it wasn’t a huge acting stretch for me as a retired Navy Officer, but I’ll take it anyway. (4) I can’t tell you anything about the series since I signed a non-disclosure agreement with HBO. Sorry, you’ll have to catch it on HBO. (5) The New York Times Dictionary.

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