DO WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVE WHAT YOU DO
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: When I read the article in People magazine regarding Francis and the hunting trip, the thing that stood out to me was not the fact that Francis’ career went into a sinkhole, because that happens in the world of entertainment. What surprised me was that Francis was able to carry that large woman basketball player over his shoulder and then throw her into a car. Sure, it might have been adrenaline, but that single act made me think that Francis might still have the leg power to dance again. The world of modern dance was deprived of Francis’ gift on the day he injured his Achilles’ tendon. Maybe we could reward those who waited so patiently for another comet to soar through the sky so brilliantly and have had to wait in vain.
FRANK: When I got the call from Dr. Penchance, I thought it was a crank call. I mean, here I was in my early thirties, I was out of shape – slightly, but still out of shape – and I hadn’t danced professionally in over 25 years. Also, I just naturally assumed that Dr. Penchance was dead, considering all of the rum that that guy would polish off. Sure enough, I checked around and found out that he was alive. Sober, even.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: I wouldn’t say that I had an addiction to rum, so much as I had a carnal lust for it, each drop of it a liquid paradise that caused my taste buds to convulse in rhythmic ecstasy…but I have it under control now.
The first thing that was done was to have Frank’s Achilles’ tendon checked out by two doctors. Both of them gave him a clean bill of health.
DR. ALDIS RAY, CEDARS-SINAI HOSPITAL, LOS ANGELES, CA: It looked as though there was not a thing wrong with it in the first place. I believe that years of inactivity gave him the time to fully heal. I felt confident that he could dance again.
With a clean bill of health, Frank came back to Cedar Creek to begin the comeback of his dance career under the watchful eye of Dr. Penchance. In order to avoid publicity, Frank did his training in the barn of a nearby friend of the Laster family, Arnold von Benschauten.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: We decided to practice in an obscure place in case Frank didn’t have the goods anymore. If it wasn’t meant to be, we didn’t want anyone to know about it.
ARNOLD VON BENSCHAUTEN, FAMILY FRIEND: I watched Francis during his training period, but I promised not to tell anyone about it. Watching him train, it was like…well, you remember the training scene in Rocky IV, when Rocky was training in the mountains? It was a lot like that, except that there was a lot more prancing.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: Physically, we had a lot of work to do. He was in no shape to dance in the same manner that he was used to doing. I wasn’t worried about his passion, though, as you could tell that he wanted to be great again, and not just for financial gain, which was good, because the money in modern dance wasn’t what it used to be.
FRANK: The money was a reason that I did want to come back, and when Dr. Penchance told me the financial problems in the industry, it did slow me down slightly. But I persevered.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: The main obstacle that we had to overcome with Francis was getting him to believe in his greatness once again. In order to do that, any time that Francis would doubt himself, in any way, I would taser him. On the lowest setting, mind you, but it got the message across.
FRANK: Some days after training my teeth would rattle for hours after a session, I was tasered so much. If he wasn’t the great Dr. Lars Penchance, I wouldn’t have put up with it.
After four weeks of rigorous training, Frank was 18 pounds lighter and in the best physical shape of his life.
FRANK: My calf muscles were tight, man, and you could bounce a silver dollar off of my ass cheeks. Lars even tried to do so, but I wouldn’t let him. But I was exhausted after those four weeks. I was more tired than a Robin Williams penis joke.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: I gave him three days to let him decide if this was all worth it to him. I wasn’t going to go forward anymore if he didn’t believe that this was the right thing to do. During the training period I had seen significant progress in his skills, even occasionally seeing that moment of greatness that I remember from his childhood.
FRANK: I decided to go with my father out to a friend’s cabin and go crossbow hunting. I had bought a new crossbow that I wanted to try out and I thought that it would get my mind off of dance. It didn’t/
JEREMIAH LASTER: We hunted for a grand total of two hours. For the next two days, Francis was working on his dance piece, The Lost Trucker of Cedar Creek.
FRANK: The piece came back to me in a dream, the piece that I wrote while driving a big rig. It seemed even clearer than it did when I first wrote it. By the time the weekend was over I had essentially put together the entire program.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: When Francis came back to the barn with The Lost Trucker of Cedar Creek in tow, I knew that not only was Francis serious, but that the old magic that he had in him was back. At that moment I tried to kiss him but he ended up smacking me in the face with a feed bag.
FRANK: I had never felt as high as the moment when I realized that my piece was a legitimate work of art, not even when I was taking those Indian cough drops. It was really neat.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: It was still a raw piece of work, as untamed and primal as a feral cat. We were going to have to iron out all of the kinks in the piece, and we had to set it to music, as well. I felt that the piece needed something unconventional.
The “unconventional” band that they found were the boldly experimental group from Iceland, Sigur Rós.
JON THOR BIRGISSON, GUITARIST-VOCALIST, SIGUR RÓS: Dr. Penchance had heard of our group when we performed a few songs for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for his dance piece Split Sides. Being from Iceland, we were not all-too-familiar with trucking, but Dr. Penchance sent us a copy of the movie Convoy and it was very inspirational. Kris Kristofferson was bad-ass. We also talked to Mr. Cunningham and he recommended that we do this.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY: I told Jon that if he had the opportunity to be involved in Francis Laster’s return to dance, that he should jump at it, that it would be their chance to be involved in a history-in-the-making moment. And if it did not succeed, no worries, most people would probably not notice.
JON THOR BIRGISSON: We went to West Virginia and we got a room at a Radisson hotel that was very nice. The staff there was very friendly. The next morning we went to Cedar Creek and met Frank and Dr. Penchance.
FRANK: I had never heard of this band, and when I was told that they had made up their own language to sing in, that weirded me out a bit, too. But when I listened to some of their music I saw what Dr. Penchance was thinking. If we could somehow combine their music with my vision of trucking and dance, we would have something special.
The members of Sigur Rós sat down to watch Frank do a dry run of his piece without music in the von Benschauten’s barn.
FRANK: I was able to do the entire piece without music because there was already music in my head. I just fed off of that. Luckily for all of us, Sigur Rós had a similar vision to mine. It was the most that I had ever been in sync with anyone in performance since the time I appeared on Miami Vice. Don Johnson and I worked really well together.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: It was agreed. Francis would perform The Lost Trucker of Cedar Creek in four months’ time. Sigur Rós would do the musical score. We had also decided to have a group of young dancers perform Purple Nurple for the first time since Francis did it as a child as a precursor to Trucker. Francis even decided to perform under the name of Francis Laster, which made me quite happy, as well as the Lasters. The only decision left was to decide the locale for the performance.
HAWLEY SMOOT: For a performance so big in scope, one where the whole world would be watching, there was only one logical place to do the performance: the Wheeling Civic Center. Unfortunately for us, the center was booked for a two-week run of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring Mac Davis during the time we wanted. I don’t blame them, really, for not making a change. So we had to settle for Carnegie Hall, instead.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: We set a date of August 14th, and as soon as the press release went out, it became the hottest ticket in New York. Every person in Cedar Creek bought a ticket for the show and a caravan was created to go there, as well as a Phillies-Pirates game a few days before.
FRANK: I was getting calls from everywhere. The whole cast from Who Took the Gravy? said they were coming, and we set up a reunion with the cast for an interview with Katie Kouric on the Today show. Screaming Jimmy Leaney was coming. Wendy Peski was coming. Wendy Peski! That made me feel good. PBS had agreed to televise the performance live, and it was during a pledge week, so we know how highly they thought of it. Now all we had to do was make the show work.
Not an easy proposition, as it turned out. Tensions between Frank and Dr. Penchance were at a boil over the next several weeks, with both of them walking out on each other on separate occasions during rehearsals.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: Francis can be a very ill-tempered man when he doesn’t get his way. I merely had a costume suggestion and the next thing you know, he’s going completely insane.
FRANK: He wanted me to wear hot pants. I will never wear hot pants. Well, maybe if it was the right director, like Martin Scorsese or Sir Richard Attenborough or somebody like that, then maybe you could…but not for this.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: We lost two days on that argument. Then I left for a day when I got into an argument with Frank over who played Carol Seaver on Growing Pains. Frank was correct in saying that it was Tracey Gold, but I could’ve sworn that it was Heather Langenkamp. It turns out that Heather was on Just the Ten of Us, which was coincidentally a spin-off of Growing Pains, so you could see how I was wrong. Maybe I overreacted.
FRANK: Any twit with a working knowledge of 1980s television knows that Tracey Gold was Carol Seaver, but, hey, there were far more important things happening than that, so we got back to work.
JON THOR BIRGISSON: Even being from Iceland, I knew that it was Tracey Gold. But I sensed that there was something far greater than the cast of Growing Pains in their argument and it had to be sorted out.
FRANK: We made up the next day and that was the end of the fighting. We were able to fill out the full cast of the show about six weeks prior to opening night using all West Virginian dancers, and we got the music to where we wanted it. We had a show that we felt good about.
Two weeks before the day of the show, Frank and Dr. Penchance moved their operations to New York City where they worked out the final staging of the show. Hawley also came to help with publicity.
HAWLEY SMOOT: We worked out a schedule of rehearsals mixed with public appearances. Frank was the Grand Marshal of the Lithuanian-American Day Parade and he appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly on the same day, but we were also able to get him into the rehearsal studio for a couple of hours, too. We made it all work. Frank was a bundle of energy at that point.
Two days before opening night, a special gala was held to celebrate the opening of the show and the return of Frank to the dance world. For Frank, it was a very emotional evening.
FRANK: To see that so many people still cared about me, that they still supported my career, it was a beautiful moment. I got up with Screaming Jimmy and performed “Shake Your Love” for the first time since we parted ways, completely impromptu. I also realized that Wendy Peski and I still had some feelings for each other. It was something that we wanted to pursue, but I had to wait a bit. I wasn’t going to ruin my dance career over a quick pop in the sack – it’s like a boxer, you have to keep the legs strong.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: Francis was focused to make this piece work. It actually saddened me, because you could tell how devoted he was to his craft, and the fact that the world of dance did not get to appreciate him for so long…it’s really bittersweet. But I had no doubt that Francis was back.
FRANK: As opening night arrived, I was completely at peace. This was my moment. This was what all of my life was leading up to, and I was ready for it. For once, I felt like I wasn’t going to screw this moment up, and if I did, maybe I could get into selling insurance or something. Either way, I was feeling okay. Let’s make some magic.
(To see Chapter 18, click here)
(To see Chapter 18, click here)