by Paula Leggett Chase
When I was 23 years old, I packed up and moved to New York City hoping to perform on Broadway. My grandfather, Jesse Osborne Kyler, or “Oz” as he was commonly known was rightfully concerned, knowing how hard show business can be. Oz had never been to New York City himself, but was familiar with the business.
Oz was a sound man in southern Indiana. Born in 1902, he became fascinated with radio during his stint in the army at the tender age of fifteen in WWI. He hung his placard on Evansville’s first radio repair shop in 1922. Eventually, he opened Kyler's Sound Service and designed, installed, and ran sound for an almost innumerable variety of venues and events. Touring musical shows, concerts, sporting events, horse races, fairs, ice shows, politicians and circuses—Oz was the guy.
When I was twelve, and he had been retired for several years, I found a box of letters and signed photographs from Truman, LBJ and Nixon, and fancy movie stars like Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, all praising his work. He didn’t care about those letters; he was never a sentimental person. Nevertheless, when I found them I was so proud of him I compiled them into a scrapbook.
“The big stars are always sweethearts," he would say knowingly, as he turned the pages. “The ones who have really made it big are sweet as to you as they can be.”
“Always be nice to the crew on a show-the crew can’t make you, but they can sure ruin you!” he’d laugh gleefully.
I spent a lot of my childhood listening to his stories about working with the stars that played Evansville, Indiana, my beloved hometown. Elvis Presley was “a fine young man, well-mannered.” Sally Rand, the 1930’s fan dancer “was not a spring chicken - she wasn’t really naked, she wore a kind of body suit and they covered her with makeup out of bucket!" Johnny Cash, who was in a rough place and Grandpa had to give him a ride back to his hotel: “He tried to open a bottle of beer on one of my mics.” The touring Russian ballet companies: “they’re all crippled by the end of their careers—terrible life!”
Cab Calloway: “There was one guy in the band whose only job was to roll joints! I never saw him play anything!”
Dozens of rock acts like the raucous concerts of Led Zeppelin: “The didn’t play live! They had rubber strings on their guitars!”
Dick Clark shows: “Those kids weren’t paid enough money to feed themselves! I had to give them cigarette money!”
I proudly tagged along with him on many a job and the more heartbreaking, illusion-busting the story, the more I heard how rough show business was; how outrageously precarious and downright dangerous and foolish to pursue— the more I longed to be part of it.
Grandpa trusted the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of IATSE and sent his last union card with me when I made the big move in 1984 with the following penned on the back: “This girl is Paula Leggett—my granddaughter. Would appreciate any courtesy you can show her. Jesse O. Kyler. Retired Member #102.”
Grandpa Kyler never did get to New York to see me perform on Broadway, but he did see me in Cabaret on tour. As much as he would grumble about the dangers of show business, I know he was incredibly proud of me. Once when I came home to visit Kentucky Lake where Grandma and Grandpa Kyler retired, I overheard him bragging to his cronies. At the boat dock where he would hang out and “shoot the breeze" in his loud brash voice, he told everyone within earshot (and beyond) how his granddaughter Paula was “making a splash in the show business up there in New York!” He also sent his wife, my wonderful Grandma Addie, to the city to see me perform in my first two Broadway shows, A Chorus Line and Crazy For You, and buy me a piano for my first apartment.
Tootsie marks my tenth Broadway show. I did okay, Grandpa, you don’t have to worry. Thank you for everything, and especially for every terrible, frightening showbiz story. I’ll never forget you, and I’m ever grateful.