An unplanned power outage struck the South Pasadena Public Library on August 11 at 1 p.m. The facility remained open for the next two hours operating with minimal battery lighting.
At 3:15 p.m., the utility company said power would not be restored soon and the library was closed for the rest of the day. After learning that power wouldn’t be back on for the 7 p.m. performance by Emmy Award-winning Bill Oberst Jr., I called many equipment rental companies to rent a generator so that we’d be able to power up the community room sound system and lighting. Over and over I was told it was impossible.
Considering cancelling the show, I asked for Bill’s thoughts. He’s an in-demand actor with impressive theatre, film, and TV credits. He calmly stated that he’s previously done ‘power outage shows.’ The decision was made for the show to go on, but outside and unplugged. Oberst would play every part because as we wouldn’t have the recorded voices of the other characters. Our sound and lighting engineers, along with two of Ray Bradbury’s longtime friends, helped move about half of the Community Room chairs into the Library Park.
By this time dozens of audience members were already arriving and it was about showtime. Bill was inside in the pitch dark with a small flashlight and softly praying with his friend who had arrived to help. Walking out, I acknowledged the Friends of the South Pasadena Public Library and SPARC, the South Pasadena Arts Council. Explaining we would be unable to present the show with lighting, amplification, sound effects, etc. I asked the audience, now numbering 75 or so to encourage Bill who would be ‘winging it’.
Draped in a charred and torn garment, Bill leaped to his bare feet, portraying William Lantry who awoke from the grave in 2349 after 400 years of being buried, at a time in which the earth had been cleansed of morbidity and corpses. Halloween has been obliterated and cities have towering incinerators where dead people are burned without ceremony, The government decides to destroy the last remaining graveyard and digs up Lantry, who represents all that is absent from the sterile world.
Oberst charged into the audience, standing on one of the few empty chairs. While gyrating and pointing he launched into Ray Bradbury’s 1948 novella “Pillar of Fire” with great intensity, continuing for 50 riveting minutes. He changed his voice and character repeatedly while climbing trees and the brickwork, oblivious to the sounds of the toddlers and can collectors in the Library Park. The audience responded with a standing ovation and Oberst pulled out the soiled Bradbury paperback that started him on his acting quest at age 12. Bill revealed that he was a “fat kid with acne” in South Carolina and his whole life was changed when he accidentally discovered the Bradbury paperback containing “Pillar”. He said he would be leaving soon for film projects in South America and Europe, but vowed to come back, stating that he wanted to return as Bradbury’s in a living history performance. Oberst has previously appeared as Mark Twain, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus Christ –so that’s certainly within his reach.
Steve Fjeldsted is the director of South Pasadena Library, Arts, and Culture.