The Rico Chronicles: Bye Bye Birdie

Joe Tiffany and Rico in Bye Bye Birdie 1966

My great friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees, died recently at the age of sixty-eight. To celebrate Rico and the myriad ways our lives intersected over the years, I am posting a series of remembrances entitled The Rico Chronicles. Here for your enjoyment is the second of those memories.

Spring of 1966. Woodside High School. Redwood City, California.

When I was sixteen and a junior, much to my surprise I landed the part of Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.

I had been in constant pain and walking with an extreme limp for the year preceding being cast as Conrad Birdie. The medical diagnosis of my malady was ankylosing spondylitis, a premature fusing of the lower vertebrae in my spine. For the first few months of dealing with ferocious pain in my lower back and hips, I could barely walk. Eventually I was put on a regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers that significantly dulled my senses but allowed me to go to school. For most of my junior year I was excused from PE and spent that hour every day in the school library reading plays and short stories.

My disability marked the end of thinking of myself as an athlete and decided me on trying to be an actor and a writer. I would eventually overcome many of the physical challenges associated with ankylosing spondylitis and become a backpacker, a physical laborer, and an avid playground basketball player, but when I was sixteen the medical prognosis was for a sedentary life dependent on painkillers.

To play Conrad Birdie without a limp was one of the great challenges of my young life, and many years later I discovered that contrary to what my doctors believed, I was able to transcend my physical challenges because the root cause of the inflammation was not physical, but rather the severe emotional distress I experienced in relation to my parents. When I was performing, both my emotional distress and physical pain disappeared.

In Bye Bye Birdie, a teenage girl wins the honor of being kissed by Conrad Birdie as part of his farewell shenanigans before going into the Army. The girl’s father, mother, and younger brother are important characters in the play, and Dick (Rico) was cast in the role of the younger brother. In makeup and dressed as a little kid, Rico was entirely convincing as a goofy ten-year-old, though he was fourteen and had a deep voice.

The wonderful George Ward (who died just two weeks after Rico died) directed Bye Bye Birdie and surprised everybody by casting me in the role of Conrad Birdie. George was the longtime Drama teacher at Woodside High and had a gift for bringing out the best in his young thespians. How he brought out our best was something Rico and I discussed at length when we were in Bye Bye Birdie together, and again the next year when we were in On Borrowed Time together.

We concluded that though George had his favorites, he rarely cast anyone in a part they weren’t inherently suited for. This may seem like something all directors would do as a matter of course, but in the theatre world favoritism often trumps talent—not so with George.  

Nor did George begin rehearsals by describing how he wanted us to play our parts. Instead he allowed us to find our ways into our characters over the course of acting out the scenes with the other characters, and as we became familiar with our lines and the flow of action, he would occasionally comment about a line’s delivery or a character’s motivation in a particular moment.

Prior to being cast as Conrad Birdie, I played the part of Mr. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank, my first major role in a play. Mr. Van Daan is a terribly conflicted person and the nemesis of young Anne. I remember a rehearsal a week or so before opening night when we did a scene in which Mr. Van Daan is particularly cruel to Anne.

When the scene ended, George said to me in his quiet way, “Are you angry? Or are you frightened? Or both?”

And in that moment I understood that though it was appropriate for me to mask my fear with anger, less anger—a more transparent mask—would make the scene work better and make my character more believable. This understanding not only changed how I played the scene, it transformed my character for the entire play.

Todd and Nancy Losey in Bye Bye Birdie 1966

In one scene in Bye Bye Birdie, Conrad enters the kitchen of the family in which Rico played the brother of the girl he is destined to kiss. Breakfast awaits Conrad, but instead he gets a can of beer out of the refrigerator, makes a mess opening the can, guzzles the beer, and belches.

Time and again I overplayed this scene until George said, “I don’t think Conrad does this on purpose. I think he’s oblivious to other people.”

And thereafter I stopped trying to be funny and played the scene as if no one else was there; and then the scene was funny.

Bye Bye Birdie was the first play Rico was in at Woodside High, and we met for the first time backstage at the first rehearsal. The moment we saw each other, we both felt a jolt of recognition.

So I limped across the expanse between us, looked into Rico’s eyes, and said the opening line of Waiting For Godot, which I’d just seen for the first time and then read and was enthralled by. “Nothing to be done.”

Rico’s eyes lit up and he replied, “Are you Didi or Gogo?” (the nicknames of Vladimir and Estragon, the two characters in Waiting For Godot)

“I never can remember which one is Didi and which one is Gogo. Who do you want to be?”

“Either one,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t think it matters.”

Then we blathered on for a few more minutes as if we were characters in an absurdist drama, which of course we were, and then rehearsal began.

The next day at lunchtime, I found Rico hanging out with the counter culture kids of our high school, known as the Water Fountain Gang because they congregated by a certain water fountain—kids into Drama and art and folk music and folk rock, the first hippies of our generation, a daily potluck of mostly girls and some boys, the boys letting their hair grow long, the girls nascent feminists—rebels fighting The System designed to squish us into versions of our conformist parents, high school a genteel prison we longed to be free of. And when we were free, then what? We didn’t know, and that was our bond: not knowing.

I hailed Rico with “Didi!”

“Gogo,” he said, raising his hand in greeting.

And for the next few months we were Didi and Gogo to each other and it didn’t matter who was which so long as we were together in the absurdist drama of our young lives.


The Magician