Random Ephemera

Swedish Death Cleaning: Scripts In Search of a Stage

Jim Tommaney's last role was in The Catastrophic Theatre's Detroit. He died less than two months after it wrapped.
Jim Tommaney's last role was in The Catastrophic Theatre's Detroit. He died less than two months after it wrapped. Photo by Mark Herman Reyes
Döstädning is the process of slowly decluttering so that your death isn't a burden for those you leave behind. As a three-time winner of "being left behind" with a messy estate to clean up, I've become a huge advocate of Swedish death cleaning.

Sure, the laws of reproduction mean we're only issued two bio-parents, but when our father died his identical twin moved to Houston, started driving his signature red Miata convertible, wore his clothes, played bridge with our mom, and became the central male figure in the family. If that isn't having a Back-up Daddy, then I don't know what is.

It certainly freaked out our friends to see the ghost of our dad driving down Westheimer.

As children we moved to Chile, Venezuela, Mexico and Texas, so there was considerable distance between us and Uncle Jim in New York. We only knew him as the cool uncle bearing gifts who would occasionally visit.

click to enlarge Me and Uncle Jim at South Pointe Tower. - PHOTO BY H.D. TAYLOR JR.
Me and Uncle Jim at South Pointe Tower.
Photo by H.D. Taylor Jr.
Never have I met a person who reinvented himself so often. By the time I really got to know him, he was 65 and writing and producing plays in South Beach and building aphorism-themed art installations. A bohemian free spirit with a lifetime of wisdom under his belt, he introduced those roller-blading gods on Ocean Drive to Bill, gave countless artists a leg up in their careers, and had cashed out his New York real estate to buy pricey condos in South Pointe Tower.

Uncle Jim's dream hoarding had peaks and valleys. On visits we would intervene and clean up his condo or theater, separating the mess into piles of wood, paper, tools, dirty clothes and dead food.

But we were kindred spirits and Back-up Daddy soon became my best friend, yet another of his incarnations. So while it was relatively easy to donate our father's invention or our mother's antiques — those were just things, after all — I'm hitting a few roadblocks with Uncle Jim's legacy: dozens of original plays and musicals.

The boxes are more than just reams of paper; they document people he met along the way as well as his own story and all of its iterations. There's the eight year old boy who was abused by his optometrist during the Great Depression; a vile monster who identified his target and ignored the other brother.

The young man who finally threw off the shackles of Catholic school and, for the first time in 18 years, wasn't forced to wear the same clothes as his twin. Who became an army reporter during the Korean War, developed friendships at Yale University and learned the secrets of Skull and Bones.

The Madison Avenue wunderkind who devised a revolutionary formula for media buys and seemed unfazed by those three martini lunches. The good-looking charmer who went day drinking with Ethel Merman, Lauren Bacall and Steve McQueen.

He was entrenched in the vibrant community of artists and writers at the Hamptons, rubbing elbows with Lisa and Willem de Kooning, John Gruen and Jane Wilson, Eleanor and Frank Perry, and Frank O'Hara.

With wind in his sails and finally confident in his identity, he had sex every day for a decade and miraculously survived the AIDS epidemic, though he always said we lost the best and the brightest during that dark era.

And finally, he lived the last 20 years of his life in pursuit of his love for theater. He spent down all of that real estate money to produce plays, which to me seems a perfect financial plan for a childless bachelor.

Uncle Jim always held out hopes that his original plays and musicals would eventually generate royalties. Obviously he would have been the best person to realize those dreams.

I'm not saying I'll take up that mantle, but there's too much life in those boxes to just toss away. I'll be scaling back my hours next year and my goal is to catalogue and work though those scripts, and then go from there.

And Leighza Walker, if you're reading this, I'm still hoping to find that script he wrote for you. You would make a transcendent Medea.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney