The knowledge that we will one day die is what truly separates us from the animals and we are never more keenly aware of that fact than when we realize the mortality of our heroes. During the filming of the posthumous documentary Paul Wegman: A Tribute, I was asked to describe Paul in one word and I replied: “invincible.” In the months leading up to his death 10 years ago, I retreated to the uncomfortable land of denial, clumsily clinging to that one-word perception.
I was 24 when I actually met Paul Wegman, though I had seen him onstage. Making magic as Prospero on the shore of Lake Eola, one unseasonably cold April, in the inaugural season of Orlando Shakespeare Festival (now Orlando Shakespeare Theater). I also saw his lauded return to the title role in The Elephant Man at Seminole Community College (now Seminole State College), having been urged by theatre friends not to miss it. He was one of the few actors I’ve known to make you believe the word splurge of playwright Len Jenkins, which I saw him tackle in Dark Ride performed in the 1990’s nightclub Big Bang in Downtown Orlando.
So when I walked into the vast auditorium at Valencia Community College (now Valencia College) to audition for a Sherlock Holmes play called The Crucifer of Blood, to my mind, I was auditioning for theater royalty: director Paul Wegman. At one point in the process, Paul had me reading a scene with the impossibly gorgeous blond guy who would eventually be cast as Sherlock, when he interrupted us to repeat the scene. “I saw something there,” Paul said. I saw something—and he was referring to me!
“I felt like he really believed in me and my talent,” recalls Tiffany Coffman, another actor Paul saw something in and cast as the female lead in Crucifer. “It meant the world to me because I didn’t have a ton of self-confidence back then.”
Coffman considers Paul the best director she’s ever worked with in large part due to his collaborative approach. She came into a rehearsal with her hair dyed reddish brown because she felt it fit her character. Paul agreed, so he brought in a wig from Miss P’s collection. Paul put the wig on Coffman personally.
“He encouraged us to figure out our own truths and motivations within our characters,” she says. “If he thought we were going way off track, he would maybe steer us in the direction he envisioned, but mostly I remember him letting us figure out things on our own.”
That brings us to the sequined elephant-in-the-room: Miss P. Though he seemed to approach P as character, Paul’s notorious drag persona overshadowed his acting career. Miss P ruled the roost in Parliament House’s Footlights Theatre for 25 years, beginning in the mid-1970s.
“There was always Paul, and then there was P at the Parliament House,” local actor Mark Edward Smith told Orlando Sentinel at the time of Wegman’s passing. “To me, they were never the same people.”
Smith’s comment echoes the feelings of many who saw Miss P as her own personality. P was caustic and abrasive, emceeing the drag shows with an obligatory tour of the audience with house lights up. Straight women were routinely “converted” to lesbians with an Ernest Angley style slap to the forehead. Straight men were brought on stage for a closer inspection. Political correctness was left outside and nobody inside was safe from P’s sharp tongue and, for the most part, everyone loved it.
“The shows are not nearly as vulgar or offensive,” says Chris Guy, stage manager at Parliament House. “People could take a joke back then and if they couldn’t…well, you know what Paul would say to that! No one makes me laugh like he did—on and off the stage.”
P would open the show with a lip-synched number that was almost always a song from a musical. I often got the impression that she didn’t give two shits if you were paying attention or not during these moments, this was as much for her as anything else.
Her performance was laced with bits that became audience favorites. Audiences would shout “roll” until P would finally do a somersault or two across the stage with little regard for what was showing when her dress went up. There was also “Hereeeeeee’s Pussy” when P would stuff a mic up her dress, so that her crotch could entertain the crowd with its rendition of “Be Our Guest” or some other song. The crowd would dutifully clap their hands once in unison to welcome the next performer, when Miss P would bark the order: “Hands together!”
Today a framed photo of Miss P with a plaque proclaiming “The House That P Built” is at the entrance of the Footlight Theatre, there is a rumor that a portion of Paul’s ashes are tucked away under the stage, but the show must go on. Those shows continue to pack in audience, under the mic and guidance of the formidable Darcel Stevens.
“I think Paul would be having a field day with a cast full of “trannies”—yes, “trannies”, because he was never PC when it came to drag,” laughed Guy.
“Unfortunately Paul was teased a great deal in his teenage years,” remembers his sister, Jean Totten. “Partly because he was heavy, partly because it was obvious he was ‘different,’ and partly because his voice was changing. His nickname was Squeaky.”
Paul came into his own in his later high school years, according to Totten. He was in drama club, throwing himself into each production, acting, creating sets and even helping to direct. One of Paul’s earlier roles in 1960s, as Kreton in Gore Vidal’s A Visit to a Small Planet, was a family favorite.
“Mom, Dad and Jean all recollected over the years of never being able to forget Paul’s entrance as he popped up from behind a couch on stage,” says younger brother Dave Wegman, himself too young to recall the performance.
Paul’s homosexuality combined with a decision to pursue a career in performance created a strained relationship with their immediate and extended family, particularly on his mother’s side, leading to Paul’s departure from their Rochester home for New York City, then later Florida. Dave, 15 years Paul’s junior, was told little about his brother in the years following, until he also came out in 1976.
Dave is in disbelief that an entire decade has passed since he lost his big brother. The iconic level Paul has reached would feel intrusive to some families, but Dave expresses “…amazement over the reach and depth that he had on so many lives no matter how brief or deeply each knew or experienced him.”
Recently appointed as theatre director for his alma mater, Boone High School, David Lee has been a fixture in the Orlando theatre community for nearly three decades, having started as a youngster. In that time, he worked with Paul several times as an actor and the two directed each other.
The two shared something of a father/son relationship—“And of course sometimes Miss P was part of the equation so I had a surrogate Mom as well.”—and on one particular occasion, Paul gave a 19-year-old Lee life saving advice. One of Lee’s best friends was brutally murdered by a date and it sent Lee on a destructive spiral.
“Paul knew that I had been offered a scholarship to the University of Miami in the theatre program. Paul found me one night at The PH after one of his shows and asked me to come outside,” remembers Lee. “We sat in front of the friar statue on the ground and he told me that if I didn’t get my act together and go to college that he would never forgive me. He told me stop feeling guilty for being alive and to get out there and live!”
Central Floridians will remember 2004 as the year we were hit by a trio of hurricanes: Charley, Frances, and Jeanne. By this time, the complications of AIDS had taken a toll on Paul and he was in the care of an assisted living facility. Lee remembers feeling fearful for Paul, visiting him for the last time just prior to the hurricanes. His fear was not unfounded as the storms caused power outages that contribute to Paul’s death, as well as several others in the facility.
“It’s very fitting that it took something like that—a Fierce Act of Nature—to take Paul away,” states Lee. He quips that he calls that particular storm “Hurricane P.” On Tuesday, Aug, 24, 2004, Paul Wegman shuffled off this mortal coil. In that last visit, the mentor to so many had one last lesson for Lee, one that no doubt rings familiar to all who experienced Paul.
“I still remember every day him blind in the care center holding my arm tightly and telling me and Chad Lewis to ‘Go out there and Make Magic! Please Listen…you must make magic!’” Lee says. “That keeps me going most days”
My own last encounter with Paul was a phone conversation trying to make final arrangements for him to participate in a reading of Love! Valour! Compassion! at The Center. Fellow producer Margaret Nolan and I had already made arrangements to pick him up for rehearsals and provide an enlarged script for his failing eyesight, but in this conversation, with the weight of regret at disappointing an audience, Paul said, “I’m sorry, Scottie, I just can’t do it.”
After saying an awkward good-bye, I immediately dialed Michael McLane to ask him read the twins John and James Jeckyll in Paul’s place.
A mutual friend Michael, who has since been lost to cancer, could tell the shake in my voice was not the urgency of replacing another actor. It was caused by my own last lesson from Paul Wegman: invincibility—at least of our physical form—is a foolish notion, even for a legend.