Mobile is a family album, filled with memories yellowed and curling, but dear nonetheless. Its reverence for the past makes the Azalea City an alluring spot for historians.
One former cultural leader has authored a glimpse into the Mobile flush in the post-War boom. “Opposable Lives,” by former Joe Jefferson Players director Peter Carnahan, traces his time on the northern Gulf with both fondness and frustration as his life would take some unexpected turns here.
An autobiography, Carnahan’s tale is in language neither florid nor cretinous. He aims to respect the reader, not impress him, and succeeds in that goal.
Early chapters bear interesting musings on Carnahan’s background, his Canadian heritage and upstate New York childhood. But it’s really the latter portions that will be of interest to Mobilians.
Carnahan led JJP from 1958-1961, and the picture he paints of Mobile is striking in its familiarity. What drew documentarian Ken Burns to Mobile helps readers vividly see everything as Carnahan describes it.
“It’s a pretty town, living is convenient, not quite large enough to be crowded and noisy,” Carnahan writes. “The people are hospitable but unquenchably talkative — I just can’t get a word in edgewise with them.”
Socially, too, there are common chords between then and now. The ease with which gossip travels through town, the openly secreted gay population, the fondness for social gatherings and parties; it’s all there.
“I was met in Mobile by an overwhelming barrage of charm, the peculiarly Southern charm that seems to take you gently by the scruff of the neck to make sure you behave,” Carnahan writes.
The newcomer treats Mobilians with respect, sparing the condescension we often search for too hard. He makes it clear locals are ripe for top quality plays with stimulating and provocative content.
He also gives delightful insight into the struggles of community theater in a town with a notably laconic lifestyle. His hunt for living quarters — which includes a flirtation with shelter in a cathouse — is bittersweet as the charming garage apartment he recalls tenderly is now home to a Taco Bell.
Carnahan’s descriptions of the local personalities and power struggles sound both endearing and exasperating. Names known to contemporary Mobilians arise, some rather unexpectedly.
Be on the lookout for theater convention fisticuffs wherein Jason Robards and Christopher Plummer make an appearance. James Arness has a cameo in town to boot.
Carnahan spells out a mild rivalry between JJP and Mobile Theatre Guild, fed by Fr. Anthony Zoghby’s competitive nature. Though hardly acknowledged today, it’s funny to see the rumored rift voiced in print.
Published in 2009, the entire work is only 558 pages long but two chapters and a bit less than 200 pages are dedicated to his time in Mobile. For anyone with a love for arts and the Azalea City, it’s an entrancing read.
“Opposable Lives” is available on Amazon and Google books in both physical and electronic form. Prices start in the $3 range.