In 1954, John Wayne made the movie that may have killed him.
It didn't hurt him professionally, although "The Conqueror," afilm about Genghis Khan's passion for a Tartar princess, may go down as the Duke's worst.
But like 91 of the 220 cast and crew members who worked on the film, Wayne developed cancer. And like 46 of those, including Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and director William Powell, he died from it.
Coincidence? Not according to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which points a finger at these statistics and the shadowy figures behind them in "Secrets in the Sand." The show left San Diego on Wednesday and plays at the Robert Frost Auditorium in Culver City tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m.
The movie set was located in Saint George, Utah, only 137 miles from the atomic testing range at Yucca Flat, Nev., where 11 bombs were detonated the year before. One of them had four times the power of the one that devastated Hiroshima.
Now, 26 years after the ban of above-ground nuclear explosions, the people of Saint George are experiencing an extraordinarily high rate of cancer. Even the children of Wayne and Hayward, who visited their parents on the set, are said to be suffering the effects.
The 30-year-old mime troupe, which is anything but silent about social injustice, always makes fierce points. But the trademark of this Tony award-winning ensemble is to cleverly counterpoint the seriousness with a fictional, comic-book-like delivery, creating an activist cartoon.
In "Secrets of the Sand," singer-heroine Melody Braxton is the daughter of an actor who worked on the movie in question. The dying words of her father's co-star, the Hayward figure, are "connect the dots" of the deaths and "I should have never taken that part," the words reportedly spoken by Moorehead to her friend Debbie Reynolds just before she died.
As Braxton puts the pieces together, with the help of the bumbling son of Roy McCoy (the John Wayne figure), so does the audience.
Why was the picture made near a nuclear test site?
Well, the producer of "The Conqueror" was none other than Howard Hughes, a leading defense contractor. Hughes sensed the public's fears of nuclear fallout. As the argument goes, he may have had an economic incentive to help the former Atomic Energy Commission to prove the situation harmless by showing pictures in Life magazine of Hollywood's best and brightest cavorting in the radioactive sands.
Six members of the mime ensemble tackle several parts each, handling themselves with style and wit in a bumpy script by Robert Alexander, Ellen Callas, Joan Holden "and the company." Under Brian Freeman's direction, the tempo sometimes jerks too abruptly from earnestness to farce, but still, admirably, makes you laugh and think.
Sharon Lockwood is terrific as the mock Joan Rivers character who Braxton meets in a sendup of Hollywood types. Audrey Smith provides a solid center and big voice as Braxton. But some of the best work is also the most subtle, with Ron Muriera as Marvelous Marvin, an oily record producer, and Dan Chumley bringing an effortless swagger to Roy McCoy and an almost elegant bumbling to son Roy McCoy Jr.
The story was written in 1983 and updated for the current tour with Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey and Dan Quayle jokes peppering Braxton's adventures in Lotusland.
A collective since 1970 and interracial since 1974, the Mime Troupe has carved out a niche for itself, albeit without a permanent home. It meets its annual $750,000 budget by touring, usually in school auditoriums. It donates money to the victims of whatever wrong it addresses and grants recognition to those who have taken a chance. In San Diego on Wednesday, a dozen activists were cheered and applauded for having been arrested at a nuclear test site in Nevada last weekend.
But does the Mime Troupe have an impact? Does it make people in power uncomfortable? Members of the troupe were surprised in 1985 when they received a major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The troupe had been highly critical of the Reagan Administration.
They have attacked, relentlessly at times, the Vietnam war, racism, CIA drug trafficking, high food prices and the spread of nuclear weapons--and been arrested for their efforts.
"Secrets in the Sand" is by no means a seamless work of art. The obvious costumes and crayon-like set are nothing special--fitting for a middle-school auditorium, where Wednesday's San Diego performance occurred, and the original music is serviceable but largely forgettable (one wishes some socially conscious musicians would donate songs to the cause).
But the show is an important one.
It argues that John Wayne, the super patriot, was as good as killed by the country he loved. The fact that Wayne and his family decided not to sue the government for keeping the truth about the site secret--fearing that they would seem disloyal--makes the story even more poignant.
It may seem odd to have an organization as "left" as the San Francisco Mime Troupe pick up the last fight for someone as "right" as Wayne. But this is essentially a fight for all people, as the troupe reminds us in the course of the show. There is no left or right in the fight for survival. Just right and wrong.