I became aware of Jo Lynne Palmer’s brilliance in the fall of 1985 during the run of Nicholas Nickelby
at Rhodes College, where I was a freshman poli-sci major taking voice and diction lessons because that kind of training would certainly come in handy in my future career as an attorney. (Ahem). I was working backstage at the McCoy Theatre one day and overheard the sweetest, liltingest, most angelic sou thern voice you’ve ever heard asking questions that made me blush, a little. It was Mrs. Palmer, a community actor I recognized from the show, and, with great earnestness, she was asking two of the student performers why they were backstage being all studious instead of doing all the delicious things people do when they’re young and beautiful. I hope it’s not embarrassing to Jo Lynne — one of the humblest, and most gracious and giving people I’ve ever known— to note that her advice was, perhaps, a bit more direct than I’ve reported here. Because that’s when I fell in love with backstage life, and went head over heels for this free spirited, incalculably talented creature of earth, fire, air, and water. We’d work together later in shows like She Stoops to Conquer
and A Lie of the Mind
, but one of the great privileges of being a theater writer in Memphis, has been watching this extraordinary artist deliver one convincing performance after another in shows like Beauty Queen of Leenanne
and, more recently, Distance
, a play Memphis/Chicago playwright Jerre Dye wrote with her perfect voice in mind.
I’m not sure when I first met Jo Lynne’s husband Jim, but I tumbled for him, and his unfussy approach to acting, nearly as fast. I’m fairly sure I saw Jim’s cartoons
in early issues of the Memphis Flyer
before I ever saw him perform though. He’s done so much fine work over the years, it’s hard to call favorites, but his turns in the complicated skins of poet Ezra Pound, and the suicidal Weston patriarch from August Osage Co
., are especially dear to me.
Last season Jim and Jo Lynn were cast opposite one another in The Gin Game
, a remarkable production cut short because Jim, who performed the role in a wheelchair, had broken his hip and was in too much pain to continue. That Jim tried to make things work in the first place is testament to the kind of love of craft and commitment these two actors have shown through thick and thin for decades. Here’s what they had to say in advance of Sunday’s Ostrander Awards.
Intermission Impossible: What’s the origin story of the two Palmers?
We met in 1968 when I came to Memphis to work for Front Street Theatre. It was still called Front Street Theatre but they had lost their location and were housed at the Memphis State in Big Red. I did several shows there. We met during the very first show I did there which was Showboat
. Keith Kennedy directed, and he’d been my teacher in Texas for a couple of years before coming on to Memphis. He and I reconnected after I got out of the Army in ‘68.
I was going to Memphis State in the theater department and the Showboat
cast had lost a singer/dancer/actor so everybody had to move up a notch. Well, Keith got in touch with me and said, we may have lost a great singer/dancer/actor but we got a great little actress instead. I didn’t even know who Jimmy was, the cast was like 30 or 35 people. I remember Ken Zimmerman was in it. I was living in the dorm at the time and back in the old days girls had to be back in the dorm by 11. So I had to be back after rehearsal every night. Well, Jimmy was always looking for a girl to go out and have a beer with him. Well, I was leaving the theater by that side exit near the law building, and Jimmy was way down the hall. And he said, “Hey do you want to go have a beer?” And I said I was sorry, but I had to go back to the dorm. And then when I turned around the first thought that came to my mind was, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with that man.” That’s come out true.
Where did you two go for that first beer?
The beer Joint was called Berretta’s, at the corner of Park & Highland but we didn’t get to go.
Not the first time.
We got married in 1970. In mid ‘71 we took off for New York. Well, we did six months on the barn dinner theater circuit, connected with some people from Memphis, and then moved on to New York and tried to break into the theater, like you do. We were there almost five years to the day. Then we returned to Memphis and started doing community theater because we didn’t think we were getting anywhere in New York. I don’t think we had a clear picture of just how long it takes. We were doing shows in toilets hoping to get an agent to come see us. But no agent would dare go into that part of town. Not at the time, anyway. Thought we’d go back to Memphis because, compared to where we were working, the theaters were much nicer. Although, I should say this: When Front Street closed there was the Memphis Little Theatre, which became Theatre Memphis, and there was Memphis State and there was Children’s Theatre, which was seasonal. And that’s all there was. Circuit had started up, though it didn’t really have a permanent space when Front Street closed.
Like Jimmy said we did a lot of off, off, off, off, off Broadway. And we did some extra work on [the soap opera] Love of Life
. When we came back Jackie had started Playhouse on the Square. We started doing shows there and Theatre Memphis. Jim’s been drawing cartoons trying to make it as a cartoonist, and we’ve been doing that since.
What are some of your favorite shows you’ve done together?
Trip to Bountiful
That one started out as an independent production. In 1991 our friend Sam Weakley said, “I’ve got a play for you Jo Lynne.”We rented the NextStage at Theatre Memphis and put it on for two weekends. First weekend we didn’t draw too many people. Then the next weekend we had to have people stand if they wanted to see the show. One of the nicest things I’ve ever seen Jo Lynne do. Then they asked us to repeat it again at Germantown Community Theatre on their regular season with the cast in tact. One of several things I’d put in a time capsule.
How many shows have you done together?
I tried to count it up. I think it came out to be maybe 14.
Do you enjoy working together?
Jo Lynne probably will not deny this. We love it when we have
worked together. Working together not so much. Trying to nail down lines, bouncing each other all the time in shows like Gin Game can be difficult.
Are you able to leave the characters in the theater, or do they ever follow you home?
We leave them there.
We try to leave them there.
But you do help each other prepare?
Oh shit yeah, all the time. When we’re in a play together. When one’s in one and one’s in the other, we help each other.
Memphis is a place where there are some professional opportunities, but most folks who do theater do it for the love. Can you talk to me about being a part of this community?
It’s a terrific feeling. Jo Lynne never cared what role she was playing as long as she was in a show. I wanted to pick things that were really good. Or something I thought I could do well.
We just love doing it whether we get paid for it or not. You do it because you need to do it. Because it’s the only thing you feel like you’re halfway good at. And the only thing you really feel good doing when you do it. That’s why you do it.
I can’t remember when I’ve received a press release that made me happy like this year’s Ostrander nominations. There it was in black and white beside the words “Lifetime Achievement Award: "Jim and Jo Lynne Palmer." This acting couple is the very heart and soul of Memphis theater, and so very deserving.