He feels a need to read Service's verse that's far from terse

March 20, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;

The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;

Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,

And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

The verse of Robert Service trots along between rhymes like a dog team on the Iditarod Trail, pulling a full load of bathos, pathos and barroom ironies.

Service is easy to memorize, fun to declaim, and amusing -- and sometimes touching -- to listen to.

At least J. Michael Baish, hopes it's amusing. An actor, director and sometime Mexican chef in Fells Point, Baish performs a new version of his one-man show based on the life and work of Robert Service at 8 tonight at the Lodge in Highlandtown, at 244 S. Highland Ave.

In May, Baish will travel with his Service show to Skagway, Alaska, where they'll be celebrating the centennial of the Gold Rush to the Klondike and the Yukon.

In 1898, Skagway was the gateway to Whitehorse and the Yukon where Service spent eight years as the gold rush slowed down. In Whitehorse, he wrote "Dangerous Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee," the Yukon ballads that made his fortune.

"I may be the only living writer to make a million out of writing verse," he said in 1956, two years before his death. He had a villa in Monte Carlo and a summer home in Brittany. He lived on into the beatnik era, still writing the rhyming couplets of his youth.

"He once wrote to Ezra Pound that he had always rhymed, even as a child at the dinner table," Baish says. " 'If I weren't such a good rhymer,' he said, 'I might have been a great poet.' "

Service may seem corny to a later generation, but Baish, 57, treats Service and his rhyming with respect. "He's annoyingly close to myself in attitude," Baish says. "Annoying because I think you ought to stretch a little further when you're doing characters. It's easy for me to understand who he was and how he felt, the little fears and tweaks and twinges he had about people and stuff."

The book "Song of a Sourdough" sold about 2 million copies. Fifty years of rhyming produced 2,000 pages of verse. A ton of Service still turns up on the Internet. And half-a-dozen movies have been made from his verse and novels, including a 1928 silent version of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." "I could do a show about Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins," he says. "There are a lot of great poets that I love. I could, if there was a market as there is for Robert Service where I'm going."

Hundreds of summertime cruise ships come up to Alaska through the Inner Passage, for the viewing of whales, glaciers and lots of bald eagles. They land in Skagway and discharge large quantities of people, eager to experience "The Spell of the Yukon."

Baish did his last Skagway Service shows in the years just before he started cooking at Mike's, reciting the verse around a campfire for cruise ship tourists. He loves the work and he does it straight.

VTC "It's all about words, where the words come from, and how the words are carried, and how the words are delivered. That's what we all do: deliver the word."

"I like words you can say," he says. "Words that feel good in the mouth. Like Shakespeare. That stuff is awesome. And it tastes good. . .to say the words.

"This is not camp. This is real work, the internal rhyme, and the resonances, and the foreshadowing. Hell, it's as much art as anything else. The fact that it rhymes you can't really hold that against him!"

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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