Cast of Characters: Exploring New Stages

Local actor Peter Gabb acts out and around town

FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPHS

“I did a commercial for Guillot Brothers Pest Control. I walked around in a nightgown, afraid of bugs!”
– local actor Peter Gabb recalling one of the highlights of his career


Surely you remember Peter Gabb, He was the Indian chief pushing buffalo meat in those Winn Dixie television commercials way back when bison burgers were all the rage. He was the guy who “did some voice over things for Maison Blanche.” You saw him rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dennis Quaid and Ned Beatty in the movie The Big Easy and with Ossie Davis and Kris Kristofferson in Freedom Road. And it seems Gabb was always popping in and out of scenes in that late 1980s television show, In the Heat of the Night, starring Carroll O’Connor.

“Hey, I was the umbrella-holder for the Mikado at Tulane’s Summer Lyrical Theater,” Gabb interjects, lest any point of his multifaceted acting career be overlooked.

Truth is, you’d need a book the size of the Manhattan telephone directory to run down all of the stage, television, movie and commercial roles that have kept the 70-year-old actor busy … all the way back to playing Falstaff in Henry IV on stage at St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College in Covington when he had his sights set on becoming a Benedictine monk. There was hardly a time that Gabb’s talents weren’t on display on some stage or in front of some camera somewhere. And that “Father Knows Best” face and demeanor were in high demand by talent recruiters at advertising agencies all over New Orleans.

All of which is no small feat for a guy who isn’t exactly of Clint Eastwood proportions. Sipping coffee at a java shop on Harrison Avenue near his home recently, the just-over-5-foot-tall Gabb is decked out in a powder-blue sweater. Gabb looks for all the world like the retired father of that friend of yours.

That would be the ultimate job of typecasting.

“I teach talented and theater students at Einstein Charter School in New Orleans East,” Gabb says. Then he adds, “Part time,” like the 20-somethings who describe themselves as “an actor – and a waiter.”

“I do some subbing (substitute teaching) at Ben Franklin (High School),” Gabb says. “Truth is, I just sub for anybody. Whoever needs me. I know most of the drama teachers around the city … and the drama students. I guess sometimes I’m just like fringe help for them all.”

Gabb is the first to admit that nothing is changing faster from day to day than the entertainment field: Stage productions have all but disappeared as an entertainment entity as home videos and blogs and mechanical monsters and bare-knuckle punch-outs disguised as “sport” offer mayhem with nary a storyline to be found.

“The whole scene (acting) has changed greatly since I took directing and acting classes at UNO,” Gabb says. “You have to change with it, be innovative, which is just what acting is, if you want to stay alive and thrive in this business.”

To that end, Gabb has joined with New Orleans playwright, librarian and teacher Dan Coget in unveiling their “Theatre of the Internet.” Local artist Ken Mentel sometimes provides the artwork.

“We have a website,” Gabb says – theatre1540.com – “that will be our vehicle. The numbers 15 and 40 refer to the minutes of Dan’s plays. Some are 15 minutes long. Some are 40 minutes long.” The hilarity of that isn’t lost on Gabb. He almost chokes on his coffee. “This is all a brand new venture. And it will be open to local playwrights and dramatists who are unpublished. And to new actors. It will give them all a chance to reach an audience with their work. I like to call it ‘Theatre of the Internet.’ We are in the process of selling advertising time on the website and hope to be breaking even pretty soon. So far we’ve had over 6,000 hits. This will offer the opportunity for the public not only to experience new writing and to give feedback, but also to interact with the drama they’ve witnessed. This amounts to a whole new medium. There’s never been anything like this. Some people said we couldn’t do it … but we’re doing it.”

Far Uptown it’s a cloudy afternoon at Carrollton and Claiborne avenues. Rain is on the way and 74-year-old Ken Mentel is waiting for a streetcar. With an Indiana Jones-style hat topping a face that’s highlighted by an Oil Can Harry-like pencil moustache, Mentel is looking vainly down Carrollton Avenue for a streetcar.

A car pulls up to the curb and the passenger side window glides down.

“Kenny, where ya headed to?”

Without really answering, Mentel jumps into the passenger seat and avers that he’s headed to a “play going on at a church somewhere up in this neighborhood.”

The driver is puzzled, but Mentel can’t remember the name of the church or the street on which the church is located.

“It’s by a traffic light off a wide street,” Mentel says.

“Six million traffic lights in New Orleans and 100,000 wide streets. That really narrows it down, Kenny,” the perturbed driver says as he heads up South Carrollton Avenue, cutting over to Broadway Street, then to St. Charles Avenue and back to Carrollton Avenue.
“There it is!” Mentel says in front of a red brick church off Oak Street. “That’s the church. They’re trying out for a play there. I just know it! I can smell a stage a mile away!”

In a flash, Ken Mentel is out of the car and disappears into the church building.

Back at the coffee joint, Gabb finishes his coffee and a smile crosses his face. “That’s the way it goes,” Gabb must be saying. “Actors must act. They will act no matter what.”

Gabb is heading to his Lakeview home to check his messages. Who knows, one of those messages may be from Martin Scorsese.

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