The 500-seat Griffith Playhouse, located on the perimeter of the campus, was the result of a cooperative venture between San Diego University and the public to advance the arts. Jointly funded by the college and private endowments, and partly staffed by music and theater majors seeking practical work experience, the hall served as a venue for student performances as well as professional productions, which kept the stage active all year long.
Finding the main doors locked, Eric and S’miller walked along the side of the two-story, rectangular structure, until they located another entrance marked ‘Administration.’ Exactly what Eric was looking for.
“Okay, have you got our story straight?” Eric quizzed S’miller. He’d decided that the first step in his investigation would be to poke around the theater where Courtney had been set to perform in an effort to learn more about her final days. To infiltrate the establishment, he’d concocted a ruse and drafted his friend as a co-conspirator, as he felt somewhat intimidated by the mission he was about to undertake.
“It’s simple,” S’miller answered. “We’re a couple of reporters from The Sentinel—“
“I’m the reporter. You’re the photographer.”
“One more thing: let me do the talking.”
They entered into a small reception area, where a slim woman in her early twenties, with a crown of curly brown hair, sat behind a desk, typing away on a computer keyboard. Turning on the charm, Eric approached. “Good morning—“
S’miller dove in front of him and puffed up his chest. “We’re from The Sentinel. We need to see whoever’s in charge,” he demanded, speaking with exaggerated authority out of the side his mouth. He winked at Eric to let him know he had the situation under control.
Eric could only assume his friend had been bitten by the acting bug the moment he’d walked into the building. S’miller was behaving like the heavy in some low-budget action movie. The embarrassing performance made Eric want to crawl away quietly with his tail between his legs, but, incredibly, the “tough guy” routine succeeded in ruffling the fastidious receptionist. Blinking in shock, she turned to Eric for assistance. Playing his part in Good Cop/Bad Cop: The Movie, he merely shrugged, suggesting, Better do what the man says.
“That would be the executive director, Marilyn Stein,” the woman said meekly. “I can see if she’s available. Your names, please?”
Now it was S’miller who turned to Eric for help, uncertain how to reply. They hadn’t discussed whether to use their real names or aliases.
“Eric,” he said, and then presented a diversion, lest she insist on a last name. “We’re doing a follow-up story on Courtney Kennedy.”
The woman reacted exactly as he’d expected. She made a little gasp and her blue doe eyes grew misty. “Courtney? Oh, it’s terrible, isn’t it? She was so sweet.”
S’miller, the bad cop, didn’t have time for sentiment. “Can you get your boss on the line?”
The receptionist jumped into action. “Sorry, of course.” She punched three numbers into the telephone and waited. “Marilyn? There are two gentlemen here from the press who wish to interview you.” She listened to the reply and hung up, informing the boys, “It will only be a few minutes.”
“Thanks,” Eric said with a smile, and then turned to study the collection of pictures on the walls to pass the time. There were framed posters from past performances as well as artful, eight-by-ten, black-and-white photographs of the actors at work on stage. On prominent display, near the door, was a placard promoting the theater’s upcoming production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Eric, studying the smaller type, noticed it bore Courtney Kennedy’s name in the credits.
An unmarked door in the back flew open, and Marilyn Stein made her grand entrance. She proved to be a cross between Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, of whom Eric was all too familiar, given his mother was a devoted fan of both. In her mid-fifties, she had a prominent, crooked nose, close-set eyes and a mouthful of pearly white daggers. The bottom of the knee-length fuchsia satin jacket she wore billowed behind her dramatically as she waltzed across the beige carpeting on open-toed high heels to greet her visitors. Underneath, she had on a black Spandex catsuit, cut low to reveal abundant cleavage.
“Gentlemen, gentleman!” she cried with her arms outstretched. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting …” Her voice trailed off when she caught sight of Eric and S’miller, and the 100-watt smile faded from her face. All the acting training in the world couldn’t hide her apparent disappointment. “Who are you?”
Eric stepped forward. “We’re from The Sentinel, Ms. Stein. We’d like to ask you a few questions about Courtney Kennedy, if you have a moment.”
To prove the point, S’miller rushed up and snapped her picture with a portable digital camera.
She wasn’t impressed. “The school newspaper,” she spat incredulously, obviously expecting USA Today. She glared at the receptionist with disdain, making it clear there’d be hell to pay later for interrupting her busy schedule, and then sighed heavily through her nose. “I suppose I can spare a few minutes. I have to check on how the set construction is progressing. Walk with me.”
Eric and S’miller followed her through the unmarked door and down a series of bare hallways to another door, which opened up onto the lit stage. A pack of T-shirted carpenters were busy erecting a skyline backdrop, while a trio of technicians toiled away on lighting the namesake carousel in the foreground.
“I already submitted a quote about Courtney to the media,” Marilyn Stein shouted above the deafening construction noise: hammering, sawing and drilling. “What more can I possibly tell you?”
Eric guessed she’d led them to the stage on purpose to discourage any prolonged interaction. He decided to make her happy by getting directly to the point. “I’m trying to get a sense of Courtney’s mood before she died.”
“Her mood?” the theater director boomed back.
Eric pressed on despite her apparent aggravation at his opener. “Had you noticed if she was behaving strangely? Did she seem scared or agitated?”
“Young man, I make it habit never to get involved in my performers’ personal lives. I have no idea how Courtney might have been ‘feeling.’”
“Might somebody else? Was she close with anyone from the cast in particular?” Marilyn Stein opened her mouth, preparing to deliver another verbal assault, when Eric realized his error and stymied the attack. “I know, I know – you never get involved in the performers’ personal lives.”
“I was about to suggest you talk to Lysandra,” she said indignantly.
“Lysandra Dalton, Courtney’s understudy. She’s a student here as well. The two appeared to be as thick as thieves.”
Eric shot her a sly grin. And she claims to never get involved …
Reading his mind, Marilyn Stein scrunched her full lips together into a one-sided smile and cocked an eyebrow. “Well, one can’t help noticing a thing or two.”
The woman’s bark was turning out to be worse than her bite. “So, does Lysandra get to dance the ballet in Carousel now that Courtney is dead?” Eric hollered over the whine of a chainsaw. His interview subject chose to preserve her vocal cords and merely nodded. “Is she any good?” he then asked, out of curiosity.
Marilyn Stein frowned. “Of course she’s good. Excuse me.” She turned on S’miller and bared her teeth. “Do you mind?”
While they’d been talking, S’miller had been dancing around her like a frantic fashion photographer, snapping away. “Sorry,” he apologized and retreated to the wings.
“What I was saying?” she asked herself, combing two-inch-long, French-manicured nails through her ironed, highlighted hair. “Oh, right. Is Lysandra any good? Well, she has a completely different style than Courtney, but she’ll undoubtedly deliver an exciting performance.”
“Lysandra has dance class every afternoon from one to two-thirty at the college. Judge for yourself.”