Their Home Is the Streets, but the Play's the Thing for L.A.'s Down-but-Not-Out Skid Row Players

updated 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Last January Jim Beam joined the highest caste in all of Los Angeles society: He became a star. Not only did an avant-garde theater group put on his play No Stone For Studs Schwartz, he landed the lead role, played to packed houses and inspired critics to delight and wonder. But as he made his way home after his final bow, his image began to merge with gamy reality. Still dressed in the dirty work-shirt and baseball cap he had worn to portray a homeless man onstage, the star stopped at a garbage-strewn lot near the heart of skid row. "Well, here we are," he whispered, taking a drag on a cigarette he had bummed at the theater. "Shhh," he added, pointing to a form huddled on a mattress under dirty blankets. "A friend who doesn't have a bed sleeps on mine until I get home at night."

Beam, 53, is no down-and-out actor who just caught a break; he has lived for years on the streets of L.A., and it is his vagrancy that has made him a star. Only 18 months ago Beam, a schizophrenic, walked the city in a daze, shouting epithets to himself and the world. "A conversation with Jim used to last half a phrase," says his play's producer, Scott Kelman. "He insulted you and he was off." Then a homeless friend, Pat Perkins, recruited Beam to join the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a mockingly titled theater troupe staffed by a dozen or so of L.A.'s 50,000 homeless street people. "I thought Jim was a little strange," admits Perkins, 53, taking a swig from a bottle of Thunderbird. "But the LAPD was a good place for him. It's grown into this real family place."

The move was therapeutic. After a few months of rehearsals Beam showed surprising ability. In 1986 he and LAPD founder John Malpede created Studs Schwartz, an improvised story based on the shooting murders of 10 homeless L.A. men that year. A cast of 12, including a man with Down Syndrome, played 20 different roles and drew raves from reviewers. "For sheer dramatic intensity, ferocity and danger," wrote Herald Examiner critic Richard Slayton, "no other group of actors on a local stage can compare...." In January the group will present The LAPD Inspects America, a collection of live skits and video interviews with homeless people.

When New York actor and director John Malpede, 42, came to skid row in 1984 to gather material for a monologue, he hardly expected to make a career there. But he was unable to forget the desperation he found, and he stayed on to solicit legal aid for the homeless. In 1985, hoping to find a way to use his stage skills as well, he received a $9,500 grant from the California Arts Council to start the LAPD. "I wanted to push the parameters of the art world a little," he says. He announced the project with fliers tacked to utility poles and accepted everyone who turned out—no auditions. "Out of 12 members," recalls Malpede, who arranged for the use of Scott Kelman's Boyd Theater, "only two were able to interact with other people. We were a long way from being able to do a play. So I thought, 'Monologues.' "

Behind the fierceness of their street-tough facades, the homeless actors revealed still-tender wounds in the troupe's first show, South of the Clouds. A transvestite performer, who has since disappeared, spoke about the pleasure of washing clothes: "When I wring them dry with my hands, sometimes I imagine I've got hold of my father's neck." A bag lady tearfully described her first love: "Sometimes I think if I would have held on to him, I wouldn't be dragging around this knapsack full of nothing."

Often suffering from mental illness or alcoholism, Malpede's ever-changing cast at first found it difficult even to show up for his twice-weekly rehearsals, and sometimes they grew violent or confused. But Malpede stuck with them, reaping unforeseen dividends. A lawyer who saw the show helped mentally ill actors triple their welfare benefits; director John Cassavetes cast a 50-year-old street person named Frank in a play about a homeless woman. As their faith in themselves has increased, some of the players have found homes away from skid row, and most have received their first pay in years. "This is the first time in my life I've wanted to be part of a group," says Kevin, 30, a onetime factory worker.

Jim Beam underwent even greater changes. A former teacher who had enrolled in a political science doctorate program at the University of Oregon, he suffered a mental breakdown that led to jail time for harassing his ex-wife and years of hospitalization before hitting the streets under a variety of assumed names. Poverty and delusions still dog his life, but Malpede has helped him regain some of the pride he had under his real name, Jerome Nelkin. "He's a good guy," says Beam of his mentor. "If I had to have an alter ego, I guess I'd want him."

As in any company, of course, there are gripers. "Some people are getting to be prima donnas," D.J., 23, an ex-marine, says disgustedly. "The whole with-out-me-you-couldn't-go-on thing." But compared with most actors, the ragtag thespians seem decidedly modest. After Beam's run as the Studsstar, he worked as a dishwasher, vanished for three months, then strolled back as though he'd been gone only a day or so. He didn't say much about where he had been; for that story, hidden in some private recess of Jim Beam's mind, audiences will have to wait for his next play.

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