All things considered, Pat Haden didn’t really look like the happiest fella on the USC campus early Thursday evening.
The Trojans athletic director paced around outside the Bing Theatre, admitting to having a case of the butterflies.
“I’m nervous,” he said. “I really am nervous.”
This had nothing to do with second thoughts about the recent hiring of Andy Enfield as the new men’s basketball coach.
Dressed up a 1920’s era-style postal carrier’s outfit, Haden awaited a curtain call for the opening night of the USC School of Dramatic Arts’ presentation of “The Most Happy Fella.” The student-run musical debuted with Haden as “Postman 2” in your program.
In the nearly three-hour play, Haden made a couple of appearances early on, once in a group song, and another in a short solo where he sang a few lines and dance a few steps. The applause from the audience was genuine for his efforts.
Haden, who circled back to sit amongst the paying customers and watch the rest of the play unfold, rejoined the cast on stage for the final musical number and had his own solo bow to take.
“I know, don’t quit my day job,” Haden said Friday morning.
Let him explain why he took such a step out of his comfort zone, and whether that might encourage other USC athletes to take such a risk:
QUESTIONS: Did the case of nerves blindside you there on Opening Night? Where was the help from your offensive line?
ANSWER: That was the most frightened I’ve been during the whole process. It’ll get easier now that I know I can actually do it in front of an audience. But that was part of the reason for doing it – to get into a position that’s most uncomfortable as possible. I’m not sure what could be worse than that, maybe tagging sharks.
Putting yourself out there when you really don’t have talent is like trying to catch a punt against Notre Dame when you’ve never been on a football field before.
Q: So this is another teaching moment for a university staff head man?
A: What I really learned was – this wasn’t about me. It’s about what a university has to offer. I’ve been around this university since I was 14 years old, and I know this place pretty well, but what I discovered is that our theater majors are the equivalent of five-star recruits, immensely talented, work incredibly hard, rehearse Monday through Friday from 6-to-10 at night, Saturdays 10-to-2, just to put on that performance.
That’s what we’re trying to expose 650 athletes to here – don’t just be just a tennis player, volleyball player or football player, this is the only time in your life when you get a chance to do something a little different. Go try it.
Q: Anyone taken you up on the challenge yet?
A: Not yet, but there were a number of student-athletes last night and a bunch are coming soon. We’ve got a provost series where 10 professors come into our building or we go to their labs and they talk to us about things. It could be an engineering professor who talks to our womens’ basketball team and tells them about the research he’s doing and why it’s important to someone who’s 18 or 19 years old. We take kids to the Huntington Library and botanical gardens where USC has the American Institute of the West, where Bill Deverell knows more about the history of the California than virtually anyone and he talks about the beginning of Los Angeles. We take kids to the Getty Center, to the Jet Propulsion Lab, faculty like a philosophy teacher can come into the new John McKay Center and teach his class, whether we have athletes in the class or not. We want to integrate better with the entire university. That’s the whole purpose.
Q: How did Madeline Puzo, the dean of the theater department, put you up to this?
A: I was just talking to her, maybe my second year here, and I was telling her that when I was here I wish I could have done more, in addition to what I was doing (with football and studying law). I can’t act, sing or dance, but I wish I would have tried. She remembered it. She called me six months ago and said, ‘Hey, still want to be in a play?’ Half-kidding, I said, ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t know it was a musical. I thought I’d come on stage, say a couple of lines, have a cup of coffee, boom, that’s it. To thunderous applause. I tried to back out when I found out it was a musical, I’ll admit. But I tried rehearsing, got enough confidence. The kids were so supportive of me to get me through it. And I do sound better when there’s an orchestra there. Unaccompanied, you always sound bad to your own ear. But it’s better when there’s music covering it up.
Q: The fact you have a role that requires you to blow a whistle – as a whistle blower, does this violate any NCAA rules?
A: My singing was so bad, it has to be a violation of something. I hope to avoid probation for that. I’m happy to say there were no compliance people there.
Q: Do athletes have the time to take up this kind of commitment to be in a play?
A: Well, not really. I tried to get Cyrus Hobbi (a sophomore offensive guard on the football team) to come out, but they’re in spring practice. To be in this, you’ve got to be all in. The difficulty of having world-class athletes here is need to have incredible focus and determination. We’re just trying to get them to open the aperture a little bit more here and realize, do it now or you may never have that chance. I’m not saying they have to be in a play but maybe just go to a play, go to the Fisher Gallery on campus and see the art or be in the ‘Arth-letics’ exhibit. When you leave here, you’ll get a job and get married and never have another chance like now. I had a great college experience and wouldn’t do anything differently, but I’d just do these things in addition to what I did.
Q: With the 50 cast members in this play, it must be like having a football team where it’s tough to be a walk-on and get into the action.
A: You’re absolutely right, but there are 30-plus productions put on them each year and an athlete determined to get into one could do that. Or create your own theater. We had a student in this cast who is involved in improv and did that all night after the performance. And he had classes in the morning and then would come back to the play at night. One of the reasons I took this job was because of all the interesting things percolating around the campus and I’m trying to take advantage of them in ways I didn’t before. Sometimes you get locked up in your office but it’s a real joy to get out on campus and appreciate the diversity and talent level all over the place.
It’s easy for me to say it now with my career, but, I’ve said it to my own kids who probably didn’t listen – take advantage of this. There are too many things to enjoy. I give that advice to everyone. And even to these kids. I’m throwing a cast party for these kids in the McKay Center on Sunday because many of them don’t know about athletics outside of going to a football game or two. We’re serving Italian food of course (based on the theme of the play)
Q: How did you work this into your already busy schedule?
A: I was already looking for a men’s basketball coach, and a womens’ coach. I’m finally getting back into my house (in San Marino) after 16 months, after it was destroyed by a tree that fell through it during a storm. It’s been a rough few weeks.
Q: Did it help to wrap up the men’s basketball coaching search this week so you didn’t have to hear anyone question how you were spending your time?
A: It made me feel more free for that first show. If we hadn’t found a coach yet, I’m sure that opening night performance would have been worse.
Q: Did you tell Andy Enfield he’d have to be your understudy?
A: When I had my last dress rehearsal (Wednesday) I started dinner with him, he was on campus visiting with Lane Kiffin, and I came over in my costume, and he got a kick out of it. ‘Wow, you’re one different AD.’
Q: Was this play thing more stressful than being in the Harlem Shake video?
A: Absolutely. No doubt. After I’m done with this, it’ll be the last performance of my life. I always tell the kids there’s no such thing as a private moment – this will be on YouTube forever. Make each moment worth watching.
Q: What’s next for you: Work as a key grip during a film school production? Shelve books at Doheny Library?
A: I think this is my last thing like this. But I’m interested in getting kids to JPL after the Curiosity landed on Mars. That fascinates me.
Note: “The Most Happy Fella” run at the USC Bing Theatre has shows through April 14, including tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. A link to the dates/times of the performances. Haden says he plans to appear in every show except the two on Saturday, April 13, because of a prior commitment.
A description of the play: Frank Loesser’s 1956 masterpiece is the heart-warming story of the aging, shy Napa Valley grape-grower Tony Esposito, who courts a San Francisco waitress through the mail. When she comes to marry him, she finds herself in an unexpectedly tumultuous drama of disappointment, sudden passion, and love. With its memorable show tunes, soaring “sung-through” score, and deeply romantic scenario, “The Most Happy Fella” is one the great Broadway classics as well as “Standing on the Corner,” “Somebody, Somewhere,” “Joey, Joey, Joey” and “Big D.”