Forty-five years ago, Johnny Simons — along with songwriter Douglas Balentine and Simons’ wife Diane — co-founded Hip Pocket Theatre in Fort Worth. At the time, there was not much onstage in town other than Casa Manana, touring shows and some community theaters. In sharp contrast, Hip Pocket was a plucky, adventuresome, oddball, outdoor stage company – that eventually became a beloved Fort Worth institution.
But Hip Pocket’s current season will be Johnny Simons’ last. The writer-director-performer turns 82 in August — and he’s retiring.
On this particular night, Hip Pocket’s rustic wooden stage was filled with big-band jazz, the thump-thump-thump of a dancing chorus and the night sounds of crickets. In the company’s new show, Curmudgeon Boogie (Into the Shadows) — which he’s written and directed — Simons also plays the title character, a grey-bearded, red-nosed silent clown – with a few grudges against our modern world.
What actually drives the character, though, are private sorrows — as the narrators explain: “His wife was now living in a nursing home and had been there, bed-bound, for five years – incapable of anything other than making strange gestures in the air – as he sat on the side of the bed, stifling tears from flowing like little rivers down his bearded cheeks.”
Over the years, Simons has written dozens and dozens of shows. But no matter what kind of theatrical material or its source — collaborating with cartoonist Robert Crumb or adapting creaky old thrillers like Tarzan — Simons has often added large bits of local Fort Worth lore.
Or his own autobiographical touches.
In fact, Simons’ own wife, Diane, has been in a nursing home for five years.
“I tried to keep her at home for two years,” Simons said. “Finally, she just one day kinda went down on the floor. And I wasn’t strong enough to lift her. And I finally put her in the rocking chair and it took about two hours to get her out to the garage to put her into the Jeep.”
The 76-year-old Diane was Hip Pocket’s smiling public face, business manager and costume designer. The show they were staging could be Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Bass Hall or a comic history of how to cook chili — Diane lent them all a signature style: whispy, delicate and home-made – like a poetic rummage sale.
But dementia has stolen Diane’s mental abilities.
“She can’t get out of bed,” Simons said. “She can’t speak. She can’t take care of herself. It’s one of those situations that people have to come to grips with. But I miss her.”
Simons’ adult daughters, Lorca and Lake, found a nursing home to care for their mother. But trying to pay for Diane’s care has what’s kept Johnny Simons running Hip Pocket the past five years.
“I should have stopped on the 40th anniversary of our theater — after The Lake Worth Monster [which was revived in 2016]. I was just so desperately in need of a paycheck, frankly,” he said. “But I don’t have the strength anymore. I would like to be Mighty Mouse – but it ain’t happenin’. So I’m just kinda of turning it over to them because I don’t have anything to give my girls — other than this.”
He means the Hip Pocket itself – this venue, its ragtag history, its loyal following. Looking back, it’s been easy to see the Hip Pocket as part-counterculture, part-Texas whimsy: a funky, distinctly Fort Worth bit of naiveté and smarts. Which actually has been one of its appeals: Simons said he’s always had a distinct aversion to anything that smacked of pretension. “Rustic” is what he calls his general, down-home, done-on-a-shoestring sensibility.
Yet there’s also a high and wide level of sophistication in his choice of material to stage or adapt (Sam Shepard, Ray Bradbury, Carlo Goldoni, Bertolt Brecht, Jack Kerouac, the Book of Genesis). Simons himself studied with the great French mime and movement theater artist Jacques LeCoq. He’s taught at Duke University, where he befriended writer-political activist Ariel Dorfman (Death and the Maiden) — and premiered his drama, Widows.
The Hip Pocketeers have performed in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They’ve been written up in The New York Times. Diane Simons is one of the only living Texas artists to have her work displayed at the Kimbell Art Museum. And their daughters, who grew up at the Hip Pocket, have established their own stand-out stage careers as well.
So it’s not every day young artists like this inherit an actual theater like this – although it’s definitely a ramshackle one. It holds a hundred people and sits out on a rocky, scrubby, former prairie, rented from the city of Fort Worth — at a cost that caused Simons to wince.
“So my sister and I,” Lake Simons said, “have really done a lot of thinking.”
Lake Simons is a theater professor at Sarah Lawrence College near Manhattan. She’s a puppeteer who’s worked on and off Broadway and at the New York Shakespeare Festival — and with renowned puppeteer Basil Twist. Her sister Lorca acts and teaches movement theater in England as well.
Lake Simons interviewed on Think TV in 2010.
Even so, the two decided to keep the Hip Pocket going – at least this year. The pandemic, she said, made lots of people reconsider what was valuable in their lives, what was really worth doing. Simons had already been returning to Fort Worth each year since 1998 to create or stage a new puppet show — like her adaptation of Moby-Dick. But taking on running a theater — some of the administrative work even being done long-distance — that’s a commitment of a whole different magnitude.
“It was really important to try, at least try and see how it goes,” Lake said. “So I just – we really want to honor my dad, and we want to do our best to make it happen, and I’ll be happy if we manage to get another five years — although, who knows? Maybe it’ll take off.”
Willis Choate brought his wife and son from Oklahoma this evening to see Hip Pocket. He hadn’t been here in more than 30 years.
Then he was told of Johnny Simons’ retirement.
“From a selfish perspective,” he said, “I hate to see him go because he’s so creative, he’s so good. But yeah, he deserves it. He’s worked hard at this.”
So for now, it’s the retirement of one generation, and the next generation picking up that legacy. In fact, on this night, when Lake’s on stage welcoming the audience, there are three generations of the Simons family present: Johnny, Lake and Lake’s own five-year-old daughter.
Her name is Cy. But her grandfather calls her Princess Teenanana.
Like a character from one of his plays.
Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.
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