My Father, the Improviser

By TOM SOTER

My father, George, has always been unpredictable. Every night, after dinner, my mother would bring out a cake she had prepared. My father would always ask one of his three sons to bring out a knife and fork to slice it up. Every night, the routine was the same. She'd bring out the cake, my father would say, "What am I to cut it with?" And we would suddenly remember to get the knife and fork. Well, one night, the cake was brought out and, as usual, the three brothers sat there, oblivious to all except our hunger for dessert. My father waited.

Effie and George Soter, with firstborn, c. 1955.Effie and George Soter, with firstborn, c. 1955.

And waited.

And waited.

And then, reaching for the cake, my father used his bare hands to rip off a piece and dump it onto my plate. Then he took another rip and put one on my brother Peter's plate. My mother started laughing. We never forgot the utensils again.

George had always been spontaneously creative. In 1996, he told me about an experience from his Depression-era youth in Chicago, where he lived: "There was a movie theater and they’d try all kind of schemes to promote business. On Saturdays, for instance, they’d have raffles. When I was nine, I won a pair of skis at one of these raffles. I was a nine-year-old kid and I had skis, and, because we lived in Chicago, nobody quite knew what skis were. And we put them under my parents' bed. They fit length-wise under the bed but the front stuck out. So you always had to walk over them. But the way we used them was unusual: my cousin, Dick, would come over and we’d pull them out and one of us would strap ourselves into the skis. Then the other one would go to the front and slowly raise the two front ends of the skis as high as he could get them, and then drop them. We’d take turns doing that. It was ridiculous. But I was proud I had won them."

George and Effie Soter at his 80th birthday party.George and Effie Soter, 2004.

That spontaneous unpredictability would eventually be channeled into creative arenas. My dad used it to write award-winning advertising campaigns as an award-winning copywriter. But I saw his creativity closer to home, when he starred in an improvised audio drama made on a reel-to-reel tape-recorder in 1968, when I was 12. Called THE LETHAL CAMERA, it features detective Sam Pappas investigating the strange deaths of Gloria Glow and Henrietta Cosindas, who are murdered one stormy night while taking pictures in the tennis court.

One night, when we had some guests over, my dad thought it would be fun to stage a murder mystery, with all the real-life guests as suspects. The gimmick to the game was that everyone was kept in the dark as to the plot, so that when my father – as Inspector Pappas – queried them, they often had no clue as to what he was talking about. But they were good sports and didn’t let on, although it did make for some confusing moments (my mother, playing Mrs. Frisbee, relates the actual events of a past weekend when we saw some “seagulls and eggs,” which brings my father’s rejoinder, “I wanted the events of this weekend, not some weekend in Chekhov”). I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by saying that the butler did it. Of course.

My dad, who has attended nearly every Sunday Night Improv show for the last ten years (improviser Tom Carrozza once said to me, "It's nice of you to stage this show to give your father something to do on Sunday nights") is still spontaneous. One night, after a show, he stood up and made an announcement: "I have seen 400 of these shows, and this is the best one I've ever seen." The following week, when we did a subpar show, I half-expected him to stand up and say, "I have seen 400 of these shows, and this is the worst one I've ever seen." He didn't, but he did tell me in private that we had done better.

So, whenever someone asks, "Where did you learn to improvise?" I say, "My father made me do it." Thanks, dad!

Listen to:

The Lethal Camera
The Ch. 92 Movie Taped: 1968
Inspector Pappas (George Soter) investigates the double murder of movie star Gloria Glow and photographer Henrietta Cosindas, who died mysteriously during a photo shoot on a rainy tennis court. Mrs. Frisbee: Effie Soter. Gloria: Carol Gardiner.

The Christmas Theft at Frisbee Manor
Taped: 1983
In this sequel to The Lethal Camera, Inspector Pappas returns to Frisbee Manor after 15 years to investigate the theft of a fabulous brooch. Pappas: George Soter. Grand Duchess: Maria Hart.