As the band begins to play, a man with a red beret and a white, trimmed beard takes the stage. He grins to the audience before launching into his performance. His cigar and whiskey voice recites spoken word poetry as jazz music fills the background. He finishes his song and slides the microphone back into the stand before returning to his seat. As the next poet prepares to take the stage, friends and other audience members approach the man with smiles, compliments and handshakes.
The man is James “Izzy” Whetstine, a 75-year-old retired Railroad Yardmaster of thirty years, and he is no stranger to the performance scene in Eugene.
“People have become enthusiastic about my voice… I’ve been found reciting and making a fool of myself all over town,” says Izzy.
He began doing live stage at the age of 30, by socializing and performing with a group of people at Very Little Theater known as the Uptight Players. He became well known in the theater crowd because he attended the plays that he wasn’t in. Since then, he has performed in countless shows at other theaters around town including Lord Leebrick Theater and the University of Oregon.
Beginning in the mid 1980s, Izzy was the master of ceremonies for nine years for a holiday vaudeville show that Lord Leebrick Theater put on. His job was to introduce the acts, put on his own acts, and improvise as they went through a night’s entertainment. During one show, he performed A Night Before Christmas in a tie-dyed jester outfit while moving around the stage and interacting with audience members.
He has also acted in several local movies. It began with a 1962 James Stewart Civil War film, called Shenandoah. There was a casting call for people with beards, and Izzy fit the description. In 1976, he received a call for a role in a movie called Animal House, saying they had the perfect role for him. He played the school janitor and starred in the dead horse scene that took place in the Dean’s office of Johnson Hall. Four years later, in 1980, he played a bartender in How To Beat The High Costs of Living, with Jane Curtain and Susan SaintJames.
In the early 2000s, Izzy was introduced to a man in the jazz scene named Kenny Reed, when a restaurant called Chez Ray’s began doing poetry nights stressing the beatnik theme. Since then, he has been performing with Kenny and Kenny’s jazz band, Stone Cold Jazz, at poetry events.
“I’ve generated a little bit of an audience for the sort of thing that I do, and when you’ve got a good jazz group helping you out, you can’t go wrong. They make all the difference in the world,” says Izzy.
Izzy has become comfortable with performing on stage in front of an audience and loves being the center of attention. He has a packet of material to choose from, and has no shortage of small talk. He also enjoys making links with certain members of the audience.
“It’s not the sort where you meet for coffee or have dinner together,” says Izzy. “You make eye contact with people in the audience and they feel a kinship, you feel a kinship. And, the performer knows that these people will pay attention and listen, rather than to try and talk louder than you’re talking and outperform you.”
The beatnik persona Izzy has created onstage is an extension of who he is as a person offstage. He refers to himself as a compulsive showoff, and claims to always be ready and available for viewing any time, any place.
“I try hard not to be typical in any aspect of my life. I think perhaps I am a little young for a fellow my age. I try to be as silly as possible and go out dancing and cutting up, and carrying on and behaving as if I were much younger, but it’s how I have fun,” says Izzy. “And, I learned a long time ago that seriousness is not something that I am good at.”