After 45 Years, Hip Pocket Theatre Founder Johnny Simons Is Retiring

Hip Pocket was a plucky, adventuresome, oddball, outdoor stage company that eventually became a beloved Fort Worth institution.

By Jerome WeeksJuly 2, 2021 2:47 pm, , ,

From KERA/Art&Seek:

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.

Hip Pocket Theatre entrance. The box office and the open-air cafe are to the left. Photo: Jerome Weeks

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.

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