For decades two posters on Jere Sullivan’s law office walls have made him wonder what might have been.
The framed artwork, now more than 40 years old, advertised “Panhandle,” a Dust Bowl musical the San Luis Obispo attorney co-wrote while studying at UC Santa Barbara in 1971.
“I always thought the show had merit, both musically and plot-wise,” said Sullivan, who turns 64 in February. “I thought it had a story worth telling.”
Yet, while “Panhandle” won awards, was staged in four states, and was optioned for a possible Broadway run, it faded away at the dawn of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Sullivan went on to pursue a successful career first as a prosecutor, then as a criminal defense attorney.
“Panhandle” was just a memory of a bygone era.
“January 7, I was getting ready to go into work, and I get a call from my assistant, who asks me, ‘Do you know a guy named Walter Davis?’” Sullivan said. “’He wants to know if you’re the same Jeremy Sullivan who wrote ‘Panhandle.’”
Two days later, Sullivan met Davis in Berkeley to watch an ensemble cast perform their musical, more than four decades after its debut.
“The tears did hit me a few times during the show,” he said. “It brought back all sorts of memories.”
Now Sullivan and Davis are talking about extending “Panhandle’s” rebirth even longer.
“It warms my heart to see the show have life again,” Sullivan said.
In the legal community, Sullivan is the pony-tailed defense attorney who has worked on several high-profile cases, including the “Big Money” bank robbery conspiracy, the Michael Sotelo murder case and, currently, the case of five Cal Poly football players who are accused of attempting to rob a fraternity.
But Sullivan, who attended Woodstock as a teenager, has long had another passion: music.
“I started playing in bands when I was 12,” he said.
While he regularly plays harmonica with local Grammy-winning musician Louie Ortega, and his band Neon Russell opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd when the classic rockers performed in Paso Robles in 2013, Sullivan acknowledges that his musical endeavors might have had greater priority had “Panhandle” been more successful.
“I think I would have completed my law degree, but I don’t know if I would have ever been a practicing lawyer,” he said.
“Panhandle” began when the Dust Bowl songs of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers inspired Walter Halsey Davis, an English student at UCSB, to explore how the Depression affected the panhandle area of Texas and Oklahoma.
Davis traveled to the panhandle, interviewing several Texans, who told him stories about the Depression. Around that time, he put word out at UCSB that he was seeking collaborators for a musical.
“And there were two guys that were enthusiastic about doing it,” he said.
Sullivan had heard stories of the era from his father, a former World War II prisoner of war, and people he grew up near in Bakersfield.
Musically, Sullivan had an interest in country, folk and blues. Marc Ream, the third collaborator, was into classical music.
With Davis’s accounts from Texas, they mapped out a story, Davis writing the script, Sullivan and Ream writing the songs.
“I always loved the music they came up with,” Davis said.
Narrated by an old man speaking to a Works Progress Administration representative, “Panhandle” was a musical about Texas cotton farmers struggling through the Dust Bowl.
The show was first staged at UCSB with a volunteer cast of students and faculty.
“Everybody thought the show had potential,” Sullivan said. “And Walter ended up getting a production at the Oxford Theater in Los Angeles in ’73.”
The musical played in Texas, Boston and New York. Davis won several awards for the script, including the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award, and on the basis of “Panhandle,” Davis was selected to be a playwright-in-residence at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
While the show was optioned for “Broadway,” Davis said, efforts to make it big fell through. Meanwhile, Davis began getting offers to write screenplays.
“My filmmaking career kind of went into high gear,” he said.
Ream continued to work as a theater composer, and Sullivan became an attorney, working for the Kern County District Attorney’s Office as a deputy prosecutor before becoming a defense attorney.
“For a long time I stopped writing after ‘Panhandle,’ partly because of the disappointment of not having it go anywhere,” Sullivan said.
Still, he regularly played with local bands, his specialty being the blues harmonica.
“He’s very gifted,” Davis said. “And he’s a fabulous singer.”
Like Sullivan, Davis has never forgotten “Panhandle.” And while Davis had won an Emmy and a Writer’s Guild of America Award, in recent years his film career has slowed.
“When you reach a certain age, they don’t call you saying, ‘We need you’ so much,” Davis said.
So he pitched “Panhandle” to a friend, who was directing the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley.
After the production began, Davis sought to find Sullivan, who had previously gone by the stage name Jeremy Sullivan.
He found him two days before the opening, earlier this month. Ream was unable to make the play due to health reasons, but Davis and Sullivan were there.
“There was no way in the world I was going to miss that,” said Sullivan, who brought his son and daughter to the show.
Sullivan also gave it a thumbs up.
“I thought the story held up well,” he said. “I thought the music held up surprisingly well.”
Last weekend, Sullivan attended again, this time joined in the audience by five of the original cast members.
The show ends its monthlong run Saturday night. But Sullivan and Davis would like to see it show elsewhere. Davis said he’s already talked to an agent about the possibility.
Sullivan, who still has a tattered copy of the original script in his office, is hopeful. But if it doesn’t happen, he’s grateful that “Panhandle” had a second chance.
“This has just been an exciting ride because I thought the show was as dead as a doornail,” Sullivan said.