CLOSET HERO | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


"I don't remember radio," Shane McCabe says matter-of-factly. "You have to remember I spent most of those years, from the time I was 4 'til I was 11, locked up in a closet. I never learned to appreciate music, either. I had no radio, no phonograph, so I don't remember...

Local News is Vital to Our Community

When you support our community-rooted newsroom, you enable all of us to be better informed, connected, and empowered during this important election year. Give now and help us raise $5,000 by June 7.

Support local journalism

Share this:
"I don't remember radio," Shane McCabe says matter-of-factly.
"You have to remember I spent most of those years, from the time I was 4 'til I was 11, locked up in a closet. I never learned to appreciate music, either. I had no radio, no phonograph, so I don't remember songs. People hear a tune from the late Forties and say, `Doesn't that take you back?' but it means nothing to me."

Shane McCabe says his father bound him with wire so tightly it cut into his flesh and scabs formed over it. He says he was left thirsty and starving in the attic for days at a time, naked in his own excrement. He says he took to hiding gauze and ointment so he could treat his own cuts and bruises. He says he would urinate on the floor and mop it up with his shirt, but then the kids at kindergarten started to make fun of the way he smelled. His teachers made him stand in the corner as punishment.

Yes, Shane McCabe went to school. But in those days, he says, "The family was sacred. We didn't interfere with the family unit, with the way a man raised his family. We didn't have social services like we have now."

He says the teachers didn't help. The school nurse didn't help. Shane McCabe remembers seeking help from the local clergy. It didn't help.

Nor did his mother, a hard-drinking worker at a cannery near Seattle where they lived. McCabe says he was taught to lie about the cause of his injuries on the many occasions he was hauled to the emergency room. If he ever told, he says he was warned, "They'll take you away and you'll be adopted by the niggers and you'll have to pick cotton for the rest of your life."

His says his father beat him with leather straps, with a custom-designed wooden paddle with holes drilled to reduce air resistance, with a two-foot length of garden hose weighted down inside with three-quarter-inch chain.

In the seven years McCabe spent in the closet, he says his father broke his nose, a finger, a toe, 14 ribs, and his arm. Twice.

McCabe says he was beaten and placed in the closet for not eating his peas. The next night, he received the same punishment for asking for two helpings of peas. He was beaten after having cigars and cigarettes ground out on his body for kicking the table leg during the meal, for squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle, for forgetting to flush the toilet.

For years, Shane McCabe kept all this a secret. He ran away from home on January 12, 1957, at the age of 16. He escaped by airplane and bus to Phoenix, and then to New Orleans. He legally changed his name. He never went back.

Today, Shane McCabe makes his living as an actor.
Most actors take what they can get. Shane McCabe has done better than most. When we meet in his new two-story house with the red-tile roof and the white sofas and the big green potted plants north of Shea Boulevard in Phoenix, he's just returned from shooting a Columbo episode in Los Angeles.

McCabe, now 50, was cast as a "kind of Bohemian Irish sculptor with a pet monkey, and it's the pet monkey who finally works out the solution to the crime . . . with the help of Columbo, of course."

McCabe plays the role with a thoroughly bogus Irish brogue. "Never been to Ireland in my life," he smiles.

In fact, McCabe's vocal skills explain a large part of his success. As a child, locked in his closet after returning home from the movies, he would keep himself amused by re-creating the voices of all the characters, particularly those in the cartoons.

McCabe, in fact, is probably better-known to the small people in the house--he provides the voices of Murfel and the Pink Panther in the kids' cartoon series The Pink Panther and Sons. He also plays the Kelp Eater on The Snorks, and the Man in the Moon at Disney's EPCOT Center.

"I'd be happy if all I ever did was animation. It pays so well. They record the voices first and then they animate to match, so you go in the studio for three to six weeks to record a year's worth of shows, and then you're free 'til next year."

McCabe's eventual career choice may not be so hard to understand. When he was 12, his mother, trying to protect him, drove McCabe across the state and deposited him in a small motel cabin where he was to stay alone until the start of school in the fall. The motel manager gave McCabe his $20 spending money in an envelope every week.

"It was all my mother knew to do. We didn't have such things as battered women's shelters back then."

McCabe spent that summer going to the movies. In those days, theatres still changed films twice a week, and there were three theatres in the town--six separate and distinct movies a week. High Noon. Singin' in the Rain. It was a good year.

"Motion pictures saved my life without a doubt. They gave me a life of the imagination."

But McCabe never drew on the buried memories of his childhood experience, never mentioned them even to his closest friends, until 1987 in Los Angeles, where he was operating a "cold reading" studio where young actors could perform unrehearsed scenes for visiting casting directors.

That was the year McCabe and a friend went to see Paul Linke's one-person show Time Flies When You're Alive, an example of the emerging genre of autobiographical one-person shows sometimes dubbed Confessional Theatre.

Linke discusses his experiences nursing his wife, who was dying--who did die--of cancer.

"I turned to the friend I was with," McCabe recalls, "and I said, `One year from tonight I'm going to be up on that stage, with the same director, telling the story of my life.'"

He was.
No Place Like Home, the story of Shane McCabe's childhood, opened at the Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles in late 1988.

The play drew good reviews and toured a number of other Southern California playhouses. McCabe took the show to Canada, where it was so successful he's been invited to teach a course at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Montreal this year in "Writing From the Personal Viewpoint."

McCabe's work belongs to the new school of one-person theatre, perhaps most visibly typified by the work of actor-playwright Eric Bogosian in pieces like Talk Radio and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.

McCabe and No Place Like Home share a chapter, along with the work of Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia) and Paul Linke, in Jordan Young's 1989 book Acting Solo.

No Place Like Home, Young writes, "is more than a litany of bruises and broken bones. McCabe's `journey through childhood' is ultimately a triumph of the human spirit, the story of a boy who survived physical and mental torture by re-creating old movies in his closet--where he was virtually imprisoned for seven years--and choreographing dance routines in his head. It is a tale of survival . . . people need to hear."

The script resulted from hours-long sessions three times a week at McCabe's Los Angeles studio with director Mark Travis, who also directed Linke's Time Flies.

When they had enough material, Travis quizzed McCabe for dates, or at least for hints buried in his childhood memories as to the sequence of apparently isolated events. He entered all the remembered fragments on his home computer and printed them out in the most likely chronological order.

Starting as a flashback from a near-fatal car accident sustained by a drunken and near-suicidal McCabe at age 25, No Place Like Home unfurls the actor's childhood in chronological order.

"It was like putting together the pieces of a shattered mirror. Suddenly we could say, `No wonder this happened, look what happened to my father here, that's why this happened next.' And that brought up even more memories."

As is so often the case, young Shane McCabe didn't even realize there was anything unusual about his childhood. His father was a twin. Both his father and his aunt had been abused, and when McCabe was shipped off to stay with his cousins during the summer, he saw child abuse there, too.

"My father was a very angry man. He was a sawmill worker, and he'd lost fingers at the mill. He was so proud when they called him up for service [in 1944], but then they released him, 'cause of the two missing fingers. I remember he said, `I don't know why, I've still got my trigger finger.' This was in time of war, and my father was very much into masculinity, and proving that . . . the beer-brawling Irishman and he was always proving that, getting into fistfights . . . ."

McCabe has no communication with his family. "It's a protection I like to maintain," he says. "If I did open that door of communication, what I would find is not what I'm hoping for, not what I'm longing for. That loving family never existed. It never will exist."

McCabe admits he sometimes tires of performing the show. "To this day, I have to go in a dark room for 15 minutes before I go on, just telling myself it's all right to open up these wounds again."

In return for that pain, he received invitations to lecture on child abuse at several teachers' conferences.

"There's never been a time that someone didn't come up to me and say, `I suspected I had a child in my class who was being abused, but I wasn't sure what the signs were, I wasn't sure what to do.'

"Now at the end of each show I tell them there are lives that will be changed for years because of what we've shared here in this room for the past hour and 50 minutes. That's the bottom line of No Place Like Home.

"We played the show at the Santa Monica Playhouse, and for some reason there are a lot of older Jewish people there. They've settled there. Some of them came up to me afterwards and said they could understand what it was like for me in the closet, the things I did to survive, acting out movies from memory, teaching myself to type on a keyboard I drew in the dust. They said they could understand all that, because they'd spent three years in Auschwitz."

It's hard to imagine, at the bright glass dining room table in the bright new white house with the red-tile roof. Shane McCabe has gained a little weight now. His blue eyes dart in the face of an overgrown pixie, often sparkling, laughing. Can he really be the same person as the 7-year-old Shane McCabe he plays onstage? Shane McCabe has ended the cycle of abuse, at least for himself. He has never married. He has no children. He lives with his Norwegian elkhound Scooter, and a friend's Samoyed, Scruffy, in a neighborhood so new the white houses look artificial.

The back of McCabe's house (he "escaped" Los Angeles two years ago, spending an abortive year in icy New Hampshire before settling in Phoenix, closer to the twice-a-year Hollywood casting calls) has been attractively finished off with everything you could conceivably wedge into the inadequate little triangle of a Phoenix backyard.

There's a gazebo shading an outdoor table and four weighty fabric-covered chairs in appropriate desert hues. A stone walkway winds through burbling minifountains, and outside the dining room bay window grows a profusion of pink and white impatiens. McCabe modestly demurs they grew out of a couple of little packets he picked up at the local nursery, aided only by a liberal application of Miracle-Gro.

There's also an outdoor hot tub, in which bobs a large and singularly forlorn-looking yellow rubber duck, the one visible concession of the adult Shane McCabe to the childhood which that other Shane McCabe--the one who emerges from the darkness of the closet onstage--never had.

Shane McCabe will perform his one-person show, No Place Like Home, Thursday, November 14 and Friday, November 15, at Avondale Agua Fria High School. Performances are sponsored by the West Valley Fine Arts Council and Sun Health and will benefit the New Life Women's Shelter. Call 935-6384 for times and ticket information.

"Motion pictures saved my life without a doubt. They gave me a life of the imagination."

McCabe's work belongs to the new school of one-person theatre.

Shane McCabe has ended the cycle of abuse, at least for himself. He has never married. He has no children.

"I said, `One year from tonight I'm going to be up on that stage, with the same director, telling the story of my life.'

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.