Treading the Boards – Adventures of a High School Thespian
Crestwood High School put on an annual "Night at the Theater." Each of the four classes chose a one-act play, usually a farce, and about a month later hilarity ensued. Well, that was the plan anyway.
In 1956 at the age of fourteen I made my second foray into the life of the thespian. The first had been an unmitigated disaster. A few years earlier, when I was a fifth or sixth grader, the Shalersville Elementary School Music Department (known most hours of the school day as Mrs. Gick, fifth grade teacher) proposed and got support for a school play... not just any play, but a musical -- a musical wedding no less. Other teachers stepped in to help, and try-outs began. I was asked to try out for the part of the groom. I had, according to Mrs. Gick, a strong boys soprano voice with trees (Well, that’s what I told Mother, who smiled and asked if perhaps Mrs. Gick hadn’t said “timbre.” Um-m-m-m... yeah – it turned out she had.).
I took the audition song home and spent the weekend memorizing the words. No one, including me, could play the piano well enough to sing to it. I had no idea what the tune would be, but by Sunday night I had the words down cold.
Came Monday afternoon, and auditions began in music class. Mrs. Gick played the song through once and sang the words, while I sang along sotto voce. Then she smiled at me and nodded, “All right Charles, I’m going to keep playing. When you hear these three chords (she crashed three chords in the key of something sharp... and loud) you start singing on the next note.”
“Sure Mrs. Gick, I’ll be ready.” Why not? This was how we always started a song, so that was how we started this one. Mrs. Gick played the three chords, I took a breath and opened my mouth as she hit the first note of the song... and Alfalfa, the rusty hinge-voiced boy soprano of "Our Gang," sang through my throat! I snapped my teeth shut, licked my lips and whispered, “Could I have some water?”
Mrs. Gick smiled and asked someone to get me a glass of water from the kitchen. While we waited, a candidate for the bride in the wedding auditioned. The water came and I took a swallow, being careful not to choke and making sure my entire mouth was well moistened.
Mrs. Gick waited patiently until I handed the glass back. Then, “Ready Charles?” and she swept into the music again. The three chords came, followed by the first note of the song and... a perfect note soared from my throat, only to break on the rocks of puberty. With a squawk that actually hurt, I was out of the show, out of theater and never to sing again. I handed Mrs. Gick the music and found a place in the rear of the room where no one would see the tears. Several more auditions came and went, while giggles, memory drops and general misfortune made it difficult to tell whether these boys could sing or not. One of the other hopeful grooms was a boy named Jimmy. Jimmy tried, but all he could produce was an alternating falsetto and gravel bass. Morosely we watched the others, and the next day we watched, and the next and... eventually it was over.
Jimmy and I were given parts as ushers. As “wedding guests” arrived on stage, we introduced them to the audience of parents and non-players (Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting Mr. and Mrs. Pokalong, uncle and aunt to the bride!). I hardly squawked at all. The next time I sang, a bar in Texas paid me eight dollars a night and all the beer I could drink. I stayed drunk and sang country for six weeks.
But my Freshman year in High School there was no music. The play was a straight-up farce. Thirty minutes of malapropisms, dunderheaded insistence on misunderstanding anyone to whom one was speaking and general absurdity. I won the lead. I played a harried husband and father of two girls. There was only one momentary hitch. On the first walk-through I leaned over my “wife” to give her the morning good-bye kiss the script called for... and she giggled. After two more attempts I announced that I wasn’t kissing any girl in front of the whole world anyway.
Well, I didn’t know! OK? When she started to cry and then hit me, I was absolutely flabbergasted. I mean c’mon, you laughed at me girl. We lost the rest of that evening’s rehearsal, but eventually all was patched up and the play went on.
I “smoked” a pipe (put a little baby powder in the bowl and blew through it), and all-in-all I enjoyed myself no end. I discovered the night of the play itself that terror can be a powerful motivator. I’d had a perfectly awful time memorizing the lines and I was sure I'd forget them in front of everyone in school and all their parents, but I remembered every line once the play began. And then I discovered something else... I loved being up there in front of people and hearing them laugh when I wanted them to. Every year thereafter, I had the lead in the class play.
Of course, schools don’t have complete living rooms, or overstuffed furniture of any type for that matter, sitting in storage just waiting for a play to come along. And if they had one, they certainly wouldn’t have four. And who wanted to see four families in the same living room anyway? So it was the job of the cast and friends to provide the props. We canvassed friends and neighbors, begging for unbreakable lamps, worn chairs and sofas, better tables than the coffee table and card table sitting backstage, and generally being pests about the whole thing. But each year we filled the stage with four different sets for one night.
Sometimes, we were only allowed to have a piece for a few days, or even only the night of the play. For rehearsals, the cast might have to sit on a players’ bench from the football field and pretend it was a sofa. My Junior year, a friend of the Old Man promised a sofa and coffee table... for one week only. I made arrangements for another boy to meet me at the friend’s house with his father’s pick-up (the ’39 Dodge knuckle-buster shifter pick-em up truck was no longer licensed). Unfortunately it was January, and roads were slick. My friend’s father wound up in a ditch with the pick-up’s front end badly damaged. We needed a Plan B, and I came up with one. I would put the Old Man’s car license on the ’39 Dodge pick-up. There was only one hitch... the Old Man couldn’t know. Well, the barely there brakes might have been considered by some a "hitch."
When we were out of school for the day on Friday, I got home as quickly as I could. The Old Man was at work, having ridden with another employee, leaving his car for me to drive and meet my friend. I stripped the license plates off the car and hung the front one on the truck by wiring it to the front bumper. I attached the other one to the rear and took off for the sofa. We loaded it in the truck and headed for school. I desperately wanted to get home before the Old Man did. It was going to be harder than I thought.
The dirt road on which the owner of the sofa lived had a sweeping ninety degree curve that bent to the right on the way home. The road was lined with maples on the outside of the curve. And the road was frozen. Freezing a dirt road does two things. First, any water or snow becomes packed ice, meaning that the grip you get on the bare patches translates to angular momentum as soon as you hit the ice. In short, you can find yourself sideways in the road in a hurry. Second, the frozen dirt is quickly ground to dust by the pressure of tires running on it.
My friend led the way, and soon disappeared in the proverbial cloud of dust. I realized just an instant too late that the taillights I could see disappearing into the dust ahead and to my right were on his car. In that same instant, I remembered the Maples... which I couldn't see at all! I braced for the impact I was sure was coming and slammed on the brakes. The little truck went sideways as I hit a patch of ice, straightened out... and went bouncing into a plowed field. Once I got it stopped, no mean feat – one of the main reasons we weren’t licensing it was the above-mentioned lack of braking power. There were no brake pads to speak of on any of the wheels (the shrieking of metal on metal had been horrendous). I got out and walked my tire tracks back to the trees. I hadn’t seen the Maples at all; not even when I drove through them. The tracks said I had run the absolute center of a space barely wider than my truck between two trees. I knew I’d never drive ‘er back out through the same space. But the field was frozen, and the old pick-up bounced along to the end of the row of trees where my friend waited. He had come back for me just in time to see me jouncing toward him.
How I thought I’d ever get away with such a stunt I can’t imagine. The Old Man and his ride to work were at the school when I pulled in with the sofa. He didn’t say a word, just helped off-load it and carry it into the school. Then he told me to catch a ride home and took the truck keys. “I don’t need,” jaw muscles bunched into little fists, “what will happen to my insurance rates if you get a ticket for putting car plates on this thing. When you get home, you be prepared for a hard second half of your Junior year.”
When I got home (one of the other actors gave me a ride), all he said was, “Your friend told me about the field. If you keep it up you’re gonna kill yourself... and then I’m gonna have to take your driving privileges away. Now go to bed.”
My high school theater career ended much as had my elementary school career (no, my voice didn’t change again). The Department of English, Literature and Drama decided to put on a musical “revue.” A revue is essentially a variety show with lots of singing and dancing (think “Glee”), and it requires a large cast and a lot of rapid-change sets. When I quit the football team I joined the revue, already three days in progress. Since I could in no way dance, and since I was not about to even try to sing, I was crew. I invented and built stuff. For instance, I invented a multi-color coffee-can color wheel that was turned by slowly pulling a rope wrapped around the can and run horizontally about twenty-five feet to a single sheave pulley and then down to the person pulling, while a light bulb shined down through four differently colored gels attached to the bottom of the can. I scrounged lumber and materials from all over my neighborhood and Mantua Village, and two helpers and I built South Sea beach bungalows, a canoe, a cantilevered side-stage and a host of other props and scenes. Came the night after the dress rehearsal we were all going to dinner at a restaurant known only to the revue’s director. We’d been talking about it for all the time I was there.
As we boarded the bus, the director pulled me aside. “Chuck,” he was looking everywhere but at me, “I told these kids that only those who were with us from start to finish would get to do this. I’m sorry, but you can’t go.”
I just looked at him for what seemed like a full minute. Then, “I haven’t contributed enough to make up three days? You couldn’t tell me that when I first got here? I can’t even go home until you get back. I rode with Joe.” I was beginning to sound hysterical, even to me. I quit talking.
Then came the final insult. One of the guys on the bus, a Cleveland expatriot, said, “Oh, let ‘im come, Teach. I think he’ll cry if you don’t.” The teacher looked at me and... “You wouldn’t do that to me, would you, Mr. Larlham?”
I discovered I could not have, under any circumstances, wept at that moment. Instead I said to him, “I wish I could, I really do.” Then I walked back in the school and onto the stage. I heard the bus pull away. I walked around the stage for a while, and then I went and got a sheet of paper. I made a list of everything I had designed and/or built for the show. When the bus returned, I walked up to him, shoved it into his shirt pocket and walked over to Joe. “You ready to go home?” I asked. He nodded. We headed for his car.
“What’d you give him?” Joe was worried.
“A list.” I told him what was on it.
“Wonder if he’ll understand.” Joe sounded doubtful.
But he had. He stopped me in the hall. “When I read the list, I was sure it was a list of what you’d destroyed. But it was all still there.”
“Just a list of what I designed and my friends and I built for your show. Wanted you to understand what a lousy show it would’ve been without me.”
“I know.” Pleading, “Chuck, I didn’t have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice.” I looked at him for a second. “And I’m supposed to learn character from you.” I went to my first class.