I have to confess that I lied in the first chapter. . . I only paid a dollar-forty for my ticket to see “Holiday for Lovers”, as the boarding school I grew up in sometimes got offers for half-price tickets to shows that weren’t doing so well in Philly, which was frequently the case. There’s an old show-biz expression that went, “The only thing worse than being booked in Philly for a week is being booked in Philly for two weeks. . .”
About the boarding school. . . you see, my daddy died when I was nine years old and I was sent off to a school for fatherless boys where I lived from March of 1954 until I graduated high school in June, 1960, two months after my sixteenth birthday. I only saw my mother and sisters on Sunday for several hours and on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter vacations. But I had Saturday afternoon passes to go into town and that’s when I could catch the occasional matinee. Most of them were community theater productions. . . some great, some not so and some very strange ones at that. But I loved them all.
I remember sitting in a messy, very hot little theater, with an half-empty audience, waiting almost an hour for the curtain to go up for the opening performance of a community theater production of “Uncle Willie”, a Broadway play that had closed the season before, which had starred Menasha Skulnik, one of the great stars of the Yiddish Theater for many decades.
The audience at this little theater had a ball listening to the stage crew banging away at the hidden set which obviously wasn’t co-operating, and we all roared with laughter each time we heard a piece of scenery hit the floor behind the curtain or an argument break out among the stage crew in not so muffled tones. Finally, after a long barrage of hammering, someone in the audience yelled out,
“What the hell are they doing back there?”
and a exasperated, tiny older man seated right behind me bleated out,
“I hope they’re hanging Uncle Willy!”
The performance wasn’t nearly as much fun.
But I have wonderful memories of seeing productions of
“The Skin of Our Teeth” (which I pretended to understand), “My Sister Eileen”, half a dozen Gilbert & Sullivan’s and an evening of Eugene O’Neill one-acts, my first introduction to realistic drama.
These were all plays and musicals I had never even heard of. Each one made me want to be up there on the stage more than the last. . . but I told no one. . . that I wanted to be an actor so badly or even that I went to see plays. . . there simply was no one to tell. My mother wouldn’t understand, that was for sure! And to be a teenage boy in the 50s and in love with the theater was. . . well, you get the idea.
But after each production, I would go to the school library. . . which had an incredible collection. . . and looked up each of them to see what else the authors had written, to try and find out any information about them and, in the process, finally found an ally in Miss Cheney, the school librarian.
Then one day, she introduced me to
Theater Arts magazine, the Rolling Stone for theater in the first half of the Twentieth Century. And not only did the library have a subscription, they had the entire run of the magazine dating back to the twenties and each issue published a full-length play as it’s centerpiece.
So when I should have been in the library studying, I was usually in the library’s music room, listening to the few cast albums that were available in those days, over and over and reading every issue of Theater Arts ever published. Theater Arts magazine was my Xbox. . .
I was, of course, a member of the Drama Club (part of the Public Speaking Class), but to no avail. Try as I would, I was only cast once and then for a two-line bit in a terrible (royalty-free) morality play, “Love of One’s Neighbor”. . . originally produced on Broadway in 1915!. . . and was listed on the program as Photographer No. 2. It was the last role cast and I was the only one left to play it. But to this day I’m proud to say that on opening night, I ignored my teacher’s direction and got one of the biggest laughs of the night playing it the way I knew it should have been done. I hadn’t sat through all those plays and learned nothing. . . the audience loved it.
I got a D.
It was worth it. . .