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My Secret Life Upon The Stage

19 Jan

January 19, 2011

Some of you may not have known this. In fact, I’d bet that none of you had an inkling of this. Being the mostly-unknown and lightly-read blogger that I am today was never my career goal. I didn’t set out to turn Mr. Blog’s Tepid Ride into the underwhelming sensation it currently is. No, my secret ambition was to be an actor. Yes, to tread upon the stage.

And some time ago I did just that.

The Time: 1980
The Place: The auditorium of PS 247.
The Production: The Fifth Grade Performance of Peter Pan and Wendy Go Around the World. (One Night Only!)

Yep, I was not even 10 years old when I made my stage debut. Of course, this was not my first job in acting. Two years earlier I had been cast as a jaybird in my third grade play, but that was just staged in the classroom, we didn’t get to stand behind the footlights. It doesn’t really count. Plus some of the other kids teased my by saying “the jaybird is a gaybird” and even though I had no idea what that meant back then, I hated the teasing and told the teacher that I didn’t want to be in the play. Looking back, I may have been the victim of gay bashing. I have a very limited personal experience with homosexuality. I was once hit on by a construction worker when I was 19 but that’s a (true) story for a different time.

Anyway, the fifth grade class of PS 247 was putting on the play Peter Pan and Wendy Go Around the World. It was written by one of the teachers in the school and only much later on did I realize that the title sounds like a 1970’s porno movie.

It was very topical. The premise was that Peter and Wendy went on a tour of the world and saw all the world’s troubles. It was a downer of a play. After flying around the globe and seeing all the wars and poverty and injustice, Peter and Wendy appealed to Tinkerbelle to use her magic to make the world a better place but she turned them down. The end of the play was an appeal to the world, via the audience of around 200 parents, for peace and love and understanding. Turn on the news and see how well that turned out.

This was back during the Carter administration and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. In one scene, Peter and Wendy flew over Iran and dropped in on the American hostages. For whatever reason, not only were Peter and Wendy invisible to the hostages, they were also unable to free them. I am not sure that gaping plot hole was ever explained. Anyway, after the hostages on stage moaned about how awful it was to be held hostage, and Wendy and Peter told the audience how terrible it was to have hostages in the world, it was time for me to hit the stage. My big part, my big line.

I marched on from stage left, strode to center stage, looked out at the audience, and announced “The Ayatollah Khomeini wishes to see the American spies.” Then I marched offstage. Yes, I was an Iranian soldier.

Now today it is cool to embrace the bad guys. Everyone goes to comic cons and dresses up like Darth Vader but at no time were Iranian soldiers ever embraced by society at large. I wasn’t crazy about the part. Plus I only had one stinking line!

But I made the most of it. While I was scripted to say my line and march offstage, I,  like any problem actor, pestered the director, who was my teacher, to make some changes. I argued that being a mean soldier I would never just walk offstage. If the Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to see the hostages I wouldn’t count on the hostages just walking over, I’d march them over at gunpoint. Finally my teacher agreed, or just got tired of me, and that’s how I got to bring my BB rifle and cap pistol to school. (How times have changed.)

We were in charge of making our own costumes. I wore slacks and a blue dress shirt. I took the shoulder braid from my Cub Scout uniform to make it look more military and stuck my silver metal (and very real looking) cap pistol into my belt and slung my (very real) BB rifle across my back. I also wore a blue or black baseball cap.

So I strode onstage, walked to up front and center, paused, looked around to find Mom and Dad, and said my line. I took the rifle off my back and stuck it (hard, I took the role very seriously) into the back of one of the hostages and waved my gun at the other and marched them offstage.

And that was it.

But that wasn’t my last time upon the auditorium stage. I think the acting bug had bitten me. Later, my friend and I tried out for the talent show. We reenacted the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader battle from The Empire Strikes Back using homemade lightsabers. We took (OK, my Dad took) translucent blue plastic and rolled it into tubes which he then taped atop normal flashlights. In the dark they looked pretty good but the plastic was very chemical-smelling and sniffing it too long made me sick. My friend and I had so much fun fighting with the lightsabers that we never came up with a script. When we auditioned we had the lights lowered and the crowd ohh’d and ahh’d over the cool lightsabers and then laughed as be banged them together while saying, over and over and over, VADER: Luke, I am your father. LUKE: No you’re not! VADER: Yes I am!

We did not make it to the talent show but a few years later my buddy Marc and I proudly joined our junior high school talent show with a production of The Partially Paid For Nightly Network News, which was the two of us sitting behind a desk acting like news anchors and telling bad jokes. We were heckled.

Other acting highlights included the night I got sick and missed my Cub Scout production of an Indian war dance and the time I was at summer camp and I played the father in Bye Bye Birdie. That was my singing debut. (“Kids! I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!”) Not that I recommend watching it, but if you come across Bye Bye Birdie on cable, I had the Paul Lynde part.

Birdie was played by our 50 year old female director who stepped in at the last moment when the kid playing Birdie threw a tantrum and refused to go on.

Looking back on my acting career, I have no regrets, just a question. Why didn’t those hostages jump off the stage and run out the fire exit when the guard wasn’t around? It was only about 30 feet away.

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