Saturday, July 26, 2008


My roommate Ruth was searching high,low and under the bed for someone to take a part in a one-act play for Mask Club. Every year, as a Theater major, she was required to direct one play for the Club. With her leading lady still not tapped, her face got longer and sadder each day until we might just as well have been keeping a bloodhound. I had said a definite, non-negotiable "NO" early on, but Ruth's outsized dark eyes kept following me around the apartment nonetheless. She had run out of enticements and supplications days ago; now she relied on straight pathos and implied guilt. Under that treatment, I surrendered.

The play, as I remember, was Priestley's "Mother's Day." The comedy, set in England in the early 20th century, centered on three characters, a pompous bully of a husband, his brow-beaten, submissive wife, and a tough, no-nonsense neighbor woman. I played the wife. Now, wait! Don't cry "Mis-casting!" quite yet.

"Mother's Day" is one of many plays and films about a magical exchange of persona between two very different characters. You may remember the old "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," in which a dead prizefighter and a live millionaire banker are switched, or the later version with Warren Beatty, "Heaven Can Wait." Sometimes it is a parent and a child who swap bodies--"Like Father, Like Son" starred Dudley Moore; "Freaky Friday" had Jamie Leigh Curtis as the bewildered mother. Two of the best were "Switch," in which a male chauvinist cad comes back to life in the body of gorgeous Ellen Barkin, and "All of Me," in which Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin share one body, rather than switching.

So, in Ruth's play, I start out as the timid, bullied wife, but with the aid of some far-Eastern magic and smoke, I'm soon the very confident, don't-mess-with-me-mister woman in the wife's body. It was a lot of fun to do, and I learned at least three truths that have served me well ever since.

First, I learned about how comedy works. During one rehearsal, Ruth came up to me and said, "You were trying to be funny in that scene, weren't you?" I smiled and said, yes, I was. "Don't!" she scolded. "Let the audience decide if it's funny. YOU play it straight--that's how comedy works."

Second, laughter, once let out of the bag, can be hard to put back in. The portly young man playing the pompous, bullying husband was very nice, pleasant and willing but rather unable. His wooden acting was in danger of nailing this light comedy smack to the floor of the stage, where it wriggled and threatened to die. At one point, when his much-changed wife makes a brazen statement, he is supposed to say, incensed, "I think you must be tiddly!" The actor could not get any energy at all into the line, hard as Ruth tried to pump him up. In a later rehearsal, I happened to be holding a copy of the script as I said my line. For some reason, I whapped the actor in the solar plexus with the folded script, not all that gently. His mouth flew open, his eyes bulged, and he shouted, "I THINK YOU MUST BE TIDDLY!" Energy to spare. Perfect delivery. Ruth was delighted. Except that for all following rehearsals, the entire cast broke up as we approached that line. Try as we would, we couldn't keep from laughing. We were all more than usually nervous opening night, not knowing if we would ruin a key scene. But the treacherous lines came and went without a single smile from us. And the curtain fell to appaluse as refreshing as rain.

The third insight came a few minutes later, when a colleague from the Drama department came up to me and paid the obligatory compliments.

"Ah, Elouise," he said, "Methinks you missed your calling."

"Missed my calling, Charles? How many actors do you know who have what you and I have--captive audiences five days a week, semester after semester? Would you trade the classroom for the stage?"

"Touche!" And we parted, smiling.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


"THE CASE OF THE SULKY GIRL." Now that sounded like a play the Junior Class could sink its tonsils into! Most of us knew Perry Mason the same way we knew Jack Armstrong, Fred Allen, and Superman--from radio. The radio version of Perry Mason ran from 1943 until 1955, so the Class of '53 felt very comfortable with Mr. Wall's choice of a play. No silly Shakespearean tights or tangled English needed for this! And we even had a leading man an audience wouldn't snicker about.

Jim De Ciancio wasn't really handsome, but he had broad shoulders, and even wider confidence. Because of his heft and dark coloring, he spookily resembled Raymond Burr, who was to play the TV Perry Mason later in the decade. In addition, fate had gifted Jim with a deep, rich voice and a love of drama, onstage and off. At 17, he could easily pass for 21, and often did. More than one Arizona traffic cop played bit parts in Jim's ad lib comedies.

Now I knew I wasn't going to play the "Sulky Girl" in this drama. If parents and friends are coerced into showing up at school and college productions, the very least they have a right to expect is a pretty girl in the leading role. Tall, blonde Carol Ann fit that bill, with a few bonuses thrown in. But what about Della Street, Perry's secretary? She had pages of lines, and I was great at memorizing.

Lewoy had other plans. Now, you need to know that most of us really enjoyed Leroy Wall, the speech and drama coach. His minor lisp, his little problem with the letter 'r,' which could have made a high school teacher's life miserable, was just one more fun aspect of the man. Yes, we called him "Lewoy," behind his back. We also hung around after class to talk with him, and crowded into his office whenever he absent-mindedly left the door open. He was something like a young bear, with a shambling walk and dark blond hair, rather shaggy for the Fifties. His hands were large, well-shaped, and constantly in motion, often framing his face, or reaching out into the air, trying to capture some idea, some theme, some vision he wanted us to share.

I don't know why I lost the role of Della. Maybe the image of Jim and me together on the stage was a little bulkier than Lewoy had in mind for a play that was not a comedy. Maybe he thought our combined auras would suggest something other than a boss and his "girl Friday." I seem to recall a scene where Della sat on Perry's desk, legs crossed, skirt raised. Perhaps Lewoy knew my version would be heavy on tomboy and light on temptress.

In any case, with the parts of the Sulky Girl and Della Street gone, I figured I would serve as prompter for this production. But then Lewoy motioned me towards him, his splayed hands scooping the air: "C'mere, c'mere, Bell!" There was something conspiratorial in his voice.

"Bell, I want you to play the maid." Talk about sulky! For a moment I sulked mightily. The maid had perhaps three lines; she was actually there just to swell the assembled crowd in the drawing room in the last scene, when Perry Mason explained the how's and why's of the dastardly crime.

"No, no, listen!" Leroy implored, in a stage whisper. "I know it's not a big part, not many lines. But ya notice she's on stage a lot, right?" I nodded slowly.

"Think Rebecca ." He waited for it to sink in.

"You mean, like Judith Anderson?" (In 1941, Dame Judith Anderson had been Oscar-nominated for her role as the mad housekeeper in Hitchcock's Rebecca. She also won crates of Emmys for later television work.)

"Bingo! Play this maid like Mrs. Danvers. Deadly quiet. Menacing. Full of danger. Knows where the bodies are buried." His eyes lit up, and so did mine. "But don't tell anyone else in the cast--keep it all inside. Very secretive."

Lewoy's vision for the nameless maid was infinitely richer than whatever Erle Stanley Gardner had intended in his pot-boiler. I have no idea what the hapless audience thought as I skulked about the stage, narrowing my eyes at the other characters, glaring wordlessly at the Sulky Girl, at Della Street, at Perry Mason.
I seethed danger (pointlessly), clasped my hands to my breast dramatically at certain innocuous statements by those actually involved in the plot, and generally behaved like someone who had dropped onstage from a totally different play.

After the curtain fell and the polite applause petered out, I looked over at Lewoy, deep in discussion with De Ciancio. When he saw me, he held up those big fists, both thumbs up, and waggled them happily at me.

Mrs. Danvers winked.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Today, among hundreds of other possible projects, 4-H kids can raise puppies to become service animals for the sight- or hearing-impaired. Or they can raise llamas. Honestly. In the Forties, all I got to raise were five Rhode Island Red hens and about an equal number of anemic tomatoes.

Our Lakeside, New Jersey, 4-H club was named "The Willing Workers," a moniker with more hope than reality to back it up. But we had an excellent leader who would have fit neatly into an MGM "one-reel wonder" about 4-H-ers doing their bit for the war effort by learning to innoculate chickens and bottle the harvest from our Victory gardens.

Mrs. Alma Blakeslee still bore traces of a Swedish accent; her thick blonde hair, with only a few strands of grey, crowned her head in trim braids; and her spacious, handsome home provided barely enough work to use up her Nordic energy. The Blakeslees were the only couple I knew who had an Only Child. Having just one child struck the rest of us as more remarkable than Mrs. B's braids, her accent, or the fact that she always addressed her husband as "Mister Blakeslee." Once a week, eight or ten girls gathered in her kitchen to learn the homely arts, Swedish style.

I was pathetic at the whole business. My muffins, broken in half to show their texture, resembled open pit mines, so riddled were they with the tell-tale holes. (Too much mixing, or too little, I no longer remember.) Anything I sewed ended up looking like an item that the neediest war refugees would have rejected. "Tuck your knots out of sight!" Mrs. Blakeslee would implore. But it was fruitless: great snarled knots of thread always dangled from the hems of whatever I made, nasty little tattletales advertising my ineptitude. My canned vegetables never sparkled like jewels in their Mason jars; and for every peck of tomatoes that made it safely into one of my bottles, another peck ended up, mangled and in disgrace in the garbage bucket that would later feed the chickens.

When, after a year's work, it was time for the Willing Workers to pack up our projects and travel to Rutgers University in New Brunswick to compete with other state 4-H-ers for ribbons and glory, the question of my dubious handiwork loomed large in Mrs. Blakeslee's mind. But the Swedes are nothing if not determined. In the catalog of possibilities, along with Baked Goods, Canned Fruits & Vegetables, Fine Sewing, Embroidery, Knitting & Crocheting, and Fashion Design, Mrs. B. found "Demonstration." Demonstration turned out to mean a short talk about something. Instead of a finished product, you could demonstrate a process. You would be judged on how clearly you demonstrated the process and how well you talked. One suggested topic was "Canning Lids and Jars." Surely I could talk somewhat better than I could cook or crochet? So for my demonstration, I studied the 4-H brochures on selecting and preparing Mason jars and Kerr rings and lids prior to bottling produce and worked up a 10-minute talk. What ten-year old wouldn't be thrilled with that, right?

August at Rutgers was quiet, the college students away at the shore or the Poconos, working to earn tuition. (Rutgers was not, after all, Princeton, but the state's land grant university.) The 4-H visitors occupied the home economics building. In Room 321, its desks pushed to one side, a long table faced a seated panel of judges. Frozen with anxiety, a dozen of us girls sat behind the table on folding chairs, kept our knees together, and hyperventilated. Several of these country mice had never been this far away from home before, let alone on public display. At least the other Willing Workers could have their muffins or their knit goods judged; but we "demonstrators" ourselves were in the spotlight.

At ten, I was the youngest girl there, so I was last on the list. I guess the theory was that watching the others would give me courage. Just before my demo, two sixteen-year olds stood up and prepared to give a talk on--canning lids and jars. My exact topic. They had neat stacks of notes that brimmed with beautifully hand-written data. (Some of you will remember that penmanship was once actually taught in school.) The teenagers took turns talking about chips in rims, proper sterilization of bottles, checking used metal lids for rust, and all the rest. And just before ending, they made a statement directly contradicting some detail I was scheduled to say.

As for me, I had no notes--hadn't even thought about notes. I had recited "pieces" since earliest Sunday School days, and you were supposed to know what you recited, as in "know by heart." So I got up, looked the three judges in the eye, and instructed these high school and college home economics teachers about lids and jars as though they'd been waiting for this enlightenment all their days. When I reached the disputed point (something about whether you did or didn't tighten the lids before they popped), I simply said that the teen-agers were misinformed, and told them the correct procedure. Then I sat down.

As the Lakeside Willing Workers rode home from New Brunswick, we chattered with near-hysterical relief that it was all over. Mrs. Blakeslee said little,but she seemed satisfied. We had collected a flutter of ribbons--a few whites (Fair) and at least six reds (Good). And one handsome blue ribbon (Excellent), with not a single dangling thread showing. QED.

Friday, July 11, 2008


The next onstage venue was very different than the first, even though both were churches. The Lakeside Community Church, so modest it didn't even have a denominational connection, stood as the sole site of public religion in the small village of Lakeside, New Jersey. It served perhaps fifty middle-of-the-road, middle-class Protestants. Lakeside Catholics took the bus into Trenton to one of their many splendid, mysterious edifices; our few Episcopalians car-pooled south to a handsome stone building settled on the green rim of the country club. Lakeside Church was definitely on a bottom rung of the architectural ladder.

Unlike the Myrtle Street Methodist Church, the small frame building had no organ, no stained glass windows nor any carpet to its warped floors. It didn't even have a minister. Periodically, a Protestant churchman, superintendent of a distant Sunday School, visited us to hand out certificates of attendance and little pocket-sized New Testaments to faithful kids. If ever a man fit his name, that man was Clarence J. Fogg: tall, white-haired with a weary mustache, a gray double-breasted suit and all the personality of a soda cracker. The real leader of the LCC was George Goldy, affectionately tagged "Uncle George" --chubby, relaxed, fond of children, and unimpressed with himself. He was also unpaid and, to my knowledge, had no official title. He was simply the man in charge.

Something else that LCC didn't have--and the reason I'm in this story at all--was a sound system. (Of course it didn't have air conditioning, but in 1945 no place else did either, not even huge department stores or dazzling movie theaters.) Our country-mouse church lacked a microphone. Well, most of the time that didn't matter. Clarence J. Fogg didn't need a mike for his occasional few moments before us, and Uncle George's strong, cheerful voice carried well. His wife and her sister occasionally sang duets as part of the service; their ardent, tremolo renditions of "I Come to the Garden Alone" needed no amplification.

But LCC did have a stage, complete with heavy, musty curtains that set my asthmatic mother wheezing. And about twice a year, the congregation put on "pageants," even hauling up a painted canvas backdrop (showing a generic desert scene) from the basement. These pageants were, of course, just short tableaux of the Christmas and Easter stories, taken from scripture. The action was mostly pantomimed, with only one significant speaking part in each. But who would perform that part?

Protestant boys generally flew the ecclesiastical coop as soon as puberty reared its head, so to speak. (Jewish boys had the big event of bar mitzvah to hang around for; Catholics could audition to be altar boys, and, as I later found out, Mormon boys had the high drama of the priesthood and missions to anticipate.) But we had no older boys for the key role. The pre-puberty LCC boys muttered into their narrow little chests and would not project. Apparently, there was only one child who could boom out the message clearly and confidently over the splintery pews to the waiting faithful. She was just ten and a girl, but she was definitely audible.

Thus it came to pass that, standing halfway up a stepladder, in a flimsy unisex muslin robe that didn't quite cover my scabbed knees, I looked at the silent shepherds below me in their fathers' trailing bathrobes, and assured them: "Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy." Three months later, when early spring had come to Lakeside, I stood on a box beside the hokiest stage boulder you've ever seen. Towards me shuffled Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. While they made a good job of peering around in puzzlement, I gazed out the open church doors, across the road to the O'Hagen's front porch, where Mr. O'Hagen sat taking his Sunday ease in work pants and an undershirt.

Then I looked sternly at my three Sunday School classmates and proclaimed unto them, "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen."

Across the road, the screen door banged shut behind Burtis O'Hagen.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Aesthetically, my first onstage appearance was certainly the best of my life so far. Four years old, wearing a buttercup yellow dotted-swiss dress handmade by Nanny, sporting white shoes, golden hair hanging in fat curls set off by a bow the size of a kitten--smiles broke out in every pew in the Myrtle Street Methodist Church at the sight.

It was all downhill from there.

The imposing, staid church was at least as handsomely adorned as I was, with its powerful pipe organ on one side of the plaform and its partner opposite, a grand piano gleaming like a dream of black licorice. Eight huge stained glass windows preached silent sermons from the walls.

As for my sermon, I haven't a clue why I was up there alone before the long-suffering Methodists. The only other known witness (my brother Gerry, age 8) was
otherwise occupied, pulling faces at Mrs. Pfaff, who sat hunched on the organ bench, her plain looks and poor, deformed spine making her a target for cruel sinners like Gerry. I've never even bothered to ask him what I was doing onstage.

In any case, in the middle of my public debut, whatever the heck it was about, I dropped the shiny penny I had been given to put in the collection plate later in the service. I looked at the audience and said loudly, "You'll hafta wait a minute." Then I got down on all fours, fanny to the front, displaying the ruffled panties Nanny had made to match the yellow dress. Although Mother had surely supervised my preparation for the performance, Dad was definitely and always in charge of family finances, and I understood that finding the penny was Priority Number One.

After I located it and again faced the congregation, the glare from Mother's cold blue eyes would have stopped any engine the DL&W Railroad could mount. (Gramps was an engineer on the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Wyoming, a lovely poem of a name, much more fun to say than its rival, the Erie.) Looking at Mother's livid face, I got the idea that I would be safer on the stage than back in our pew.

Perhaps that was my innoculation against stage fright. If so, it apparently worked.