If I had it to do all over again, I think I'd try to find some way to skip being nine years old. Because that's when it bit me -- the Theater Bug, I mean. I ended up devoting twenty-one of my thirty-five years to pursuing stardom on the stage and, looking back, I wonder if the height of my career might not have been when I was nine. It may have been the last time I was totally, utterly secure in the theater.
For those of you that missed my performance, I played Little Jimmy in THE PARSON COMES TO DINNER, a 100% amateur theatrical put on at the Oak Park Community Playhouse, in the suburbs of Chicago. I don't think I knew the sheer depth and scope of my role until the first night's curtain call. They clapped at me. I know people generally do that at the end of plays but at nine I hadn't worked out the finer points and, frankly, I took it very personally.
SO, the next night I figured out that the more I did onstage, the more they might clap for me. The French maid did her scene while I titillated the audience with untying her sash. The woman who played my mother walked on and delivered her monologue while I intrigued the audience with whether, behind her, I was going to knock over a vase. I had one little line: "Oooob Mom, it's not my bedtime yet," which was to be delivered in a kiddie whine. You'd be surprised how long you can make that line last when you put your mind to it. Ooooooooooob Mahhhhm ... About here I shifted my little weight back and forth and looked adorably at the audience in a way that I perfected in our bathroom mirror, and I'd continue "it's not ... I mean it caaaan't be (what a pro! already improvising) my beedddddtiiiiime, right now" "Right now" works out to a few milliseconds longer than "yet."
You might have thought this scenery-chewing would have earned the enmity of my fellow thespians but this was, after all, THE PARSON COMES TO DINNER and I think they sort of liked it (since the audience liked it) and when it came time for my little step forward at the curtain call, the audience clapped even louder than they did the first night, and when everyone had had their portion of allotted applause, the man who played the Parson in THE PARSON COMES TO DINNER scooted me out for MY VERY OWN INDIVIDUAL BURST OF APPLAUSE ... and well, that was that. We were off and running. Toward the bright lights of the theater, in summerstock local theatricals, in church camp musicals, in high school productions (I was Joe Football in the OAK PARK FOLLIES OF 1972, which was revenge since the footballtypes called me a faggot all the time), then to college at Southwestern Illinois where I was a theater major. I even dropped out of college as a sophomore to go make my fortune in New York, for ten long years, hoping, dreaming, struggling, scheming ... and I think, if I'm honest, waiting for it again: that embracing, completely saturating very own individual burst of applause. These days, however
"Is that typing I hear?"
(That's my wife, home from work, just walking in the door.) Yes, dear. The autobiography is under way.
"About time! I was tired of hearing you talk about it. How far along are you?"
I'm nine, it's page two, and would you mind fixing dinner tonight? I'm on a roll here.
"I suppose your starting this project at 4:45 p.m. was not part of a larger strategy to put me in the kitchen, was it?"
Of course not. (This woman knows me pretty well.)
"It'll mean just sandwiches if I fix it. Poor worn-out fragile pregnant woman that I am...."
She's not even two months into this and already meeting her demands has become a challenge. Last night I got rooked into driving up to Skokie for Chinese take-out. I can only imagine what the seventh and eighth months will be like around here.
Actually, I can't imagine it.
I can't imagine being a father. Between you and me, I thought kids were something other people had. But we agreed this was the right age and the time was right and ... I guess the problem is I still have New York on the brain, residual theateritis. No, I'm not going back -- I'm happily married, I've been working out here for four and a half years now, and I'm looking forward in an abstract way to being the world's greatest father to the world's greatest son or daughter. But I was a different person in New York.
"What kind do you want?" she's yelling from the kitchen. "The management's pushing baloney tonight. It's forming a wall in the back of the fridge."
Peanut butter and mayonnaise on white Wonder-type bread.
Silence. I wait for the comment.
"As if the morning sickness wasn't bad enough. That I have to craft such atrocities with mine own hands . . ."
You know when I said I was only secure in the theater once, when I was nine years old? I can think of another time. When I decided it was time to leave New York and take a long break. Maybe for the first time in ten years I really felt like my own person, in control of events for once, and part of my happiness was having the theater in proper perspective. Also, I was probably looking for an excuse to go home. Which is ironic. Because sometimes here in Evanston with the next few decades of my life chiseled in stone before me -- well, the rest of my life, really -- I wonder if lately I haven't been looking for an excuse to go back.
Copyright (c) Wilton Barnhardt. Published by St. Martin's Press, Inc. New York