The Sound of Music came out when I was nine, in 1965, and inspired by the seven actors who portrayed the Von Trapp children, I decided to be an actress.
My mother might have been pleased that I was showing an interest in something besides French Toast, so she agreed that I would take children’s acting lessons at the Pittsburgh Playhouse School of the Theatre, a brick Victorian building next door to the stately Pittsburgh Playhouse and across the street from the school for mortuary science.
“I am going to take acting lessons on Saturday mornings at the Playhouse,” I enthusiastically announced to my great aunt Theresa during one of our daily phone conversations.
“No, no, Honey,” my great-aunt told me when I explained my calling. “You remember when we went to see that children’s play at The Playhouse Junior? Those rich-snobby-rowdy kids sitting in front of us?”
Oh, well, yes, I did recall a group of noisy five-year-old’s who hollered at the stage for Hansel to push the witch into the oven. Yes, I supposed in retrospect, they were an ill-mannered bunch.
My great aunt knew me well. A quiet, shy kid from the projects, who lowered her eyes whenever she was threatened by another person looking in her direction, I would be no match for rowdy, rich snobs. I imagined myself defenseless against other kids’ aggressive show of privilege and confidence, so I told my mother that, while I was still destined for the stage, I would pass on the lessons.
Despite my understanding that theater was a vocation for the rich and snobby, my destiny could only be denied for so long. By the time I was ten, I was registered for children’s acting classes and then teens’ acting classes, at the kids’ acting school, where I demonstrated little to no talent as a performer, muttering my lines into my chest, but I met plenty of kids who were like me: we’d found our way to acting out of a desperate need to find ourselves.
I spent my adolescence bragging, whenever the question arose, that I was going to be an actress when I grew up. That gave me both a special standing among my peers, who wanted to be mundane things like mechanics and accountants, and it gave me time—I wasn’t anything special yet, but such an aspiration gave me status without having to prove myself at present.
Even my acting class work was aspirational, as I often performed my rendition of Tennessee Williams’s iconic character Amanda Wingfield, a characterization unique to a fourteen-year-old girl from the low end of the Pittsburgh social spectrum. “Ida Scott,” I’d drawl in my impression of a Southern accent, — I’d never heard one– while pretending to hold a telephone to my ear: “this is Amanda Wingfield. We missed you at the DAR last Monday.” Sure, I did a few scenes as Laura, too, but the mother was so much better suited to me, a timid teen who’d failed typing class freshman year.
Ill-suited or made-for-me scenes were easy to come by. There were special books of them, Great Scenes for Student Actors, which I carried about proudly, cover out. I was a student actor. And I never even had to read an entire play or research a time, place, character or playwright. My method was Contextless Acting.
I delivered my most memorable performance when I was 16 when I nearly played Electra in a scene from Sophocles’ Greek tragedy in the teen-adult acting class. As I waited in the wing for my dramatic entrance, script held close to my face because I would not wear glasses, which were unflattering, I became overheated and lightheaded. It was a feeling I’d never experienced. I thought the buzzing in my ears meant I was becoming my character, that some sort of artistic breakthrough was occurring. I bolted on to the stage, stretched out my arms, threw back my head, and fainted.
“You were so graceful,” one fellow student gushed.
“Your long red hair cascaded and fell so beautifully alongside you as you spread out on the floor,” rhapsodized another.
By the time I was a theater major in college, I’d learned to faint on cue and speak up on stage; I even won praise from my voice and speech professor for my excellent Standard American diction when I declaimed Hamlet’s advice to the players fromanother play I hadn’t read. I did like to speak a speech trippingly on my tongue.
Since college required more than speechifying and fainting, I lost interest by junior year and dropped out to consider my future. I clung to the identity of up-and-coming actress, and my theatrical skills came in handy when I got a job as a waitress during the lunch shift at an upscale restaurant. Each day, I would turn on a fake smile while taking a drink order for “taay” mispronounced by a pretentious young woman, or I would pretend to be amused by a customer’s pet names for me, like Sweet Cheeks and Doll. His name was Harry.
“Lemon or cream with your teeeeee?” I’d ask the young woman, flaunting my trained elocution. And one day, the chef took special care of Harry on my behalf, and thanks to my training, I easily concealed the glee I felt when I asked, “How’s your burger, Harry?”
“Great, Sweet Cheeks.”
“Glad to hear it, Harry. Enjoy.”
“Heat kills germs” the chef had told me as she’d ground Harry’s beef patty under her heel.
I was twenty and content working at the restaurant. My tips were good. My colleagues were friends, and I could finally balance a tray on my shoulder. Never again would my upturned forearms collapse under the weight of drinks and appetizers for a table of twelve. Customers would never again be treated to an improvised floor show of shattering glass. flying food, and a sobbing waitress.
And I had been invited by a local amateur theater group to star as Cinderella in their version of the fairy tale set to stage. The costumes were handled by a volunteer who thought costumes would be fun, so there wasn’t a lot of preparation, which suited me. On opening night, arched my right foot as the prince knelt before me, turned out so the audience could see him (I’d been told by a dance instructor the time I took a ballet class that I had such a beautiful arch, I could have been a ballerina). The glass slipper was silver with sparkles, and as the prince slipped the magic shoe onto my foot, he, I and the little girls in the audience who were ready to be thrilled were distressed to find that the shoe would slip on no further than my four smaller toes. I was Cinderella, and the glass slipper did not fit me. Not even close. I was an 8 ½ wide; the slipper, a 5 narrow. So, as I hobbled around the stage, my feet draping over the edge of the sparkly heels, my ankles collapsing, I didn’t think about scolding the costume volunteer. I didn’t think about chucking the shoe into the audience and making a speech about how girls didn’t need princes or stupid glass slippers they couldn’t walk in or to be a size 5. I thought about my life. I wasn’t the star of my own story. Here I was, Cinderella, and unfit for my own royal destiny.
Cinderella and the too small slipper metaphor stayed with me. My life was too small. I needed a bigger shoe, life, one that could contain the full size 8 ½ of me. I had to move beyond the confines of a small restaurant at lunch time and move toward some destiny.
The restaurant owner offered me a few dinner-time shifts each week, and that worked for a month. “Push the strawberry shortcake,” the owner’s wife would tell me because the concoction was her contribution to the menu.
The actress in me welcomed the challenge: “Let me tell you how delicious our strawberry shortcake is: fresh strawberries atop a freshly baked sweet and crumbly biscuit, the whole luxurious indulgence is smothered in silky, freshly whipped cream.” I liked the sound of the words as I spoke them trippingly on my tongue: fresh, sweet, crumbly, whipped.
Dashing back and forth between the restaurant’s kitchen and dining room several hours a day had made me trim, so when a woman chuckled as I coaxed dessert on her, saying “Well, I don’t know if I want to eat all those calories,” I used my acting skills to tell her a fib, arms akimbo, “I eat one of these every day. It’s my favorite dessert in the world. Besides,” I’d add for a show of culinary knowledge, “strawberries are good for you.” Truth was, I’d never eaten a strawberry and didn’t intend to as the fruit bore an uncanny resemblance to my mother’s nose.
When we’d serve the dessert, we took the longest route possible from the kitchen to the customer’s table. “Walk all over the dining room and hold up the dessert for all to see,” the owner’s wife instructed us. “We want to tempt the customers so they will want to order it, too.” I used to wonder if I should feel sorry for the owner’s wife. She seemed so invested in that strawberry shortcake. Thank goodness I had my acting.
In the end, the dinner shift wasn’t enough to hold me in Pittsburgh, and I packed my bags, had a farewell dinner with my mother and boarded a flight to New York City, where I had waiting for me a room at the Rehearsal Club. In addition to our rooms, for $50 a week, we residents received two meals a day, a mid-town location and bragging rights: Carol Burnett once lived at the Rehearsal Club, we were told, and our residence was the model for the Footlights Club in the movie, Stage Door, starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.
The young women who lived at the Rehearsal Club included two Broadway performers, a nightclub singer, two soap opera actresses, two dancers, the daughter of a famous playwright, two models, several aspiring performers fresh out of college and ready to begin their careers, and me.
A year later, after playing many parts, including Nathan Lane’s girlfriend in a skit show just before he became NATHAN LANE and the voice of the person who calls you at dinner time to sell magazines amidst a chorus of other such voices, I packed my bags and flew to Arizona, where I was transported by a children’s traveling theater troupe to act in plays across the Western United States. I didn’t know what the plays were, but when I arrived in the desert, I learned that I would be the female in one of several three person casts, and my fellow travelers were two men who made up for their lack of theatrical experience, training, or talent with their enthusiasm for six months with a girl, a van and cheap lodgings.
Rather than learn the part of that girl, I jumped on the next flight back to New York where, soon, I would meet my destiny by playing the role I was born for: audience member with big feet.