Of First Nights and Jingle Bells

I can still remember making my stage debut in a  High School play called The Curious Savage. I did actually make my debut much earlier. I was a Jingle Bell in the first grade Christmas play.

I came out on the stage on cue  and stood there. I was supposed to jingle my bell (and doesn’t that sound bad). I instead simply stood there, solemnly gazing at the audience. I then turned around and sauntered off. A fact  that my mother will never forget, to this day she finds it hysterically funny.

But my first proper debut was in the tenth grade of High School. I was the only ‘serious’ character in a comedy filled with ‘crazy’ people. I was cast, as I often would be, as an authority figure. I was Dr Emmett the staff doctor who looks after his charges with a caring and humane touch.

The play, The Curious Savage, is about an eccentric widow whose husband has left her a fortune. Ten million dollars worth of a fortune. Her step children are trying to have her committed and declared mentally incompetent. Then they will have free reign over the money.

I do not remember very much of the play at all. I do remember the radio commercial I did for it and can still recite it verbatim. The only line that I can remember from the play was a quite serious one, I was the ‘serious’ character after all.

The line, probably the only one I did not have trouble delivering, was this: “Well, that is an ever present symptom of psychotic thinking.” I say the only line, because I do remember getting tongue tied repeatedly in rehearsals. In fact the only other line I can remember is the two word sentence, “Mrs Paddy” which for some reason I insisted on saying as “Mrs Paddy-fi.”

As this happened during our last dress rehearsal, our teacher/director was bordering on the apoplectic. “NOO! NOT MRS PADDY-FII!”  She shrieked out for the sixth or seventh time straight that I said it. Finally she gave up getting me to say it properly, muttering something about ” It will have to be all right on the night,” which completely confused me at the time.

So, opening night and we have gone through the vast majority of the play. I had not slaughtered or mangled any of my lines and even said, “Mrs Paddy” instead of Paddy-fi. I was just beginning to deliver my ‘quite serious’ line when from the silence of the auditorium came a lone voice. It was high-pitched and in perfect tone. Drifting up slowly and with feeling were the lyrics to Jingle Bells.

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way” nervous laughter came from the audience and although I had instinctively stopped my composure was almost completely shot.

I could feel hysterical laughter threatening to burst out of my mouth. Using every bit of self discipline I had, I managed to not giggle or even snort. I did say my line, but it sounded something like this:

“Well (pause) it is on aver prassent systom of (pause) psychactic thinking(gasp).” The audience managed to not fall in the aisles in gales of laughter, but it was a close thing.

I found out later that it had been my old Public Speaking teacher’s daughter who was about four or five years old. She had been sitting of the front row which was why I could hear her so well. I did ask him to let me know when she would be performing so I could return the favour. He was highly amused by this and said sure.

Despite this initial ‘not so brilliant’ start, I decided that I wanted to be an actor. Because even then, I could not miss the irony of my first public appearance as a silent jingle bell and having a Jingle Bell come back to not-so silently taunt me.