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.

Show and Tell

We moved to Fayetteville when I was fifteen. I started that fall at Fayetteville High School. I desperately wanted to take Drama, but there were no spaces left. The closest the school advisor could get was Public Speaking. It would have to do. On the first day of class I became devoted to the teacher.

He was a mountain of a man. He must have been at least six and a half feet tall. He had a barrel chest and wonderfully rich voice. He had been a bit of everything in his life before he, “Came back to the school that showed me the door and suggested I never come back.” One of the many things he had done  was work as a prison officer.
About halfway through the school year, the teacher wanted us to do a “show and tell” speech. He handed us our subjects. Mine was on how to make a Martini. I held my hand up and asked if I could do the speech on a subject I chose. He answered in the affirmative. Luckily he did not ask me what I was going to do.
When I was a lot younger I used to read a book series called The Brains Benton Mysteries.  Brains, as was suggested by his nickname, was a genius. He was like a young Sherlock Holmes. I adored the books and it was through one of them that I found the recipe for making gun powder. It was not exact, that would have been irresponsible.But it did list the main ingredients.
Charcoal, saltpetre, and sulfer. Saltpetre and sulfer I could get at the local drug store. In those days you could get your hands on loads of “cool” things. I remember getting Hydrochloric Acid and Formaldehyde over the counter. That did change very shortly when a new chemist started working there. Of course I had the other ingredient at home in the guise of charcoal briquettes.
After a lot of experimenting I made a small pile of gunpowder that could more accurately be called flash powder. I did tightly pack a bit and it did make a satisfactory bang when lit. I was inordinately pleased that I had cracked the formula. I wrote the measurement down in a notebook and never had the opportunity to make the stuff again. Well, until my Public Speech class came along.
I went home on Friday and spent the next two days making gunpowder. I managed to fill an entire coffee can with the stuff. I then wrote my speech outline and made a few index cards with the formula on them. Speech class was my first class of the morning, so on Monday I entered the room with my coffee can, index cards and my outline. The outline I gave to the teacher and I sat down with my coffee can and index cards on the desk in front of me.
When the teacher read my outline he raised his eyebrows and looked at me questioningly. I just grinned and nodded. This seemed to satisfy him and he then did a roll check and said that I would give the first speech of the morning.
I got up to the podium and using the chalk board I wrote down my recipe for making gun powder. I then explained where you could get the ingredients from. Then with a flourish I opened the coffee can asked everyone to pass it around and have a look. When the can came back to me, I opened the floor for questions.
Immediately from the back of room came the question I was hoping someone would ask. “How do we know it works, man” This was from the “druggies” in the corner. “Ah,” I said, “Now comes the demonstration part of my speech.” I took a box of matches out of my trouser pocket, opened the box and pulled a match out and lit it. With what I thought was a theatrical gesture worthy of P.T. Barnum himself, I tossed the match into the coffee can.
FOOM! In a split second a flame roughly about five feet tall shot out of the top of the can. This was followed by a huge black cloud of smoke. The teacher shouted at the class to open the windows. This action did not immediately help to disseminate the smoke which appeared to get worse. The general atmosphere in the room was one of great hilarity. There was a lot of laughter and shouting and coughing. The teacher then evacuated the class room and we all went outside to wait for the smoke to clear. Luckily no one hit the fire alarm. Although this was mainly because the smoke was confined to the speech room.
Once the smoke had cleared and we were herded back to our seats, the teacher asked me if I knew that was going to happen. I had to honestly say no. I explained that I had never made that much before and had no idea that it was going to be so spectacular. He believed me and did not send me to the Principle’s office for being a disruptive influence on the class.
He instead gave me an A+ for my ingenuity and flair. Looking back on my time spent in High School, I think it was the highest grade I ever got for anything.
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