Previously published at Sidelong Socrates, a memoir of the theater.
was an actor once. I was thirteen years old.
The school play was One Hundred Dollars, a mish-mash of adolescent stereotypes of adults, two clowns and a formal problem in basic algebra. The memorable details included who (men, women and children), how much to each (Fifty cents, a dollar and two? Rats.) and, of course, the total to be shared. Don't forget the clowns.
We put in two weeks memorizing lines, rehearsing scenes, filling selzer bottles, setting the stage and costuming ourselves out of our parents' closets. I was to play a puff-gut general contractor. For two weeks, I was Mickey Rooney, in a junior high cafeteria rather than a barn.
Trudy Brown looked less like Judy Garland than I did Rooney. I remember her as a small girl under hide-me falls of honey-blonde hair. She was to play a librarian, a fussful character like Ruth Buzzi kicking Arte Johnson in the shins on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in.
Came the day of our premiere. We would do two shows and close, being some distance off-Broadway. Audience for the first show was the Eighth Grade. I would have a live performance under my belt to nail down my chops for my Seventh Grade classmates. I believed that.
We got through most of the script without breaking a leg. The clowns were due on stage just before the play's climax. I stood bent over a salvaged teacher's desk upstage left, scribbling nonsense on scattered scrap paper. Trudy and another player sat on a couch to the rear. Mr. Cormell poked his head through the side curtain and told us to stretch it out -- the clowns had locked themselves in the bathroom.
While I stood there wondering what clowns are for, really, Trudy saved the moment. She started railing at me that I was not near to solving the problem, that I was not all I said I was, and that I would never be either one.
I blustered back that I was a "trained" contractor with years of yadda yadda ...
"I don't care what you are!"
I did not have be fourteen years old to see the gold-ringed opening. "Madam." I savored the moment, just a hint of anticipation to share with my audience. "It's pretty obvious what you are."
The entire Eighth Grade fell out in the aisles. Mr. Cormell sent in the clowns.
I wanted to do it again. I pressed my case on our teacher. Trudy joined my cause. He indulged us.
I never saw it coming.
Places everyone, and we worked our way once again to my big moment. My classmates and my crush at the time, whatever her name was, sat rapt. Or maybe just polite.
I could hardly keep a straight face as Trudy kicked off the ad-lib. I almost laughed through my bluster. She stood and fired off my cue. Once again, I shared the moment.
Then I flubbed the line. I choked. I died. My classmates sat, polite.
Trudy stepped up and kicked me in the shin. The entire Seventh Grade fell out laughing in the aisles. Entre bozos.
I stood on one leg, half-bent over, rubbing my shin. "You kicked me!"
She leaned in, spoke low enough that, with the ruckus the clowns were raising, no one but I could hear her. "You had it coming."
I did not have to be thirteen to know that she was right. And that she had saved the moment again.
Humble nods to Judi Collins and Charles M. Schulz.
Trudy and her family moved away before the Spring semester.
If you happen to know a Trudy Brown, the odds are no better than one in two hundred that she shares any memories, even muscle memory, with the thirteen-year-old who twice saved the show. If you happen to know a Trudy Brown, ask her if she went by that name at age thirteen. I'm staking a dollar against the field.
I also googled "school play one hundred dollars". Results included play money and an alt-country band from Canada.
Now, as then, I'm just getting started.