I'm gonna live forever

One of my least-kept secrets is that I am a former actress/singer.

Back in the dawn of time when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was a young lass, I had stars in my eyes. I fell in love with the theater when I was thirteen. Because I had a deep voice, they always cast me as the mother, the adult in the crazy crew. But I really wanted to sing and dance and fall in love and die tragically on stage. Preferably all at the same time.

In retrospect, I think I always wanted to tell stories. Sing and dance them, write them, true or false, just so long as I could spin the story for you. My love affair with theater was genetic - my parents met on a production of "Arsenic and Old Lace," and my family's history with music and the stage goes back generations before them. I grew up listening to my mother's piano downstairs, and would make up stories to match the music. (Which was inconvenient when she stopped mid-song and I had to rewrite quickly.)

I tried out for every play in junior high, high school and on to college as a theater major. I was accepted into a fine arts program at a major university on full scholarship. I studied acting, playwriting, stage combat, dance. I learned more about the human condition in three years as a theater major than I had learned in the twenty years of life beforehand. It was a way to live a thousand lives all at once, a bit of immortality.

And I auditioned. Play after play after play, dramas and comedies and musicals, and sometimes - rarely - I made the cut. I performed fight scenes in a corset and hand-jived my way across the stage to fall in love with Kenickie. I sang my heart out in the blue spotlight, I stood by my man Bill Sykes, and I told Dr. Rank he must leave and never come back. I drank Juliet's poison, wept over my dead daughter Shelby and had a hysterical fit when I heard the plane might crash.

I still remember all the nonsense words to "We Go Together." I can't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I remember rama lama lama ka-dingity ding de dong and all that came after it. I could sing the whole thing for you, if I were drunk enough.

My scholarship covered my education, but it sure didn't feed me. My voice did that, after I lost a couple of jobs to the demands of the theater. I sang in church lofts and dingy basements, in smoky bars and at children's birthday parties - the latter wearing a terrible gypsy costume and pretending I knew how to read palms. I knew the lyrics to every Streisand torch song and every Disney ballad up to POCAHONTAS. Sometimes I ate Krystal burgers to stay alive (what we here in the midwest call White Castle) and a good month meant Spaghettios and Hamburger Helper.

Unfortunately, I wasn't very good. I could sing, I could follow the choreography and I could recite the words, but a teenage girl hasn't lived enough to have the emotional vocabulary for the work I wanted to do. I never fit on stage, and more and more I ended up backstage, rigging the lights and rewriting the scenes in my head to make them come out better. I did better dangling above the stage tightening a fresnel with a C-wrench tied to my belt loops than I ever did standing center stage trying to work on my mind-body connection.

I had a dream. I was going to run a theater company. We would produce black-box plays that were new and different, and we'd donate the money we raised to charity. We could save the world through art. God, we were so fucking young - me and the friends I connived and cajoled into joining me. I had grand plans beyond the theater - an art festival, a musical revue, independent publishing. All to save the world.

The first play made money for the inner-city arts/tutoring program I worked for in between singing gigs. The second play broke even. The third play never made it to the stage.

When I was twenty-one, I hung it up. It was never going to happen for me. My teachers knew it, and I knew it.

I was going to take a year off and work, but my father talked me into journalism school. I could still save the world, but using my mind and my talent with words instead of my voice and my dancing shoes. It fit, and I never looked back.

But every once in a while...

My son fell in love with music before he outgrew diapers. I have pictures of my toddler boy jamming in front of the band at the neighborhood block party. He's a handsome fellow, a born showman. He plays the guitar and the violin and is making noises about the piano. He sings along with me in the car and I catch him dancing. A lot. He's fascinated by "That's Entertainment" and (ugh) "High School Musical" and anything about the drive to perform in a young person.

God save us all. I was rooting for medical school.

Tonight, my boy begged and pleaded and cajoled and groveled to get me to take him to see FAME. I groused about the nonsense of remaking perfectly good cheesy '80s movies, but he begged with the big brown eyes and I forked over the cash, grumbling, "This movie better not suck."

It doesn't. Well, not any more than I expected. A bit of the grit is lost, and I can't say as the music really stuck with me the way the old stuff does. But they picked some fine young talent to take the kids' parts, and I wasn't bored.

The boy was enthralled.

He kept leaning forward during the song and dance routines, and he really felt for the boy whose mom didn't understand his love of performing. No parallels there, right? Face, meet palm. Then he surprised me by running to the bathroom during the big final dance number.

Sort of. Because he confessed that he didn't go to the bathroom. He snuck into the little tunnel between the theater and the lobby so he could see and hear the final number... and dance. He had to dance. He couldn't help it. So he hid where people couldn't see him and he danced.

We sang all the way home. During our evening cuddle session, he made me look up famous song-and-dance numbers ranging from Gene Kelly on rollerskates to the original FAME dance. He also swiped a flyer from the theater lobby advertising a dance school. He wants to soar, and I tell him to eat his eggs.

Heaven save me. There is no escaping it. It has him in his grasp, the beast I barely escaped with my mind and diploma intact. I never wanted him to let the stage break his heart like it did mine. There was a character in the movie, a voice teacher who explained to her students that she tried for years to make it on Broadway and never got her break. But sometimes, she said, she goes to the theater and thinks, "I could've done that. I really think I could've." Yeah, I get that.

To a certain extent, every kid wants to perform. But theater, music, art - it's in my family's veins. In my case, there simply wasn't the talent to go with it. Oh, I still sing with my church choir and the occasional wedding. Sometimes when I'm focused in the newsroom, I would start humming, and the photographer would yell at me to shut up. Sometimes when I'm working my booth and get bored, I start to sing, just to amuse myself. It passes the time on long car trips - I can get all the way through the good-parts version of LES MISERABLES between St. Louis and Memphis.

And every once in a while, I see or hear the parts I once wanted for myself. And I think, "I could've done that. Now that I'm older and more mature... I really think I could've."

But when my friends try to get me to do the karaoke thing or go out for this or that, I tell them I'm retired. I forgot how to fly. And then I see that same love in my son's eyes, and I don't know what to do - to encourage him as we're supposed to encourage our children's dreams, or to guide him toward something that will feed him, so he won't have to struggle to stay ahead of the bills every day as I have for my entire adult life.

"Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I'll show you a happy man," says the Latin teacher - and Mr. Keating replies, "But only in dreams can man be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always shall be."

My boy wants to live forever.

Comments

  1. Why not consider the example of the Sufis, who insist that their members learn some practical craft regardless of their other aspirations?

    Learning how to make or repair physical things which we all depend upon in everyday life can be fun and rewarding, as I can attest.

    So why not encourage him to explore various trades to see what might suit him? Machinist, carpenter, plumber, welder, electrician - some skill which will always be in demand. If he chooses to pursue a career onstage, or in any art, isn't such a craft likely to be more fulfilling, as well as more lucrative, than the more traditional waiting tables while he's paying his dues?

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  2. I do believe the worst thing a parent can do is push their children in a direction they don't want to go.

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  3. I'm agreeing with victormilan here. There's nothing wrong with letting him pursue what he loves, but do your best to influence him to also pick up something that can help him live while he's pursuing that dream. I wish now I'd listened more to my mother (I can't believe I'm saying this) when she encouraged the same thing... I wouldn't be working for the state for wages that don't even begin to get me out of my parents' house.

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  4. Would you have wanted to have been "saved" from that experience? Your parents where there with good advice when you were ready to hear it. Besides, how do you know his experience will be the same as yours?

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  5. I have to agree with the others. The only time we are ever really free to follow our deepest desires is when we are young and we still believe in the fantasy - sometimes we make it, sometimes we don't, but I truely believe it's the taking of the chance that helps shape us and the people we are to become. Besides it leads us to find things we can do that can fill the empty hole that dream leaves when it dies. My husband is a musician - not as much by trade but by soul - if he hadn't loved music so much he worked in music stores until eventually he worked in a music store where the owner had a side sound business he would have never become an audio engineer - a job he adores that is second best to being paid to make music. It's rare in today's world that you can be passionate about your job - so I say, if you have a passions, fan the flames and watch the fire grow.

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