My onstage debut was unforgettable. I was Innkeeper No. Two in St. Joseph’s Elementary School’s Annual Christmas Pageant. That was the year that we First Graders were reenacting the Nativity as our part of the Show that All Parents Were Expected to Sit Through. Each grade presented something different, and our school went all the way up to Grade Eight. You can imagine how long the whole mess was every year.
Anyway, getting back to my debut — my choices were limited when it came to being cast in any of the parts. The really plum roles were out of the question. I was a homely girl, awkward, bony and tall for my age. I had the attention span of a gnat, and was given to daydreaming. There was no way I was going to be cast as The Virgin Mary. That part always went to one of the pretty, sweet-looking teacher’s pets. Because my inattention in class drove Sister Mary Agnes crazy, she wasn’t going to make me an angel, either. Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men were all boys.
That was my first lesson in Life in the Theater. If the competition is stiff and you want to be considered for a good role, don’t piss off the director.
I realized that if I didn’t act quickly, all the roles would be given away, and I would be relegated to obscurity. There was only one possibility left. I asked to be an innkeeper. By this time, Sr. Mary Agnes felt sorry for me, and gave me the part, although with one reservation: I was a girl. This was back in the 50s, and the Feminist movement hadn’t taken hold yet. Running an inn in ancient Bethlehem was considered a male prerogative. Despite her qualms, though, she let me go on.
My role consisted of standing in the middle of the stage, in front of the curtain, and saying one line. There were two other innkeepers on either end of the stage. Innkeeper No. One and I had to tell Mary and Joseph that we had no room. Innkeeper No. 3 (a boy, of course), got the best lines, because he got to save the day and direct them to the stable. I delivered my one line with great aplomb, and the audience laughed. I was told later that I was “cute.” I had been aiming for greatness, but I could settle for “cute.” It was better than nothing.
The following year’s pageant was memorable because one of the kids who had a key role didn’t show up.
That year, the Second Graders were a bunch of kids sneaking around a big box where all their toys (a bunch of the smallest Second Graders) were hidden. Again, I only had one line, but I was the first to speak, which was important, I guess. At one point, one of us pretended to open the box, and all of the kids hidden inside came jumping out. After they all identified themselves as different kinds of dolls, someone called on a fairy to help round them up and put them back where they belonged. Being a helpless female, the fairy had to call on Jack Frost to come and help her make those rebellious toys behave. This was similar to the way June Cleaver always had to have Ward Cleaver’s help to solve one of Beaver’s problems, even though she could have solved a lot of them herself without having to bug her husband all the time.
The whole thing went very smoothly. Nancy Morrison played the fairy. She delivered her lines beautifully, as rehearsed, including the one that was supposed to bring in Jack Frost. There was no Jack Frost. Nancy repeated the cue. Still no Jack Frost. At that point, Nancy showed what she was made of and struck a blow for independent women everywhere.
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to put you back in myself,” she said, and waved her “magic wand” at the kids playing the dolls. They all crowded back into the box, and the little play ended.
Later, as we were filing out of the auditorium, there was Billy Wolf, dressed in his aluminum foil costume, ready to go on. He had mistaken the time that the show was supposed to start.
School assemblies were fun, only because they got us out of class for a while. Each grade took turns leading the assembly, and some of the presentations resulted in unintentional hilarity, such as one David and Goliath skit. Two boys of the same age, one of whom had obviously been experiencing a growth spurt, played the parts. Goliath was the one who got the big laugh, when he slapped his leg and bellowed, “Ha, ha, ha!”
You had to be there.