Three Hundred and Fifty Six…making each day the best…just in case the Mayans got it right.
It was Thanksgiving 1997 when we left Staten Island, New York to stake our claim here in middle Tennessee. Our plan was to leave immediately after the closing on our house in New York. My ex-husband had some driving pick-ups to shoot on the movie “StepMom” with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. He planned to meet me at the attorney’s office when he was done. It takes a crowd to close a house in NYC… assembled around the table…our attorney, the buyer’s attorney, the bank attorneys, the real estate agents…there were at least ten of us sitting there waiting to sign the stack of papers set in front of us.
My ex was running late. When he finally showed up he had the entire second unit camera crew and the picture car and trailer with him. They pulled up outside the attorney’s office and waited while he ran upstairs to sign his name.
The closing crowd for our farm in Tennessee consisted of me, the real estate agent, who was also the owner, and the Farm Credit Bureau agent.
My daughter was 8 and my son was 6 when we relocated. The public school they attended in NYC had almost four thousand students. The elementary school I enrolled them in near our farm had less than two hundred students.
When I brought them in after the Thanksgiving break for their first day, there was a dog running down the hallway. It didn’t throw me. They had to go through a metal detector back in NYC, so the dog seemed like a perfect tradeoff.
The school relied heavily on contributions from the community for any extras and I saw this as my opportunity to give back. I couldn’t travel as much to do stunt work once the kids were in school, so the idea of really getting involved with them there appealed to me as a chance for a new adventure.
Fortunately for me, the principal never said “no” to my crazy money-making ideas…including the penny drive, which we kicked off by dressing Pat in a giant penny costume.
Truthfully, we had a very fortunate life, and it would have been just as easy for me to write a check, but the schemes my posse and I hatched were way more fun and it became therapy for me.
I went to the first PTA meeting and only three women showed up. One of them walked up to me and said, “We don’t want city people here. They bring nothing but trouble.” The other woman, Carmelia, rolled her eyes. I knew she and I would be friends and we still are to this day.
My friend Pat, who I run with almost every day, was the only other Mom who wouldn’t back away when she saw me coming. Once the three of us got up to speed, there was no turning back, and I can honestly tell you that they have NEVER second-guessed me. Both of them have seen me fall to my knees, but would swear to you that it didn’t happen…their friendship is one of my most cherished treasures.
We did the candy sales and the wrapping paper sales, but I was in the entertainment business, and I was restless to do something spectacular.
The school had a small gym/auditorium, with bleachers on one side and a stage on the other. I went to the principal with the idea to do a show with the kids and use it as a fundraiser.
Not just a little singing and dancing…a full three act play with lights and costumes and music. The teachers were skeptical. It had never been done and they doubted the kids could pull it off.
The principal gave me the nod, with the understanding that I would only have the kids for a half an hour at the end of each day for rehearsal.
I had Pat and Carmelia, my posse, and I was armed with what I call my failure to yield. I rushed home and wrote a three act play about time travel and held auditions the next week. One hundred and eighty kids tried out.
I didn’t want to turn any of them away so I went home and rewrote the third act so that we could cast everyone who auditioned.
“Night of a Thousand Years” was a tale about five kids who find a time machine. In the first act they traveled back in time to visit Leonardo Da Vinci in his studio. The second act brought them to the Little Big Horn where they tried to convince Custer not to fight the Indians. The third act brought our time travelers to the future where only one human being was left alive. The plants and animals and insects could all talk. It was the bulk of my cast and at one point I would have almost one hundred kids on the stage at the same time.
Pat and Carmelia jumped right in and took over costume design. They had jobs during the day, so we dragged our sewing machines into the cafeteria at night and made it our costume department. Eventually other parents began to get curious and started showing up to help. Everyone was welcome, and if you had a glue gun…even better.
The show got bigger and bigger. I was totally out of control because none of them would say NO to me. We would work into the early hours of the morning sewing and gluing and the costumes were as good as any in a Broadway show.
I didn’t have enough room on the main stage, so we built two more stages that sat on either side of it. One of them had a trap door that we used in our first act.
I gave the teachers a rehearsal schedule and every afternoon for a half an hour at the end of the day they would send my actors to me. I had six weeks to get the show mounted.
The boy that I had cast as Da Vinci was as southern as cornbread. About two weeks into rehearsal he showed up and started spouting his lines with an Italian accent. Most adults wouldn’t have the courage to do that.
The five main characters included Pat’s daughter and my third grade son and Carmelia’s third grade son. They were in every scene and had a lot of dialogue. I figured it was a good idea to cast them, as we could rehearse extra with them at home…but we never had to. They did it on their own.
One of my friends who worked “Law and Order” steered me to where I could get some lights. I had make-up flown in from Los Angeles. This was going to be top-notch and totally professional.
I put total trust in Pat and Carmelia that they would deliver one hundred and eighty costumes. They are both meticulous seamstresses. I am not. They measure and mark before they cut cloth. I don’t. Several of our costumes had to be created without a pattern. I would just eyeball it…and it always worked. That drove them absolutely crazy, but in the other shows we ended up doing together, I heard them telling other volunteers, “Just eyeball it.”
Not all of our designs worked…we made prototypes if we weren’t sure about the outcome…and we covered a lot of mistakes with glitter.
“Just eyeball it.” “More glitter.” “It’s in the details.” “It’s gonna be big.”
The night of our dress rehearsal, I put a chair into the center of the gym and sat down to watch. Pat and Carmelia were putting the finishing touches on the costumes. They had never seen the show from start to finish.
Dress rehearsal went horribly. The kids forgot their lines and missed their entrances. When it was over, I turned triumphantly and threw my hands in the air. “We have a hit.”
Pat and Carmelia stared at me like I had lost my mind.
“Bad dress…good show. It’s the best luck in the theater.” They wouldn’t make eye contact with me…but two more shows and two more bad dress rehearsals later and they’d turn to me and say, “Bad dress…good show.”
Opening night was a sell-out. The gym was packed. We got extra chairs from the funeral home and there wasn’t an empty seat.
Backstage in the dressing room, the kids were quiet and focused. Some local hairdressers had volunteered to help with the make-up and hair and were getting everyone ready.
I gathered my crew who were mostly sixth, seventh and eighth graders. I handed out headsets and radios. We were all in black t-shirts that said “stage crew”.
They listened as I gave them their final instructions. Then I handed the show over to my sixth grade stage manager Rachel. I was no longer in control.
The five main characters took their places behind one of the side stages waiting for the overture to end.
One of the older girls grabbed my arm, her eyes like saucers. “Miss Cynthia…we can’t do it.” They were all wide-eyed, my son included.
“You’ll feel the lights when you walk out. The third line is funny and the audience will laugh and then you will be fine. I’ll be right here when you come off of the stage.” I had a lump in my throat.
They nodded, took their places for their entrance, and showed their own failure to yield.
I held my breathe. The audience laughed at the third line. The kids sounded confident and sure of themselves. When they came off of the stage after the first scene they were so amped up they ran me over to get to the next stage.
There was a six foot loaf of bread that we had glued together for the second act and during the intermission they ate it…glue and all.
The third act began with the entrance of the only human being left on earth. My daughter was playing the three hundred year old woman, led in by a parade of animals and insects. I took my place at the door to the gym to herd them in.
The beautiful Enya music came up and I opened the door. The audience had turned in their seats to watch. A group of first grade butterflies fluttered up the aisle, followed by a beautiful peacock. Skunks and rabbits and kangaroos were followed by bees and birds. There were monkeys and bears and cats and dogs…
My daughter was the last in line, led by a giant snail. She was wearing a white wig that trailed along the floor and a long shimmering robe. I touched her elbow to tell her when to go. She turned to me and said, “I’ve got this Mom.” Yes she did.
I will never forget the looks on the faces of the audience as the parade went by. The animals and insects took their places with the talking weeds and boulders and trees on the stage. By the time the oldest woman in the world joined them, there were almost one hundred kids on the stage. It looked like a scene from a Disney movie. It took my breathe away.
We had a talking boulder up on stage. The boy whose face was in the cutout was grinning. My radio headset crackled. It was Rachel, my stage manager. She had to help him into the boulder before the curtain opened and make sure his face was in place in the cutout.
“Miss Cynthia…they opened the curtain too fast…I’m stuck inside the boulder.”
“Do you need me to finish running the show?” I didn’t want to start laughing.
“No M’am…I just wanted you to know where I am…I can finish from inside the boulder.” And that is exactly what my sixth grade stage manager did.
The third act ended and the final curtain closed. The gym was silent. Uh oh…
The kids lined up for their bows. I had chosen an Andrea Bocelli aria for the music and it started to play…we opened the curtain….and one hundred and eighty cast and crew members began pouring out to take their bows.
And the audience exploded with camera flashes and cheering and clapping…it was thunderous and went on for almost fifteen minutes. The kids took their bows and their encores like a bunch of seasoned professionals.
Pat, Carmelia and I were exhausted. I had a rag tied around my head because I hadn’t washed my hair for over two weeks and I might have been wearing two different shoes. They didn’t look much better.
It was our finest hour.
I have been privileged with a wonderful life…had many extraordinary experiences…dined with movie stars and traveled the world…
For me, that curtain call will stand as one of the most exciting and proudest moments of my life. As a writer, I was honored to have my words brought to life with such enthusiasm and excitement. As a mom I was bursting with pride…and as an adult, I was humbled by children who knew nothing of limitations and simply believed.
My ex missed the show…he was in Morocco stunt coordinating the movie “Gladiator”. When he came home he watched the video tape. He was blown away. Even though “Gladiator” turned out to be one of the finest movies of all time…we had the best show.
After the curtain call, one of the teachers who had been the most skeptical came up to me. She had tears in her eyes. She took my hand and said, “I didn’t believe they could pull it off. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
“They’re kids…they don’t know failure unless it’s pointed out to them.” It never occurred to me that the kids might not pull it off..
We went on to do two more shows before our kids went over to the high school.
Our second show took place in a mansion…we had a fireplace and a revolving bookcase and a huge chandelier. During the second act we had a fully costumed masquerade with a choreographed dance number.
I rewrote the third act to involve an underwater dream sequence and my wardrobe department came up with a giant turtle, clam, mermaids, a school of fish and a sea witch.
Our final show had a circus theme. Carmelia’s dad Jack built us a giant circus ring which we put in the center of the gym. I idly mentioned that I wished I had an elephant for the finale…and Carmelia’s brother, who is a tinsman, built me a metal elephant to scale, with eyes that opened and closed and a trunk that moved up and down. Our main characters rode it as we pushed it in during the finale. We stuffed Pat inside to work the eyes and the trunk. The audience went ballistic.
All these years later…our kids are in college and grown up…
We were so lucky…wouldn’t change a thing…
well…maybe a little more glitter….
Day three hundred and twenty five…the way we were….