Saturday, January 9, 2016
Whenever I think back on my childhood, for some inexplicable reason I always think of the year 1957, when I was 10 years of age. I don’t entirely know why that year stands out; perhaps it was the purchase by my father of our new, fin-shaped car, a Ford Fairlane 500 (named, now somewhat uncomfortably, in my current thinking, after Henry Ford’s Fair Lane estate), or, maybe just because, at that same year, we moved in Marion, Iowa to Northview Drive, in a house painted in what was described as “Robin Egg Blue,” where my mother suddenly had the kitchen of her dreams, decked out with all-steel St. Charles cabinets. My father, recently made Superintendent of Schools in the suburban community of Marion, Iowa, held a position that I felt was of enormous importance. And I, apparently, was beginning to come into the consciousness that only a year later would turn me into a movie and young theater-going addict.
That same year, my soon-to-be favorite Broadway musicals opened on Broadway, each representing a kind of oppositional view of American culture: Leonard Bernstein’s gang-fighting West Side Story and Meredith Willson’s paean to turn-of-the-century Iowa life, The Music Man. Like a Manichean maniac I loved both equally. And both works would help to develop my love of American musical theater, defining, in part, my love of the genre.
I didn’t see, as a 10-year old, the significant drug-themed drama A Hatful of Rain or the notable love-crossed soap-opera An Affair to Remember, but I probably did see the other Iowa-based film-musical of the year, The Pajama Game; and I do remember attending Robert Stevenson’s Old Yeller, with the then-photogenic (which, I certainly recognized even at that age) Tommy Kirk, and I watched Elvis shake his hips in a Saturday matinee of Jailhouse Rock. Later, Walter Lang’s Desk Set, with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy might be said to define my notions of life in that year—forward thinking but domestically inclined.
In those days, 5th grade was the year in which most teachers begin reading to their students, and Hazel Snell (an overweight German lesbian, I later realized) was no exception. Just after lunch, she would hunker down with her students to read out, day after day, passages from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie and Emerson Hough’s The Covered Wagon. Yes, I knew these sagas were pure melodrama, even back then, but Hazel’s daily reading made me want to read, and I soon sought checked out books from the local library, including the entire volumes of the Burns-Mantle Best Play Books, which as I have mentioned elsewhere in My Year, I gradually memorized. If I was uninterested in Prairie culture, I was fascinated, already, by the streets of Manhattan, where I would not visit for yet another decade.
My loving parents often took us off for family travels during the summer, usually visiting relatives along the way. But that summer, I believe, they took the Ford Fairlane on the longest journey of our lives’, clear out to California to visit my favorite uncle and aunt, Bob and Sue, who was a Colonel in the Air Force, at that time stationed at Edwards Air Force Base. Despite my ignored pleas to stop and visit every city along the way, we quickly crossed the endless flatlands of Nebraska, the mountains of Colorado, and the endless deserts of Arizona, Utah, and lower California before we reached the water-infused gardens of the Mojave desert community of Victorville.
After a couple of days of being entrapped in their air-conditioned home, my uncle and aunt—perhaps a bit irritated by our entire family camping out in their living room—took us, via two cars, on a long kind of wagon-trail voyage winding through downtown Los Angeles—which in those days appeared to me as a small town with its ugly, stubby City Hall—from San Bernardino county into Orange county, where we visited Disneyland!
Although I felt myself a bit too old to truly enjoy the Disney wonders, I was immediately attracted to “Tomorrow Land,” and personally enjoyed the Peter Pan ride. The rest of it, loved by my younger brother and sister, was something I couldn’t be bothered with. Sue and Bob—with whom I can now easily sympathize—seemed in a rush to leave the wonderland confines. But my mother and father, brother, and sister, in absolute bliss, insisted on making it a long day they would never forget. I must admit, I have never returned to Disneyland in the 59 years since, despite living only a few hours away during the last 30. Nor have I ever returned to Victorville. I love the sophisticated Los Angeles which has nothing at all to do, to my way of thinking, with amusement parks or desert retreats—or even the mythical Hollywood.
Was that the same year, I wonder—suddenly recognizing it probably was—that I first encountered, through a wonderful high school production, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado—or perhaps that year it was The Pirates of Penzance. Both featured, if I am correct, the wonderful local talent of Bob Hajnay, whose father I sang with in the Presbyterian church choir, and whose mother played the church organ. I was too young to really know Bob, but he was the kind of student who my father and all of his teachers loved. He later, so I believe, became an anesthesiologist, who now lives in Oregon. Bob was also a good athlete, a handsome figure for the hometown girls, one of whom, Sharon, he married and moved with, after their Iowa education, to Redding, California.
Those Gilbert and Sullivan musicals changed my life, guiding me to the Broadway musicals I describe above.
1957 was perhaps the last year before I was made to start working as a paper boy, delivering the papers every morning at 5:00 or even earlier through the heavy snows of winter and the steamy days of summer. I was still young enough to attempt to build a small backyard shack (I had the wood, but no nails or hammer). I remember being permitted to put pumpkin seeds into the garden in our back yard, which produced gigantically deformed squashes that my parent’s applauded, but didn’t have a clue how to handle. Did we actually carve them out into Halloween jack-o-lanterns? If so, it was the very last time, my father and mother long after disapproving to the Halloween celebrations, when schools were draped in toilet paper and often broken into by celebrating pranksters.
It was a year of the end of my childhood. By 1958 I was a different person, a young man awed by Hitchcock’s Vertigo; inn my 6th grade classroom, I wrote about the strange culture and religions of Japan. I no longer could relate to any of my classmates, and dived into those Burns-Mantle playbooks as if they might offer me a new reality; indeed they did!
We moved into a new house, just around the corner, especially designed for my parents. But its’ split-level elegance could never match the simple suburban fantasy of 1130 Northview Drive. I moved from the bunkbeds of the previous house which I shared with my brother David, to the basement. And therein I retreated from the entire world for years until my move to Norway and later graduation. In that basement I read Beckett, Pinter, and Albee, wrote a musical about the fall of the Belgium Congo, and dreamed up Brechtian dramas that no one in the outside could possibly comprehend. I moved, through my imagination, into a world where no one I knew might possibly enter.
I now realize that 1957 represented the last year I had tried to engage with the world around me. No wonder I remember it so fondly. And although, I still love my brother and sister, my now dead father and my aging mother, they will never be as real and immediate as they were in that long ago 1957.
Los Angeles, January 9, 2016