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The Shipwreck Rose: Napoleon Brandy

Thu, 02/03/2022 - 11:10

My career on the stage was short and inglorious. It was my elder brothers who stood at center, under the spotlight, in the halcyon days of student theater: David was cast as Charlie Brown in “Charlie Brown” at the age of 6 or 7 and graduated in high school to the starring role of stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” — while I never did better than the third row of ghosts in the Grover’s Corners cemetery. Dan was cast as a scene-stealing gangster in “Anything Goes” while I tapped at the back of a horde of clumsy girls in sailor caps, belting out the chorus:

 

You’re the top

You’re Mahatma Gandhi

You’re the top

You’re Napoleon Brandy

You’re the purple light

Of a summer night in Spain

You’re the National Gallery

You’re Garbo’s salary

You’re cellophane.

 

Although I managed to pull off the role of Elizabeth Proctor in an experimental version of “The Crucible” at summer camp when I was 12, that was only because the production called for me to speak softly, look haunted, and stare at my own feet. I’m an introvert and always knew that my fate was not to be a Broadway star. Indeed, I was confused when my fellow members of the Young People’s Theater Workshop — a troop of local kids who put on shows at the John Drew Theater of Guild Hall, circa 1978 to 1983 — gazed toward the theater’s ceiling (that’s “the heavens” to us theater people) and let it be known that they had fallen in love with the stage and would pursue a career in acting: I mean, hadn’t we all? Didn’t it go without saying that the theater was the best of all possible worlds? But was it not also — by corollary — equally obvious that if a life in the theater was something everyone wanted, none of us could have it? 

We used the dank basement of John Drew as our dressing room and green room. Well do I recall the long-ago perfume of the thick paint we applied with sponges to one another’s soft and youthful cheeks. (Actually, I recall applying black eyeliner to the face of a fellow cast mate and classmate, Richard Rutkowski, and him saying “Ouch” rather politely as I painfully dragged the broken eyeliner pencil across his lower lid.) The striped circus-tent interior of the John Drew Theater was our home on those long afternoons and late into those rehearsal nights when we all became theatrically exhausted and disruptive and had to be subjected to a severe dressing down by the long-suffering youth director, Garrett Tinsman. O! and lo! and hidy-ho! the stage-door drama when the lead actress in “Our Town” was found lacking in charisma and stripped of her role as Emily Webb, and that plum handed at the 11th hour to our brave new heroine, Katie Paxton! The show went on.

In the summer of 1981, the 50th anniversary of Guild Hall, I was a theater intern at John Drew. It was one of the most interesting summers of my life. I don’t think what Guild Hall did was “summer stock” in the strictest sense, but it still richly reeked of the summer stock atmosphere I’d witnessed in movies like “Summer Stock” (1950) and “Holiday Inn” (1942). Pianos, singalongs, cigarettes. Leotards and crying jags. Leg warmers. Drunks. At 14, I was the youngest intern and I learned how to operate power tools in the horse barn at the top of Fireplace Road that was then used as the workshop for set construction: The stage manager, Chester, handed us the paper plans for a musical spectacular set for “A Night of Stars” and left us alone with the table saws, expecting that we would figure out how to build the sets without taking off any fingers or hands. I recall constructing the numbers 5 and 0 in wood figures maybe five feet high and painting them in gold and glitter. (Later that year, I’d use this experience in figuring out how to do something difficult without any ado as the basis of an application essay that won me a place at Andover and Concord Academy. I titled my application essay “Just Do It” — and did wonder, a few years later, if someone in the admissions office had plagiarized me when that phrase became the famous Nike slogan.)

There was a revival of “The Fantasticks” in the summer of 1981, and we mingled among the veteran cast as equals. The actor who played Bellomy, “the Girl’s Father,” told me I moved like a dancer. A parade of stars of varying glow and magnitude, ursa major and ursa minor, appeared in each season’s different productions. That summer, we had swashbuckling Dirk Benedict of “Battlestar Galactica” television-show fame, and Danny Aiello, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson. Each of these stars would take an hour or so to sit at the edge of the stage regaling the interns with a semi-formal class — a talk — about the life of an actor.

That July I met a tramp, a vagrant, a sort of literary hobo who wore a long beard and his wild and tangled strawberry-blond hair to his shoulders and hung around in front of the Windmill Delicatessen at lunchtime talking about literature and dream interpretation and a bunch of foolishness. I am not sure how we struck up an acquaintance, but I walked down to the deli regularly from the theater on my lunch break to eat a dish called “health salad” (hard carrots and green peppers in sweet vinaigrette), and this mysterious stranger must have talked to me. He was to me an old man, although he was probably only in his 40s or 50s. I was just a kid and flattered to be asked what I was reading over lunch (almost certainly one of the Beats). We formed a lunchtime circle of sorts with a handsome, James Dean-looking young man — was he from Australia? — who hung around the Windmill Deli, too: I had a crush on this James Dean manqué and the literary tramp clearly did, too.

A year later, after I’d gone off to boarding school — having chosen Concord Academy over Andover because I thought there would be fewer hours of homework per night — I ran into the mysterious tramp in a hamburger restaurant in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., which the punk rockers in the square frequented for coffee and a bathroom. I was by then a punk rocker myself with badges and safety pins in my jacket, although still apple cheeked and innocent. I went up to his table, where he was holding court with a new crop of young acolytes. He remembered me when I explained where I was from and how we’d met, but only barely, and dismissed me rather airily. I’m not entirely sure he wasn’t John Drew Barrymore, the great-grand-nephew and namesake of our own John Drew of John Drew Theater (and Drew Lane). I mean, obviously, I’m talking nonsense. But I like to think it’s true.


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