My third project on the stage was On Borrowed Time – a play about a boy who traps death in a tree so that his Grandfather can live forever. I got to work with George C. Scott, Nathan Lane, and several other luminaries of the acting world. I guess I wasn’t technically on Broadway, though, since I was an understudy. Understudying can actually be somewhat heartbreaking – you learn the part, sometimes several parts, just in case someone calls out sick and you get to go on. It’s been known to happen – sometimes the main actors will be kind and be “sick” for a particular day, letting the understudy have their time in the spotlight. It’s a very cool thing for them to do, but in my experience it’s kind of rare. Sometimes lead actors are suspicious of their understudies – leads have been known to fall down the stairs after being “accidentally” bumped by those who would be interested in taking their role. In my experience this, too, is an overblown misconception – with only a few exceptions, every actor I’ve worked with has been 100% professional. It’s a job, and they’re there to do it.

George C. Scott was a bit of a card – I remember there was one guy in the audience who couldn’t stop coughing. He stopped the play and yelled: WOULD YOU JUST SHUT THE HELL UP? He insisted the guy be removed before he would continue the play. The scuttlebutt backstage was that he drank quite a bit. If rumors were to be believed, he rarely gave a sober performance. One night, a gun was supposed to be loaded with blanks – George’s character was supposed to shoot someone on stage. The gun didn’t go off, and George turns to the audience and breaks the proverbial Fourth Wall: YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO PRETEND, OKAY?

The Stage Manager was a cool guy – he was always really nice to me. Sometimes he let me leave a little early if the play was almost done and it was obvious I wasn’t going to go on. He seemed tired a lot – I expect he was a bit exhausted from dealing with all the backstage drama. Mom somehow got into her head that we had to become good friends with this guy, and that to do so we needed to give him some of my toys for his kid.

When I was much smaller, Grandpa had gotten me a plastic horse named Clip Clop. It bounced up and down when you rode it and made galloping sounds. I loved it. I was too big for it, but it was something I really loved and wanted to save it. Mom insisted for whatever reason that we had to give it away to this guy for his kids. I was pissed. Even as a kid, I had a sense of trying to preserve things – I was always trying to “save” a particular favorite toy or shirt or whatever. Putting things in boxes or Ziploc baggies. I think given all the death I encountered at an early age (my Grandfather, a close Aunt, and later Uncle Carlo) I knew that time was fleeting and I needed to hold onto the things I cared about. Mom and I got into conflicts about this a lot – I was saving “junk” to her. I suppose, at times, I became a borderline hoarder. Hell, I even saved candy that people gave me. I literally have chocolates that are 25 years old. Granted, they’re special chocolates – say, a musical note made out of fudge given to me on my 7th birthday – but it’s still 25 year old chocolate. It’s practically fossilized now, and I have no idea what possessed me to save it.

The kid that went on in my stead every night was from somewhere in the South – I can’t remember exactly where, but his mother was the picture of a Southern Belle (or pretended to be). She was absolutely obsessed with sex – even as a kid, this was fairly obvious to me. She kept sneaking into the men’s dressing rooms “by accident”. She’d make a big deal about it.

Southern Belle: Oh, my! I can’t believe I actually did that! I just got so confused! This theater is so big! Would you mind if I sat down and had a glass of water? I feel faint from walking up all those stairs!

By the 3rd or 4th time this happened, nobody was under any illusion that it was an accident. I thought it was pretty damn stupid, myself, and sort of viewed her scornfully. Granted, I wasn’t yet a teenager and probably didn’t have a concept of a sex drive, but even then I probably would have looked down it.

One of the coolest people I met there was an understudy like me named Kate. She was older than I was, probably in her early 20’s I’d guess. We connected, and I guess I had a bit of a crush on her. I thought she was really pretty but more importantly, she was really cool – she liked sci-fi and horror. She was even in Night of the Living Dead (the remake) and told me all about George A. Romero‘s zombie trilogy. I was fascinated and insisted that Mom let me see it at once. I wasn’t allowed because it was “too gory”, but I did sneak peeks of it when it came on TV. I have her to blame for my fascination with zombies. Anyway, she’d give me different sci fi or horror videos to take home and watch. We’d talk about it after I’d seen them, and she’d tell me about how important they were.

Kate: Have you seen the Twilight Zone?

Me: No. What’s that?

Her jaw dropped.

Kate: You *have* to. Promise me you’ll see it. It’s AMAZING.

Me: Okay, what’s it about?

And our conversations might go on like that. One night, she did get to go on – someone called out sick. She was thrilled, and I was thrilled for her. She was combing her hair in the mirror and seemed to have a thought.

Kate: Sorry you don’t get to go on tonight.

Me: It’s alright.

Kate: You’ll get a chance.

Me: I know.

Girl: Would you watch me? Let me know how I do?

Kate: Sure.
I watched her part from back stage, and I thought she did great. I had seen the rest of the play many times by that point – I knew all the lines and the blocking, and the rest didn’t interest me. Besides, I didn’t want to get in the way of the stage hands. I gave her a hug after, and told her she did great.

When the show closed, Katie gave me a video of The Day The Earth Stood Still. She told me to watch it and write her with my thoughts on it. The letter she gave me with it is long gone – it had her contact info, I’m sure, but also an in depth explanation of just how cool the movie was. By the time I had gotten around to watching the movie, I had lost the letter with her info.  The last time I saw her, she gave me a huge hug and promised me we’d both be big stars one day. She’s doing alright for herself these days, and I’m very proud of her. I never kept  in touch, which I regret – kids are pretty much rubbish at that – but I’ve been happy to see how successful she’s become.



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