My colleague, Wayne Johnson, occasionally has graced this page with notes on his illustrious film “career.” The Chas never has appeared in a movie, although he always wanted to; but, he, a poor player, has strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage and then was heard no more, to paraphrase the Bard.
Acting may or may not have been part of my genetic make-up. In 2014, I received a shipment of genealogical materials from my sister which had been in my mother’s possession at the time of her death in 2010. Part of this shipment were three high-school yearbooks, my mother’s senior year, 1938, and my father’s sophomore and junior years, 1931-1932. I learned that both of them had acted in school plays. A class note in my mother’s yearbook stated that her ambition was “to be a great actress.” Alas! When she met my father, that was the end of her ambition.
The first time I was ever on stage was when the village fathers of Hinckley, presented a minstrel show for the public in 1952. Students in the seventh grade on up were recruited to be performers. With all the other kids, I put on some funky clothes and covered my hands and face with black greasepaint. There weren’t any African-Americans in town to protest the racial slurs. I had some lines to deliver, and I delivered them when it was my turn to speak.
Me: “Mistah Interlocutor, does you know whah mah dawg don’t have fleas?”
Interlocutor: “No, Ah sho’ don’t. Whah doesn’t yo’ dawg have fleas?”
Me: “’Cause Ah don’t have no dawg.”
A great stage debut, huh?
I didn’t get into serious acting until I enrolled at Aurora College in Autumn 1958. Aurora College held an inter-class play competition every year in the Spring. Each class voted on a one-act play to perform and on a student director. One of the faculty members in the English Department coordinated the competition. Six weeks of rehearsals culminated in a full-dress rehearsal for the benefit of the faculty and student body and two performances for the general public. The coordinator selected three individuals from the community to judge each of the latter. The class which received the most votes was declared the winner and received a trophy.
When the announcement for auditions was made, I did not hesitate to show up. I was given some lines to speak to determine if I were worthy. Something about me, my face probably, prompted the director to have me read a certain part, and I was cast immediately.
The freshman class play was based upon a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” It was made into a film, but I wasn’t in it. Guess which part I had, dear reader. Right, the first time. I have a photo of me in costume and make-up; you wouldn’t have wanted to meet me in a dark alley, or anywhere else, for that matter. Bela Lugosi, move over! I instantly became type-casted thereafter.
Even though the original story had been a humorous piece, I played “Old Scratch” straight-faced. I confess that I did so, not because it had been called for, but because this was my first gig, and I didn’t know how else to perform the role. Nevertheless, straight-face worked, and I received a bit of praise for my performance, especially from the junior-class play director whose play won the competition that year. I was on my way to becoming a star!
There’s a funny story attached to my acting debut. In the late Autumn 1959, Aurora College held its annual Homecoming Week, the main feature of which was a production of “The King and I.” I was cast as a Chinese coolie who provided narration to speed things up. I appeared in Chinese costume and make-up and adopted a hokey Chinese accent which was good for a few laughs.
But this is not the funny story I have in mind. That occurred during another Homecoming activity. It was traditional for the male students to forego shaving during that week. Therefore, a mock funeral was conducted in the gymnasium for a “dear friend,” “Ray Zorr” (razor – Ray Zorr – get it?). I introduced the skit and then hurried off to the locker room where I donned the costume, black suit, black cape, and black stove-top hat, I had worn in “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” This was not part of the skit; I was doing this on my own.
I re-appeared in the gymnasium just as the skit was wrapping up. For added effect, I carried a spade over my shoulder and followed the funeral party out of the gym. The looks of shock I received were pure delight. Who says The Chas doesn’t have a sense of humor?
There is more, but it is for a future essay.
Just a scary thought.