Mr. Smith Goes to High School


I’ve been a theatre afficianado since I can remember. And like every little girl whose dreams of theatrical success were filtered through Busby Berkley turntables and tap shoes, of course I wanted to be the STAR.

It started early. I logged more hours in front of our little black and white portable than the rest of my family put together. My creative guardian was my Dad, frequently heard pronouncing he could have been the next Fred Astaire. The man could dance. When I was five, he taught me how to jitterbug to Lester Lanin records. It was HIGH SOCIETY right there in our living room as the orchestra thrummed You’re Sensational. No Crosby or Sinatra for this Grace Kelly, my practice partner was the kitchen doorframe. But the biggest deal, the most exciting experience was the afternoon he came home from work and announced (duh-duh-DUH). . .

“I’m going to be in a show!”

I stopped breathing. Seems his boss, Mr. Wright, had a wife, Mrs. Wright, who was to star in this community theatre production. And they’d asked my Dad to be in it! Of course, now I understand this was predicated on that basic truth of amateur theatre, grab every available man then lock the theatre doors. But at the time, I thought we’d won the let’s put on a show lottery. There was Judy and there was Mickey and now — there was my Dad!

This extravaganza was entitled THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (I know, so bad it’s good!) and I attended every rehearsal. By week two I knew all the dances, each piece of music and everyone’s lines. I have three distinct memories of this production: my father sang Stouthearted Men as part of a cowboy quartet; Mrs. Wright — looking exactly like Gypsy Rose Lee — sang Let Me Entertain You to a hand mirror while wearing a black corset and fishnets and I nearly plotzed when I observed Mr. Wright devouring a McDonald’s hamburger before curtain on opening night — a Friday. I thought the hand of God was about to come down and slam the box office shut. As I pointed, my Mother quickly mumbled something about different rules and made a “don’t you embarrass me” flap of the hand.  I snuck a Sign of the Cross and went back to my peanut butter sandwich.

Well, my father was a success. A year later, the next show was called CIRCUS DAZE (cross my heart) and this time I had a part. Well, two parts, actually because the savvy director double-cast nearly every role. My Dad played a magician (we got to foster the little white mouse who was his prop) and a trapeze artist. I was cast in the pivotal roles of “circus guest” and (wait for it) tightrope walker!

It was deep into the evening when it came time for the circus grand parade. We entered from the back of the house, down the center aisle. I greeted the crowd from high atop my Daddy’s shoulders, in a get up I remember to this day: Peter Pan green tights and my Mother’s sleeveless black velvet evening top trimmed in rhinestone. This fell below my hips and was belted with patent leather to keep it on my 6-year-old frame. With arms thrown wide to the crowd, you could have mistaken me for Degas’ “Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers.” As an onstage experience, it set the bar pretty high.

By the time I got to high school I’d sung Buttons and Bows at a Ladies Sodality Luncheon, choreographed several seasons of summertime shows (the concrete floor in the basement was perfect for tap dancing in my Mother’s old high heels) and played the Queen in Sleeping Beauty. I was jonesing for top billing. What I got was a series of support roles. Okay, occasionally I was up for the lead, but my natural jack-of-all-trades abilities usually kept me smack in the middle of character land. Any baseball coach worth their salt knows you never waste a good utility player.

When Nancy Roux contracted mono during rehearsals for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT… I was plucked from the chorus to be the ingenue stand-in. My heart swelled with excitement but, sadly, it was not be my Peggy Sawyer moment. It didn’t seem to matter that I sang and danced the role of “The Girl” to perfection (much better than Nancy, everyone agreed.) Nancy, she of the sparkling blue eyes and long blonde hair could have stepped right out of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale and she recovered just in the nick of time. [Ed. Note: See “Sleeping Beauty”.] So, high deedle-de-dee, the urchin gang for me…

Well ito my first year of high school, I became frustrated that my TV-honed talents were so clearly being overlooked. So one evening, I decided to confront my drama teacher (and de facto director/producer of everything), Mr. Smith and get things straight, once and for all. 

Allow me to set the scene: Immaculata High School — an all girls Catholic institution of some size. Christopher Smith — twenty-three and fresh out of the University of Chicago in his teaching debut. Mr. Smith taught English and Drama and we all adored him. He had a dark, neatly trimmed beard, wore corduroy jackets with suede elbow patches and spoke to us like adults. There may even have been a pipe, it was all very young James Mason.

One day in drama class (that is what we called it) he addressed the room to ask had anyone read “Ghosts?” My hand shot up. It was the only one, so he turned to me and said (tres, tres entre-nous), “Of course, you agree it’s a treatise on morality using syphilis as a thematic instrument, right?” I knew immediately I was screwed. Later I realized he meant the Strindberg play. Howeve, my “Ghosts” was a completely unrelated historical pulp fiction novel I’d devoured the week before. (Although, in my defense, it did have a very serious looking cover.) Self preservation kicked in. I was not about to lose this moment of personal connection with Chris Smith, heart-throb to the theatre community at large. “Oh, yes,” I nodded, “absolutely.”  The end. [Ed. Note: That was the day I learned about Strindberg, venereal disease and when acting like I know what I’m talking about, keep it short. Who says theatre doesn’t educate.]

By his second year at Immaculata, Mr. Smith had a veritable harem of female fans, of which I was one. We were all totally in love with him, blindly passionate as only a group of naive Catholic girls of a certain age and era could be for a clearly gay man. When he first arrived at the school, Mr. Smith resurrected the drama department with an energy and enthusiasm that was contagious. My freshman year saw an impeccable production of BLITHE SPIRIT, complete with staircases, gramophones and a flying Elvira. Even though Barb Ashooh did fall from the Foy Flying Harness and break her leg on opening night, we reopened two weeks later with Elvira in a walking cast playing to a sold-out house. Now, that’s show biz!  

We did Anoulih and Shakespeare, conducted a formal ceremony to initiate our own International Thespian Society (Troupe 1055 – see above.) We took bus trips to Boston and New York to see live Broadway musicals. We’d return to class sounding like so many Gene Kellys — “Gotta’ dance, gotta’ dance!” So we did. We staged the prologue from WEST SIDE STORY (that bit with all the whistling and finger snapping) and the Harmonia Gardens scene from HELLO, DOLLY (because we just happened to have a grand staircase lying around) and we loved every bruising minute. Our costumed bodies slid across the floor and descended the stairs — and all this during regular school hours. I do admit I had a leg up here. I could sing. I could dance. And I could steal choreography off the stage or screen like nobody’s business. But I still hadn’t managed to capture that elusive spot light…

INTERIOR.  IMMACULATA HIGH SCHOOL.  NIGHT.

We’d just wrapped our final performance of THEATRE OF THE SOUL by Nikolai Nikolaevich Evreinov, a 1915 monodrama in one-act translated from the Russian. This was full-on theatre of the absurd,  involving endless black drapes, jazz hands and multiple tubes of Ben Nye clown white. (I know, you’re sorry you missed it…) Frustrated by my role — silent in silhouette behind a scrim — I took a deep breath and decided this was the night. I would approach Mr. Smith.

In the darkened hallway outside his classroom, Room 165, my heart was pounding like a drum. Framed in the doorway and backlit by the streetlights below, he looked positively Humphrey Bogart on the runway in Casablanca. I took a breath,  “Excuse me, Mr. Smith?” “Yes?” he smiled and leaned in. Pregnant pause. Finally, “Ummm (polite cough), why don’t I ever get cast in the lead?”

Maybe I surprised him. Perhaps he found my blatant self-promotion unseemly for a Catholic school hallway. Whatever the reason, for the first time in our acquaintance his face darkened. He drew himself up to his full 5’9″ height, glared across the inch between us and said,

As the great Constantin Stanislavsky has said,
“Remember, there are no small parts, only small actors.”

With a jut of his bearded chin, he huffed away. It was a frustrating answer and not the one I’d hoped for. In time I realized Mr. Smith had an impossible task, distributing role after role to his hungry Catholic constituency while trying to maintain a semblance of fairness. As time went on, I also realized that a couple of the girls who had seemed to be his favorites — Sue and Carole — were just more natural Graces to Mr. Smith’s Will.

Luckily, he did not hold a grudge. That summer, Chris Smith realized what I believe was one of his life’s dreams and also fulfilled one of mine. He mounted a production of WEST SIDE STORY. It was my first taste of summer stock and still dazzles my memory. Chris was both producer, designer and star. In truth, his performance as “Tony” was neither the best acted nor the most musical, but it was certainly heartfelt. And he called in every favor and connection he had to get this show up. He secured the Practical Arts Auditorium — a beautiful 1,500 seat theatre; assembled a conductor and orchestra for the recessed pit; and rented the actual road company sets.

Although the rest of the cast were locals, he jobbed in a “Maria.” Noel Fratterigo was a soprano from the New England Conservatory of Music. She truly could not act but she sang the shit out of those high notes, which went a long way when you got to the Quintet. But my favorite move — in tribute to the legend of Jerome Robbins choreography, Mr. Smith had hired four dancers from the Boston Ballet. Our very own ringers — Chita Rivera and George Chakiris would have been proud.

So of course I was cast as a Puerto Rican. My Irish Catholic Consuelo looked perfectly natural next to Maddy Williams Episcopalian Rosalia. Strictly a musical decision, vocal coach Marty Battista declared. She needed us in I Feel Pretty since we were the only two girls classically trained Maria wouldn’t sing right off the stage. Fine with me!

And guess what? Remember that crazy habit of mine, stealing choreography? It came in quite handy on this production. [Ed. Note: Please remember this was way before DVRs or DVDs or even VCRs. WSS was truly event television, broadcast once a year. And I’d seen it every time.] As an unbelievable cast-building exercise, Mr. Smith announced he’d rented the entire downtown movie theatre for the evening and was hosting a private screening for the cast. It was the fanciest thing that had yet happened to most of us.

So of course, the next day at rehearsal I taught everyone the choreography for America and that lovely cha-cha sequence in the gym (you know, when Tony and Maria meet cute and dreamy-like.) Why, yes — the production did have a choreographer, a Miss Evelyn Howard. Her bio mentioned she’d entertained the troops in USO and Red Cross shows, and my guess was WW II. We’d been rehearsing for weeks and she was still blocking the prologue. I was impatient. I decided she was too old and slow, so I took it upon myself to fill in the gaps. Yes, she did notice. But instead of whacking me with her ballet stick, she offered me a scholarship to her dance studio. I dismissed her. (Oh, the ignorance of the young.) I still regret that decision. At the time I was convinced she had nothing to teach me. A few years later when I started to study dance seriously, I realized I’d missed the boat. Had I accepted her offer at age 15, I may have had a fighting chance at developing genuine technique. By 20, it was too late. Hubris, we have a problem…

Mr. Smith did not return to school the next year, no word as to why. I realize in writing this that I never really got to thank him. Not for paying me the compliment of assuming my fluency in Strindberg at age 13. Not for insisting we see the original production of FOLLIES during it’s pre-Broadway run in Boston when Yvonne DeCarlo was still singing Can That Boy Foxtrot before it was replaced by I’m Still Here. And certainly not for tossing a bucket of cold Stanislavksy in my face during the hour of my discontent.

If I could, I would thank him for the passion. The passion he instilled in me for the craft and the business of theatre. He taught us to build actual flats. He introduced us to costume plots and spirit gum. He explained all about Actors Equity and IASTE and Local 1. I’d thank him for the passion he bestowed with equal measure on the dramatic, the scholastic and the musical aspects of theatre. And I’d certainly thank him for the endless hours and I can’t imagine how many personal dollars it took to mount that fabled production.

But most of all I’d thank him for the passion he stirred in the hearts of that group of incredibly lucky girls. In the moment, we all thought we were in love with him and in a very special way, we were. Because Mr. Smith was the magic that is theatre.

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2 thoughts on “Mr. Smith Goes to High School

  1. This is awesome Dezur! There are too many fabulous moments in here to count and they are all described so clearly that I feel I am right there with you! I can see Dezur at 6 years old astride her father’s shoulders and I can see her pretending knowledge she does not yet have in high school and the desire to be the Star throughout….and the best part is that you really are the Star. You achieved your dream in ways you may not have figured on at 14 and I am so honored to call you friend. You are and will always be my very favorite theatre buddy…I can never hope to gather all the knowledge that you already have and I hope you will continue to share it with me!

    • Rebecca – Wow, what a lovely reaction to my little tale. I appreciate and thank you for that. And I’m quite happy you’re my friend, too! Any time you want to hit the theatre, I’ll be in the seat beside you! So happy you enjoyed this.

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