As I mentioned in my previous post, Lenny was involved with the music dept. at Anderson. He would later be president of the choir. One afternoon after class, I wasn't doing anything. He asked me if I would help him move a piano onstage of the auditorium, after the play rehearsal was over. They needed the piano for chapel the next day. Even though I had the experience with the Theatre, I was majoring in English to become a writer, and I was not real interested in doing plays. It took up too much time. Time I wanted for fun.
Lenny and I sat in the back of the auditorium, waiting to do our thing with the piano. A guy named Reed came up to us and asked us if we wanted to be in the play. He said there were two minor roles that had not been cast. The play was "Up the Down Staircase", and it had a pretty big cast. Lenny said no, but I asked what one of the part were. Reed said they had a part called Mr. Bester, who was an English teacher, and he had very few lines. I thought why not, so I agreed to do it, as it wouldn't be much of a stretch for me, and it wouldn't cut into my fun time.
The director of the play was a professor at the school. His name was Mr. Vivian, and he taught Speech and Drama. He knew my father, as they were in seminary together years before. Not to sound egotistical or anything, but there were very few people in Baptist circles that my father didn't know. Anyway, I volunteered for the part. They asked me what experience I had in Theatre, and I cited Columbia College. That was good enough for them.
I went to all of the rehearsals, even if I wasn't going to be called. I just enjoyed the experience of the rehearsal. I got to where I knew everyone's lines besides just mine. The night of the dress rehearsal was when chaos set in. The lead male role was a guy named Joe Ferrone. He was a difficult student that the teacher tried to help. The actor playing the role was a guy named Chris, who really looked the part. He was very good in the role. At the time for the dress rehearsal, Chris was nowhere to be found. The word came down to us that he had quit school. Mr. Vivian came to me and asked me if I would play Joe. I knew the lines. I knew the blocking. But, what about Mr. Bester? Mr. Vivian said that they would change some stuff around, and I would play both parts, with Mr. Bester not being seen.
For two days, I cut all of my classes and began to cram for the role. I spent a lot of time of the stage going over lines and blocking. Chris had longer hair that me, so Mr. Vivian took me to a wig store, and we got something called the Joe Namath wig to make my hair a little longer. I also did some stuff to get a costume together. I had to pull this off for the sake of the show.
On opening night, Chris showed up and wanting to play his part. He apologized for skipping school, and he said the pressure had gotten too great. I was very willing to have Chris take the part back, but Mr. Vivian made the decision. I was to do it. The meeting backstage was very tense, but most of the cast agreed with Mr. Vivian. Since the play took place in a classroom, I was able to use a notebook as a cheat sheet for my lines. The audience never knew that. After the play was over that first night, Chris came up to me and said I did good. A reporter from the local newspaper said in the review that I did the best I could considering I got the role two days before opening night. I really didn't know how to take the review, but it did encourage me to do better, if there was a next time.
If the drama bug had bit me at Columbia College, it bit me harder now. There were people in the cast like Debbie, Ann and Nancy who recognized my talent and encouraged me to do more. I decided to change my major from English to Speech and Drama. It was a life-changing decision. I got applause for my work. Once again, people told me I had talent. I was the talk of the school. I was not used to that, but it felt good. I don't recommend anyone taking a role that soon before a show, but I pulled it off.
I live in a world of what ifs. What if Lenny had not asked me to help him with the piano? What if Reed had not asked me to do a small role? What if Chris had not left school two days before opening night? What if Mr. Vivian had not had faith in me? I guess I would never had done a lot of plays. I guess I wouldn't have been in movies or TV. But, all the stars aligned for me that time, and my life changed forever.