I have seen the video, my friends. We don’t get all that many opportunities in life to confirm our memories with hard proof, but in this particular case I have a VHS tape full of proof, and the main point I want to make, based on this footage, is that our elementary school was often PROFOUNDLY RIDICULOUS.
I am referring to a tape my grandfather must have made of our 2nd/3rd grade Christmas musical. I’m sure all of you were in Christmas plays at one time or another. In the South they’re unavoidable, even if you attend a supposedly non-sectarian public school. (My friend Sarah, who is Jewish, has a great story about the Christmas-Around-the-World pageant she was required to perform in during 1st grade. The teacher was going around assigning countries for each student to represent. When it was Sarah’s turn, she tried to protest, telling the teacher, “but I’m Jewish!” The teacher said, “That’s perfect, Sarah! Then you can be Christmas in Israel!”) Everyone did a Christmas play. I’m sure most of the ones we did had the basic Jesus-Mary-Joseph theme, with a backup cast of wise men, shepherds, and angels. But this one year, our music teacher decided to put on Angels and Lambs, Ladybugs and Fireflies – a performance that in the end required a literal ton of fabric, sparkles, and fake feathers.
Angels and Lambs is actually a fairly popular children’s Christmas musical written by a man named Fred Bock. I mention Mr. Bock because when I lived in California, I was often confronted with people who believed that intense religiosity was the strict provenance of the deep South. What I learned from living in both places is that each has its own brand of religion. The difference is that California’s is more televangelism than ours. SoCal is home to Mr. Bock (who was music minister for the Hollywood Presbyterian Church for enormous numbers of years) as well as the weird weird weird world of the Crystal Cathedral – whose yearly Christmas play completely outdoes anyone else’s standards of absurdity. (Their angels actually “fly” in from the super-high vaulted ceilings using Hollywood-type props – and with looks of sheer fright on their faces. Their stage has a hidden fountain, and they use real animals during production – including a couple of camels.)
The basic plot of Bock’s work is that a population of wild creatures – bugs, birds, lambs, and for some reason a peacock – are present during the shepherds’ conversation about the birth of the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem. They (meaning the creatures) then have a discussion about whether they should go to the birth too. They eventually decide that as creatures of the air and field they can spread the good news about Jesus’ birth, and that they will head to Bethlehem, telling everyone they meet along the way.
What I remember most about this play is the costumes. We had a huge contingent of kids spreading across all classes of two grades, and the stage was filled with little ones dressed as creatures of the earth and sky. Now, if this had been a public school production, the costumes would likely have been fairly simple – affordable. But we were not a public school, and most of our student body had money coming out of their ears and other orifices. So our teacher (whom I actually remember liking) decided she would follow the VERY PRECISE instructions on costume-construction that come from the booklet accompanying the play. (This play is available for purchase through Amazon, by the way. It comes with sheet music, a play booklet, and detailed costume and set designs, should any of you want to put on your own production.) Erin and I had to go to a professional seamstress to have our butterfly wings sewn onto our little black leotards.
So the first thing that struck me as my mom and I watched this old home movie were the crazy costumes. The back of the stage was lined with birds of all types – eagles, parrots, flamingos, and one poor kid sporting a peacock’s outspread feathers made from cardboard and taking up 3/4 of rear-center stage. Whenever he walked to the microphone at the front of the stage to deliver his one line, he had to move sideways to keep from hitting anyone.
Secondly, I really was very tall. I am by far the biggest butterfly. Also, somehow in a cast of probably 80 kids Erin and I still managed to get placed right next to each other on stage. We’re both butterflies and we’re standing next to each other the entire time, even though I’m on the back row with the tall kids and all you can see is the top of Erin’s head. I am always amazed at how much time we were able to spend together. In most cases good friends get separated during events like this, mostly because teachers are afraid they’ll talk and cause a ruckus. I guess our reputation as Goody-Two-Shoes prevented this. In fact, I am SUCH a Goody-Two-Shoe that I get cast as the butterfly who eventually argues that yes, all creatures great and small SHOULD go to the birth of Jesus. This seems on par with my childhood go-with-the-flow philosophy. (I was also the angel Gabriel – wrongly gendered – in numerous Christmas productions. My niche in these plays seems to be as the figure of ultimate Good. Interesting. I think maybe it’s because I had a pretty loud, clear voice for a kid. If there’s one line you want people to hear, it’s the line about how “God has sent his baby son to be a savior for everyone!”)
Thirdly, I remembered something about the powerful politics of school plays. We’ve already mentioned that Melissa was part of our school’s elite. And Erin mentioned a few posts back that Melissa’s mother was very young and pretty. But she was also a member of one of the local Baton Rouge theater troupes. In Melissa’s words, she was an “actress” – the sort of person who was always talking about doing “legitimate theater”. And it’s true that Miss Annie* always seemed to have costumes and props lying around the house when we visited. Once Miss Annie and her Junior League friends decided to throw an elaborate tea party with a 1920’s theme for one of Melissa’s younger sisters. Melissa and Erin and I were somehow recruited to serve tea at the party, and Miss Annie dressed all of us up in authentic Roaring 20’s garb. I have no idea why this happened.
At any rate, Melissa constantly bragged about her mother’s theatric connections. And somehow, some way, she always managed to get appointed as the “star” of any school play. During Angles and Lambs, she played Mary, one of the only two actual human characters and the ONLY one who got to sit down through the entire production, while the rest of us had to stand for hours during rehearsals, trying not to twitch or fidget.
I was complaining to my mom about this as we watched the video. And then she reminded me of something I had completely forgotten.
(Beware: cheesy moralistic ending fast approaching…) At the end of the performance that night, I was standing around getting hugs and congratulations from my parents and grandparents, who all attended our one-night show. (My dad even attended despite his bronchitis. You can hear him coughing during the video.) Melissa walked over to us and started talking to my parents, shaking hands with my grandparents, ever the big adult girl. Then, still in complete Mary regalia, she said, “Can you drive me home?”
My mom was puzzled. “Melissa, aren’t your parents here?”
No. They were not there. My mom continued questioning her for a few minutes, just to make sure she had full grasp of the situation. “So your mom told you to just grab a ride with someone else?” She had.
So Melissa rode home with us that night. And my mom reports that, even in the car, she was still the consummate actress. She delivered an extensive monologue on the pains of working with Mike, the very sweet boy who had been her Joseph. He was NOT an adequate Joseph, and he had NOT listened to Melissa’s various directives. My mom says that this really was a monologue – that Melissa was already more grown up than the rest of us, and that she knew how to work an audience. She was self-aware in a way that most of us wouldn’t be until years later, when we started grasping the border between fantasy and reality. Melissa was a girl who always knew EXACTLY what she was doing.
So, as cheesy as this is, it’s nice to realize that even though I hated her star power at the time, my whole family was at that play. Hers left her to find a ride, even though she had a solo and was ostensibly the star. I guess they needed to sit around and try on short robes again, or something else equally important.
*again, not her real name. But it should be noted here that we did refer to all mothers by their first names, with a “Miss” prefix. This is just what you do in the South. Only teachers were known by their last names. And although I am now a full fledged adult in my late twenties, if I ran into Erin’s mom on the street I would probably still use her name with “Miss.” I just can’t do it any other way.