The King of Hearts said “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” That’s good advice. I’m not sure I know what the end is, but I remember the beginning. So let’s start with that and not worry about the ensuing chaos.
I was about 7 years old, sitting on the front stoop of the apartment building where I lived (on Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights), reading a comic book. A neighbor, who was on his way upstairs, paused to ask me a question: “Have you just been in a play?” “No,” I said, “that was my brother.” (My older brother, Kirk, as a result of a local after-school acting class, had made a sensational stage debut as Templeton the Rat, the previous year.) “Well” the man said, “if you and your brother would like to be in another play, we are doing Babes in Toyland at the Heights Players and we need some kids.” I’m not sure what I replied, but I remember the conversation ended with: “Have your mother call me if you want to do it.”
He gave me his number and a few weeks later, my brother (Little Bobby Shaftoe) and I (Little Tommy Tucker) stood frozen in a tableau on stage in the cavernous blacked-out theater space of the Brooklyn Academy of Music waiting to begin, the Victor Herbert musical,Babes in Toyland. BAM (as it is now known), was where the Heights Players (our local community theater) opened their shows. It might seem odd that a community theater would do a run at such an august venue, but BAM in the 1960s was (like much of New York) magnificent, but quite run down. In those days, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s performance schedule was quite spotty and it was most famous for the night, a few decades previous, that Enrico Caruso had emitted a barrage of blood in mid-aria (an event my pediatrician had seen firsthand and told me about). Nonetheless, it was an intimidating space. As I stood frozen in the darkness, panic gripped me. I thought of Caruso who (according to my pediatrician) didn’t let an exorcism of blood stop his aria. I feared I would suffer a similar, though less colorful, fate, but not respond with as much bravery. I thought I might be so paralyzed with fear that I would remain stuck in the tableau when the lights came up. Miraculously this was not the case.
As the opening strains of Lemonade for a Pretty Maid boomed out over the half-filled hall, the company (myself included) launched into the number. Fear left me, and endorphins disguised as joy filled my tiny, chubby, body. The synapses of my juvenile brain made a connection – art equals joy! It was as powerful an association as any junkie has made with that first blissful rush of heroin into the blood. And like a junkie, I have never been able to distinguish between the momentary high and the idea (however inaccurate) that pursuing it could become a viable guiding principle for the future. Although (at different times) individual disciplines obsessed me; in retrospect, it didn’t really matter what it was – theater, music, visual art, etc. Somehow the act of creating became not only my fix, but my raison d’etre in the most literal sense. Like a junkie – no amount of pain, exhaustion, futility, loss, or departure from sanity, could ever convince me that that this drug of choice was not only a vehicle for happiness, but the necessary structure for my life.