Tonight’s song is Frank Sinatra’s “Tell Her (You Love Her Each Day)”:
As a young man I had an off-and-on amateur acting career. Most of my acting was in high school, and most of it was unintentionally hilarious. My first role was Dad in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” a role so dull that I don’t remember a single moment of it. My next role was a little more interesting. I played the role of Paw in something called “Down in Hoodoo Holler,” which had as much subtlety as its title would lead one to expect. It seemed to have something to do with a rich city slicker coming to the holler and courting my daughter as part of a plot to swindle me out of precious oil and gas rights of which I was largely unaware. I barely remember that part, as I spent most of the play lying on a cot pretending to be drunk and asleep, snoring loudly enough for the back of the room to hear. Working under the time-honored principle that there are no small parts, only small actors, I poured my heart and soul into that snoring.
Fearing that I was about to get typecast as the father in everything, in my next role I played a son– the Son of God, that is, Jesus himself. Our local impresario in Leitchfield, Kentucky at the time wrote and directed her very own passion play for Easter. The play consisted of the Gospel of Mark in the King James Version rendered faithfully into dialogue with little to no dramatic license. Get out your old red-letter King James Bible, open it to Mark, and if you see words in red, those were my lines. Even Oliver Cromwell couldn’t have objected to such a display of fidelity and piety. Aside from the black Rasta wig I got to wear (which I sported in a pre-show publicity shot on the front page of the Grayson County News-Gazette), the most noteworthy element of the play was the part where I carried my cross down the center aisle, right through the audience, lugged it up a platform at the back of the theater, planted it there, and made a pretty game attempt at acting crucified while the whole audience craned their necks around to watch. The play provoked mixed reactions. My performance moved the director to tears. My girlfriend at the time, though, who was Catholic, delivered a terse one-line verdict: “That was very… Baptist.”
But my most noteworthy moment on the stage by far– though it was really only about 60 seconds long– came in college. I have not stepped before the footlights since. It was that good. Georgetown College, my undergraduate alma mater, has for a long time had a yearly homecoming event called the Festival of Song. The Festival pits the various fraternities, sororities, and residence hall groups on campus in a competition to produce the best seven or eight minute musical skit based on that year’s homecoming theme. The theme that heady fall of 1993 was “Back in the Saddle Again.” Most adaptations of the theme that year revolved around some more or less creative but straightforward appropriation of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, or Western minstrelsy generally. Fun, whimsical, but not too adventurous. They made good, decent sense.
And then there was Collier Hall’s entry.
Collier Hall was the dormitory I lived in for most of my time in college. Fate (and the residential life staff) so contrived it that during my time there it became something of an artist’s colony for the college’s contingent of hopeless literary and intellectual nerds. I was right at home. Bill, my very best friend in college, was a brilliant young man with a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for provocative obfuscation. When the theme was announced, Bill conceived, and several of us helped write, a Dadaist tale of a boy and his lovelorn on-again-off-again relationship with his saddle. The boy encounters a variety of friends and well-wishers, including a Bootsy Collins-esque funkateer, on his way back to his wayward leathern beloved. We wrote and performed all of the musical numbers ourselves.
I auditioned to play the saddle, but that part went to another friend. My part was even better: I got a solo singing part, which is the first and last time I have ever sung in public other than in church. When needed, I can summon a swinging crooner’s tenor, so I got to portray a lounge singer vaguely resembling Frank Sinatra. I helped write the song, since I was the one who knew the most about Sinatra’s music. We settled on a sound-alike version of “Tell Her (You Love Her Each Day),” changing the key and having it build to a show-stopping crescendo:
You’ve got to tell her that you love her today
You’ve got to tell her … that you love her… todaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay….
On the night of the performance I was terrified and excited. I was also nursing a head cold and halfway to losing my voice. This fact didn’t help my nerves. Nor did the packed house; the Festival was held in Hill Chapel, the biggest space on campus, and the crowd was full of students, families, and visiting alumni (it being homecoming and all). I was terrified of flopping, no lie. But I suited up, opened my collar, let my bow tie dangle untied, and waited for our moment.
Which came. Because in one way or the other, the moment always comes.
When I perform in front of a crowd, I can never quite remember everything about the experience afterwards. I go on a sort of autopilot, and it is more pronounced the bigger the crowd. And this was the biggest. I do sort of remember singing my song, though. I have seen video of it, too, which I believe my parents still have on VHS (be kind, rewind). And I can say, in all humility, that I nailed it. Nursing my voice, I summoned enough vocal cords to belt my sixty seconds or so, building to that showstopping crescendo. And it brought the house down. My sister, who was two years ahead of me at Georgetown and was in attendance that night, tells me that she began shouting to the people around her, “THAT’S MY BROTHER! THAT’S MY BROTHER!!!” It was my finest hour.
My friends and I didn’t enter the competition with any reasonable expectation of winning any awards. Truth be told, we secretly expected that the judges would find our entry a deliberate nose-thumbing at the whole competition. We were clearly out to entertain ourselves, and being young and self-indulgent, we certainly succeeded at that. Much to our surprise, though, our entry took top honors, a fact that I am told caused some consternation among the other entrants. I can’t remember, but I seem to recall that whoever decides these things gerrymandered the rules the following year so as to prevent us from competing directly with the fraternities and sororities. I could be misremembering this, though. (If you are reading this and remember one way or the other, please comment.) All that was in the far off future then, though. We were delighted.
That ended my glorious stage career. I went on to other things after that. I taught for many years, and I discovered that that, too, was a kind of performance. The part one plays when one is teaching is some version of oneself, true, but it is no less a kind of acting for all that. But it was never what one would call “entertaining” except to spare the feelings of a teacher whose feelings one cared about. But I can say that, for sixty seconds at least, I took center stage, took up the mantle of entertainer, and had a crowd in the palm of my hand.