Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Street Acting Career

Entertainment in a rural community in the forties and fifties was often a thing of creative thinking and a willingness to be the subject of ridicule. The local school had a womanless wedding with my father as the bride. There were talent shows and musical recitals, square dances and carnivals. I often wonder if today’s children or their parents could come up with some of the things we did to provide ourselves with needed breaks from the hard work of cotton farming.

In the early 1950’s, our church, All Souls Interdenominational Church, called a new pastor. He was a full blood Italian whose parents had immigrated to Philadelphia from Italy. After a very bad experience with a local priest, they left the Catholic church and joined a Southern Baptist congregation there that was a mission to Italians who were fallen away Catholics. Their son, Michael Carozza, sought out our congregation when he heard about its interdenominational status. There were so few people in Scott that they decided to worship together rather than scatter their resources among several small churches. All Souls had a fairly wealthy congregation who built a beautiful example of turn of the 20th Century architecture as their house of worship. The building is now on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.

Mike Carozza brought some new ideas about ways to entertain ourselves. For one thing, all of our church dinner for the eight years he was our minister were Italian style. Among his talents, he was an excellent cook. Lasagna, spaghetti, and chicken cacciatore became standard fare. And who would have guessed how much Arkansas farmers would come to appreciate a pancake breakfast with side orders of peppers and eggs with salsiccia.

The other thing that Mike Carozza brought with him was a love of movies. We were near enough to Little Rock that we occasionally went to movies, but it was an infrequent treat. Mike found a movie distributor and set up Friday night movies in the church hall. Because they were being served up to good Christian people, the movies we saw were the classics, family fare and good westerns and war movies. We sat in folding chairs set up in rows with an aisle down the center. Some of the ladies brought desserts and made lemonade. Sometimes there was popcorn, popped in the church kitchen. It was easy to get the treats, as most of the movies were three to five reels long. Since we had only one projector, there were breaks between reels so that the new reel could be set up for viewing.

Here, I fell in love with Mutiny on the Bounty, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Norte Dame. It was this last one that led to one of the less than stellar moments of my young life.

My grandmother was a clotheshorse and loved to shop. My father, out of appreciation for all she did for him and us, indulged her shopping by taking her to Little Rock on many Saturdays. As we got older, we were allowed to go with her. By the time I was eleven, she would let me take my little sister for an hour or so to shop by ourselves at the Woolworths while she prowled the aisles of M.M. Cohen’s, Blass (later to become the flagship of Dillards), and Pfeiffer’s, all upscale department stores. The plan was always to meet at the side door of Pfeiffer’s at the designated time. My brother went with my dad. I had no idea that she ever went near any of the dime stores or the Rexall Drug where we could get a soda and listen to the tableside jukeboxes. Because of this, I thought I was perfectly safe playing a little joke on the good shoppers of Little Rock. We had just seen The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I was taken with Laughton’s performance. I talked my eight-year-old sister into leading me around our usual haunts while I pretended to be mentally and physically challenged. I took my posture and movements straight from Quasimodo. Jane had nothing to do but hold my right hand and coax me down the street and I hunched over and limped and grunted along. I was getting quite a kick out of the pitying looks and comments although one woman declared that people should keep such children out of the public eye. Her companion replied that at least, I appeared to be clean and well cared for. When I wanted to go to Rexalls, I made a garbled sentence that was something like,” Woah gos geh ahh danck.” Jane had no idea what I was saying so I pretended to cry and pull her in the direction of the drugstore. To my horror and hers, my grandmother had had a yen for a cherry coke, something she sometimes allowed herself. There she was coming out of Rexalls as we were approaching. Jane saw her before I did because she suddenly dropped my hand and stepped away. It was a feeble attempt to distance herself from the titanic disaster she saw looming in my future. As I peered up from my hunched over position, I caught the full blast of my grandmother’s anger. She took one step forward and yanked me upright. Had the streets not been teeming with Saturday shoppers, I am not sure I would be here to tell this tale. She did what she always did when she was about to lose the generally well-developed control. She spoke quietly through clinched teeth. It is a trait that my children would say I inherited. I saw my life flash before me and I was certain that the future held some dire consequence if I could just live long enough to see what that would be. She informed me that I was not to leave her side and that we were going to march straight over to Allsopp and Chappel’s Bookstore where my dad was a faithful and well-loved customer.

When we got there, my father took one look at my grandmother and her hand digging into my shoulder and excused himself from his conversation with the owner. We all walked silently to the car, and silence reigned until we got home. My brother and sister peeked at me whenever they dared, but neither offered a sympathetic word of comfort. My grandmother and father conferred in the privacy of her bedroom before my father came out and told me that I was confined to my room for the week, and would miss the next month of movies at the church. He seemed to be right there with my grandmother, and I was ashamed that I had caused them so much grief. My brother and sister stayed as far away from me as they could for the rest of the day. Maybe they feared that some of my inherent evil would rub off on them. Just when I thought I would be forever a disgrace to my family, my dad came in to say goodnight. As he leaned over to plant the customary kiss on my forehead he murmured, “I would have loved to have caught your acting debut, but you’ll have to live with your grandmother’s decision.” Just before he turned out the light, he gave me a big grin and a wink while shaking his head in disbelief.


  1. This is a classic example of what a bright,creative child, inspired by a movie would do. I was right there with you and enjoyed every minute of it. Funny!

  2. You were quite a handful, you would have gotten me in trouble along with you!

    My grandmother had this look that could probably melt steel...I know she stared right through me!

  3. The speaking through clinched teeth is a mom behavior. I'm not sure if it is inherited or innate, but either way, it works.

    You know, I would accuse you of making this stuff up, but I don't think you could!