I saw my very first play in 1965 when I was 5 years old.
Three reasons made it a thrilling occasion: my beloved grandparents were taking me, I was instructed to wear my favorite party dress with my patent leather Mary Janes, and I had no idea what live theater was. We arrived at the small theater and found our seats rather close to the front. I sat in between my grandparents and marveled over all of the ladies and gentlemen, attired in pretty dresses and handsome suits, meandering to their seats around the circular stage. I could clearly see the faces of guests across the stage — the theater was that small.
I’m not sure what my young mind expected as the lights dimmed since no screen was in place to project a movie; however, I was quite startled when the “play” took place with actors within a stone’s throw of my seat. The close proximity certainly cemented the reality of the story since I was right there with the characters for the adventure. It was gripping, with a suspenseful storyline.
At one point, the beloved and beautiful heroine was about to be attacked by a wretched man sneaking up behind her. We all sat holding our breaths as he got closer and closer to her. My heart raced, and I realized I must help. “Watch out!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. Then I jumped to my feet. “Behind you!”
The actors froze on stage, and the theater erupted in laughter. I was quite confused. My beloved grandfather (Pa to me, but Tom Gignilliat to the rest of the world) removed his hat from his lap and pulled me quickly into his arms. “Emily, you must be quiet,” he whispered gently in my ear. “The actors are pretending like they do in a movie. Don’t worry about her — it’s all part of the play.”
What a way to learn that a play was not real life. Nonetheless, I decided the safest place to sit for the remainder of the performance was in Pa’s lap, because the suspense was far from over. Eventually, I slid right back into the mindset that the stage was actually a real life adventure.
Still a little unpolished as a theater buff, I was soon invited to another play with Mamie and Pa. As Mamie, my grandmother, tied the bow on my light yellow dress, she gave some well-needed advice about theater protocol. I took in her words as I admired her amethyst suit and her glittery gold charm bracelet. I wanted to please her so I was determined to be quiet as a mouse.
This time the play was a musical and was beyond my young imagination of entertainment. I well remember the name of it: Gypsy. Sound familiar to any of you? If not, let me share that my grandparents had no idea that this play involved a striptease. Gypsy highlighted the life of the rather notorious Gypsy Rose Lee with songs that rocked Broadway, including Let Me Entertain You.
Now, it was Mamie and Pa’s turn to want to yell mid-act. I think their choice words might have been: “Stop! Please stop!”
Gypsy was far more eye popping than any entertainment I’d ever seen. I will never forget the “bump de bump” music as the curvaceous and beautiful ladies ripped their clothes off to reveal bikinis that had blinking lights, everywhere. I was mesmerized, but my grandparents were horrified. In fact, they did not discuss the play during the entire ride home. At the time, I thought the reason was because the engine in Pa’s 1955 light green sedan hummed so loudly.
The next day, we went to church and then out to lunch with all of the family. When my unknowing aunt asked how the play was, I jumped up, and to the best of my 5-year-old ability did the bump de bump dance that had enthralled me the night before. While I, of course, kept my clothes on, I certainly gave voice to where the blinking lights would be if only I had one of those fabulous bikinis. Oh, my poor grandparents. So much for hoping that Gypsy had slipped past my understanding.
Nothing is quite like live theater. In keeping with my grandparents’ tradition, we have often taken our three daughters to enjoy productions at the wonderful theaters in Columbia. If local live theater hasn’t become a part of your routine in the Midlands, then you have a real treat in store. Check out the upcoming productions for the Town Theatre, Trustus Theater, or Harbison Theatre as well as the excellent Broadway in Columbia series at the Koger Center. Hairspray is coming to Town Theatre in May, Sunset Baby to Trustus Theater the end of February and first part of March, The BreakWomb to Harbison Theatre in March, and Rent to the Koger Center in April — just to name a few. Don’t wait another minute before you start making some great family memories.