Thursday, February 19, 2015


After opening night: Melba Day Sparks and myself

Melba Day Sparks was the teacher who created my new family and made a bridge to college.  I wasn’t the only one.  Six feet tall, glamorously dressed, married to the gallant older Victor Sparks, she had no children.  Just before I started high school in 1953, Jefferson HS had built a wing for the arts with a professional-level auditorium theatre that Sparks helped to design.  

There was also an orchestra room and a chorus room with high quality sound design. The three teachers regularly collaborated to present plays, concerts, assemblies of all sorts and high quality.  The classroom for dramatics was equipped to present plays in the intimate circle way, the audience sitting in chairs that could be rearranged, so close to the actors that they had to keep their feet out of the way.  I was a duck finally discovering water and reaching for swandom.  This was as good as books.

"Mrs. McThing"

"Alice in Wonderland."
I was the sheep.  It was NOT type-casting.

Melba Day Sparks (we always used all three names) was a Northwestern University School of Speech graduate in the Thirties -- I’m working backwards to guess the year.  During the war years she was with her parents in Portland and worked at the shipyards, I think.  At some point she taught in cold “portables” and the decrepit auditorium had a light board that occasionally burst into flames.  They kept a fire extinguisher nearby and the play continued.

One boy went up to the catwalks above the ceiling to set lights and accidentally stepped off the plank, so that Sparks heard screams and got to the auditorium in time to see his legs sticking through the ceiling, bicycling desperately.  There were lots of stories and she told them -- well -- dramatically.  Her stagecrew often included guys who were a little rough, maybe a little too experienced for high school, but so devoted that once she intervened just in time to rescue one who had been missing rehearsals/  His co-crew were trying to hang him from the fly gallery.  The rope went under his arms, but still!  Another time a batten (long pipe to hang scenery) fell right on her, knocking her cold, terrifying everyone.  In those days people didn't know to do mouth-to-mouth, but I'm not sure anyone would have dared.

I should have formally interviewed her at some point.  She was very “connected. ” The standard high school text, “The Stage and the School” by Katharine Anne Ommanney (1960 version published by McGraw-Hill.  1932) is illustrated in part by photos taken at Jefferson.  I’m not in any of them.  Just chance.)  Ommanney was the same generation as Alvina Krause but taught in Denver.  The text is outdated now, mostly because of electronics, but none has been more comprehensive and reliable.

We were self-governing, working as a "Theatre Board."
This was a sort of Oscar night.

I cleaned up, won everything.  "Persona" for acting and "Stage Crew" for the backstage stuff.

The ethos was a benign version of war mixed with Brit gentry tropes, meaning that it was a group effort with a goal in common to which we committed without ego and star turns.  At least that was the ideal.  We were organized, serious, presenting Broadway plays.  My first part was Marge, the overweight but cheerful co-ed in “Time Out for Ginger” about a high-school girl determined to be a football player, which everyone considered to be an impossible and hilarious idea.  By the time we got to the Senior Class Play, which was “Anastasia,” I played the Dowager Empress.  I was double-cast so I didn’t get all superior about it, but in the climax scene someone in the audience sobbed.  Wow.

My fans.

I was supposed to be a role model.

My family treated being in a play as a big deal and I soon had a little claque of relatives who attended everything except the assemblies, which were for students.  Sparks’ year was always climaxed with the Rose Festival Princess choice, part of the time’s obsession with female competitions -- it has never gone away.  Her challenge was to present the winner dramatically.  One year they came down a series of ramps and another they penetrated a curtain at the top of a flight of stairs.  A certain amount of rehearsal was required.  One of the best was a labyrinth of scrims, each swept back at the edge by a cluster of crepe paper roses.  I can still make a decent crepe paper rose.  Another winner was the girls on swings like a Fragonard painting.  The ropes were twined with roses.

But the skill I learned that has served me well ever since then was the ability to be funny.  A little exaggeration, surprise displacement, tweaking the context, looking stunned by what I just said, holding still while the laughter built, this was not a matter of pratfalls and silliness, which is what some think.  Rather it was a bit of Irish bitterness and facing facts no one wanted to admit existed.  Later it fit well with Native American self-deprecating irony and cowboy tall tales.  But that wasn’t a Thespian matter.

Neither were my other classes.  "A" level girls were shunted into “Enriched English” and "A" level boys were guided to science and math.  None of my English teachers were that astute though several were clever.  The best, Katharine Tyler, had major health issues and was absent a lot.  She taught American lit.  When we got to Walt Whitman, the sub was supposed to read  out loud the marked places ONLY, but got confused and read us the wrong verses.  Sudden scramble to find the right place in our copies. The other good English teacher, Martha Shull, was gone a lot, too, because she was the president of the National Education Association that year.

But the Social Studies teacher (and those years we really addressed the nature of democracy, the machinery of governance, but very little economics) Carlie Gilstrap was an independent old maid who was rumored to be a crack shot with a revolver.  This was 1956 and Hungary was trying to escape the Big Bear Russia.  We were totally involved.  When I got up at 5AM to do homework, I was also listening for the Hungarian news.  Sometimes everything was too much and I had a screaming meltdown.

My favorite poem at the time was by e e cummings.  It has remained relevant. 

We were SO optimistic.  Then it all fell so far.

Thanksgiving (1956) by e.e. Cummings

This is e.e. Cummings' famous poem on American cravenness during the Cold War, when after encouraging Hungarians to rise up against Soviet oppression, the United States abandoned them to be crushed by Moscow

a monstering horror swallows
this unworld me by you
as the god of our fathers' father bows
to a which that walks like a who
but the voice-with-a-smile of democracy
announces night & day
"all poor little peoples that want to be free
just trust in the u s a"
suddenly uprose hungary
and she gave a terrible cry
"no slave's unlife shall murder me
for i will freely die"
she cried so high thermopylae
heard her and marathon
and all prehuman history
and finally The UN
"be quiet little hungary
and do as you are bid
a good kind bear is angary
we fear for the quo pro quid"
uncle sam shrugs his pretty
pink shoulders you know how
and he twitches a liberal titty
and lisps "i'm busy right now"
so rah-rah-rah democracy
let's all be as thankful as hell
and bury the statue of liberty
(because it begins to smell)

So when I got to reading-up on Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in order to portray her in “Anastasia,” I had a bit of subtext.  “Don’t delude yourself,” says the Empress.  “The ants are in power, the red ants!  Some day ants of a different color may take their place but they will still be ants!”  I wasn’t sure I could remember the speech, but I did.  I have the script and checked it. 

For me, dramatics was no frill.  Poetry was no romantic escape.  It was life, then and there.  When the Vanport flood displaced Kaiser’s Black population into the Jefferson district and student body, the dramatics program transformed into an outstanding stage dancing troupe called “The Jefferson Dancers.”  The company was founded by Mary Vinton Folberg (her brother is Will Vinton) in the early 1980s. Folberg served as artistic director of the dance company from its founding until the mid-1990s.  This is what social action can look like.

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