Encore! Encore!

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The bulletin board in the hallway at St. Joseph’s School in Fond du Lac Wisconsin announced the first ever, all school amateur talent show. It encouraged anyone, everyone, to sign up and show their hidden gift to the world.

I was a ninth grade student, tall, gangly and shy. My best friend, Ruth Ann, insisted we enter. I don’t know why she was so insistent since she was equally tall, gangly and shy. But she was determined and though I was stubborn, she wore me down. Then came the real challenge. What kind of “talent’ did we have.

Ruth Ann played the piano beautifully and I was her attentive, eager audience whenever we went to her house after school. She’d open up the stool in front of her piano and from this treasure trove of sheet music, I’d pick the pieces and she’d play them for me. My very own private concert anytime I wanted!

For the talent show, I thought Ruth Ann should play one of her wonderful pieces but she wanted to do something different. She always played the piano, she lamented. It was boring and she wanted to branch out in a new direction.

We’d recently seen the movie South Pacific and Ruth Ann had learned several selections from the score. I remember how excited she was to show me her new found mastery.

South Pacific is the adaptation of a James Michener novel about a Navy nurse named Nellie Forbush, played by Mitzi Gaynor. Nellie falls in love with an officer. Then she becomes friends with Bloody Mary, the island’s native philosopher, played by Juanita Hall. When Nellie is disappointed in love, she and Bloody Mary console each other in song. It seemed natural for us to go from enjoying this wonderful music to wanting to perform one of these songs at the first ever all school talent show!

After considering several pieces, we finally decided the one that had the best music and simplest choreography was “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair.” We practiced our moves, mimicking the movie routine to a tee. After many hours of rehearsal, our confidence had blown up like a balloon. We just knew we could do it.

Next was costuming. In the movie, Nellie Forbush wore an oversized sailor uniform. I borrowed my dad’s. It was big and floppy just like Nellie’s. Her friend, Bloody Mary, wore a muumuu. Perhaps this movie had made muumuus popular; they could be worn as a dress or sometimes as a nightgown. My mom, the master seamstress, had sewn one for Ruth Ann. We made paper lei’s that we wore around our necks. We were ready!

Finally, as the show began, we saw we were at the end of the program, which only added to our anxiety. As the show progressed, we could see it wasn’t going very well. The audience had become restless with lots of chatting and laughing; soon they were hardly even paying attention to whoever was on stage.

The heightened nervousness of most of the performers made their presentations seem amateurish and stilted. It was a relief to see we weren’t the only ones experiencing stage fright. When the emcee finally called our names and, as the curtain parted, I hoped for the best, put the needle on the record at just the right place and the music started.

Our pantomime performance (called lip-syncing today) was clearly different. It was light and up-tempo. Pretty soon, everyone in the audience was clapping along and having a great time. The thunder of applause as we ended seemed deafening. Then the audience started yelling “encore, encore.”

Ruth Ann and I were surprised and pleased. We smiled broadly at each other and thought quickly. We had, in our long rehearsals, considered and practiced several songs from the album. I said to Ruth Ann that we could do “The Cockeyed Optimist” which had been our second choice. I went to the record player and found the right place. I signaled the boy operating the curtain to pull it open once again. We started the next song amid cheers from the audience.

But as soon as we’d started, Sister Patrice came up onto the stage. She waved her hands to stop us and roughly pulled the curtain shut. Once the music was turned off she said to the audience that the program was over and everyone should return to their classrooms. She then came behind the curtain and faced us. She said in a low voice that our performance was shameful. She said, with absolute distain, we should get out of those costumes and return to our classrooms. Then she stomped away.

Ruth Ann and I were shocked. What could be wrong with singing a song and dancing? We weren’t dressed in anything immodest or revealing. We hadn’t been “suggestive” in any way! We felt ashamed. But by the end of the day after being regaled with compliments from fellow students as we passed through the hallways in between classes, we held our heads high and enjoyed the attention.

Later I described to my mother what had happened. She looked sad and just shook her head. Mother had been our test audience. Devout Catholic that she was, Mother had seen nothing wrong with our song or choreography. Then even more so, I felt reassured. As far as I can remember, at school nothing more was said about our “sin.” It was like it had never happened.

While that was the beginning and end of my performance career, it was perhaps also the beginning of my questioning of religious authority. As a young girl, I was puzzled by what now seems clearer. Perhaps Sister Patrice saw our skit as an example of the sins that lie ahead for this prepubescent audience. From this, we‘d experiment and think about love, relationships and, heaven forbid, sex! How could Ruth Ann and I know what we had unleashed?

Or was it the words of the song? Washing a man out of your hair sounds like a woman being independent, not needing a man, taking charge of her own destiny. How revolutionary. How feminist. Perhaps, without knowing it, Ruth Ann and I were ahead of our time. Making a statement. Violating society’s rules, Or, starting a revolution. But wait. Perhaps I’m giving Sister Patrice too much credit.

Memories of my parochial school education are sprinkled with many examples of how guilt and shame were the overriding theme. I could have written any one of the many books published about the trials and tribulations of Catholic school. I lived them. Not being able to express myself creatively in the all school talent show has little to do with my being a “recovering catholic” today. But, that’s another story.

The older and wiser person I’ve now become has learned to consider the source when challenged and to look at all sides of an issue before forming an opinion. When I recall what happened to me and Ruth Ann, oh so many years ago, I have to laugh. And while Sister Patrice may see us as one of her failures, I think the whole thing has paid off big time and I have no regrets.

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