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‘The Gruff’

In The 60's on September 10, 2020 at 5:20 pm

One of the highlights of second grade was the annual school play. Everyone was in it (by law) but it was common knowledge that there were only a few lead roles that could make or break a reputation. I mean-let’s face it-in first grade, there really were no good parts or good actors. And the chorus was a wasteland of anonymity-you may as well be in the audience.

I knew that as a five-foot-tall second  grader, I had no chance of playing anything ‘princessy’ (unless the janitor, Mr. Mulligan, took the permanent toothpick  out of his mouth and decided to play prince!) I could not be any character whose name started with ‘little’ anything, say ‘little sister’ or ‘little baby’. So I really lucked out when it was revealed that our upcoming class play was to be ‘The Billy Goats Gruff’. This was a fairy tale about a family of goats trying to cross a bridge ‘owned’ by a cranky troll who went to great lengths to impede the goats from crossing said bridge by threatening and cajoling them. (An old timey take on the  modern day guards who work the booths in front of fancy gated neighborhoods and the burly bouncers outside of hip night clubs)

This play held two possible roles for me: The Nasty Troll, and the Big Billy Goat. Being only minimally- and wonderfully- unaffected by the whir of what a girl should be (dainty, silent, starving, taking up minimal space) I began to actively campaign for both parts.

Yelling like a pirate for no apparent reason-“Get Off Ye Swing!!” and then (gently) bucking a classmate off of said swing with the top of my head for good measure, helped spread the word. (I kid)

Alas,  I was beyond pissed when the roles were filled with (surprise! surprise!) two boys. Sickly Daniel Colston as Big Billy (a sympathy vote if I ever saw one) and -of all people!- Joe Miller as the Troll! I happened to be ‘going out’ with Joe Miller at the time (what did that mean? Climbing the jungle gym together? Not giving each other cooties?) Anyway- I was furious with Joe for taking the part, and refused to share my devil dogs with him at lunch. Joe didn’t even care that he had the part, at least from what I could tell during my impromptu and extensive interrogation:

Me: “So, what will you bring to the part?

Joe: “What?”

Me: Who will you channel?”

Joe: (squinting eyes) “What channel?”

Me: “Do you even know  who Lee Strasberg IS?”

Joe: “What?”

Fortunately, the next day, when I arrived at school, I was greeted with the most wonderful and unexpected news. Sickly Daniel Colston had taken ill again and had been admitted into the hospital in the middle of the night! I could barely contain my joy! I felt like God had been looking out for me, and had pulled a few strings, maybe even made a few calls.

“My acting career’s on Fi-ya!”

I wished  Daniel to recover and come back to school of course, but the day AFTER the play and not a minute sooner! I knew he would be fed endless bowls of ice-cream in the hospital (the rumors had been flying for years!) so there was no need for me to feel guilty- even if I’d had the capability.

To decide on Daniel’s replacement, the first grade teachers slid open the dividing wall between the two classes, and  explained to us in hushed tones about Daniel, and in louder, happier tones the fact that we would need a new lead. Miss Almond asked if anyone was interested in playing the part and many hands went up. None as enthusiastically as me and Chad Reed’s though. Chad was even taller than me, and quite a bit heavier. He had the rarely sought after ‘male-pear’ shape, and had stayed back a year. I decided to throw out the race card of the day.

“Why does it always have to be a BOY?” I boldly yelled to Miss Almond and Mr. Speck. A hush came over the two rooms. Women’s Lib was becoming a huge issue in the late 1960’s, and political correctness was knocking at the door…..

The two teachers looked alarmed, approached each other, and went directly into conference mode. Mr. Speck cupped his hand over his neatly bearded mouth as he murmured, and Miss Almond raised the plastic bound script she held in her hand in front of her lower face, like an NFL coach calling a play on the sidelines. They conspired with each other, their eyes darting from Chad to me and back again. After what seemed like a long time -an entire episode of  ‘Courageous Cat’ could have played (and we wouldn’t have objected, had it!) and having been hit three times in the back of the head (two paper clips and an eraser) by obvious ‘Reed’ supporters, I was relieved when Miss Almond finally cleared her throat and approached the middle of the two rooms.

“Children- after much discussion. Mr. Speck and I have decided to go in a different direction this time. (A loud “boo!” was heard from the back of the room) “We have chosen Lisa Cee to play our first female Big Billy!!” This was met with lots of clapping, and more deep throated boos from the back, where Chad and his minions sat. I was usually seated back there with them, picking up tips on how to defend myself from my two brothers with simple household items like rubber bands and paper-clips, but I had purposely worked my way up front and center for the ‘BGG’ casting call.

Margaret (l) and Robby (r) thrilled to hear me brag about my roles.

I knew that beating Chad Reed to play a big-ass goat was a definite sign that I would be soon fighting for roles against Hollywood heavy-hitters such like Kathy Bates and Liz Taylor for the rest of my life. I also knew I’d be ‘discovered’ during this production, so I was of the ‘any press is good press’ school of thought, and I was elated to be starring in this Naramake Elementary off-off-off Broadway production.

I didn’t flaunt my win over Chad Reed too, too much, but I was no fool. I immediately began to call the play ‘The Gruff’, ratcheting up it’s cool factor. (Though some might argue it sounded a little like a musical starring Wilford Brimley) My character’s proper name was BIG Billy Goat, whom I referred to as “Biggie’- long before that Smalls guy took his first hit of crack in kindergarten. I started signing my schoolwork “All The Best From Broadway-LC” and began scouting the local Sears and Bradlees for possible head-shot photographers. I was no dummy.

I took the role seriously. Every day after school, I’d wander through my neighborhood, seeking out steep hills and stone walls, and once found, I’d climb them on my tippy-toes. I started shaving the tip of my chin with my Dad’s Remington, praying for a goat-like soul patch to sprout (it did, but not until 2012, when it was far less welcomed…) I wore pig-tails high on my head, and insisted everyone call them ‘horns’….I attempted to chew on Chicken-Noodle soup cans, but couldn’t get my mouth to open wide enough, which might surprise several of my future ex-boyfriends.

I took to calling my Dad ‘Baaaaaa-b!’ (his name was ‘Bob’) and was accused of being a ‘smart aleck’, but he was more riled up was when I tore the sports section of the Norwalk Hour into long strips and tried to ingest it. Luckily, he caught me before I’d rendered the Mets-Dodgers score from the night before unintelligible. When I tied two Spaghettio’s cans to the end of a string and tried to wear them to school as a necklace, my mother threatened to have my role terminated, and that’s when I finally picked up the script.

There wasn’t a lot there. Some braying, some huffing, kicking around some invisible dirt with my ‘hooves’ and having words with an ornery Troll (and really, is there any other kind?)

From what I could gather, all my character wanted to do, in this case, was cross this dude’s bridge! The story itself was exasperating to me, and I wondered which crappy sitcom writers were behind it. I mean-if it bothers this Troll soooo much that we’re crossing his bridge (and I’d like to check with Parks and Rec. about that!) -install a tollbooth (‘Troll booth?’) I’ll gladly pay! Better than all of this back-and-forth with each member of my family! The baby, for instance is practically a carry-on for God’s sake! Couldn’t we just have ONE BIG FIGHT and let the whole family cross as a group? I mean- why negotiate each member of my family separately? Do I have ALL day? I think not! And what about the trip back? I’m already dreading it! Although it did ready me for modern day air-travel, the story itself was maddening. I wanted to exclaim: “You MADE me lose my temper, Mister!’ (blatant entrapment!) but I had to stay within the shackles of my pre-written lines.

One of the biggest problems for me was the fact that my ‘boyfriend -Joe Miller-was playing the nasty Troll. This meant that a)I had to yell at him as if we were married, and he hadn’t even disappointed me yet, and b) I had to ‘buck’ him off the bridge at the end of the play. Even then I knew how to play the game, that feats of strength would only be congratulated when used by boys and men, and that shoving him too hard off of that bridge could threaten the balance of whatever being a boyfriend and girlfriend in second grade actually was, which although we didn’t know, we seemed to enjoy.

I was criticized for being ‘too soft’ on Joe during the rehearsals. Miss Almond, the play’s director was a hard-ass, and she loved to bust rocks! Shorter than me, weighing 90 pounds soaking wet, and sporting a brunette pageboy, Miss Almond appeared to be a gentle, soft-spoken woman who looked like an airline stewardess in a print ad. But put a script in her hand and her inner General Patton terrorized the first-grade acting community.

“Stand Here! Stand there! Get your hand out of your pants! Read verbatim!” Verbatim? Hey, Lady-I’m barely finished with ‘Dick and Jane’ and this show’s about to go into production! This Verbatim book is gonna have to wait. It’s like she thought we were machines!

I tried to get Joe to emote. I had hoped that while I barely tapped him, he would pick up on the cue to exaggerate the hit like an NBA player trying to force a foul, but this was way too complicated for him. He had the range of a bloated, middle-aged Steven Seagal, and he moved just as fluidly. We had to repeat the scene over and over again (and remember, my head was awfully close to his ass for much of the storyline, so don’t even get me started on the logistics) There was no sympathy to be had though, as we were under the Almond Regime.

I kept telling Joe, as we sipped milk out of our waxy red-and-white Borden’s mini-milk container (two straws, one love) at lunch ,”You hafta help me with the shoving part! I don’t want to hurt you, so please don’t make me hafta!”

Joe just stared blankly over my shoulder, like a cat peeing in a litter box, while sucking the milk dry-the kazoo-like call of only bubbles left on the bottom giving me an immediate headache as it echoed through the cafeteria.

“Listen!” I said, firmly banging my fist on the sticky, laminate table top, hard-but not hard enough to draw attention from the lunchroom chaperones:

“I’m going to the Book Fair for a few minutes” (read: an hour)

“We have ONE (I held one finger)-just ONE day till the play! YOU-NEED-TO-GET-PULL YOURSELF-TOGETHER!”

With that, and my finger jabbing towards his nose- I turned and sashayed away, purposely displaying my now perfect goat-gait, leaving Joe to empty our plastic lunch trays into the nearest available receptacle.

The opening night of the play finally arrived, and the gymnasium was filled to capacity with mothers and fathers, babies, grandparents, and of course, professional talent scouts and famous movie directors. I heard the crowd as I sat on a beat-up bar stool backstage, having toxic Halloween make-up applied to my face by Mrs. Maroney, the music teacher- who,  for some reason, seemed to think goats had cat whiskers. The ‘costume’ I wore consisted of an altered bed-sheet, stretchy pants and the creme-de-la-crap: aluminum foil horns! Really? I suspected the jokers in the ‘Lost In Space’ props department had donated these frocks. (Next thing you know we’ll be suspending a just-popped jiffy-pop container from the ceiling with fishing wire, and calling it ‘space exploration!) Do we have no budget at all,  people?!

Once in my ‘stage clothes’, I paced back and forth in the backstage area, chain ‘smoking’ candy cigarettes, swallowing handfuls of Chocks and throwing back shots of Tang. When the lights went down, and the play began, I got woozy with nerves. I watched nervously from the side as my fellow cast-mates took the stage. I couldn’t help but be critical. Scott Rudner blew his introduction paragraph , and just as I had feared, it took Sally Bantam eleven and-a-half minutes to read two paragraphs. I heard babies crying in the audience and was instantly horrified. Who would bring a baby to this? Do you take him to the movies as well? Babysitters  are a dime-a-dozen, but there will always be that family-loaded up with excuses and bothering everyone with their little ‘sweetheart’ who will not shut-up. It’s criminal. (Just where is Patti Lupone when you need her?)

I waited patiently as all of the bit actors got their moment in the spotlight. Joe was onstage practically the entire time, and I was already planning to ignore him for a few days, just to prevent his head from getting too big. I’d be leaving him regardless, once I set off to Hollywood (I’d wait till the end of June, tying up my second grade education  and picking out a proper ‘on-set’ tutor for the future) But until then, in my mind, Joe and I would continue to reign as the Brangelina of the back row of Room 2B.

Onstage, Jeff wore what looked like a leftover St. Patrick’s Day Leprechaun get-up, with a cheesy neon- green beard and mustache combo that looked an awful lot like fiberglass insulation. It both itched (he couldn’t stop scratching)  and smelled like stale beer. His ‘acting’ was stiff, but he knew most of his lines. Pretty difficult (wink! wink!) when they were such complicated fare as: “Grrrrrrrrr!” and the ever-challenging ‘Get Off My Bridge!!”

I would never have admitted it to any of these sniveling second-graders, but I remained nervous. I paced back and forth, and kept checking my Snoopy watch to see where we were at time-wise. Sally’s lack of reading skills had really thrown everything off, and with my math skills still at a second grade level (much as they are to this day), it was difficult to make adjustments. I felt like my entrance would be called willy-nilly so I could not prepare.

Miss Almond stood directly across from me, on the other side of the stage. She wore a simple birds egg blue shell, with a rhinestone brooch and tasteful cream pumps, but I knew better than to be lulled into thinking she had softened. I noticed she seemed to be searching for something, which I assumed was a shepherd’s hook with which to remove me from the stage should I decide to ad-lib. (The irony of the shepherd’s hook was not lost on me!)

Suddenly, I was thrust into the limelight! Mrs. Maroney hustled me along, pushing me firmly by the small of my back (way to treat the talent, lady!) and I found myself out on the stage, bathed in the red, green and blue spotlights. I looked out onto the vast sea of parents and children, when suddenly it occurred to me, as if by magic-there really was no reason to even be nervous! I was the one on stage, I was the one with the future, I WAS ALL ABOUT EVE!! (and not the old one, but the one who took the old broad’s fame away!) Most of these people watching me had missed the brass ring, and now they were saddled with whiny kids and wood paneled station wagons, but I- I was going to show them all!  Sure, I was standing on a gymnasium stage, wearing a cut up sheet and Reynold’s Wrap, but my acting would transcend all of that. I began to confidently belt out my lines to the audience of losers and has-beens.

It  went swimmingly. I was completely caught up in my role, hamming it up to the gills. Before I knew it, I had only one more task, and that was to buck my boyfriend off the bridge. I don’t know what came over me, but in all of the excitement, and with my adrenaline soaring, I decided to really charge this annoying Troll/boyfriend combo. I huffed and I puffed, and I went at him with such force that he was thrown clear across to the other side of the stage, out of the audience’s site.

A palpable ‘Huuuuuuh’ rose from the crowd, which then went sickly silent. (I briefly considered what kind of liability insurance my father might carry)-until thirty seconds later when Joe magically reappeared, knot beginning to sprout on his forehead, his hair disheveled, fist pumping like a champion boxer after a hard won match and the crowd roared. Whistles and applause-even a standing ovation ensued.

It was a s if he had done something! I’m the one who punched up the finale! I hoped he didn’t think he was riding my coat-tails to stardom anytime after this moment, but I was uncharacteristically willing to let him bask with me in the moment. Give him a taste- and a little something to tell the grandkids, courtesy of moi!

Soon after, General Almond herded us to center stage, adjusting horns, straightening tails and slicking back cowlicks with her saliva covered fingers. She began literally pushing and pulling us into position for the final number. Each time she corralled me to the back (“You’re so tall, dear! Talls in the back!”) I would simply leave and position myself again,  front and center. After the third or fourth time I did this, she barked her command at me like a dog:  ‘STAY LISA! STAY!!’ and rather than continue this petty battle, I obeyed- but made a mental note to invite, and then secretly ‘UN-invite’ her to my red carpet premiere. Let’s see her get past THAT security!

Using a ruler as a makeshift maestro’s baton, Miss Almond cued up the closing number. We all sang:

‘On a Bluff, On a Bluff

There Lived three Billy Goats Gruff

Little Billy Goat, Middle Billy Goat

(insert me here, yelling this next line out with gusto, thumbs pointed at myself:)

And GREAT BIG BILLY GOATS GRUFF!!’

It was a night to remember my friends. And though I wasn’t approached by a single Hollywood agent that night, I knew it was a just a matter of time and I set my sights on our next play, ‘Goldilocks and The Three Bears’ I would definitely canvas for the Father Bear role, and play it to the hilt just by observing my own burley dad in his natural, suburban habitat. aptly called The Den. The future looked bright and Hollywood, I was sure- was waiting with open arms!

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