As kids, we usually don’t second guess adults. We pretty much take them at their word, which makes sense, since they’ve put in the time, and (in theory) have amassed the necessary knowledge. Sometimes they get it wrong, but when we’re young we generally view adults as infallible. It wasn’t until my teens that I began to question the wisdom of this arrangement, and by my late twenties I came to understand that as adults, we definitely don’t have it figured out. In fact, we’re just making it all up as we go along and hoping for the best. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.
But I was a nice boy, or at least I tried to be. My mom taught me that I could do anything in life, and really, was she so wrong? I was a middle class white American kid who believed in the goodness of it all—a God-believing, Uncle Sam-loving Boy Scout–so the deep-pumped optimism of Reagan’s America was a well that I was more than happy to sup from. Why question something that tasted so good? So when Suzie told us that we were going to Broadway, I believed her. We all did. After all, everything we did was extraordinary, wasn’t it?
At least that’s how Suzie framed things. She was on a nonstop mission to convince us that we were somehow touched by the stars, special and then some. She cultivated an environment of breathy possibility in which we were far more than just some kids performing schmaltzy musicals in some suburban summer drama program. She had us believing that true talent was coursing through our veins, and that that meant something. We all were little supernovas in the making, but only through her guidance and tutelage could we turn this raw electricity into something shimmering and remarkable, something powerful, something that would take us from the shabby auditorium of a local high school all the way to those legendary, storied boards of the New York theater. The big time, baby! We were lightning in a bottle, and she was determined to unleash us upon the world.
At least this is how it all seemed, at the time.
In reality, Suzie was just a kid herself, a calf-eyed twenty-three year-old who’d recently graduated from the University of Washington’s undergraduate drama program. She was a pretty, magnetic young woman with wavy blond locks who had also done a two-year stint as a Seattle Seahawks cheerleader. This only served to elevate her stock, especially among us budding, pubescent boys who all but drooled in her presence. The fact that she often conducted the more physical of our drama exercises wearing nothing more than the second skin of a leotard just added to her considerable allure (this was the 1980’s after all). Over time I came to memorize the supple contours of her body, and have to give her at least partial credit her for my own sexual awakenings. Not every teenage boy gets to gaze upon the splayed-out, be-spandexed form of a professional cheerleader day-in and day-out at his summer drama day camp. This vision was a fruit that I came to savor.
But first, the backstory:
I had come to Suzie through her mother, Barb, who was my elementary school music teacher, though her job title never adequately described what a force of nature she was in so many of our lives. She taught us much more than quarter notes, rests, and the difference between brass and woodwinds. She also produced and directed musicals, which soon become the highlight of my school year.
The formula was simple: she would take a well-known story such as “The Wizard of Oz” or “Pinocchio,” cobble together a script that would make use of scores of kids, and then lift famous songs (royalty-free!) from Broadway musicals (or any other convenient sources) and throw them into the mix. She’d send costume instructions home for the mothers to put together or sew, and a few of the fathers would come in on weekends and slap up a basic set in the school’s gymnasium. We’d rehearse the play for a few weeks after school, and then perform the whole thing a handful of times for family, students, faculty, and any anyone else in the community. The result was a sprawling, spirited pastiche that employed the effort of well over a hundred people, resulting in a standing room only gym for each performance. It was heady, spectacular stuff for a grade-school kid, and once I got a taste of it playing Michael in “Peter Pan,” I was hooked. I discovered the naked thrill that is a packed room delivering big laughs and applause my way. It was a straight whap to the veins, and a performance junkie was born.
One of the things that made these shows so successful was Barb’s own expertise. Before getting into teaching, she had worked professionally as a stage actress and had the chops to prove it. She had a big, brassy Broadway voice and could rip up a dance number with lightning bolts of old-school razzmatazz. She was an aging beauty who could blind the room with her smile, though she also possessed the no-nonsense demeanor so common to women of that generation. Perhaps the most endearing trait of all of those people who lived through the war years was this no-time-for-bullshit attitude. And Barb, for all of her showbizzy airs, had it in spades. She may have been able to belt out a tune or do a shuffle step in heels, but she kept a clear head and suffered no fools.
Barb, or Mrs. Massey, as we called her, knew her stuff and imparted it to all of us. We learned basic stagecraft, vocal projection, breathing techniques, and most importantly, how to sing. She taught us to blast out a song to the back of the house without shredding our vocal chords (it’s all in the diaphragm, folks), and how to visualize coming in on top of a note to avoid sounding flat. She drilled this into all of her students, especially those of us who performed in the annual musical, so by the time Suzie started her own program, she already had a troupe of kids who had been properly trained in the fundamentals of performance, as well as professionalism, a concept that Barb took very seriously. This gave us all a leg up when it came time to put together a show, and no doubt helped to fuel our collective sense of grandeur.
Inspired by her mom’s success at the elementary school, Suzie started the Kids’ Performance Workshop (KPW) in the summer of 1982 as part of her senior project at the university. Barb served as musical director and acting coach and for six straight weeks, a group of about forty kids learned drama exercises, dance, and singing from the two, culminating a fully-staged musical, using Barb’s tried and tested formula of banging out a script and lifting songs that fit.
I gave that first year a skip, choosing to attend Boy Scout camp instead, but I was in the next year, where I graced the stage as a tap-dancing Fedora-topped orphan smuggler in KPW’s production of “Heidi of the Alps.” The year after I played the invented role of villainess Morgan Le Fay’s right hand man in a version of “Camelot” featuring no less than three young King Arthurs vying for the the throne (spreading the love through casting was a hallmark of KPW). And then came “Galaxy Theatre.”
This was different. This was not going to be some kiddy show tacked onto the end of a 6-week KPW program, but rather an original musical, a fully-financed professional endeavor featuring the ensemble of kids Suzie and Barb had cultivated over the preceding years, with the goal of reaching the Great White Way. Suzie looked to the success of “Annie,” which was tearing up Broadway box office receipts in the early 80’s as the model. “Annie” had proven that a show largely performed by children could hit the heights, and Suzie was convinced that she had the collective talent and singular vision to pull the whole thing off.
The lion’s share of this dream rested on the shoulders of an explosively talented sixteen year-old named Alex Pippen. Alex had been “discovered” by Barb some years earlier and she quickly took him under her wing for development. He had played and sung the role of Peter in that seminal production of “Peter Pan” to great acclaim. Alex was a whiz, a musical prodigy with a soaring, pitch-perfect voice, backed up with crazy skills on the piano. “Genius” was the word freely tossed around at the time. The kid was an absolute natural and Suzie knew this. Alex was her ticket to big time. so she hitched her trailer to his souped-up engine and just went for it.
So in the year leading up to that summer of ‘85, she gave him the directive to compose songs. A mountain of songs. She would handle the lyrics and book (musicalese for “script), but Alex the Teenager was wholly responsible for the score–every single note played and sung in a grand musical that had serious aspirations for a Broadway run. Though a seemingly Sisyphean task, Alex Pippen managed to open a hole in his soul and deliver that score on time. To this day I still don’t know how he pulled it off. Was it the raw inspiration of youth? Pure talent? Or coercion? Most likely it was a combination of all three, since I knew very well the frightening scope of his ability (off-the-charts talent often intimidates), but later learned that at least on one occasion Suzie sat Alex down at the piano, carefully cracked open a can of Coke, placed it nearby, and said that he was welcome to leave the room only after he finished writing the song in question. She then sauntered out and locked the door. From the outside.
Alex’s talent and youthful verve guaranteed that the songs would be good enough to propel this whole vehicle along, but a musical is just a collections of ditties without a decent script and story to hold the whole thing together. The frame and the glue. This, along with the actual lyrics was Suzie’s charge. She responded by producing a sprawling script in which ten random “street kids” take refuge in an abandoned theater during a storm. This idea had been inspired by some volunteer had done at a center for homeless teens in Seattle during her college years. Now, this was a real issue, as Seattle was a proper magnet for runaways. Street kids were an actual thing there, though Suzie’s own very white, suburban upbringing gave her little perspective to tackle this issue with real understanding and empathy. Though she longed to help, to “raise consciousness,” she could hope for little more than to come across as a well-intentioned white savior who had no real clue about the reality of life of the streets. The result was a script with the tone and class understanding of an After School Special. Yes, she meant well, but the whole thing was just dripping with Pollyanna-esque tendencies. She just couldn’t help herself.
But this was the 80’s and cynicism was not something found with frequency in the mainstream. Unbridled optimism was the name of the game. Reagan and crew were embracing a return to the can-do idealism of the 1950’s, and it was largely working. We were living in Lacey, a suburb bordering the town of Olympia, the state capital. Lacey was little more than a mall, a strip of fast food joints, soul crushing, beauty bark-ringed “office parks,” a couple of big grocery stores, and outlying cul-de-sac developments. While some of these neighborhoods–like the one Suzie hailed from– featured lakefront views and private docks–the rest of Lacey’s residents were consigned to subdivisions that ranged from wide-lawned, middle class edens, to swaths of depressing future meth holes. And that’s not even counting the trailer parks, which were the dominant housing schemes in my neck of the woods,. Lacey, outside of the money on the lakes, was largely considered to be Olympia’s northern white trash sister.
But even then this wasn’t so accurate a portrait of perpetually misunderstood Lacey. Sure, a lot of the whites who lived in the “town” were poor and trashy, but this characterization ignored the fact that a goodly percentage of Laceyites weren’t even white. Washington was by and large a white state at the time, but Lacey’s relative diversity betrayed this reality. Much of this had to do with its proximity to Fort Lewis and McChord AFB, the largest military installation in the in the state, and no institution reflects the reality of America’s demographics better than our armed forces. The result was that Lacey looked nothing like lilly white Olympia, or even Tumwater, the true white trash sibling to the south. Lacey, instead, was a community of military families and others, and YPW always reflected this. The core members were white, black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, with mixes in between. Suzie and Barb drew from these communities of color not out of some liberal guilt (Barb, at least, was a stalwart Republican), but only because these black and brown kids were more than happy to commit to the program and give it everything they had. The fact that so many of them were bursting with talent didn’t hurt things either.
The fact that the kids of YPW were largely drawn from the lower class must not have been lost on Suzie, and surely informed her decision to make us a collection of street kids, since we could credibly pull off, class and color-wise. Because even most of the white kids were either straight out of the mobile home or just one or two rungs up. This idea of class is very important to what made this program work, and what subsequently staffed her play. A lot of us were from shitty homes. Every day of theater and performance was one less that we had to spend in the proximity of an alcoholic father, or taking care of our siblings while our mom worked. Of course I had it good. My family, while not rich, was doing quite fine at the time, at least on the surface (bankruptcy loomed right around the corner, but that’s another essay).
Suzie’s model for the show was Broadway for-profit, where you convince a group of investors to pony up the money to stage the thing in hopes of a return; if it hits, they get can wildly count stacks of cash as the tickets scream out of the box office. If it flops, well then they’re shit out of luck. This is a very risky, Vegas-like method of producing theater, but this was how you got to Broadway, so Suzie gathered all us up in the spring of ‘85 to put together and investors’ preview show.
We were given a 30-minute piece of the show to rehearse, which contained snippets from most every song. She booked the venerable Capitol Theater in downtown Olympia as the venue and invited anyone with money in town, along with our largely un-moneyed parents. Each potential investor was handed a slick packet describing the project along with the potential windfall it held. Suzie took to the stage laid on the hard sell in a spiel before and after the show. The minimum buy-in was one thousand dollars, which, to most of our folks at the time, may have well been a million. I remember on the ride home, my dad shrugging his meaty shoulders and laughing, “A thousand bucks? What does she think we’re made out of money?” The whole affair was seen as tone-deaf at best among so many of our struggling parents.
Still, she got her funding. I suspect a few of the more well-to-do parents kicked in, but most, I’m sure, balked. The plan was to rehearse the show for a couple of months, premiere it for a week in Olympia, and then take it to Seattle, for three-week run at the Moore Theater. A successful Seattle debut would then attract the attention of New York producers (a couple of whom had already responded with nominal sniffs after she sent them the show’s promo package), who in turn would bring the whole thing to New York, where we would all then bathe in the glory of the lights of Broadway.
All of us would be paid minimum wage for our efforts, which at the time was a staggering $2.30 an hour, with meals and transportation and anything else that could be dreamed up deducted from the final tally. Aside from the gargantuan expense of theater rental, there was also insurance and promotion to consider. On top of this, a whole pit orchestra of musicians would also need to be hired. The cast would commute back and forth from Lacey to Seattle (about an hour at the time) in an old school bus purchased for the task. The price tag for the whole thing came in at around $200,000, a whopping sum in 1985, and while I never knew exactly who the backers were, I was told some years later that after the initial fundraising failed to generate serious interest, Suzie’s father ended up footing most of the bill..
In May, she held auditions, and by June the show was cast and rehearsals underway. I was given the part of “Paul,” one of the ten street kids. It was a major role and I was appropriately stoked. Paul had anger issues and was the most skeptical, cynical voice among the group, like a younger, very watered-down version of Judd Nelson’s Bender from the “Breakfast Club,” complete with torn Levis and flannel, a very proto-grunge look. I was given perhaps the most dramatic entrance of the show, chasing an eight year-old waif named “Skeeter” through the aisles of the theater because he had stolen my donut, a capital offense, evidently, among the calorically-deprived children of the streets.
There were twenty-five kids in the cast, total, with pretty much all of us coming from the KPW program. Ten of us formed the main ensemble of street kids, while the rest made up the chorus, who, aside from providing vocal support during the songs, donned top hats, feathers, gowns, sequins, and tails to perform old-timey numbers as the “ghosts” of past performers in the Galaxy Theater. This reinforced the whole show business motif of the production. Despite its social commentary trappings, “Galaxy Theatre” was never about the plight of runaway kids. It was instead a celebration of the mythology of Broadway theater, utilizing the language of showbiz itself in an endless spiral of theatrical self-reflection.
Consider the chorus from the opening number, all sung by raggedy runaways who somehow become instantly aware of old musical theater lingo:
Come come come for the music.
Come come come to the show.
Come to the Orpheum Theater, a place we can grow.
Come come come to the gala.
Come come to the preview.
Come to the Orpheum Theater, where dreams can come true.
Come come come for the costumes.
Come come come for the lights.
Come to the Orpheum Theater, it’s our opening night!
You can’t deny that it’s enthusiastic stuff. Forget the depravities of street life–hunger, exposure, sexual abuse–this group of homeless kids were all the glimmer and spectacle of the biz! Hey kids! Let’s put on a show.
Going into the run, none of us had any doubt about the success of our endeavor. Why would we? We had faith in Suzie’s proclamations. What she said went, without question; her word was fiat. In essence, KPW was run like a cult, with Suzie dazzling at the top, and the rest of us scrambling about in a never ending attempt to curry her favor. The result was a constantly shifting totem pole of favorites, who were rewarded with special trips to the costume store, pizza dinners, or sleepovers at her parents’ house. To say that this caused myriad friction and rivalries among the kids goes without saying, but one cross look from Suzie my way would put my whole day in a tailspin.
As far as the show was concerned, it was a case of “if we perform it, people will not only come, they will love it.” This is certainly the line that Suzie pounded into our bones, and once we actually moved into the historic Moore Theatre for our Seattle tenure, her previous proclamations were infused with the weight of legitimacy. After all, we had gotten this far: a run at a great, historic theater. The show had been designed for such a venue, and now we had the keys to the place. Big things were taking shape. Everything now felt so real.
The Moore was built in 1907 and is truly one of the great old theaters of the west coast. The inside is a mixture of Byzantine and Italianate design–all pale yellow and deep rust red–with a marble-floored, chandelier-lit lobby. The place has seen vaudeville, opera, touring musicals, and by the time we had arrived, loads of rock bands. It was a major stop on the circuit for mid-range and up-and-coming rock and rollers. My older brother had recounted the glories of the many shows he had attended at The Moore, a fact not lost on me the first time I stepped up onto that stage. I’m standing on the exact same spot where Def Leppard played, I thought, shivering in the thrill of my proximity to rock and roll holiness.
Prior to that summer I had spend very little time in Seattle, but now, for a few weeks at least, I was allowed to steep in its glory. This was the big city as far as I was concerned, with skyscrapers, taxicabs, guys in power suits, and homeless-a-plenty. We were under strict orders to go straight from the bus into the theater, never to wander out alone. The Moore sits right at the edge of downtown in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, which at the time was a kind of salt lick for crackheads and winos. These marginalized and sketchy people were a fixture in neighborhood, and a source of endless amazement for some of us kids. One time I was sitting in Suzie’s car with Ryan McKay, the little kid who played “Skeeter” the donut thief. We had hit off during the production and I came to assume a kind of big brother role with him. Suzie was inside talking to the theater manager and had left us alone to wait, when suddenly a howling, catastrophically drunk American Indian dude staggered out from the alley and proceeded to kick the shit out of a parking meter, attacking it with absolute abandon. We slid down in our seats, eyes rapt, fascinated by the random violence erupting in front of us, just hoping he didn’t see us and concentrate his wrath our way.
Often, the ten kids who made up the main ensemble would accompany Suzie on promotional trips around town. On these occasions we were made to wear our “Orpheum Theatre” uniforms–cherry red sweatsuits with the show’s logo on the front. We headed to places like the Seattle Center and Rainier Square Mall downtown, where we’d perform a few spunky songs from the show and then hand out flyers in a bid to get those proverbial asses in the seats. We went into studios to record radio spots and once, a PM Magazine show from one of the local TV stations even did a segment on us, which for most of us was a stamp of utmost legitimacy. One of my favorite memories from these day excursions was a trip we made to the Showboat Theater, a long-gone 200-seat theater on an actual old wooden boat moored in Lake Washington next to the university. The place radiated history in a way that nearly rivaled The Moore.
But the Moore was it. That was our playground, a living entity of its own. Given the show’s obsession with the mythology of the theater in general, our time in the Moore was seen as nothing short of holy. Suzie and Barb never let us forget this, and as a result, we felt like we had been given the keys to a temple.
Every old theater has a smell, which usually skews towards the musty, given the dark nature of the places. The Moore smelled slightly of mildew, with a sweet tinge of beer and tobacco. The brightest spots were the dressing rooms, with their bulb bordered mirrors, and the stage itself during the show. When the stage was not in use, a single ghost light sat on a stand downstage center, illuminating the dark boards with its lonely halo. Sometimes I would sneak into the house and slide into the seat and just stare at that singular light, soaking up the darkness and the history of the place.
It was palatable history, a past so thick that you could taste it in the air. Theaters are remarkable places because they see so many human beings come and go, but unlike other busy places–say subway station or a department store, every person who steps into a theater does so for a very specific purpose. It is a place people are excited to enter, a space where rituals are made in a synergy between the audience and performers. A lot of energy is created and expended in such a place, so it’s no surprise that a whole host of superstitions have grown up around theaters. No one believes in these things more than actors, and even as child performers we were inundated with such stories.
According to Suzie, the Moore was said to had two active ghosts. One was the benign apparition of a young woman called “The Lady in White,”while the other was the more rarely experienced ghost of a man who had fallen to his death from the top of the fly space above the stage. He was said to be much more malevolent entity, slamming doors, flipping light switches, and flinging objects through the air.
Suzie told us about these ghosts on the night that we all slept in the theater. She held a slumber party for the cast, with all of us rolling out our sleeping bags right there on the stage, dozing off under the eerie comfort of the ghost light. The highlight of this gathering, however, wasn’t any story, but rather an expedition below.
The Moore Theater was built in conjunction with a hotel next door that bore its same name, which, while once a gilded age gem, had since fallen into relative shabbiness. Beneath the stage was a passage leading into a whole forgotten underworld connected with the hotel. With flashlight in hand, Suzie led us down a crumbling path into a cavernous chamber containing an empty swimming pool filled with aged wooden chairs instead of water. There were pillars and carvings covered in the dust of the decades, the ruins of a 1920’s era art deco spa. It was a hidden, secret place, and I felt like we were the first to venture into its confines since they shuttered the main doors back in the 30’s.
Suzie has us all believing the ghosts of the Moore. I was especially prone to such talk and found myself looking over my shoulder constantly when making my way through any part of the space; in a sense I longed to see one of the spirits with my naked eyes, though I knew deep down that, if this happened, I would more than likely shit myself. Still, I couldn’t helped but being drawn to the otherworldliness of it all. For me,the act of theater had always felt like communing with something else, something greater than us. Sure I loved performing for the personal gratification of people loving and affirming me, but I had always suspected that this thing we do in these strange, dark spaces maybe meant something more. It surely felt more important than just playing make believe to me, even if I didn’t quite know why at the time. Or now.
KPW had its own “theater ghost,” a very benign entity that Suzie had invented as a way to sooth the jitters and kind of bless the kids before they took to the stage. Her name was “Sparkle Plenty,” and while in reality she was nothing more than a eighty cents worth of purple glitter piled up in a clear jar, Suzie endowed her with the powers to elevate our performances into the realm of the sublime, and like Catholics chewing the wafer and drinking the wine, we believed it. Or pretended to. The very idea of theater rests upon this conceit of suspension of disbelief, and make no mistake, this whole experience of “Orpheum Theatre” was nothing but theater in its purest sense. Suzie was casting a spell that we all chose to believe in. We gladly played our parts–every last one of us. And in order for any of us to enjoy it, we had to cast all of our doubts aside and just buy into the whole gig.
Before each performance we would form a circle and Suzie would give her very earnest pep talk, reminding us of how extraordinary we all were, and how extraordinary an endeavor we were all involved in. This was followed by the passing around of Sparkle Plenty, who would then imbue us with the confidence and energy to walk up onto that stage and sell it. To dazzle ‘em. To bring the roof down.
But that never happened. Aside from some inspired moments, we never really dazzled. The roof never blown off. And Suzie had booked a colossal venue, obscenely large, one that we could never even dream of filling night after night. The Moore seated up to 1,400 people when opened to full capacity. We were pulling maybe 300 on a good night, and often much less. We performed matinees to 20 or 30 people, which, in a space of that size, was like performing for nobody.
Suzie had done the groundwork as far as publicity was concerned, but the show stank. Yes, Alex Pippen’s music was dynamic, toe-tapping, and hummable–even soaring to terrific heights at a couple of points–but his brilliance wasn’t enough to keep the thing afloat under the weight of a bloated, bush league script. Suzie, while very adept at inspiring us kids and motivating legions people to support her vision, simply hadn’t put the work in when it came to the book, and the results were cringe-worthy.
Look no further than the show’s climax: “Racer,” the cleverest, most Artful Dodger-esque kid of the bunch, is out scrounging food with his buddy “Willy,” another of the crew, when he gets caught up in the crossfire of a store robbery gone bad, and is shot dead. Willy carries him back into the theater, where all nine remaining kids weep over Racer’s bloody corpse, choking back sobs while gasping forth a cascade of cliches. Eventually the question is put to action: Should we stay or should we go?
Somehow, the decision is left up to me, “Paul.” After a teary, Pinteresque pause, I blurt out: “We should go.”
And then we break into song.
Tomorrow is ours and we shall be
All that we want to be and more
Everything lost is found
It’s time to be opening doors
Tomorrow is won so let’s begin
Reach for the stars and we shall win
We are the children, we’re the children of the future.
What started as a weepy lament now metamorphosizes into a celebration of the future! We’re not only the children of today, but we’re also the children of the future, which means we’ll never grow up. This, upon examination can’t be good news for any parties involved. Somehow, all roads lead back to Peter Pan.
This final number was meant to leave the audience with a sense of hope, catharsis in the heart of tragedy. The image instead was one of nine kids galavanting across the stage under a chromatic shower of balloons. All the while, downstage center, in the exact spot occupied by the ghost light off hours, lies Racer’s bullet-ridden, blood spattered body, with poor Marcus, the kid playing the part, doing his damnedest to not take a noticeable breath during that final, interminable half hour of the show.
The show, of course, was panned. The critics did their best to render their verdicts gently, well aware that their words were crushing dreams, but they had a responsibility to tell the truth, especially since “Galaxy Theater” had such openly stratospheric aspirations. I remember Joe Adcock’s review in the Seattle P-I, where he stressed how much he wanted to like the show, but in the end had to admit that he was “a jaded old man.” It’s somehow appropriate that my first exposure to the word “jaded” occurred during an experience that would teach me the bitter taste of its meaning.
Suzie was sideswiped by the critical response. She was left blinking and stunned. Her first reaction was fury, followed by disbelief, which then settled into sadness. It was as if it never occurred to her that the show could be received with anything but standing ovations and raves. The reaction from the press ripped the air from her lungs, and that day the P-I review came out, I recognized something in her swirling black eyes that I had never seen before: fear.
She had taken four of us (her current favorites) with her that day to hand out flyers in order to gin up interest in the show. Later,we stopped at a pizza joint on the Seattle ship canal linking Lake Washington and Lake Union where she ordered a pie to go. We sat next to her on the grass outside of the restaurant, watching the sailboats glide by underneath a honeyed sun, while she gripped her head in her hands and quietly wept.
“Why aren’t they coming?” she sighed. “Why aren’t they coming?”
That night she took us to stay at her grandparents condo in Bellevue (they were out of town), on the strip-mall dominated, soulless east side of town. As we took down the pizza in silence, I gazed out the window onto the traffic-choked road stretching miles beyond. As the day drained away, a river of headlights slithered along. It was a hissing, ugly scene, and I realized then and there that Bellevue was the closest we were ever going to get to Broadway.
The fact that “Galaxy Theatre” had tectonic flaws from the get go should have surprised no one But we were all so bedazzled by the whole affair that it never occurred to us that thing just might be a massive squiggle of turkey shit. Surely some of the adults looking on from the outside would have seen just how bad it was, but they chose to keep their mouths shut, at least when it came to us kids. Why shatter our little summer dream? Or did they, too, not know any better?
We lasted one more week before Suzie finally pulled the plug. The reviews were the ink on the show’s death warrant, and soon the lights came down we all rode the red school bus back to Lacey to resume our anonymous, mundane, very unfabulous lives. The very next day I came down with the flu and spent the next week in bed.
Suzie continued to do the Kids’ Performance Workshop, and I returned the next summer to work as an assistant director, though something had fundamentally shifted. The lustre had worn off both the program, and more personally, her. The experience of Galaxy Theater had allowed me to peer behind the curtain, and now the magic was ruined. Who had been a glowing, almost messianic figure had now transformed into a controlling and–even worse–exceedingly ordinary woman. Her word was no longer any good to me, and this, combined with teenage angst in full effect, cause me to buck accordingly. By the end of the summer she had accused me of being strung out on drugs, which, while totally false, made a certain sense. Such was the go-to explanation for non-conformity in the 80’s, an easy way to explain away behavior that may have more complicated causes. Some scabs are best left unpicked, I suppose.
It’s been well over thirty years since that starry-eyed summer in Seattle, yet I still find myself rewinding the experience in my mind. Magic is by definition, ethereal; we can’t put our hands on it, and those weeks were the longest period of pure, untouchable magic in my life, even if, in retrospect, it was all based on flimsy promises and, like all performance, a handful of cheap tricks.
The spectacular failure of “Galaxy Theatre” did nothing to sour me to the theater; in fact, it just threw coal into my furnace. I went on to perform, study, and produce theater for nearly twenty years after, though much less enamored by the “magic” and more in tune to the nuts-and-bolts of what makes a play work. “Galaxy Theater” taught me just how deeply a show could fail, so afterwards I learned how to better guard against it, to varying degrees of success.
In preparation for this essay, I contacted a number of former cast members to get their take on things. I found that an overwhelming number had nothing but positive things to say, that their experience in “Galaxy Theater” radiates as one of the golden memories of their youth. A few others, including me, recall things with more of a jaundiced eye, though in the end I think we all owe Suzie and Barb much more thanks than scorn. “Galaxy Theater” took us out of our mundane lives to a place of wonder; it allowed us to perform on stage and actually get paid; it offered up the multi-splendored Moore Theater as our personal playground; it showed us the vivid reality of city life, a front row instruction in the perils of crackheads and winos; it also presented me a glorious squeeze Angela Connor’s already substantial titty during a silent make-out session on the bus ride home, a luscious memory I have carried with me for over three decades now.
“Galaxy Theatre” taught us about possibility, as well as failure, which is a lesson best learned young. Most importantly, we were all instructed in the most basic and brutal rule in showbiz: It’s best just to assume that everyone is full of shit.