I know it is hard to imagine, but I was a nerd in Junior High. I refused to wash my hair in 7th grade and covered my head in a bandana to hide the grease. By 8th grade, my mom had discovered an Avon acne solution that incorporated foundation tint to further hide pimples. It made my face look orange. In 9th grade I finally found my tribe and changed the trajectory of my lonely life in the warm embrace of the drama geeks.
East Cary Junior High’s drama program was underfunded and taught by a disinterested, mediocre English teacher whom several of my friends referred to as Devil Woman. Russell Barielle and Sean Cloninger would pass her in the hall quietly singing “She’s just a devil woman with evil on her mind…” and when she was out of earshot they’d crescendo, “Beware the devil woman…she’s gonna get you!” I always feared there’d be a moment where she’d turn around just in time and actually get them from behind. Sending students to the principal’s office was one of her favorite ways to pass the time.
Fortunately for me, one of the drama geeks was also my seventh grade crush, John Ledford. I still remember him walking into Mr. Smith’s Algebra class on the first day of school in a red checkered shirt and white painter’s pants. I couldn’t pay attention to the conjugates and exponential functions as I tried to catch his eye across the classroom. As far as I could tell, he never looked my way. But a girl can dream, which is pretty much all I did in Mr. Smith’s class until, inevitably, someone would slam a door in the hall or a wise guy would drop a heavy textbook at the back of the class and Mr. Smith would instinctively dive under his desk. Poor Mr. Smith. He had returned from Vietnam about five years earlier and clearly suffered from PTSD, so naturally the students loved to watch him seek cover with their startling antics.
The Devil Woman, Mrs. Martin, instructed us on making silly, stretchy faces while saying “oooie aaahie ooooh” and pantomiming animal behaviors, but what we all really wanted to do was act and perform. We wanted to step out of our geeky shells and become someone else. We wanted to be stars on the stage since we felt like anything but the stars of our own lives. So when it was announced that we would be putting on a production of BYE BYE BIRDIE that spring, we were ecstatic! Though my only singing experience to date was a painful rendition of “Born Free” at the 6th grade talent show, I was cast as Rosie Alvarez, the female lead and long-suffering girlfriend of Albert Peterson, played by none other than my math crush, John Ledford. My friend Sean was cast as Conrad Birdie, the Army-bound rock star. Conrad Birdie is wordplay on Conway Twitty who, before he became known as a country star, was a rock and roll rival of Elvis Presley in the 1950s.
I read through the script and discovered that, at the end of the musical, I’d get engaged to John and I’d get to kiss him. In public. I’d never been kissed before and I was nervous and hopeful that I wouldn’t mess up that pivotal part of my personal growth and development as an actress.
While Mrs. Martin provided the scripts and oversaw the casting, she offered little direction in the production. She sent the leads into the piano room to work on our solos alone with no accompaniment, but we goofed off most of the time and when it was my turn to sing, I made up meek excuses about having a sore throat or I left to go to the bathroom. Mine was the role perfected by Chita Rivera on Broadway. She was a fiery Latina woman and I was a freckle faced fourteen year-old fantasist who had yet to sing a single one of my songs all the way through. Our Conrad Birdie’s voice was changing and he struggled to hit the tenor and high baritone notes. By the week of the production, we had run the whole show just twice and merely blocked the song and dance numbers on the makeshift stage in the drama classroom/band practice room.
On the evening of the big show, folding chairs were lined up in rows in the theatre. Wings were created with chalkboards draped with black bulletin board paper. We got dressed in the adjacent art room.
Conrad was clad in a gold suit and his Adidas were spray painted gold to match. The back stage scene was chaotic. The gaggle of girls who would soon be vying for Conrad’s attention on the mock Ed Sullivan Show were warming up for their “We Love You Conrad, Oh Yes We Do” scene as they coated Sean’s naturally wavy dark hair in Vaseline to shape it into a smooth teen idol do.
I remember loving the spotlight. I remember the sounds of the folding chairs squeaking on the linoleum as the audience shifted in their seats. I don’t recall forgetting any lines, but I remember my heart pounding before Mrs. Martin played the piano for our barely-rehearsed songs. I have little recollection of singing “An English Teacher” or “What Did I Ever See in Him”, but I do remember wearing a bright red dress and dancing across the stage with my on-the-spot choreography to “Spanish Rose” in the Shriner’s Meeting scene. I remember just going for it in all my unrestrained glory, likely off pitch and knowing I would never sing that song again. I’m sure my heart nearly jumped out of my chest during the kiss scene, but I remember more the anticipation than that actual, unrehearsed first kiss.
It’s been thirty-eight years since our one-night run in the East Cary “auditorium” and my memory isn’t necessarily clear. There are no photos or video footage to prove this production ever happened. My mother, who diligently documented nearly every one of my life’s milestones with a photo in front of the fireplace captured no images of me as Rosie and there is no 8mm film that could have been used as a clip on The Tonight Show should I have ever made it big on Broadway.
So I reached out to the critics who were there and have lived to tell the tale. My mom’s sister was visiting from New York that weekend. She’s eighty-nine now, but her memory of that production remains clear. “You were so tone deaf,” she immediately shares with me. “If I’d not been stuck in the middle of the row and your mother hadn’t driven me there, I probably would have left.” She’s never been one to mince words. She had a fight with my uncle/her brother many years back and hadn’t spoken to him for a decade when he had a heart attack while on vacation in London. I called her to share the news and she said, “As far as I’m concerned he’s been dead for years.” So maybe she wasn’t the best person to contact for a charitable review.
I called my dad and it turned out he was one of the reasons for my memory of chairs squeaking on the linoleum. “I just remember squirming in my seat and wishing it was over,” he said of his daughter’s musical debut.
I found my old crush, John Ledford, and the golden boy, Sean, on Facebook. “I was never more poorly prepared for a role in all of my life than I was for the part of Conrad Birdie,” he lamented. He went on to be a lead performer in a rival High School’s Drama Department and did some modeling and theatre work in New York before finding Jesus and leaving the theatrical world that he feels has "a sole purpose of pushing the envelope morally, socially and politically." His Facebook posts continue to offer me glimpses into what Trump supporters are thinking.
John said, “I took drama because I was painfully shy. And you should know you were my first kiss too. I had a crush on you as well.” What?! How I’d love to tell fourteen year-old me that fact! He's now a marathon runner and former chemistry professor at Houston Baptist University. It has taken us more than three decades and the reach of social media to admit to the mutual adoration of our awkward youth.
And while the original Broadway production received a Tony in 1961, it was not oohs and aahs but more like lukewarm applause for the East Cary Junior High Drama Department’s BYE BYE BIRDIE, but in my heart of hearts, I will always be a fiery, dramatic, captivating SPANISH ROSE!
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As shared at Story Salon September 27, 2017 and at Stories from the HeART October 27, 2019.