When I was eight, I was in a play.
The local Girl’s Club (like the “Y” without the yucky boys) offered afterschool classes, and I signed up for Drama. Good thing they didn’t call it Acting. I suck at Acting but Drama is my life.
The drama class put on a play (I think the same one every year) about orphans and dolls. I think it was called “Orphans and Dolls”. A beautiful rich girl has outgrown all her lovely dolls and they are very lonely in her attic. The dolls somehow (I’m sure it was very realistic) convince the girl to give her dolls to an orphanage. The poor orphans get dolls, the dolls get attention, and the girl is happy for having been so generous. It’s a good play for an all-girls organization. There isn’t a single boy in it.
How I wanted to be a Doll. Orphans were okay, especially like in a Shirley Temple movie when she cried and suffered and still had fabulous curls. But the Dolls got to wear makeup and frilly dresses. Makeup was already my main ambition in life.
My problem was that I didn’t look like a Doll. I looked like an Orphan. I was the city’s skinniest eight-year-old. The thickest part of me was my knees. I had thin, straight hair cut off above the ears – at the barbershop (no hairdresser for me, since I had hardly any hair to dress.) I had pale skin and thick eyebrows, and was too tall for my age. When I see photos of the immigrants on Ellis Island, all the children look like me. But I wanted to be a Doll.
On audition day, the whole class got up on the little stage in the Drama room. We sang two songs, “Oh You Beautiful Doll”, the Dolls’ number, and “Side By Side”, the Orphan song. Then the teacher, Mrs. Barbara, divided us into two groups. One by one, I watched her direct all the tiny, rosy-cheeked, curly haired little girls to the front of the stage. The Dolls. Everybody left was an Orphan.
Well, if I had to be an Orphan, I was determined to be the ultimate Orphan. I had a great source for orphan clothes, as I wore hand-me-downs not only from my sisters, but from the neighbors – and many of them came down to me in such sorry shape that even my frugal mother wouldn’t let me wear them. I would add some patches (or more patches) to one of the worst rejects, and I would certainly look more hopeless than all the other Orphans.
Only my mother wouldn’t let me. Apparently she had too much pride to let me look that bad, even in a play. I wonder now what she was thinking. Could she have been some precursor of political correctness, where she didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings who might truly be an orphan? Was she afraid that I already looked too pathetic in my natural state?
My mother was insistent. Orphans didn’t wear rags. They usually wore some type of uniform. But I already wore a uniform to school every day – a navy blue jumper with a white blouse. It wasn’t acting if I couldn’t wear a costume.
So my mother made some creative changes. She had me put the jumper on first, and over it, my sister’s blouse with the sailor collar. Too big for me, the blouse hung long over my jumper. That’s a middy blouse, my mother explained. Then she gave me black tights (my sister’s – I wasn’t allowed to wear black) and my Sunday shoes. Now you look like a proper Orphan, said my mother.
I’d rather have worn the rags, but I did kind of like the long blouse. To this day, I find myself attracted to long, loose tops over dark skirts and black stockings.
The night of the play, the dressing room (well, hallway) was filled with rouged and lipsticked Dolls. Some of them even had mascara and eyeshadow. The lead role, the girl who owned the dolls, was – by some weird coincidence – the teacher’s daughter. She had a dance solo. Mrs. Barbara Junior had full makeup and shiny hairspray—and tap shoes. They were patent leather with big bows. They were very clicky. They were magnificent shoes.
I found the rest of the orphans in the back of the hallway. Every one of them wore rags – with patches and tears. Two of them were barefoot. One girl – what a stroke of genius – had her arm in a sling! And there I was, the Coco Chanel of the Orphan world.
I went on stage, mortified that my costume was all wrong. But I played my part as dramatically as I could, which meant nodding my head emphatically, since I didn’t have any lines.
After the play, I sought out my mother in the folding-chaired audience. She was chatting with a woman whose daughter was the tiniest and cutest of the Dolls. My mother waved me over, but the little girl wore so many crinolines, I had to stand back about three feet. The woman leaned past the ruffles as best she could, and said loudly that I had the most authentic costume of all the girls. “Absolutely authentic,” she said.
I’m sure my mother put her up to it.