Friday, March 27, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth

Long before the invention of Wii, Xbox, or PS3; before PCs and Blackberries, cell phones and iPods—even before plasma TVs and movies-on-demand, kids in my neighborhood knew how to have fun.

Life in the 60s was slower: Phones had rotary dials on them and if the number you were dialing had a lot of zeros, it took a while to call your friends. Then again, you might have shared a party line with your neighbors and had to wait for the phone to even be available. Music at our house was made on a portable stereo that played vinyl record albums. (Records look like CDs only bigger and black.) I sat for hours listening to my parents old LPs—Johnny Cash singing, “I Fell into a Burning Ring of Fire,” or Roger Miller’s uplifting lyrics: “Dang me, Dang me--I oughta take a rope and hang me...

Since summer lasted so long, kids looked for activities that took a while. One of my favorite things to do was read. I read every chance I got, beginning with the cereal boxes I corralled around me as I ate breakfast, to the back of the Kotex box (what was that?) in the bathroom, the Sunday Funnies, Dear Abby, and every publication I could get my hands on. If I couldn’t check out a library book (in the summer, the school library was closed) I’d reread the few I already owned such as Lad, a Dog, and Black Beauty. And, on the hottest days of summer, you could find any number of kids sprawled on the cool floor of Borg Drug, reading comic books from the magazine display for free.

When I wasn’t reading, I was writing. I wrote stories and screenplays in my head and sometimes on paper. I spent hours illustrating my own work with pencil and ink and watercolors. But as rich as my inner life was, nothing compared to seeing a dream come to life—and no summer was complete without at least one major theatrical production.

The summer I was 11, I wrote, directed, and starred in a murder mystery. (I forget the storyline but it was something about jewels and a bank robbery.) You might think this was a lot for one kid but, being the oldest in a neighborhood swarming with children, I became good at motivating and recruiting. I chose all my supporting cast and distributed their scripts, all hand-copied by yours truly. (I became understandably upset if they lost their scripts—oh, for a printing press of my own!) I convinced all the children in the neighborhood to clean out the Koefod’s garage so we could hold our play inside. We hung blankets for curtains and collected lawn chairs from surrounding yards so the audience would have somewhere to sit. I deployed some of the younger kids to downtown businesses to collect paper sacks we could fill with popcorn and sell. (Note: If you use an electric popcorn popper outside while standing barefoot on wet grass you WILL get a shock.) Others entreated their moms to make bars or lemonade—also to be sold as concessions. Then, a few of the kind parents who had donated all the goodies and accessories graciously came to our production, bought tickets and paid to eat the food they’d made. Our profits that day totaled nearly $12, which we donated to UNICEF.

Most summers, we tried to have a circus. I say “tried” because things never came out exactly as I pictured them in my mind. I envisioned our entire backyard outlined in rope and draped with blankets like a real circus tent (minus the roof.) But no matter how much I begged and borrowed, we couldn’t come up with enough blankets that adults were willing to permit outside. I imagined colorful costumes and organ music and, well….live elephants. And then the fighting and the complaining I had to contend with! I asked Vickie to be the Ringmaster because I knew I would be preoccupied with my Dog Act and my Juggling Performance, which I had yet to master with more than two objects. It seemed EVERYONE wanted to be the Ringmaster.

“But we need CLOWNS, people!” I reminded them. “What is a circus without CLOWNS!? Plus you get to wear real make-up!” I made a mental note to myself to see if I could borrow some rouge and eyeliner from my Gram. (I was still plagued with what to do about costumes since my sewing skills were limited to whatever could be secured with staples and scotch tape.)

I had Fritz up on the picnic table and was trying to teach him to dance on his hind legs. He was itchy in his costume and kept snatching treats from my hand when I was distracted. Renee and Brenda were pouting about having to be clowns. I told Vonnie she could be a man-eating tiger but she was sitting on the ground with her pillow, sucking her thumb—clearly succumbing to her afternoon nap—the antithesis of anything wild. Brian was feeling disagreeable about the whole affair and ran around pulling down the few blankets I had managed to secure, laughing maniacally. I couldn’t believe Barnum and Bailey had it this hard!

“Could somebody find me an extension cord,” I yelled, brushing sweaty bangs from my eyes. I had the record player all set up, ready to add some ambiance to our production, even if it had to be Country Western. The yard was in total chaos. Everyone was doing their own thing. Exasperated, I called the whole group together for an emergency meeting.

“What is it that you want to do?” I asked with weary resignation as I slumped down on the grass.

One by one, they told me. We ended up with several Ringmasters, some acrobats who performed semi-daring moves on the swingset, a costume-less dog act, a weak juggling act, and a few nearly believable clowns. It wasn’t exactly a three ring circus; more like a six ring free-for-all where everyone focused on their own act and forgot to watch everyone else’s. Plus we still had all the blankets and props to return. I discovered a life of Show Biz mostly felt a whole lot like work. Let’s just say I was one child who was never tempted to run away and join the circus.


  1. I remember one of the circuses. Didn't we have more than one? In the one I remember Vicki and I were clowns. She sat in a chair and read a story and I stood behind her and at one point poured a bucket of water over her head. I think as she read the book aloud it said it rained hard or something to that effect. I remember Duane Sunblad being there too. He was going to walk the tight rope (the top bar over the swingset.) Mom came out and made him get down as he was going to break his neck. I think we made a around $5 which we donated to the Ashby Ambulance Fund. I wanted to split it and buy candy with it. Sigh.

  2. I remember the bucket of water but I couldn't remember who was pouring and who was receiving! Yes, we had quite a few circuses. I compiled what memories I had into one. We also had more than one play because I remember doing a play in grandma's garage, too, with the dirt floor and the birds in the rafters.