I remember the day Cornelia Otis Skinner came to town to "declaim upon the stage" as her mimeographed one-sheet billboard declared. There she was up on that theatrical poster in all her grandeur, one arm thrown dramatically in the air as she gazed off into some distant horizon only she might see. This was back in the time of hot rods and bobby socks, and the grand old lady of the theater was due to sweep down past the dark and sooty brickworks, the tall, black-belching chimneys and rusting junkyards into our town of Chicago Heights like a pale spirit from a long-forgotten era, the time of Victorian gentility, to cast a few civilized lines to the intellectually impoverished sons and daughters of the working class. The grimy puddle of our reality offered the Hotpoint factory, the Ford body stamping plant, the DeSoto Paint Company, Victor Chemical, Acme Tool & Die Works, Industrial Welding, and the Inland Steel mill where they melted down old railroad tracks and turned them into new re-bar and steel fence posts. We didn\'t have much in the way of dramatic recitals.
I was the eldest son of a loving, alcoholic welder and a strict, rosary-thumbing mother who saw God\'s hand in all events; I was gawky, dreamy and nearsighted, a somewhat less-than-average teenager who loved to lose sight of himself in books of romance and high adventure. In Darkest Africa. The Coming of Cassidy. A Princess of Mars. Daredevils of the Air. The Virginian. I had this ant-horde of brothers and sisters, and due to the economic necessities of existence at that level, was destined for a short scholastic career followed by a hot and lusty career in the steel mills, or perhaps at my father\'s side in the welding firm. In my dreams I may have been holding the wheel to drive the pirate schooner, sails fully set and cutting through the waves across a churning ocean, but in the real world I was rowing my dinghy across a muddy pond, preordained to paddle out my days filling paint cans with Aztec Tan latex or Peppermint Green oil base, bolting fenders on Falcon body frames or catching new iron up on the fiery hotbeds where the furnaces roast your skin and the cherry red re-bar is spun.
This special one-night event was a one-woman show, entirely Cornelia, and would feature poetic readings--and short excerpts from dramatic pieces, to boot! Very intense for the time and place, which was 1956 in the Bloom Township High School auditorium. I don\'t know that I\'d have thought to go, but that was my sophomore year and I was in Speech class, and Mrs. Wilson stood at her desk with her spectacles down around the end of her nose and declaimed it a mandatory attendance.
Today I remember this tall, stately lady standing in a pool of light emoting in her tremulous voice, “Ghost Lake\'s a dark lake...a deep lake...and old..." She also did Lady Macbeth\'s bloody hands scene, "Out, out, damned spot!", and to tell the truth that\'s about all I remember. It didn\'t matter; the pieces themselves weren\'t what I found important about Cornelia Otis Skinner. It was the fabric, not the text. I was hearing the great roar and the little whispers of actual life up there in front of those lights. I didn\'t have the words or the understanding for it back then; all I knew was that I was experiencing something big, real big, mighty big.
After the show, Mrs. Wilson led the Speech and the Drama classes backstage as a special privilege. I was surprised to see that Cornelia may have been grand, but she certainly wasn\'t that old--maybe in her mid-fifties. There I was, bare wrists hanging out of last year\'s shirt, wide-eyed under a cowlick of unruly hair that no Vaseline Tonic could ever tame, chalky scuffed white suede shoes under my frayed roll-cuff jeans. I stood right next to her, still as a statue, hardly daring to breathe as she took a few questions from her admiring fans. Is what you do hard? a freshman girl in pigtails asked. Where do you go next? The others crowded around. Did you ever act in a movie? I just stood there, frozen under the hot orange stage lights in the electricity of the moment like a humble fly in amber while Cornelia politely answered as best she could. She smelled slightly of sweat and greasepaint, and there was something wonderful about her, I\'m not sure what...to this day, I\'m not sure what...I do know that there was a moment when, in her reflected light, to me all things seemed possible and even the iron manacles of absolute reality could be questioned as if they might, like the chains of gravity holding John Carter, Prince of Mars, magically fall away.
And then Mrs. Wilson tugged at us like so many little boaters, reminding us the magic hour was over. I was bewildered. Time had never slipped by so fast. I could see the auditorium was nearly empty. Amazing! For a moment I didn\'t budge. Old Mrs. Wilson smiled sympathetically, and I saw she was looking directly at me. "It\'s not a life for any of you," she said firmly, and she shook her tired old mop of gray curls. Not to be. It was not to be. She was right; it was late, it was time to grab our noses and jump in the warm puddle and swim back to our safe little coves.
I tried to dog-paddle along with the rest, I\'m sure I did. After all, the route was wide, clear and well traveled, and we were all taking it together. It was, after all, the only pond in sight and the only way to be taken. And yet somehow, in spite of all that help and good direction, I wasn\'t going to be able to make it back. I remember a turning--a sudden, irrational fury--and how I stared hard-eyed at poor, unknowing Mrs. Wilson, staring purposefully, like the Virginian had when he set aside his poker hand and said, “When you say that--smile”, glaring until it was she who turned away. And looking back over all the years and all that has passed in between, I can recognize now that it was at this improbable moment that the impossible boat with its awkward rigging and all its outlandish airs, like a newborn bat or insect half-crazed with the first upward taste of flight, unfolded its gauzy wing-like sails and launched itself into the bright and shiny seas.
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