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Est. Reading Time : 6 mins

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Filed under : Childhood Stories, Funny Stories

Written on May 12, 2015

I’ve mentioned, many times before, that my mom was not only a middle-school Drama teacher but that she also helped run a summer youth drama camp. The name of the camp (or is it “company” cause it’s, like, play related?) was “Greasepaint”, and it was founded by — and predominantly run by — a lady named Wendy. I just Googled “greasepaint phoenix wendy” and, sure enough, I had the right name. She’s still alive but left Greasepaint in 1999 after 15 years of running it. I also discovered that Greasepaint was not just a summer thing, which means my mom spent her off-time in the summer that she could’ve spent on vacation from teaching to teach Drama to even more kids. Probably for free, or close to it, cause it’s a community support kinda thing. While also working nights at the arts & crafts store, and teaching arts & crafts classes out of our home on some weekends. Jesus, my mom was nuts.

Anyway, since my mother was nuts and spent her vacation time doing what she got paid to do for the other 9 months of the year, she also didn’t really feel like spending money on all-day babysitters for us kids. Growing up, my sister was the one everyone pegged as being the superstar celebrity person. She sang, she danced, she acted, she modeled. Every family function we had, someone would ask her to sing something or other and she’d get right up and belt her little heart out to some Debbie Gibson or Madonna tune of the day. Ironically, she has crippling stage fright these days, but yet I’m still not sure what stage fright feels like. I’m also pretty sure 98% of my extended family has no idea I’ve ever performed onstage, much less as standup comedian. But, they can all die in a fire for all I care1, so fuck it. I think, frankly, the only reason my sister dropped her screen and stage aspirations is that we lived in Phoenix, where there’s no such thing as “making it in showbiz”. There’s been two famous actors I know of with childhoods in Phoenix — David Spade and Brad Pitt — one of whom (Brad Pitt) only spent a few years there as a kid, and both of whom left Phoenix in order to be discovered somewhere else. I can still count on one hand every famous band that came out of Phoenix, all of which it’s unlikely you could name a single song from, and none of which has ever even been an obscure Jeopardy answer2.

As you might imagine, growing up around a bunch of girls (and the very few male drama kids) exposed me to lots of activities that other boys my age probably didn’t do. I learned how to apply makeup. I learned how to make friendship bracelets (and still made them on my own for many years afterwards). I learned how to braid hair. I learned a little bit of sewing (which I’ve long since forgotten and keep meaning to re-learn in lieu of using safety pins on my pant cuffs). More than a few times, I was used as a stand-in for just about any scene in which a cast member was sick or otherwise missing for the day — even female cast members, which made everyone giggle to see a little boy in girl’s clothing. I also sometimes ran the concession stands on slow theatre nights. Most of the time, I sat off to the side and read books or handed out props.

One summer, the big production was Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Apparently there was a movie based on it recently, but I’ll give you the low-down in case you (like me, prior to that play) have no idea what it is. Actually, the Wikipedia entry is short and sweet and does a much better job than I would. It’s a dumb plot written 80 years ago for bored children, so you don’t have to worry about spoiler alerts. For the record : Mr. Popper is a total dick cause he leaves his wife and family in the midst of their crippling debt to hang out with penguins he exploited as a circus act, so it’s not even morally uplifting. But I guess at least he didn’t try to eat them or wear them or taxidermy them into puppets or something3.

Because the story is about weird white people that make penguins dance for other weird white people, there’s a few dance numbers involved. And they needed 12 people to be faceless penguins. Except, because it’s youth theatre and the only reason to do it is so parents can take photos and video to embarrass kids with later in life, the “penguin costumes” made the beaks into sort-of hats, and your face was exposed. But covered in black. Thankfully, there was no Twitter in those days to whine about “kids in blackface”.

My sister was the head female penguin – Greta. She practiced for weeks on those dance moves. For whatever reason, whomever wrote the play (or maybe the shitty book it’s based on) decided that penguins say “gork”. My sister got real dramatic with it. “Goooo-ooooork” meant “what?” and “gork gork gork!” was like “hey, I’m excited”, and “gork” just meant “yes” and a low-tone “gork” was “nope”. Fully-grown penguins that can only speak in gorks somehow magically understand English. Their offspring, according to this play, also magically inherited that knowledge.

The first two nights of the play went off without a hitch (or close enough that I have no recollection of hitches). The final night, however, one of the penguins — Ferdinand — couldn’t be present, for he was sick (or just sick of this shit – I truly don’t recall). Mid-day, while Wendy was freaking out, my mom asked if I could fill in. “You know all the moves! and the lines are just ‘gork’!” she said. In return for my servitude, I asked for the newest copy of some metal magazine devoted almost entirely to Motley Crüe cause I wanted the badass centerfold poster inside. They agreed, and I donned the penguin suit that was at least 2 sizes too big for me4.

Now I don’t know if my mom just wanted to calm Wendy down and keep the peace, or if she just had way too much confidence in my skills of paying attention to shit that doesn’t interest me, but I had only one rehearsal. Somewhere, there’s a videotape of me in this play. I wish I could show it to you, cause I feel like I held onto it for years but I can’t seem to find it amongst all my memory boxes, but it’s terribly terribly bad. I mean, even for a summer play by 8-14 year olds in Phoenix for a shitty book-turned-play, it’s bad. It was made even worse by yours truly.

The dances were pretty simple : stand here, wave your arms, kick one leg, kick the other leg, turn one direction, turn the other direction. But, see, when you’ve paid zero attention to a play you never thought you’d be in, and suddenly you’re pushed onstage, you tend to forget things like… well, kinda everything. They turned left, I turned right. They kicked the right leg while turning, I kicked the left leg while turning. They said “gork!”, I said “gork” and kept saying it until I was practically interrupting the lines of the human characters. I didn’t try to fuck up that bad — if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right — I genuinely just didn’t know what to do and was giving it my best shot with what little I knew.

It was a goddamned disaster, but… again, no one gave a shit. I got my awesome magazine with my awesome Motley Crüe poster and I was a happy kid. Never before has anyone done something so lame for something so badass.

At least… that’s what I told myself at the time. Again, sorry there’s no video.

  1. yes, there’s a story coming for that one as well 

  2. you’re not allowed to say Megadeth or Alice Cooper since they both moved to Phoenix long after they hit the big-time 

  3. I, personally, wouldn’t give a fuck if he’d done all 3. I’m still more concerned about him leaving the wife & kids with all that debt, given my upbringing 

  4. ain’t nobody got time to be makin’ new Ferdinand The Penguin costumes, son!