I ran away for the first time in Kindergarten. Standing in line after school with all the other kids waiting for the stupid bus, I had the existential realization that life is too short to wait for a bus and decided I needed to explore the world. When the nun turned her back, I slipped away and began my walkabout. I wandered down into town, looking in windows. I popped into the drugstore in vain hopes that my charming personality would seduce the clerk into treating me to an ice cream. I paused in front of a shop window filled with mannequins wearing grown up clothes and wondered if I’d ever be so old that I’d have to dress like that. When I got to the railroad tracks, I wondered why no one had ever thought to invent the cool game of hopping in between ties, which then turned into a game of hop the rail, hop the tie. Which is where my stricken mother found me. She was beside herself with hysteria and asked me what I was possibly thinking to wander off like that.
I didn’t want to go home. Home was a place full of screaming. My mother and father would scream at each other (as they continued to do for the next 50 years), my baby sister would scream, I think just to hear her own voice. My refuge was to run away…next door to where my grandmother lived, and sit in her attic where my cousins had created what would now be called a man cave. A tiny TV in the corner allowed me access to shows like Claude Kirchner’s TerryToon Circus which starred one of the great influences of my future, his puppet sidekick Clowny. (Was I not allowed to watch at home? Did we even have a TV?) The attic was also filled with pin ups and volumes of pulp fiction that I later understood were Nazi porn. I was an early, precocious reader and it never occurred to my cousins that I was actually reading the words until one day I asked why anyone would hang a lady up by her thumbs.
Clowny inspired my next attempt at escape. After much begging, my mother took me, at about age 8, to the circus that had stopped in town. I was mesmerized, transfixed, transported. There was no way I was going home. This was the life for me. I slipped easily away from my mother in the exiting crowd. She found me an hour later, sitting behind a clown’s trailer, earnestly explaining to him why I’d be an asset to his act. My beleaguered parental unit whisked me away, vowing to keep me away from such bad influences.
Alas, one cannot avoid one’s fate. It comes banging on your door. If you ignore it, it blows through the windows and sweeps you away, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
The watershed event took place in my sleepy, Republican town. My sister Liz and I walked to the roller rink, rollerskates over our shoulders for our weekly escape from the madhouse. To our dismay, instead of the whirling sound of skates, the clatter of voices and bad pop music, there was the chaos of destruction and construction. Exotic looking men (meaning they had mustaches, long hair and wore striped sailor shirts) were singing, throwing 2x4s, and hauling seats. We stood, mouths open, in the midst of the maelstrom. Finally one looked up. His curly hair stood up with sweat, his grimy face grinned. “Howdy!”
“What are you doing?” I finally managed to croak.
“Building a theater! Wanna help?” he laughed.
Liz and I looked at each other. No way we were going to rush back into the infernal chaos that inevitably awaited us at home. We put down our skates and picked up hammers.
The Morris Area Summer Theater became our haven. We bolted breakfast and dashed there every day. We built sets, sat behind flats and watched plays like The Fantasticks and The Odd Couple over and over again, memorizing lines that we quote to this day. I watched a Method actress running in place to get herself out of breath because her entrance occurred after running up five flights of stairs. I fell in love with a Greek actor who lived in Greenwich Village (but that’s another story).
One day, as I was getting ready to dash out the door, my mother grabbed me. “That’s enough,” she said. “This theater is a waste of your time. You’re going to stay home from now on.”
I shook off her arm. “I’m going to the theater.”
We stared at each other. “They are using you. They don’t pay you. They are a bad influence on you. You are using bad language. You dress strangely. What do you think, you can go into the theater someday? You are a fool. The theater is no life for anyone.”
“I’m going to the theater.”
“Very well, then, you choose. Either home. Or the theater. If you go, don’t come back.”
“Well, I guess the theater is my home.”
I calmly turned around and went upstairs. I grabbed my green vinyl circular hat box with the gold zipper and the loop strap I had found at the Sears Outlet store and filled it with underwear, t shirts and an extra pair of sneakers. I stormed out the front door, which we never used, and began walking down the street. A few moments later, my mother pulled up in the car. “Get in,” she said.
“I’m going to the theater,” I growled through my tears.
“I know,” she said. “I’ll drive you there.”
I got in. “I see that you now have your own mind,” she said as she drove. “I accept that the Good Lord is somehow pushing you in this direction. I will not interfere with your decisions ever again. Just come home at night.”
To her credit, she did try to abide by her pronouncement. She fell short many times, trying to stop what she perceived to be my road to perdition. She even once hatched a plot to have my father disown me. (It backfired because they didn’t own anything, but it’s the thought that counts). It was only in my 30’s, when I found a scrap book of articles and reviews of my work, that I realized that ultimately, she really had been proud of me.
To this day, I don’t know if it was the hand of fate, reincarnation, the chaos at home, or simply the randomness of the universe that drove me, and ultimately both of my sisters into show business. The Morris Area Summer Theater disappeared after that one season, as if some magician had created it just for Liz and me to find our North Star. I didn’t have to run away anymore, because I had found my true home.