A Star Is Born
Comedian Mark Critch reflects back on the kindergarten play that set the stage for his entire career
Comedian Mark Critch reflects back on the kindergarten play that set the stage for his entire career. FROM SON OF A CRITCH
“Today we’ll be picking parts for our school play,” my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Fowler, began one afternoon in spring 1980.
What’s that? A play? This was my chance, my way out of St. John’s. I would gain fame as a child star. All I needed was a breakout role. What would this be? Comedy? A drama?
“We’ll be playing the colours.” Colours? What kind of lines would colours have? Colours can’t speak.
“There’ll be a song for you to dance to,” she continued.
A musical number, eh? Well, it’d been a while, but I could give them the what-for with the old soft shoe.
Mrs. Fowler took out a record and placed it on the phonograph. The sound of the needle finding its groove filled me with excitement. Each revolution felt as long as an orbit around the sun. Finally, the music began.
If you are wearing red
If you are wearing red
Stand up tall and turn around And then sit right back down!
The accompaniment was simply juvenile. And the lyrics! There was no story, no drama. The singer repeated herself over and over, the only change being the substitution of a new colour in each verse. How would this number be choreographed? There simply wasn’t time to change my costume between verses. Unless! I could wear multiple layers, quickly shedding each one to reveal a new colour underneath. Yes! It would be spellbinding.
“Each of you will play a colour, and when your colour is mentioned you’ll jump up, turn around and then sit back down,” our director said, sharing her nearsighted vision. Disappointing.
“I will also need someone to give a short speech at the start of the assembly. Would anyone like to do that?”
Now we were talking. I shot up my hand. “Only two volunteers?” she said. Two?
I turned to see a freckled boy with his arm half-raised. Billy Samson. His mother was a teacher at our school. I had the feeling she’d been tipped off and had forced her son to volunteer so she could gain the glory. But I needed this role and would do anything to get it. See you in hell, Billy.
“Why don’t you each say the lines and the class will choose the person to welcome the parents and guests on their behalf?”
Mrs. Fowler picked up a sheet. “You’ll have to recite this from memory, Mark. You think you can do that?” “Yes, miss.”
Mrs. Fowler read the passage without giving it any life. She said the words but she didn’t believe them, and as a consequence, they held no truth. When she was finished, Mrs. Fowler handed me the sheet, and I prepared to read.
“Archbishop,” I began, as if addressing the great man himself. This was God’s representative, and I tipped my head reverently in his imagined direction. I’m sure that many students turned around to see if the archbishop had secretly been in the room the whole time.
“Bishop,” I continued, giving the man his lesser due but somehow not taking anything away from his superiority. “Fathers, brothers, sisters...” These I grouped together. They weren’t outsiders. They were our clerical family, and the familiarity showed that, though respected, they weren’t feared.
“Teachers,” I said, swiftly snapping them out of their reverie. “Parents, friends...” This was a nice touch by the author. It acknowledged the common man, the everyday Joe.
The next word was an enigma: “pupils.” Perhaps this was some form of medication for a small dog? I confidently skipped it, rather than risk looking like an amateur. “Welcome.” I then outstretched my arms, the universal sign of welcome.
The class offered a spattering of applause. Philistines. Many of them had never even seen live theatre before. No matter. I’d given it my all and, exhausted, retired to my dressing room, which also happened to be my desk.
Billy was next. He’d lost the critical element of surprise—he had to win over 30 bored five-year-olds with a revival of a show they’d already seen twice. He was a nostalgia act at best. He zoomed through the text with a machine-gun delivery. But the lightning pace pleased his audience, who were anxiously waiting to get back to colouring. He got
I WAS ASSIGNED TO PLAY YELLOW— THE COLOUR OF THE SUN AND MACARONI—GIVERS OF LIFE.
a much bigger round of applause. I felt my career slipping away.
“Good job, boys,” Mrs. Fowler said, lying to half of us. “You made my job tough. Luckily, there’ll be two shows: one of you can do it for the students in the assembly and the other at night.”
But wouldn’t the daytime speech be a much shorter “Welcome, students and teachers”? What good would that do for my career? I needed to be seen.
LATER THAT DAY, rehearsals began, and we were each assigned a colour. I got yellow—the colour of the sun, macaroni and margarine—the givers
of life. I went home with a renewed sense of purpose. I was an actor. I started to see yellow everywhere. Mustard was yellow. Pencils were yellow. Even my old enemy the school bus was that lovely golden hue.
I needed stage time, so I improvised by climbing onto the kitchen counter and standing in the sink, forcing my parents to watch. I asked Dad what a pupil was and he explained that it was a student. Here was another example of the poor writing that had plagued my acting career. How are you welcoming pupils when they don’t even know whom you’re speaking to?
The parents were expected to provide the costume for this Crayola box come to life. We were to wear white shirts, a sash in the assigned colour and matching pants. The shirt, at least, was easy. We scoured the mall for yellow pants but had no luck at Sears or Woolco. To this day I’ve never seen a pair of boys’ yellow pants for sale.
So Mom, a notoriously uncrafty person, took scissors to a yellow dress of hers. She worked well into the night. I was headed to bed when she called me into the kitchen. “Try this on,” she said, passing me a horribly deformed mound of bright yellow fabric sewn together. It looked like an infinity scarf that Big Bird might knit. I couldn’t find a way into it.
“There are only two holes,” I complained, loudly.
“That’s plenty—one for you and one for your feet,” my mother said. After examining her handiwork, she admitted she’d sewn the waist and two arms of a dress together in a way that somehow gave you two legs but one foot
SUDDENLY I GOT A BIG LAUGH. FOR A MOMENT, I LOST MY TRAIN OF THOUGHT. WHAT WAS SO FUNNY?
hole. She lifted her scissors and told me not to move.
“There,” she said, with a snip, creating two separate leg warmers and a yellow knee-length skirt. The aerobics fad of the ’80s was still a few years off, so Mom hustled me to bed, promising to fix it while I was at school the next day.
What she didn’t know was that there’d be no school in the morning. If I was sick on the day of the assembly, then Billy would have to step in for that show. I’d stage a miraculous recovery after school and take the prime-time slot. It was real Joan Crawford and Bette Davis stuff.
The next morning, I did my best typhoid impression. Mom, relieved that she wouldn’t have to finish the costume, relented. By lunchtime I said I thought I was well enough to take the stage that night. She reacted the way a can of Pepsi does when you shake it up. “My God, Mark. Where are we going to find a costume at this hour?!”
Mom called the mother of another yellow who, thankfully, had enough material left to whip up a second costume. She’d meet us in the school parking lot that night.
LATER THAT EVENING, the muffled roar of the audience on the other side of the curtain sounded like a 747 revving up.
“Are you ready, Mark?” my teacher asked. I nodded, and walked onstage. The spotlight hit me as I approached the microphone. I could see the silhouette of the archbishop’s pointed hat standing high above the other adults’ heads.
“Archbishop,” I began, straight to the pointy hat. “Bishop,” I continued, to a shorty hat that I assumed to be the Robin to the archbishop’s Batman. “Fathers, brothers, sisters,” I delivered right to the mixed bag of clergy in the front row. “Parents, teachers, friends, pupils—” Suddenly I got a big laugh. I momentarily lost my train of thought. What was so funny?
“Pupils,” I repeated. This time the laugh was even bigger. I said it again, leaning into it with a devilish look on my face. I’d realized what was going on. The remnants of baby talk in my voice mixed with my unfamiliarity with the word were making “pupils” come out as “poo-pills,” to the delight of the adults. I was getting my first laugh.
“Poo-pills,” I said again, covering my mouth as if I was saying something dirty. The crowd erupted. Even the archbishop chuckled. It was intoxicating. “Poo-pills!” I said a fifth time, but the joke was wearing thin and Mrs. Fowler was waving me offstage.
“Welcome!” I finished with a bow and then walked offstage, basking in the last waves of applause. As the music started, I grabbed my pompoms and took my place with the other kids. I became the colour yellow. I stood up. I sat back down. But I was only going through the motions, still absorbing what had just happened.
I’d made the audience do something. No. I’d made them feel something. We finished our performance and there it was again, that beautiful sound. But they were choosing to clap. They’d had no choice when they laughed, and that seemed more authentic.
I now knew who I was. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. In some ways, I’ve been chasing that high ever since.