A Star Is Born

Co­me­dian Mark Critch re­flects back on the kinder­garten play that set the stage for his en­tire ca­reer

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - FROM SON OF A CRITCH IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY KA­GAN McLEOD

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


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


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.

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