The Music Boy

On what’s now the Hotel Saranac’s parking lot was once a beautiful yellow, turn-of-the-century wood building called the Odd Fellows Hall. The Odd Fellows was a fraternal organization that was never active in my time. But what was active in the building was our summer theater.

Summer theater here was a big deal. The theater was in the round and it had a full house for each play. And in the summer of ’61, I played to one of those full houses.

Somehow, I found out they were going to put on a production of The Music Man and they needed school-age musicians, in uniform, to be in the play’s band.

School-age musicians? With uniforms? To be in a play?

Hey, that was me!

The fact is I ached to be in the play, not for the play itself so much as the players, since they were real actors from Gotham. They were seasoned pros, stars of the Big Apple, the toasts of Broadway.

OK, so they weren’t the toasts of Broadway, or anywhere else. They were all in their 20s and odds are they spent most their “stage careers” either auditioning for parts they never got or waiting on tables. And in their dotage when they thought of the highlight of their acting careers, it’d be the Saranac Lake summer theater.

But they were actors from New York City. And thus their appeal to yours truly: They were the town bohemians. And let’s face it, back then, bohemians were mighty hard to find here.

But those theater types? Bohemians to the max!

Their style could be called Beat Chic. The women had long hair, wore too much eye makeup, and their favored clothes color was black. The men wore wrinkled work shirts and unwashed jeans. And alternative as their clothes were, their attitudes were even more so. They were real Method types, hardcores who projected more persona than personality. There was no Debbie Reynolds among the women, but a slew of Joan Crawfords. The men rocked a Marlon Brando-meets-Jack Kerouac shtick: alienated, intense, vulnerable but indomitable — the ultimate hipsters.

And all I wanted was to be surrounded by this tribe of subterraneans. But would they want me? I went there to find out.

A tryout without trying

As soon as I walked into the theater I was barraged by the smells of stardom — fresh paint, stale cigarettes, burnt coffee, with a wisp of unwashed bodies for good measure. I told the first guy I saw what I was there for and he shouted to the back of the cavernous room.

“Hey, Elliot, another kid’s here for ‘The Music Man.'”

A moment later, a tall thin guy appeared. He wore a checked flannel shirt two sizes too big and dirty khaki pants. He had a thick beard and thicker glasses, a clipboard in hand, a cigarette in mouth.

“You wanna be in ‘The Music Man’?” he said, without ceremony.

I nodded, dumbstruck in the presence of greatness.

“Whattaya play?” he asked.

“Trombone,” I said.

“Can you get a hold of a uniform?”

“Sure,” I said.

“OK,” he said, holding out the clipboard. “Put your name and phone number here and we’ll call you when rehearsals start.”

I added my name to the short list of other kids in our school band and asked the most pressing question.

“What about tryouts?”

“Tryouts? For the band?” he said. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No,” I said. “I kinda figured.”

“Well, you figured wrong,” he said, cutting me off. “You got an instrument and a uniform, you’re in.”

So getting on the cast was no problem. But something else would be a problem — a very big problem. It was my ability to play the trombone. Or more precisely, my in-ability to play it.

The painful truth is I was a total incompetent. I knew the sounds trombones were supposed to make; I just couldn’t make them myself. If I’d ever practiced, I probably could’ve been at least a poor trombonist, as opposed to an atrocious one. But since I believed in magical thinking rather than rehearsal, I was doomed to actrociousness. The best notes that came out of my horn were flatulent “brappish” sounds. In my hands, the trombone was less a musical instrument than a brass whoopee cushion.

All this weighed heavily on me. In a full band, no one could hear my playing, thank Gawd. But in the summer theater, with maybe a half-dozen other kids, there’d be no hiding. In fact, if anything, the audience would hear me over the others, by dint of how horrible I sounded. In the days leading to the first rehearsal, this raised hell with my delicate disposition.

I started to lose sleep. First I’d toss and turn for a couple of hours, then’d finally fall asleep, only to wake up at around 0400, sweating, the echoes of a theaterful of people laughing hysterically at me resounding in my empty bedroom.

The days were no better. Unable to shake the specter of my public humiliation, I sought comfort in a surfeit of root beer and Sugar Daddies. Nothing came of that … except a cavity or two.

The sage speaks

Finally, I decided my only option was to do the right thing. I trudged into the Summer Theater and found Elliot. He had on the same clothes, only now dirtier, a cigarette in mouth, but no clipboard in hand.

“I gotta tell you something,” I said, my heart pounding.

“What’s that?” he said, clearly bored.

“Well, I said I played the trombone, right?”

“Right.”

“I guess I do,” I said. “But I’m really terrible at it.”

“Great!” he said.

“Great?” I asked.

“If not perfect,” he said.

“How could that be perfect?” I asked.

“Because,” he said, “you’re supposed to be terrible.”

“I am?”

“You all are.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“You ever see ‘The Music Man’?” he said.

“I saw the movie,” I said.

“So you remember the scene early on in the film when the band plays and they suck?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It was pathetic.”

“Right,” he said. “Well, that’s the part you guys are gonna play.”

“But what about the part at the end, when they play “Seventy-Six Trombones” and they’re great?” I said. “Won’t we play that, too?”

“You’re kidding me, right?” he said.

“No,” I said. “It’s in the play.”

“It’s in the play,” he said, “but it won’t be in this playhouse.”

“It won’t?” I said. “You’ll leave it out?”

“No,” he said. “We’ll play a record offstage, piped in on the P.A.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s too important to leave up to you guys.”

“But is that fair?” I said. “I mean, sure, I’m a lousy musician, but the other kids are good.”

He took a deep breath. When he exhaled, twin plumes of smoke shot out his nose and he shook his head slightly, as if he was dealing with the village idiot, which maybe he was.

Then he spoke slowly and clearly, as if he was a sage, about to bestow timeless wisdom on a callow youth, which maybe he also was.

“There’s something about summer stock you need to know,” he said, “which is what kid musicians and kid actors have in common.”

“And what’s that?” I asked.

“It is,” he said with certain finality, “even the good ones are lousy.”

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