Did I ever tell you about my theatrical debut at age 10? Well, pull up your chair and get a program. Please, no flash photography during the anecdote.
The scene is J. H. House Elementary School. The place is Conyers, Georgia. The year is 1982, and the season, winter. I think it was after lunch. My teacher, Ms. Brooks, was scouting talent for the annual Christmas play. Ms. Brooks was the kind of person that any wise guy would love. She joked around with us and let us joke around with her.
She gave as well as she got. When she found out that a town in South Georgia was home to the Claxton Fruitcake Company, she called me “Fruitcake” for the rest of the year. She even wrote it on the board in lists of names: “Tommy, Ginger, Fruitcake …” I loved it. If you’re a boy in the fifth grade, any attention is good attention.
Anyway, that day Ms. Brooks said that she had the perfect role for me. She thought I should play the Elf Who Hated Christmas. To this day I’m not exactly sure what she meant by that casting choice, but after a quick call to my agent in Santa Monica, California, I accepted. It would actually be the first of two roles I would play that year. The second was in an amateur silent film about a young runner who got hurt and feared she would never race again. She was healed by a magical unicorn in a white bed sheet, played by yours truly. The film went straight to video, and the best part about it was the silence.
Back to the Christmas production. The play was set at the North Pole and began with my elf complaining about all the holiday pressures: mail overflow, toy-making deadlines, tinsel allergies and all that. I announced that I was quitting the staff, after which it was up to the rest of the elves and the Santas to convince me that Christmas really was worthwhile. I say Santas, plural, because I definitely remember that Santa Lucia, the Swedish saint who gave her money to the poor in the Middle Ages, dropped in at one point in the play to help talk my character out of his sour mood.
So clearly, I was the star of the show. My agent suggested that I drop the name Fruitcake, but I felt it had a certain holiday cachet. Besides, I was too busy getting in character to come up with a new nom de stage. As an actor who was personally rather fond of Christmas, I had to reach down deep to my inner Scrooge to create this role. I just focused on the time a few years back when I hadn’t gotten what I wanted from Santa and drew on that for my rage. I called it “method acting.”
My costume was a white turtleneck shirt with a red apron, red elf cap and green tights. I had bright red makeup on my cheeks. There is a photograph of me in this outfit, but the picture will never appear on Facebook. I don’t care how much Zuckerberg begs or how much money the Petit Jean staff offers.
I can’t say that I thoroughly enjoyed acting. The rehearsals were long, there was a lot of singing, and I felt very vulnerable in green tights. But I stuck with it to make Ms. Brooks happy. Plus, the girl who played Santa Lucia was gorgeous.
There was only one performance, and after the show, the cast went to McDonald’s to wait for the review to come out in “The Rockdale Citizen.” They gave us a glowing write-up, though in fairness I must point out that the theater critic was related to Elf Number Four. My performance was hailed as a “tour de force,” which, I was told, was a quote from “Star Wars.”
Not long after that I retired from acting to concentrate on my short-lived career as a magician. But I still have a certain fondness for amateur theater. It makes me smile every time I watch Bottom and his fellow rustics bumble their way through the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” As I watch the intrepid Pyramus milk his own demise, I think, wistfully, “If only they had killed the Elf Who Hated Christmas.” I could’ve nailed that death scene. I can see myself lying on the stage, a candy cane sticking out of my chest, my head cradled in the arms of the beautiful Lucia. With my last breath I whisper, “Et tu, Santa? Then fall, Fruitcake!”
Dr. Claxton is not feeling well this week. This column originally appeared in The Bison 10 years ago on Feb. 11, 2011.