Another long, hot summer was laying in front of me when I was fourteen. I was grateful to be out of school but I was too young to work and too old for summer camp. What was I to do? And then it hit me. I would write a play. Maybe give myself a staring role. And I would make money for some new fall clothes. And help with charity.
I enlisted my best friend, Linda, who is also creative and had dreams of being an actress (she actually went on to become one), and my sister, Martha, (who was reluctant) a neighborhood girl, Barbara, and, of course, Cousin Marilyn.
A Great Idea for Charity
We called the play, The House by the River. The premise was a familiar one. Two sisters, Linda and I, and our housekeeper (Martha) rent a house by the water with a dubious history. Ghosts disturbed our sleep, skeletons emerged from the attic, blood was found in the ballroom, and, in the end, the housekeeper was the villain.
Martha threatened to quit but the thought of making money made her reconsider. Our plans were to perform in our backyard, charging a dime for children, a quarter for adults. The little play ran an hour and a half.
When my mother saw us practicing, she thought the play was bigger than just a backyard performance. She managed to book the school auditorium. An ambitious woman, she called the town’s hair salon and they agreed to do our hair in the style of the day, a beehive do. The local dress shop contributed our costumes, swing skirts with petticoats underneath, blouses with bolero sleeves, wrap dresses, tight blue jeans with cotton shirts, and chenille robes (when we woke terrified in the middle of the night).
Martha had to wear a maid’s uniform.
The tickets sold like hot cakes and the play ran for three nights.
Linda’s sister, Melanie, tap danced during intermission (Melanie went on to star in one of the Friday the 13th movies). My brother, Joey, and Linda’s brother, Mark, drew the curtains and changed the set, and my uncle Freddie was in charge of the sound effects, ghostly moaning, blood curdling screams, crashing thunder.
We managed to raise five hundred dollars and even the mayor bought a ticket. It was exciting. We called ourselves the Five Teens and planned to spilt the money evenly, one hundred dollars each. It wasn’t bad for summer work.
My mother wasn’t having any of it. “You’re giving it to charity,” she said. She was particularly impressed with a new charity that was just starting by the television actor, Danny Thomas. It was a hospital for children with cancer. Her own brother, Tommy, had died of leukemia and she wanted us to contribute to a new hospital.
St. Jude Research Hospital – Our Charity
We balked a little but were quite pleased when we were booked on a local television station, who heard about our generosity. Linda and I were interviewed and we were even able to perform a scene on television.
Now it just so happened that Danny Thomas was touring our area in order to publicize his new charity. Somehow he heard about us (the newspaper, the television show) and he invited us to have dinner with him. Danny was warm, generous and grateful. He made us feel like movie stars.
I still continue to contribute to St. Jude Research Hospital. About a year ago, they invited me to be on a panel. When I told them how I first became interested in their charity, they asked me to make a video for the hospital. They filmed me for hours, which they probably cut down to seven minutes.
I learned something that summer. Although anyone can become a star for a few moments or the summer, especially now (with the advent of YouTube), it’s nice to know why you’re doing it. And if it involves giving to others, your little act can spread far and wide.
Even years later.