That magic moment when the lights go dim

August 21, 2005|By Norman Allen

THE MAGIC began on a Saturday afternoon when my parents, sister and I climbed the steps to the balcony of the Curran Theater in San Francisco. We took our seats. The lights dimmed, the overture began and a scene from Edwardian England appeared far below us. I was 7 years old. It was my first trip to the theater. And I was ready.

Seven is young to be attending a full-length Broadway musical. As an adult theatergoer, I would not be pleased to find myself seated next to a child that age, especially when paying $100 for the ticket. But, as a child, I was prepared for my matinee adventure in a way that was both simple and ingenious.

The night before, my mother sat my sister and me down in front of an old record player. She placed the needle at the first track of the cast recording of My Fair Lady and explained, "This is the overture. They play it before the show begins."

From there she talked us through the entire show, lifting the needle between songs and filling in the story. We learned about flower girl Eliza Doolittle, her mentor Henry Higgins and her ne'er-do-well father, Alfred P. We heard about races at Ascot, and we danced around the living room to "The Rain in Spain."

The next afternoon, in the darkness of the balcony, we didn't have to ask what was happening or what was being said. We were confident, quiet and eager. There was only one minor interruption. My mother had confused the placement of "I Could Have Danced All Night." When Eliza launched into her big solo, I whispered loudly, "Mom, they're doing it wrong!"

My parents' love for the theater was hereditary. Growing up in Colorado, Dad had traveled with his folks to New York to see the classic musicals of the 1940s. My mother and grandmother, as San Francisco natives, saw all the great touring shows. An oft-repeated family legend told of the night they saw The Red Mill from so high in the Curran's balcony that the eponymous mill was lost to sight.

Together, my parents continued their family traditions, making theater a part of their courtship and early years together and sharing it with us as soon as possible.

My Fair Lady was just the beginning. We sat in front of that old record player and listened to Hello, Dolly! before seeing Ginger Rogers in the title role. We saw Sally Anne Howes in The Sound of Music and The King and I and Edward Mulhare in Camelot. Judged mature enough for more challenging fair, we were soon reading Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare and spending summer nights at outdoor Shakespeare festivals.

For our birthdays we were allowed to pick any show we wanted. Mom never forgave me for the year I picked the musical version of Gone With The Wind, in which Leslie Ann Warren's performance as Scarlett was overshadowed by a trained horse who trotted in place as Atlanta burned. My critical faculties were born that night.

Too often I see parents bring their children to the theater unprepared. I see them at Shakespeare performances, bored out of their minds and likely never to return. I see them at musicals, tugging at their mother's sleeve and asking what the pretty lady is singing about. I wish my mother had written a book, or led workshops, or found some way to pass on this genius for introducing young people to the arts.

My parents gave us a remarkable gift, one that will last our entire lives. It grows like compounded interest, leading to a constant re-opening of the mind, to new adventures and new challenges. Each of us should be granted that magic moment when the lights of a theater dim for the first time and the sound of an overture fills the air. It's a moment made all the richer when we are prepared for it and when it is handed to us with love.

Norman Allen is a playwright and theater educator who lives in Washington.

Columnist Leonard Pitts is on vacation.

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