My hometown was a small village in Ohio farming country. From my high school class, 76 students would graduate in May of 1965.
With a class that small and numerous extracurricular activities available, many of us joined more than one group. That looked good on our records when we applied for college. For example, six seniors were members of the Future Farmers of America, along with 34 underclassmen. (I was not a member. Im not even sure what the FFA kids did. I know they wore blue corduroy jackets, and I guess they raised lambs to sell at the next years fair.)
Another 28 of us, more than a third of the class, were involved in the senior class play. I was a part of that project. I played the father, John Maxwell. In the playbill, my name appeared second in the list of cast credits. (The roles were listed in order of rank within the Maxwell family, so naturally my wife was first, then me, then our three children.)
The play was a three-act farce written in 1953 by Donald Payton. His high school graduating class in Missouri had numbered only 12.
Payton churned out dozens of these comedies. He didnt often bother to create a new group of characters; instead, he reused the same family from his bobby sox era. The boy Wilbur was one of his favorites, and Wilbur and the entire Maxwell family (including their friends Hercules and Bernadine) appeared in such plays as Just Ducky and The Boarding House Reach and She Fainted Again as well as the one my class performed, Dear Diary.
The play is simply constructed, taking place on a single evening in a single location, the Maxwell living room. The curtain rises on John Maxwell (me) lying on the sofa in a robe, groaning, having taken a day off from work due to a headache. But I cant get any rest. My family is making too much noise.
Who ever heard music like that? I complain, predictably. Its simply beyond me what this younger generation is coming to. It isnt just their ... their woogie boogie, its everything. Cueball haircuts, hot rod cars
I also gripe about my incorrigible 14-year-old son Wilbur, who is again late coming home from school. My wife Janet (Doris Schrote) asks Do you think we should call the police? If he doesnt show up in two weeks, all right, I grumble.
But Betty Lou is fantasizing about getting a job. Of course, someone would hire me. Maybe even poor fathers boss, especially if poor father was unable to continue his daily toil. Poor father. Poor, poor father.
At this point Nick Taylor, in charge of sound effects and lighting, signals that were departing from reality. For sound effects, he plays a spooky musical theme that I composed. For lighting, he dims the stage behind Betty Lou as her fantasy unfolds on the apron in front of the curtain.
Betty Lou imagines approaching her late fathers boss and asking for work. The boss pities her and lets his secretary go so that Betty Lou can have her job. Then the daydream ends and the lights come back up.
The missing son, Wilbur (Dale Carpenter, right), finally comes home. He has two black eyes from a fight hes lost, and he needs assistance from his friend Hercules (Carl Martin, left). Herc says hoody when he means howdy or hello. Their dialogue is filled with joke lines, including Wilburs I dont know which is worse, the eyes on my face or the Ds on my grade card.
Wilbur is the subject of another Betty Lou daydream. She imagines, straight out of a gangster movie, a tough woman named Molly (Sally Ballard) who warns her that someone named Conrad wants to see Wilbur. Wants to see him real bad like. Conrads unhappy. Listen, sister, anybody who double-crosses Conrad is in trouble.
As Molly waits for Wilbur, Connie passes through, saying I never thought before that I would ever elope. But fate has ruled otherwise. Trailing behind her, Marvin explains to Betty Lou, Like I said, youre too good for me. Youre too splendidly perfect. I would have preferred you, as would every other red-blooded American boy. Goodbye and good luck.
Wilbur and Hercules enter the daydream, wearing heavy coats like mobsters (below). Molly says Conrad wants to see them at midnight. They tremble in fear: This is our last night on earth! Finally Betty Lou decides she has to intervene to save them. I go to whatever fate awaits me, taking a course I chose not because I want or desire it, but because it is my duty. Molly? Tell Conrad I want to see him.
Whats going to happen in the next chapter? Bernadine asks. How do I know? Betty Lou replies. Ill just have to wait and experience it. They go to the movies to get some more ideas, leaving the diary on the desk.
And of course, this being a farce, I discover the book Diary of a Darling Daughter, by Betty Lou Maxwell and assume its contents are true. My son Wilbur threatened by Conrad? My daughter Connie eloping? Oh, no! I sink into a chair. My wifes Aunt Mary (Mary Jo Fetter) discovers me screaming and calls out, Janet, call the doctor. I think Johns control tower just went on the blink. CURTAIN.
INTERMISSION UPDATE: Connie and Molly met Betty Lous teacher in Fort Myers in the spring of 2016. Tonya, Sally, and Pat posted a picture on Facebook.
The doorbell rings, and I yell, Its Conrad! Door the bolt! I mean bore the dolt! I mean But no, its only Betty Lous teacher (Pat Ransome). Shes come for a consultation, and we all exit the room.
Connie and Marvin enter. Of course, in reality they arent eloping; hes going back to college, and he hasnt even asked her to go steady yet. But the following scene made me laugh out loud when I first read the script.
The bashful Marvin says, in part, Gee whiz, Connie, Im gonna hate to leave. I gotta catch the bus in a few minutes. Connie, Im not much of a speech maker or anything like that. Im studying agriculture, and we spend all of our time close to the soil and things like that, and raising crops and things like that, and cows and things like that, and well, therefore, Ive never made many speeches. Connie, I I think the time has come for me to make a big decision. There comes a time in a mans life when he has to make decisions, and things like that. Right now Im standing at the crossroads. I want you to help me decide something, Connie. Last week I wouldnt have asked you anything like this. But since Ive been home youve come to mean quite a bit to me. Ive found I can believe in you, and trust your judgment, and things like that. Well, Connie ... you can answer yes or no to this question ... just the way you really feel. Connie ... should I buy a cow?
Naturally, thats not the sort of question Connie led herself to expect, but she recovers enough to pat him on the shoulder and say, I think it would be wonderful if you got a cow, Marvin.
Must have heard us talking. Basically, the ideas sound, Marvin explains. You see, Ill just take her out to the farm and dump her off with the folks. Plenty of room in the barn. Ill start out with one now, and get another next year and one the next, and keep on getting another for ten years running.
Of course, this being a farce, they leave before the misunderstanding is cleared up. But I notice that Marvin has left his suitcase behind. I open it and discover, somewhat to my surprise, that its filled with clothes.
Just then the doorbell rings and I yell again, Its Conrad!
My wife answers the door. Its my boss, J.C. Mallory (Ed Olson), come to tell me hes discovered a $3,000 accounting error and we have to find the mistake immediately. Hes brought over the books, and we all retire to the kitchen.
Learning of this, Betty Lou recalls a movie where a man had mental blackouts and didnt know he was embezzling from his company. That sets off a fourth daydream.
She imagines Mr. Mallory discussing the missing money with his bookkeeper (Sue Beightler). Then I enter the fantasy. I tell her that Im having periodic lapses of memory, and Im worried. Standing in front of the curtain downstage left, I put my arm around Betty Lou and speak to her tenderly (while trying to project my voice enough to be heard in the back row of our 500-seat gymnasium and auditorium).
I want you to know, I tell her, that youre the finest girl Ive ever known. As a daughter youve been all a father could wish for, or desire. Youre good, youre sweet, and youre understanding. Thats why Im coming to you with my problem. Monday, when I checked my bank account, I discovered I had $3,000 more than I actually thought. Where did it come from? Where?
We discuss the horrific possibilities, and then I make my dramatic exit, giving Betty Lous shoulder a little squeeze and saying, Remember, my dear. Anything I may be accused of, anything people may say, just remember that I know not what I do. The lights come back up.
The world has taken a sorry turn, Betty Lou muses. But thats life. And life is a strange painting made up of bright and cheery colors and black and purple. Fate is the unseen artist that moves with quick and bewildering splashes across the canvas.
She adds the embezzlement story to her diary. You know what Im going to do? Im going to take these episodes, and tomorrow in study hall Im going to change the names and sorta rewrite it and hand it in for my English theme.
After she leaves, the women and J.C. Mallory return to the room. Soon they pick up the diary, and my boss discovers the entry about my theft. Then I enter, asking innocently whether Mr. Mallory has found the missing $3,000.
Things become even more perplexing when her teacher and Aunt Mary break the news to her: her brother has run afoul of a gang of scoundrels, and her sister is eloping, and now her father is an embezzler. To Betty Lou, everything she wrote in her diary has come true!
She warns Wilbur and Hercules for real this time, not in a dream that Conrad is coming to get them at midnight. They begin stuffing themselves as a last meal. Next she explains to Mr. Mallory that I, her father, stole the money, but it isn't my fault. You see, he has spells. Just blacks out. Somewhere along the line he has flipped his smokestack.
The boss forgives me in a weepy scene where we blow our noses several times. (I asked Ed how to make a loud nose-blowing sound, and he demonstrated how to cover ones nose and mouth with a handkerchief and use ones lips to make the noise.) After we exit, apparently we get into an offstage scuffle and the police take us into custody.
Then Betty Lou has an idea. Why didnt I think of this sooner? Look, I just imagined everything I put in my diary, didnt I? And yet it came true, didnt it? Now all Ive got to do is just imagine a way out! Ill just visualize a solution and thats the way itll happen. She sits at the desk and prepares to daydream.
However, this time the lights dont dim, and we dont hear my spooky music; instead, we hear the doorbell ring. Did Nick Taylor miss his cue? No, the audience is meant to understand that this is not a daydream; whatever is about to transpire on stage is really happening. But Betty Lou doesnt know that. She thinks its another of her fantasies.
The visitor at the door is merely a woman with a flat tire, looking for help, but Betty Lou thinks shes Conrads moll Molly and orders her to sit down. Wilbur and Hercules stagger in. Having overindulged for their last meal, theyre now suffering from severe indigestion. Ohh, Im dyin, they moan. Looks like Im finally gettin out of the eighth grade. They collapse on the floor, and Betty Lou covers their bodies with a blanket.
Marvin comes back for his suitcase and is flabbergasted when Betty Lou puts her arms around his neck and tells him, I cant let you elope with Connie. We mean too much to each other, my dear you and I. You dont want a girl like Connie when you could have a woman like me. Then the phone rings; Im calling from the police station. I know, Father, Betty Lou tells me, but well carry on. Farewell, Father. And she hangs up on me.
Janet, Aunt Mary, and the teacher come in to discover the baffling scene as the clock strikes midnight. But then Betty Lous friend Bernadine also enters, having found the book she identifies as Betty Lous make-believe diary. You mean, the teacher asks, she just invented everything thats in there?
And Im having a vision now, Betty Lou adds helpfully. Heres Molly and Wilbur and Hercules are dead. But the woman explains shes not Molly, just someone looking for a tire pump. And the boys are not dead, they only wish they were. Wilbur, Betty Lou asks, do you mean youre still alive? What a dirty, chintzy trick. I cant figure it out. I just cant figure it out.
After the adults give the moral of the story Understanding the Effervescent Adolescent is an impossibility we have the final CURTAIN.
So thats a summary of the plot. The script was also loaded with jokes that I havent included (sample: Bernadine, you should never talk to strange men. I know it. Thats what mother says. So I let him do most of the talking.)
We were a bunch of high-school amateurs merely reciting a script, and I suspect the line readings we rattled off were not ideal. For example, at the time I thought hoody was just an odd hoodlum-derived interjection used randomly by one of the characters, because Carl didnt say it with a wave of his hand like the greeting its apparently supposed to be.
However, as I read the play now, having watched almost an additional 50 years of sitcoms, I can imagine it being enacted by an experienced cast of professionals who know how to draw out every possible laugh. And as I imagine that performance, Dear Diary actually is funny.
My memories of the cast party that followed are slightly fuzzier, because there was no script for that.
I recall two wrap parties, actually, the other being the one that followed our junior class play a year earlier. I think one was held at the home of Sherry Keigley and the other at the home of Kelly Drake. The Keigleys and the Drakes were almost the only families in town who had color TVs, and on one of those Friday nights I recall seeing a bit of the Johnny Carson show in color a first for me. But which party was which year, Im not sure.
However, I do remember the arrival of the star of our senior class play. Roxye was no longer wearing Betty Lous sensible skirt and sweater. She had changed into a rather glamorous party dress, with one shoulder daringly bared. In our little town in 1965, anyway, it was glamorous.
Recently I ran across a photo of model Donna Lazarescu wearing a shorter version of that dress. I couldnt resist colorizing a couple of photos from the play to change Donnas face into Roxyes, thereby realizing my fantasy of what really caused Hercules and Wilburs mouths to gape and knees to shake.