Friday, October 1, 1999
© 1999 by Kathryn E. Darden
The old man shuffled down the street, face downcast, trying to ignore the bitter wind that tore at his overcoat, trying to ignore his bitter disappointment over the latest ... and last ... meeting with his bank. The once dapper coat which he knew how to throw around his shoulders with a theatrical flair was now carefully mended. There was no money for frivolous things like coats. Frederick Gurling had given everything he had to keep his Maple Street Community Theater open.
Once one of the leading community theaters in the country, the Maple Street or "The Maple" as it had been called in the Good Days, had fallen upon hard times. But Frederick remembered it as it had once been in the Good Days. Frederick Gurling had been considered one of the best acting coaches of his day, a peer of the rich and famous, a mentor to the young. "Herr Frederick" they had respectfully (and fondly) called him.
Ah, the young men -- how dashing: hair styled impeccably, such handsome leading men in their fedoras, their suits, sometimes even a young man carrying a cane, or umbrella, or cigar -- a prop to gesture with. Ah. And the young women, how lovely with their carefully permed hair, and artful curl here and there, makeup applied so skillfully, lovely, girls in sweaters and skirts or suits and hats and hose. Ah, those were the Good Days. Frederick found he spent more and more time remembering the Good Days.
"Move it, old man," said a brash young man as he hurried past, hair in a bushy reddish Afro, bell bottoms, tie dyed shirt, needing no prop to make the desired gesture, using his middle finger instead. The girl with him tossed her long dirty hair over her shoulder, as they passed, her bellbottoms slung low on her thin hips, her shirt tied high under her small breasts. She looked at him as she passed, but she didnít see him, eyes vacantly focused elsewhere. The Good Days were gone.
Now many theaters were full of rowdy, dirty young people singing folk music loudly ... and badly, doing performances that seemed to have no plots, often removing their clothing and smoking questionable substances. They wanted to use the Maple, but they didn't want to pay, didn't want to clean up afterwards, didn't want to perform the classics or the musicals that had made the Maple famous in the Good Days. And the audience didn't want to pay either. The Maple was too shabby now to attract the glittery crowds it once drew, and the young people who wanted to use it left it in worse shape each time they used it... and the ones who had skipped town in their colorful rusty vans, rock music blaring, had left Frederick near bankruptcy. He had to close the Maple.
Frederick's eyes misted. If he didn't do something soon, he would loose the Maple completely. What would he tell his beloved Hilda who so carefully mended his coat, his clothes, his wife of 40 years? Already some men in shabby suits had popped in at odd hours, looking the old place over. "Vultures," he thought, "already looking at the Maple like a dead beast, ready to pick the bones clean."
A young cub reporter had recently done a small piece in the newspaper about the Maple and the financial ruin that lurked impatiently at its doors. If he could only fix it up, Frederick thought. If he could just repair the leaks, repaint it, lay new carpet, gild the columns, hang a new curtain -- a deep, sumptuous burgundy velvet, yes, with gold tie backs. Ah.
A limousine pulled up next to the curb. Two legs, long, slim legs, in dainty high heels, slid out the door. "Mr. Gurling?" inquired a throaty feminine voice. "Herr Frederick?" she said. He stopped and looked more closely. A lovely Channel Suit followed the legs, then the beautiful face he had seen in the cinema the few times he went. "Herr Frederick," she repeated as she touched the sleeve of his drab coat.
What was SHE doing here, he wondered. Frederick was not much for the movies, much preferring the stage, but this face had enticed him into the cinema on more than once occasion a decade earlier. "Miss Marshall," he said. "I am honored. What can I do for you?"
"Oh, please, Herr Frederick, do call me Katie. I haven't been Gene for several years now. Would you do me the honor of joining me for coffee?"
A stunned Frederick climbed awkwardly into the back seat of the limousine. "Miss Marshall, I am sorry, I mean, Miss... Katie... to what do I owe this great honor?"
"Herr Frederick, don't you remember me... Katie Marshall?"
"Katie Marshall, yes, the name rings a bell, but ... I am confused, I know you as GENE Marshall."
"Yes, Herr Frederick, but I WAS Katie Marshall, and now I am simply Katie once again."
"Do you mean little Katie Marshall? But that can't be. She was a skinny little thing, all eyes and coltish legs, and so shy... oh, I am sorry, I have insulted you."
"No," she said, barely suppressing her laughter. "No, that is quite all right, Herr Frederick. That was I. Do you remember what you told me?"
"Ack, it was so long ago, but I do remember when you tried out for the lead in a play, what play was that? And the role was for an older, more glamorous girl, and required some experience. As I recall, you had none... I mean, experience, I do not mean you had no glamor," he stammered.
"But I didn't!" laughed the legend. "I was young, I was green, I was in pigtails, for goodness sake. But this is what you told me. I have never forgotten. You said, 'Katie Marshall, this role is not for you. You are young, and you have no experience.' I wanted to crawl out of there and I turned to leave. But then, Herr Frederick, you took my arm and added, 'You have great potential, but more than that, you have desire. I have seen the fire in your eyes as you tried out. You dream of being an actress, no? Then follow your dream, Katie Marshall. Take an acting class. Attend the theater whenever you can. Watch the great ones perform. Follow your dream, young Katie, and never give up.'"
"Herr Frederick, I took your class for one term, and it did help me, but much more, your words inspired me. I held on to what you told me, and took one of my first jobs as an usherette so I could watch the 'great ones' as you told me, and it was there I was discovered. I owe so much to you, and so does this community. I have read of the plight of the Maple, and I want to help. Please allow me to share my plans for a fundraising effort to save the Maple. It will take us more than one coffee meeting to work out all the details, but I want help organize a grand gala for the Maple and perform in a tribute to some of the great musicals... and I have lined up several friends to join me," she added, running off a list that left Frederick stunned and gaping.
"Oh, it is too wonderful, but, but I have no way, there is, you see, I have no money to pay for this," he stammered in defeat. "Herr Frederick," she said as she again touched his arm, "this is something you must allow us to do. Our payment will be to see the Maple once again one of the grand dames of the theater. A wise man once told me not to give up my dream. Please don't give up on yours."
The night of the big gala arrived. Using her stage name once again, Gene Marshall stood in the wings of the completely refurbished Maple. Her serene countenance belied the turmoil she felt inside. It had been almost ten years since she had stood on a stage. Well she remembered the last time: the thunderous applause, the standing ovations, the encores, wave after wave of adoring fans calling her name, cheering, the roses, countless bouquets brought to the stage, laid in her arms or on the stage itself, filling her dressing room afterward. But that was almost a decade ago.
She loved the privacy being Katie Marshall offered her. She loved the freedom, the peace, the serenity that surrounded her. Only her respect for Herr Frederick, her love for the beautiful old theater, and what she felt was her obligation -- a fond duty to her first teacher -- had brought her back to the stage. Had it really been three months since she first approached him in front of this very theater?
But here she was, back on the stage again, smelling the familiar odors of paint, perfume, hair spray, grease paint, and sweat, hearing the unmistakable low roar of a thousand people talking in the audience. the shuffling of a thousand programs.
Would they still love her? Worse, would they still remember her? Gene absently touched her immaculate upswept coif -- a slight gesture that only those who knew her well understood as a show of nervousness. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and yet she recognized an odd feeling of deep familiarity.
The orchestra struck up the overture, the lights behind the new plush burgundy curtains dimmed. The announcer, a dear old friend of hers known for his work as the announcer of Americaís best-loved nighttime talk show was up introducing Mr. Gurling. Herr Frederick spoke a few words of welcome in his heavily accented English. Geneís heart warmed -- this was why she was here, to help a dear friend. But as the announcer's voice boomed out, "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we have a special privilege, that of welcoming two great ladies back from early retirement. Your presence here is testimony that the legendary Maple is officially reopened, but now we welcome another legend back to the stage. Please help me welcome the lady of the hour, a great actress and a generous supporter of the arts, Miss Gene Marshall," Gene recognized a deeper truth. She was here because she belonged here.
The heavy velvet curtain swept back. The lights hit the stage, illuminating her slight, elegant figure. The silence was overwhelming; then the applause began, long and sweet it fell upon her like rain. Next the cacophony of a thousand theater seats was heard as the audience stood as one person, cheering, almost chanting, "Gene, Gene, Gene..."
Brushing back a single sparkling tear, Gene moved forward to embrace the crowd with her heart, her whole being. She had returned to the most familiar place of all... Gene Marshall had come home.
written as a contest entry for the HLAYG club
© 1999 by Kathryn E. Darden