A few years ago, I was reading a review of a biography of Oscar Wilde. It mentioned that, when Wilde was a college student, someone based a character on a novel on him.

"Interesting," I thought. Then I realized something: the same thing had happened to me.

Let's go back to the summer of 1973. I had just completed my junior year at college and was home working at Rothman's Department Store. And, in the evenings, I took part on a group called "Youth on Stage," which performed at the North Fork Community Theater in Mattituck, NY.

The group had been founded two years earlier as a way for high school and college kids to do a little community theater in the summer and presumably stay out of trouble (Presumably. But I digress). I was with the original group; we performed The Music Man and South Pacific the previous two years. There was a new director that year: a woman new to the community by the name of Sandra Scoppettone. At the time, I was hanging out with a bunch of friends who had been with Youth on Stage pretty much since the beginning. We called ourselves "The Bull Contingent." It was sort of an anti-clique, formed because the people involved were snubbed by a clique at high school called "The Moose Contingent." I knew little about what that was about -- I was in college, not high school, and the oldest of the group -- but I did enjoy the company of the group. We hung out, dated each other (there were both sexes, and more girls than guys, which I liked, since at the time I was very awkward around women), and discussed various philosophical issues. I suppose nowadays we'd be classified as geeks, though we were all growing out of geekdom. 

One of the members was someone named -- well, let's call him Jeff. I had known Jeff from high school; he was one year behind me and lived just down the street. I didn't like him back then. You see, he had the stereotypical "gay" manner of speaking and acting, and, of course, that was considered a Very Bad Thing in high school in the late 60s. So I was uncomfortable in his presence and avoided him. 

However, things change. The year before, I had gotten to know him as part of the Bull Contingent. He was dating one of the girls. It had surprised me: here I thought he was gay, and he had a girlfriend. This taught me an important lesson that I've carried with me ever since: First impressions are never to be trusted. You never know how wrong you could be.

Youth on StageBack to Youth on Stage. The Bull Contingent all tried out for the play: Anything Goes this year (starting my love for the music of Cole Porter). 

When I showed up at auditions, someone told me I should try out for the part of Moonface Martin, the second male lead and comic relief. And, as I read the script, I realized I really wanted to play it. But Sandra never called on me or gave me a chance to perform. I could tell that she was probably going to give me a minor part, possibly Henry Dobson, who had one or two scenes as a straight man. (And as far as acting was concerned, I was not a straight man -- I once was cast as a hobo in Winterset and everyone thought I was comic relief despite the fact I was trying to play the part as seriously as I could.) 

Finally, at the end of auditions, she made the usual announcement: if there's anyone who wants to read for a particular part, say so. You hear that all the time at auditions, and usually, no one ever spoke up. 

I spoke up. To Sandra's credit, she immediate said she should have thought to have asked me to read. I performed the scene as Martin. I discovered later that it was a completely different take from the usual performance of the role, where Martin is portrayed as a meek and timid -- a characterization that grew from Victor Moore's portrayal of the role on Broadway. I knew nothing about Moore (and very little more, though I have seen him in a couple of film, and he always played a meek little guy). I was more blustery, trying to bluff my way though the action and being constantly thwarted and I think it worked pretty well. 

Evidently, so did Sandra. I got the part.

Moon Martin

One of the girls in the contingent -- I'll call her Camilla -- was cast in the part of my girlfriend. Several of the others had speaking parts. All in all, it worked out well for us. 

Over the summer, I actually started dating Camilla (life imitating art). And she dropped a bombshell: it turned out I was right; Jeff was gay. His dating the year before was either a smokescreen or an attempt to try heterosexuality; I don't know. 

It was a bit disconcerting, but I quickly decided that it didn't matter. Jeff was a friend and I had learned from the year before that he was an OK guy. It showed me that gays were no different from straights (a big deal back in 1973). 

I moved on. No one else I knew was bothered by it. At this point, he had started hanging out with another person from the play -- I'll use Phil -- but I think the feeling of everyone that knew was that it was all their own business. The play went on; I was a thunderous success, and we all went back to school. 

Trying Hard to Hear youThe next year, the word got out: Sandra had written a novel, Trying Hard to Hear You. It was about a group of kids putting on Anything Goes for Youth on Stage at the North Fork Community Theater in Mattituck, NY. The settings were real places in the area, most completely undisguised. 

And plot involved the kids finding out that Jeff and Phil were gay. 

Now, Sandra has said that the characters were all fictional. And there is truth to that, since their actions were nothing like the real thing. She was writing a story, and what people did had to fit into the story and not real people. I understand that. 

But still . . . 

One of the characters was named "Walt Feinberg." Here is his background compared to mine. Obviously we both came from Southold, but here are a few other things: 

"Walt is the brain of us all."

I was voted "Class Brain" in my school yearbook

"He was the valedictorian of his graduating class."

I was third in the class.

"A lot of kids think Walt is a show-off in terms of braininess."

Well, I was.

. . . his grandfather, who owns Feinberg's Department Store, …"

My grandfather owned Rothman's Department Store

"[his grandfather] was a friend of Albert Einstein's…"

My grandfather was.

Walt is also portrayed as always asking obscure trivia questions.

I love obscure trivia (e.g., other than Babe Ruth, what member of the baseball Hall of Fame wore #3 for the New York Yankees?).

Walt was cast as Moonface Martin

See previous paragraphs.

You could find the same sort of parallels in the descriptions of all the characters. In fact, if you have a program for the play, you can figure out who was who merely by matching the roles in the program. The only big difference is that everyone in the book was a few years younger than they actually were in real life. 

And, of course, the worst part of this was that the book outed Jeff and Phil. Despite Sandra's denials, everyone involved knew who she was talking about. 

I actually was quite nervous when I heard about this. You see, my relationship with "Camilla" did not end well, and I was kind of afraid of what might come out. Luckily, that was outside the scope of the book. (The real Camilla, by the way, had no problems with Jeff's orientation, unlike the character in the book, who struggled to deal with it.)

The flap eventually died out. After all, if you didn't live in my home town, you never knew about it. Even if you lived there, if you didn't know the people involved, it meant nothing to you. Life went on. But an odd thing happened. Trying Hard to Hear You became something of a minor classic. It was one of the first YA novels to discuss homosexuality and portray it in a positive light. It's a bit melodramatic, but evidently it was embraced by gays and remained in print and in libraries (I once stumbled upon one about a dozen years after publication in a middle school library). It was reprinted as recently as 1997, and has made many lists of notable YA novels. One description even calls it a "gay teen classic." 

The book seems a bit dated now. These are sixties attitudes toward gays, which have changed radically. And I always found it a bit melodramatic. But it's clear that plenty of people found it an inspiration. And it's pretty exciting to be a part of it, even if was just because I was at the right place at the right time. 

I drifted away from the Bull Contingent, mostly because I moved to Schenectady the next year. I haven't seen any of them in ages. 

As for Jeff, in the 80s, I heard that he had died. Immediately, I knew and it was confirmed: AIDS. I was very sorry to hear that. I learned a lot about how to treat people by knowing him, and felt a real loss to know he was gone. I owe a lot to him. 

Here's to you, Mark. 

9/4/05


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