The Launch of a Theatrical Journey by Tom Briggs
- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
It may have been because I could perform all of the songs and choreography for every day of “The Mickey Mouse Club,.” circa 1959. Or that I would lip sync and choreograph to Teresa Brewer records and make my two little sisters be my backups. Having disclosed those peculiarities, it should come as no surprise when I admit to having been an awkward kid who didn’t really fit in anywhere with my peers. Somehow my intuitive mother got wind of a children’s theater company, wisely enrolled me, and it changed my life. I’m probably like many of you who found the right mentor at the right time.
I appeared in my first play before I’d ever seen one. I knew at the first rehearsal that I had found a new home although I knew not one soul in the room. The woman who founded the company and directed the productions in my hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin was a larger than life Auntie Mame type. Conne Smith had dropped the “i” from her first name at the suggestion of a carnival gypsy when she was a girl because the numerology wasn’t right. Conne was a Pied Piper which, ironically, was the title of that first play in which I appeared. Children, parents and the community followed her throughout her life. She recognized in me a passion and, I suppose, some talent for the stage. Not that talent is a prerequisite for children’s theater. Curiosity and enthusiasm are enough and I had both.
Thanks to Conne, I became engaged enough to begin taking myself seriously. I started taking dance lessons, much to the chagrin of my macho father. His efforts to shove me into the world of sports continually backfired. I don’t think a kid can really excel at something he’s not interested in and (spoiler!) I didn’t fit in with the jock crowd. Only Dad could have looked at his skinny, somewhat effete son and seen a quarterback. At one point, when I was in high school, my dad insisted that for every production I was in, I had to go out for one sport. Of course that’s impossible as both are pretty much full time jobs. I chose gymnastics, and swimming and diving, at both of which I was nearly proficient. I even won a couple medals for the latter two but it didn’t really matter. Dad meant a sport with a ball. Anyway, he finally and mercifully gave up the ghost on the sports thing.
Meanwhile, my mother did encourage my theatrical efforts, bringing my sisters to every show I was in, which eventually encompassed community theater, church and school productions and summer stock. I became an acceptable dancer, for a teenage boy in Wisconsin, and could sing well enough to play the leading man’s funny best friend. I had found my niche.
In 1969, Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles established the Wisconsin Youth Power initiative. At the height of the Vietnam War, it aimed to take the lenses off those who were burning their draft cards and bras. Thus was created the wholesome, all-singing, all-dancing “Kids From Wisconsin,” a troupe that toured during the summer throughout Wisconsin and beyond. The group was comprised of 60 high school students who auditioned throughout the state. Half were singer-dancers and half were instrumentalists comprising a sensational jazz band. A highlight of the tour was a trip to New York where we performed with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra and recorded an album at RCA. I also saw my first Broadway show, Promises, Promises starring Jerry Orbach, and with that my fate was sealed. I knew that one day I’d be living in that exciting city and doing what I had just witnessed onstage at the Shubert Theatre.
I was thrilled to be cast in that inaugural troupe, which is currently celebrating its 48th season. I was also heartbroken not to be in Conne’s summer production of Brigadoon. I only knew one other “Kid,” the accomplished flutist who was also from Waukesha and with whom I’d done theater under Conne’s tutelage. I seldom saw her, the band and singers rehearsing separately. But it was the first time I’d ever been with a group of peers where what I loved to do was considered cool.
When “Kids From Wisconsin” made its debut at State Fair Park in West Allis, Wisconsin, we opened for the fantastic singer, Vikki Carr. Within the audience of 15,000 was my father. It was the first time he’d ever seen me on the stage, Mother having insisted that he accompany her and my sisters. I had a little dance specialty that landed well so I was what you would have called “featured.” It got a big hand from that massive crowd that nearly blew me off the stage. Theretofore, the biggest audience I’d ever played to was probably a couple hundred. After the show, Dad had tears in his eyes and didn’t have to say, “Now I get it.” I got it. It may have been the first time I ever saw my dad cry. Whether they were tears of joyful pride or regret for having ignored my aspirations I’ll never know nor did I ever ask.
The following spring he brought my sisters to see me in a production of Man of La Mancha. Mom was in the hospital at the time (where she’d spend far too much time during the ensuing years) and, again, she had insisted that he attend in her absence. And again, he was red-eyed following the performance. While I never received the affirmation of hearing, “I’m proud of you, son,” the fact that he was there at all was enough. I also believe that the pride Conne took in my burgeoning talents bridged an emotional gap for me.
How this kid from Wisconsin eventually landed on Broadway, and in a role you may not suspect, with Conne on his arm for opening night, is another story. Stay tuned.