Summer Stock was different than planned

I boarded the Greyhound at the Port Authority Bus Station in New York en route to Bemidji, Minn., with about $40 in my pocket, gifts from the actors at the North Jersey Playhouse for my 16th birthday. My destination was the only summer stock company that accepted me as an apprentice. I later understood why: this company did not require an audition, which I had dutifully prepared for other companies to which I applied but was roundly rejected, and I had only submitted my resume in pencil.

Having spent the prior four years as an apprentice at the Playhouse, then in Fort Lee under the direction of the late mystery writer Robert Ludlum, I felt it was time to get some experience a little further afield. My friends at the Playhouse were supportive, but dubious about such a big step for a young girl, but I was determined to try my hand at what I romantically conceived to be the summer stock experience. Little did I know that what awaited me in Bemidji was more like indentured servitude.

The bus left Port Authority Terminal at some God-awful hour of the morning. The suburban bus from my hometown stopped running long before I was scheduled to leave, so I sat on my suitcases, waiting, as the night hours slowly passed. The terminal was seedy, and this was to be my first indication that going so far into untapped territories might be more perilous than I had ever imagined. My trepidation increased as I watched the odd cast of characters board and leave the bus. Hours and hours later, I was still excited and eager to see everything as the trusty bus wound through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois and, finally stopped in Chicago where I was to change for a bus to Minneapolis.

Parking my suitcases in a locker, I walked around the area surrounding the bus terminal. With hours to pass and nothing to do, I found myself at Tad’s Steak House where I indulged in a well-tenderized steak served complete with a baked Idaho potato and tossed salad with blue cheese dressing for $1.19. Full from my meal, I returned to the bus station and settled in until my bus was called. Arriving in Minneapolis I waited again before getting on a much smaller bus heading north towards Bemidji. I remember being immediately taken by the rhythm of the voices and the preponderance of blond people. The girl who sat next to me was very friendly and I asked her if she knew anything about Bemidji, to which she replied “The Home of the Blue Ox.”

Yes, my final destination was the legendary Paul Bunyan country, leaving me to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Bemidji of the late 1950s proved to be quite lovely, a bucolic place edging on one of Minnesota ‘s many lakes. The summer theater was a hub of activity as not much else of culture was available. Once ensconced in my room with a fellow apprentice (my first roommate ever) I was overjoyed with the anticipation of sharing the experience with another aspiring thespian. It did not turn out that way. My roommate was the Vixen from Hell and loved to make up elaborate lies that aggrandized her and put everyone else down. Our cohabitation began with tension and grew worse over the course of the summer. I quickly realized that expectations could be vastly different from reality.

After unpacking, I was called to the dining room where I was given an apron and told to get to work. As an apprentice, my job was to be waiting on the performers and crew. This proved to be a rather formidable task as I had no prior experience, and waitressing is much more difficult than many might assume. Summer stock became slave labor, a confirmed perception when I realized that any acting experience would be in crowd scenes, the most prominent of which was as a member of Emily’s funeral in our production of “Our Town,” when I commiserated at the death of Emily with a sigh.

As I began to understand that summer in Bemidji was not at all what I had expected, I made a decision not to wallow in disappointment, but rather to get to know the locals and see as much of the area as I could. The summer staff at a local hotel proved to be very nice and I, as an East Coast Jew, was as exotic to them as they were to me. Generous with time, we traveled to the Red River Indian reservation where I saw the horrific poverty, alcoholism and deprivation to which many of our Native American brothers and sisters are still captive.

By shifting my focus away from trying to gain the approval of the summer stock staff, I became happier, and even had several summer romances. Then came a highlight. I do not remember how I befriended a cynical, intellectual, and possibly alcoholic professor from the University of Minnesota who lamented lost opportunity with a savoir faire I found delightful. He introduced me to one of his favorite plays and the writers whose work, “Archy and Mehitabel” had just finished a short run on Broadway. Taken from the short newspaper pieces written by Don Marquis for the Evening Sun in the early years of the 20th century, Archy is a cockroach yearning to be a poet, working hard every night pounding out his verse key by key with his head on a manual typewriter; Mehitabel is a footloose and fancy-free alley cat that would rather face the unpredictability of the street than be somebody’s pampered pet. I loved these stories written in a free verse voice that in a few words caught the essence of what seemed to me to be life’s truths. The hours spent with my somewhat debauched professor and his friends will always be remembered and cherished.

As summer stock wore on and it was time to catch the return Greyhound to suburban New Jersey. I would have ample time to reflect about the experience. Thinking back, what I learned is that getting someplace is as important as arriving, and to relish every moment as it is, rather than living in anticipation of what may never be. I also learned that when there is an unexpected experience, to look for ways to make it work. This precept, perhaps, is the most difficult to follow, yet I am proud of my young self whose summer stock experience might be counted as a failure, but whose experience exploring Minnesota definitely became a rousing success.