NOTES ON A LOST POEM
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Suddenly, I wasn't alone any more. I had a sister.
Which is odd, because I don't.
True, I am the eldest of two children. But the second
was a boy - and then a man - who died when he was only
47. My father is gone, too.
But as regular readers of this column know, I still have a mother, Rose Kagan, who has been stage-struck all her life. As a young girl she trained as an actress and performed in her Long Island neighborhoods. Her father, who owned garages on Broadway, often received complimentary tickets from the stars who parked there. So there were many nights when young mother sat in the audience, enraptured, absorbing theater through her skin.
After she married my father, Mom started training as a dancer, too. For as long as I've known her she's been directing, writing, choreographing and starring in musical revues based on Broadway shows.
For the past 35 years, she's been doing these amateur shows for her Florida condominium complex. Each September, the Lauderdale West Theater Group starts working on its one big original show. Six months later, in early March, it's show time.
Three years ago, at the age of 86, Mom retired. To fill the vacuum, two of her male performers vied to be the new writer-director-star. First one and then the other put on a show. First one and then the other alienated the theater club. This year my mother, now 89, returned by popular demand with a newly written show, "Four Seasons, Four Reasons."
For many reasons, not the least of which is her age, this was the hardest show of all.
First, under the general rubric of "fire hazard," the new president of the condo threw out thirty-five years of carefully stashed scenery. All the beautifully painted backdrops, the platforms, the cutouts, the master carpenter's magic workshed - it all disappeared. Thirty-five years worth of costumes went, too. Couldn't leave them backstage any more. Fire hazard.
With a budget hovering around $1,500, replacing everything was not an option. Also, the stage designer had died during the year, and the costumer had lymphoma. The club had to do it bare-bones. Most of its fabulous spectacle - the cardboard, paint and glitter - was gone.
Then there were the egos. Some of the long-time members were frightened at how frail my mother looked. They were afraid she had lost her touch, that they would look foolish on stage. So they challenged her constantly, draining her creative energy. This was especially true for the man who had directed last year's show and was furious that he wasn't directing again.
Then there was Mom's next-door neighbor, who was on the casting committee. Even though she had a great number, she decided she deserved two. Since she had a coterie of about 40 enthusiastic supporters who always came to the Friday night show, she threatened to walk out if she didn't get the second number. Mom wouldn't be blackmailed. The neighbor left the show. Now she snubs Mom when they meet.
To offset the lost ticket sales, The Miami Herald came to the rescue. Impressed with Mom's high kicks, they called her a "diva" and a "spry octogenarian with thin firm legs and a petite frame." They quoted some of the cast members. "She's the best," her long-time dance partner said. "There's no one else like her."
Soon, people were calling from all over south Florida, asking for directions to Lauderdale West. You can read the story at http://www.miamiherald.com/467/v-print/story/34765.html.
In the face of every disappointment, Mom persevered. Using her encyclopedic knowledge of the American songbook, especially the section marked "Broadway," she dug deep into her talents. Besides the usual lip-synch and razzle-dazzle, she staged a daring non-talking, non-singing "American in Paris" dance number that was breathtaking in its scope and presentation. The audience loved it.
But Mom's signature number, "I Want to Be a Rockette," was the most remarkable number of all.
Suddenly this tense, bent, tired old woman was a butterfly unfurling from a cocoon - bright and new and shining, delicate and beautiful, young again, and alive. The audience roared. They gave her a standing ovation at every performance.
For the first time, my cousin Joan came from New York to see the show. Although she is my mother's first cousin, we're the same age and have always been friends. But we never realized until this weekend how close we really are. We think the same thoughts at the same time. We say the same things at the same time. We even get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom at the same time. If we weren't old women, we'd be menstruating in synch.
Joan has become the sister I never had.
Together, we'll be able to carry my mother's story a little further down the ages.