Of the many experiences one can rack up over the years, sometimes it’s nature’s unexpected revelations that become the most memorable. Your first tornado, your first look at birth, your first foray into Poison Ivy, but it was the onset of puberty that gave me an unparalleled hormonal triumph that I would never forget.
You simply don’t see it coming. You’re strolling along, all little boyish, and bang, girls are suddenly on the map and life has a new complication. Pig Latin and mud pies should have been enough of a challenge but the gravitational pull of the female screwed up the calm that was my childhood ignorance and replaced it with a call to action.
If you’re going through puberty, the times, as Bob Dylan once said, “they are a changin'”. For a heterosexual boy, it’s not only your female classmates that look different, it’s every cultural and social bookmark and that definitely includes celebrities. My friend Charlie took a strong interest in young actress Haley Mills and, believe me, it had nothing to do with her thespian gifts. Personally, I was mesmerized by a television trailer for a new movie about to hit local theaters.
I used to go to the movie theater a lot on Saturdays, usually by myself because I’d had a rotten experience with a friend who kept getting up every 5 minutes to take a piss all through The Ten Commandments. Maybe it was the suggestibility of the Red Sea or maybe the kid had a bladder the size of a peanut, I don’t know, but it was distracting as hell and I decided that I’d be going alone from then on.
There were risks associated with that though and they came from groups of kids who thought it was hilarious to pop somebody in the back of the head with a Milk Dud or kick the back of your chair. If you were alone, then you didn’t have the power of the wolf pack so they preyed on your solitude. I ignored their idiocy as best I could and was at least thankful that I didn’t have to deal with my ex-movie buddy, the pissing machine.
I watched that TV trailer with stealthy interest because I didn’t want my mother or anyone else to get the drift that I was heading over there on the weekend and plop down a quarter (that’s what it cost for the matinée then) to see the exciting conclusion of Natalie Wood’s stripper stroll across the stage.
I was just a boy without a complete understanding of what was going on with me sexually, and the lure of Wood’s character Gypsy Rose Lee singing “Let Me Entertain You” and possibly doffing her duds drew me like a moth to the flame. I had to get to that movie and find out what happened where the trailer tease left off!
In 1963 Natalie Wood was on the cover of every movie fan magazine around and already firmly established, in my mind, as a pubescent icon so the lure was almost bigger than Christmas except that I failed to understand just exactly what Gypsy was. From the TV ad I had it boiled down to the story of a stripper’s rise to stardom but, of course, it’s a tad more than that.
Gypsy is a musical that opened up on Broadway in 1959 and was adapted for the screen 4 years later with the aforementioned Natalie Wood and the venerable actress Rosaland Russell as her mother. Yes, Gypsy is about Ms. Rose Lee, the good girl turned legendary stripper but it’s more about the family as headed by the matriarchal ‘Rose’, played by Russell. The overriding point is, it’s a musical.
It’s about singing and dancing and drama and, for God’s sake, a lot of things that had nothing to do with the prurient interests of a 12 year-old. Still, there was Natalie Wood and, after getting there and having to wade through the ‘early years of vaudeville’, I focused on the eventual moment, as promised by the trailer, where Wood would let it all hang out and a young boy’s dreams would be realized.
I kept the troops patient but on ‘ready alert’ as the tale trudged on until that seminal moment in the story when one of the other strippers was unable to go on and there was Natalie Wood, volunteered by her own overbearing mother to come in off the bench and save the day. The anticipation was more than I could stand and the troops were antsy. It was finally going to happen.
Wood was a little hesitant but off she went and she hadn’t gotten more than 3 bars into the song when so did I.
To my complete surprise, with no encouragement, no go ahead command from the general; my troops had taken it upon themselves to charge ahead and now, as exciting as it all was, it was over in a flash…and I was left with a tricky logistical problem.
All through the remaining part of the film (yes, I stayed for the whole thing) I tried to figure out how I was going to stand up and walk out of the theater without a hundred kids pointing at the crotch of my Chinos and laughing. I couldn’t assess the extent of the visible damage in the dark but my imagination gave me cause for alarm.
It was summer so I couldn’t be helped by a winter coat and all I really had left was an empty popcorn box and a few Good n’ Plenty candies, so when the lights came up I moved quickly to the exit using the popcorn box as a shield; the rationalization being that I was taking the rest with me for the walk home (I always had to have an alibi that made sense to me and that one did).
By the time I had finally gotten in the clear, free from the groups of other kids and on my way back home I didn’t need the box anymore and it was time to try and place into context what had happened back there.
I had spent the afternoon watching a musical about a stripper but even though it wasn’t what I had expected, I had done something monumental, and I did it with no hands and a mouth full of popcorn.
I had pulled an ‘unassisted’; something rarely experienced by anyone over the age of enlightenment; something only the hormones of a crazed teen can do and while I was technically a pre-teen, it was close enough. My only concern was that I might have too loose a cannon and would this thing be going off every time a pretty girl walked by? Would I have to spend the rest of my life walking around with a popcorn box?
But that was it, a one and only unique event, never to be duplicated in my life and destined for my own mental scrapbook. The Stripper, starring Joanne Woodward, came along that same year (she even had balloons!), but it wasn’t the same, because it wasn’t Natalie Wood, whose presence I embued with almost mythical proportions for her powers to move me from the silver screen through a simple musical.
Let’s face it. You’re not supposed to be that excited about a musical that once starred Ethel Merman on Broadway, but that was Natalie Wood, master of seduction and temptress of young boys of the ’60’s.