I think my mother wanted one of her eight children to become an artist like her nephew, my cousin, Jerry Vallez, a very good and successful painter and illustrator.  To this end she enrolled me in various art classes, outside of school.

One of these was a pastel class with Mrs. Adair Williams.  The classes took place in the basement of her split-level home.  It was full of easels facing a wall of sliding glass doors that opened on to her beautiful garden full of irises.  These were our subjects.

Almost 20 years later, while doing “Sunday in the Park With George”, I got to talking with Paul Ford, the rehearsal pianist.  We discovered that we both grew up in Atlanta, in the same neighborhood, and we both took art classes with Adair Williams.  Small world!

Another class, when I was even younger, was more arts and crafts.  We would make plaster casts in the sandy beach of a nearby lake and then paint them – that sort of thing.  The final project was making hand puppets out of sawdust clay and paint.  They were simple puppets – just a head with fabric attached around the “neck” to hide the puppeteer’s hand.  My puppet was the short-nosed elephant from “The Elephant’s Child”, also known as “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk”, one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  On the last day we put on a show for parents and families.

My character was a very curious elephant who asked a lot of questions and got spanked every time he did.  Finally he wanted to know what the crocodile ate for dinner.  The Kolokolo Bird sent him down to the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees, to ask the crocodile.  In our version the crocodile lured me closer and then grabbed my short nose in his snout.  After a long struggle we went down below the surface of the river.  That’s when I switched places with the kid playing the long-trunked elephant and I was done until the bows.   This was my very first theatrical experience.

It’s funny, as I recalled the story for this blog, I didn’t remember the audience or the applause that must have followed the show.  What I did remember was the process of making the puppets and rehearsing the elephant transfer below the line-of-sight of the audience – all the backstage stuff.  This was probably an early sign that I was meant for the technical side of theater.