It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the summer of 1974. The Watergate hearings were in full swing. When I wasn’t working, studying or rehearsing, I was glued to the TV, watching the sad, sordid saga unfold. I’d been married the summer before, and we were living in my parents’ home while we worked at my grandparents’ organic-produce farm. My folks were considerate and generous, and we were grateful, but we’d been living on our own and we missed our independence. Worst of all, my mother-in-law was dying of a particularly virulent form of oral cancer.
It’s probably an exaggeration to say that it was the best of times, but some wonderful things did happen that summer. Peter and I had gone through first-year-of-marriage adjustments and were comfortable in our relationship. Best of all, we were taking classes at Sangamon State University. I’m ashamed to admit it, but we signed up for those courses with low expectations. After all, we were students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign! Taking summer classes would ease our senior-class schedules, but we thought that courses at SSU would hardly be at the level to which we were accustomed. How wrong we were! Peter loved his endocrinology and embryology courses. “Psychological Perspectives on Nazi Germany,” which I’d taken to fulfill a general-education history requirement, turned out to be the most challenging, thought-provoking class of my life.
I’d also signed up for an acting class, necessary for my vocal-performance degree. As a distraction – and learning experience – it proved to be without peer. In addition to teaching, the instructor, Guy Romans, had a professional summer-repertory company performing in an outdoor theater in the round on the Old State Capitol square. When he discovered that I was a singer, he offered me an alternative way to get my acting credits. The repertory company’s grand finale would be Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. The company members were acting students, a couple of whom were local, but others from as far away as Louisiana and California. All could belt out a tune (actors typically receive some vocal training, just as singers learn the rudiments of acting), but one of the leading parts in TPO contained a soprano aria far beyond the capabilities of any of the company’s women. Guy thought that it was divine providence that I’d appeared, and I appreciated the experience. It was a deal.
The TPO performances went well, except for the night I flung my arms wide in the middle of my big aria and the zipper on my can’t-wear-a-bra-with-it evening dress broke – especially dramatic because it was theater in the round! By then, summer was on the wane and things were looking up. My mother-in-law had passed away shortly before TPO opened. Peter and I were deeply grieved by our loss but glad that her terrible suffering was over. Nixon resigned, and the country began to pull itself back together. The cast was delighted that two parties were being given for us.
I could hardly contain my excitement about the first party, given at the home of a couple who were major benefactors of the repertory company. I’d been there many times, though the owners never knew. Five years earlier, while it was being built, I’d been dating an architecture student who was enthusiastic about the home’s contemporary design. My boyfriend’s idea of a fun date was to sneak into the construction site after dark and explore. Week after week we prowled around as the house took shape. I’d always wanted to see the inside after it was finished. Now I’d have the chance – and wouldn’t even need to ask where the bathrooms were!
I was less enthusiastic about the second party, being given a few days later by Reno, pianist at a bar that had become the post rehearsal hangout for the cast. Reno, who was Spanish, was an enormous fellow, and he sat at a baby grand piano with counters molded around its sides, pudgy fingers flying as he played endless show tunes while my fellow company members warbled along happily. I’d gone just twice, partly because I was in only one show but mostly because of my mother-in-law’s illness and the farm work that started at dawn.
“Wait until you see this place,” I enthused to Peter on our way to the first party. “This is going to be so great!”
It wasn’t. Modern homes can be austerely beautiful, but this place was so cold, it almost sent shivers down our spines. It didn’t take us long to realize that the décor was a reflection of the owners’ personalities. Though the party was supposedly given for our repertory company, it soon became obvious that our presence was primarily intended to boost our hosts’ stature as patrons of the arts with their friends and colleagues. Nobody was rude, but there was more than a hint of condescension toward us actors. Normally music and theater people are great mixers at a party: ebullient, entertaining and easily entertained. That night, however, the cast soon drifted to one side, nibbling on the cheese and crackers that were the sole sustenance offered, talking in hushed tones, and wondering how soon we could politely leave.
I almost didn’t go to the second party. Peter and I were exhausted after work in the fields that had started at dawn. As we drove to Reno’s tiny house by the railroad tracks, we decided that we’d make our stay short.
“Welcome, welcome,” boomed Reno as he opened the door. The little home was filled with flowers, lively music and wonderful smells. Everybody talked, laughed, sang, danced, and ate and ate and ate. Reno and his warm, wonderful friends had spent hours – probably days – preparing an exotic and delicious Spanish feast unlike anything we’d experienced: salads, platters of meats and cheeses, a huge paella and multiple desserts. There was beer, wine and a strange yet tasty blue punch.
Peter and I finally left in the wee hours of the morning. Even knowing that we’d get little sleep before we’d have to be up and working in the fields, we agreed that it had been worth it.
Those two parties, so close together, taught me an important lesson I’ve never forgotten. Generosity and warmth of spirit are far more crucial to a good time – and especially to a great party – than are a generous bank account and a stylish setting. Although it’s certainly possible to combine the two, without the former the latter is meaningless.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.