[This post was originally written as a guest post for the Guiltless Reader blog.]
One of my earliest memories is of an outing taken with my family — or maybe I’m thinking of two outings rolled into one… it could be that way. I was no more than five years old when this happened and most likely younger than that.
The first stop was an old-fashioned emporium which had among its attractions two rows (maybe eight in all; a fabulous collection by today’s standards) of antique penny-arcade movie machines: Mutoscopes. These were bulky iron boxes on long legs with a viewing port mounted on the front much like that of a submarine periscope. Above the main chamber was a small poster advertising the subject of the movie. Inside the chamber was a large spool of cards — somewhat larger than index cards — on each one of which a single frame from a movie had been printed.
They operated by a hand-crank that I was too small to work by myself; plus my funds were limited. Still, they occupied all of my attention: I have no memory of anything else that emporium may have offered in the way of attractions. The subjects of the films were of no interest to me (and some of them may have been inappropriate for a little boy — I remember my mother scouting along the rows of machines to find something suitable). What mattered was, you put in a penny or a nickel or whatever it was, and a light came on inside the box. You pressed your face to the periscope sight and turned the crank, and Before Your Very Eyes the pictures came fluttering to life.
This was Real Magic.
That evening, we attended a live show at the adjacent theater. The theme of Turn-of-the-Century styles and subjects continued. The play was George M. Cohan’s Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, and I can hum a couple of the songs to this day without ever having heard them again down the intervening years.
Bowler hats and waistcoats and women in crinolines: these things are making a comeback today thanks in part to Steampunk, but in the very early ‘60s they were rare and fascinating. On stage there was a trolly-car that moved, arriving and departing through the back. Was it all as great a performance as I remember it? Probably not: but the actors seemed to believe in what they were doing, and so by extension did I.
I can’t tell you the first thing about the plot. Only that it had Good People and one Particularly Bad Man who was a very Rum Character indeed. Near the end of the play, all of his plans were foiled, the jig was up — but there was still the chance that he could escape the clutches of The Law.
In a chase between the villain and at least one Keystone-ish Kind of Kop, the pursuers and pursued made use of every bit of real estate in that theater. The chase started onstage, went down through the audience, up the center aisle, across through the seats, back onstage at a different location — the villain seemed to be everywhere, and the Kops always just missed him.
Remember, I was less than five years old.
I started jumping in my seat, hollering at the top of my little lungs, pointing every which way. “THERE he is! No, no, he’s over THERE now! No, he’s down HERE now! THERE! THERE! GO GET HIM! No, he’s over THERE!… get him! GET HIM!!!”
My family was sitting in the front row. The villain in his mad attempt to flee justice passed directly in front of me — and stopped.
He turned on his feet, leaned down to me, right down to me until his mustached face was inches from my own. He raised a finger to his lips and said, in an almost conspiratorial way but loud enough that the whole theater could hear:
Well, that was that. If I ever had any hope of a “normal” childhood it died right then and there. I was both mortified and thrilled. Film — Theater — Books — Art — Life: it all fused in that moment and from then on I think my life was written in stone, although as it turned out I became one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, not Peter Pan himself.
That night as we came out of the theater, the actors were waiting in two rows on either side of the exit. The smiled at us, greeted us, shook hands. I have never since seen any company do that little thing, make that little extra connection with an audience, but it has always seemed like an eminently civilized thing for a theatrical company to do… and so when the time came for me to write about actors, I made certain that they broke the fourth wall, went out and shook hands after the show. I like to think that my characters would do the same thing at the end of the book, if they could.
My mother wanted to name me Peter but my father insisted that I be a Junior. She would have settled for “Peter Douglas” but no soap. When it came time to pick a pseudonym I should probably have chosen that. I guess it’s never too late. Instead I chose “Freder” which I’d been blogging under for years and which is both a derivation of my middle name and the name of the pivotal character in one of my favorite movies, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. That I absolutely needed a pseudonym should become obvious when you take one look at my real name (which I’m not trying to hide, after all).
There were always new teachers reading out the class attendance and none of them, not one of them, ever stopped and asked me how to pronounce my name: they just faked it, mangled it, and gave my classmates another reason to laugh at me.
That’s neither here nor there. But the fact is, it’s hard to encourage word of mouth when no one can pronounce your last name!