Fannie Flagg sets the scene – Garden & Gun
It was the late 1950s, and I was a painfully shy, lonely teenager who was nearsighted and wore glasses. Not just goggles, but the horror of all horrors, the ugly blue plastic kind with wings. My parents and I had just moved into a small apartment in Birmingham, southern Alabama, in a neighborhood where I didn’t know anyone. That fall, I would attend a new high school, where I would be the “new girl.” As an only child, I had always dreamed of having siblings, and all my life I had wished that I could find a place where I belonged, where I could somehow fit in.
While waiting for school to start, I had nothing to do. But I soon discovered, just down the street from our apartment, a lovely little spot called Caldwell Park. And at the far end stood a red brick building known as the Town and Gown Community Theater. On those hot summer days, when the theater doors were open, I could hear music and the sounds of people singing, dancing and laughing. Oh, how I wanted to come in and see the show they were rehearsing. But I didn’t have money for a ticket, so I just had to imagine what it would be like to see real people sing and dance on stage.
Then one day, something completely unexpected happened. For my fifteenth birthday, my grandmother sent me fifteen dollars in cash! I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I walked across the park to the theater, walked to the box office and asked the nice lady inside if fifteen dollars was enough to buy a ticket for the next show. She assured me yes. At that precise moment, two men crossed the hall. They were talking about the searchlight operator, who had apparently quit. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said one to the other. “We open tomorrow night, and we need to find someone quickly.”
To this day, I don’t know how I had the courage to do it, but I walked up to them and heard myself say, “Excuse me, sir, I couldn’t help myself. to hear your conversation, and I can direct a spotlight. They looked at me with some skepticism, and I quickly added, “My dad is a movie machine operator, so I’m professionally trained. Of course, that was an outright lie. (Not the part about my dad. But I had no idea how to aim a spotlight.) The two men looked at each other for a moment, and finally one of them said, “Well, can you be here at four o’clock this afternoon? for a technical rehearsal?
“Yes sir,” I said. “I will be there.” Then I casually walked out of the theater, doing my best to look calm and composed.
As soon as I was out of sight, I ran as fast as I could and hopped on a bus headed for the city center where my dad worked at the Lyric cinema in Birmingham. I flew upstairs to the projection booth, opened the door, and told my surprised dad, “Dad, I have to learn how to operate a projector by four o’clock this afternoon. -midday.”
The Lyric had once held vaudeville shows, and after searching through dusty storage closets, he found an old projector and showed me the basics. I hopped on another bus and raced to our apartment in time to change clothes and be back at the theater at four. (Full disclosure: The projector wasn’t that hard to use. All you had to do was turn it on, point it at the stage, and get your bearings. Every night I had my own private seat. in the searchlight booth.)
I found out later that one of those men in the lobby was the company manager, a roly-poly dynamo named James Hatcher, known to everyone as just Hatch. And as I also found out, it was known throughout Birmingham and the South as Mr. Theatre. Luckily, Hatch liked me and invited me to work on the next show, then the next, and before I knew it, I was a regular and accepted member of the Town and Gown theater community. I went from working in the spotlight to taking care of the props, the wardrobe, drawing the curtains – whatever they needed I did. I was in heaven and my parents were thrilled that I finally found something I loved and a place that made me happy.
And it was a happy place. People from all walks of life made up the Town and Gown group – single career women, married couples, doctors, lawyers, teachers and anyone who just liked to have fun and put on a show. As the youngest member, I was given the nickname Baby Girl, a name that has stuck with me to this day, and at my age, I like it.
For the first year or so all my duties were behind the scenes, but then the theater put the musical On the city, and one of the characters was a non-speaking role, simply called “Little Old Lady on Subway”. There were no real little old ladies in the theater troupe who were willing to stay up late at night to rehearse, and so with granny glasses and a gray wig and a giant Hatch push, I made my stage debut. Soon I was playing all the old lady roles in every play. Thus began my acting career. Later, I started writing and acting in comedy sketches for actors. And that’s how my writing career began.
Local organizations such as the Lions Club and Rotary would engage our group to entertain at their functions. Some of us sang and danced, and I performed my sketches. One weekend we played at a convention and the owner of local TV station WBRC was in the audience. He offered me a job as a co-host on the morning show. Hatch said take it, so I did. But I still continued to perform at the theater in the evenings.
A few years later, I decided to go to New York and try my luck at acting and writing in the big city. Over the years I have become a regular at The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carsonwrote for and acted on Hidden cameraand I also played Mona Stanley, owner of the Chicken Ranch brothel, in the Broadway production of The best little brothel in Texas. Thanks to the theater and live television training I had received at home, I felt prepared, but I also had a special reason to want to succeed. I wanted to make my parents, Hatch, and my Alabama theater friends proud of me. Years later, in 1991, at the Alabama film premiere of the adaptation of my book Fried green tomatoes at Whistle Stop CafeI was doubly grateful that Hatch and my entire theater family sat right next to me, especially when I heard them say, “We’re so proud of our little girl.”
I’m happy to report that unlike too many places from the past that no longer exist, my little theater in Birmingham is still here and still going strong. It has had a facelift over the years and now operates under a new name: the Virginia Samford Theatre. Its current president, Cathy Rye Gilmore, is a dear friend whom I have known since she herself was fifteen.
My beloved Hatch and so many of my then theater family are gone now. But even today, when I walk into the hall, I can still see and hear them laughing and having a wonderful time. This little red brick building was the first place I felt a real sense of community. It gave me confidence, great memories, a career and lifelong friends. I will always remember how nice they were to a shy girl who needed a place to belong.