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  • Writer's pictureLezlie Wade

Hi-ho the Glamorous Life

A month after college graduation, Showboat Festival Theatre hired me to teach their youth drama program. Like taxidermy or sheep shearing, teaching children wasn’t on my list of things to do. I wanted to act. So, when the Artistic Director threw in the tempting little morsel of playing Mrs. Boyle in The Mousetrap as an added incentive, I signed up for three months of sun, fun, and theatre in Port Colborne, Ontario. It didn’t matter to me that I was a good thirty to forty years younger than the character. This was professional theatre. My acting career had begun!

I knew a little bit about Port Colborne. My parents had met there while working for the bank of commerce. My brother had been born in the local hospital. Every now and then, when they were feeling sentimental, my parents would drive to the small town on Lake Erie and point out landmarks. "Look, there’s the bench we sat on when we first met. There’s the house where we lived when Matthew was born. Oh, look, the bait and tackle shop where we had our first date. It’s still there!" I’d sit in the back seat of the car and listen to the three of them reminisce about a place and time that meant nothing to me whatsoever. So here was an opportunity to put my own stamp on their little piece of emotional real estate.

When I was seventeen, I played Desiree Armfeldt in an amateur production of A Little Night Music. Filled with youthful optimism, I completely missed the sarcasm in the song: The Glamourous Life.


Run for the carriage, la la la,

Wolf down the sandwich, la la la,

Which town is this one, la la la,

Hi-ho, the glamorous life!

I sincerely thought stale sandwiches, cracked plaster, unpacking and packing luggage were perks of the profession and sought every opportunity to achieve those experiences.

I’ll know I’ve arrived, I told myself, when I have the luxury of complaining about working.

At Showboat, I billeted with a lovely couple who owned a beautiful home right along the water in what was one of the nicer parts of town. The woman gardened. The man sailed. They were an article in Cottage Life waiting to be written.

“Is there anything a little more…rustic?” I asked the woman in charge of housing.

“I don’t understand,” she replied.

“You know, something more Hemingway in Paris-like.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Never mind.”

Mainly, there are two types of people willing to billet complete strangers in their homes; people who are desperate for cash or people desperate for conversation. My billets fell into the second category.

“So,” the woman would say to me after a day of teaching or rehearsal, “You’re an actress. Isn’t that exciting? How was practice today? Have you eaten? Do you have any laundry you’d like me to do?”

This line of questioning was all very new to me. Neither my mother, when she was alive, nor my father ever did my laundry, let alone paid much interest in the daily minutia of my life. They were always far more invested in the big picture, like my Opening Nights. Trying to explain to them what happened in a rehearsal was the equivalent of describing the sex lives of ants.

“Laundry, did you say? Seriously? If you insist.” And my billet would happily take my pile of clothes into a basket and later that day return them pressed and folded on my bed.

A girl could get used to this. I told myself.

About a week into rehearsals, I came home to find all my underwear laundered and folded on a chair in my room. Hmmm, I thought to myself, does that seem odd? I hadn’t given her my underwear…or had I? I called my boyfriend at the time.

“Is it weird that my billet took my underwear and washed it?”

He said I was being ungrateful. Ashamed of myself; I let it go.

Two days later, at 6:00 in the morning, there was a light tapping on my door.

“Lezlie, sorry to wake you, but I just wanted my friend to meet you.” Then, turning to some other woman I’d never seen before in my life, she said, “This is the actress I was telling you about.” The strange woman waved, and the two of them stood in the doorway looking at me like I was a live-action figure in a diorama.

This went on for a few more days. More tapping on the door. More introductions. And more laundered underwear. What the hell was going on? It felt like a sign should be posted next to my room with hours of operation written on it and a red velvet rope attached to the frame of my door.

“Is it weird, “I asked my boyfriend, “that I feel like I’m playing a historical figure in a museum bedroom? Maybe I should say something?”

But then my ego would get the better of me. After all, they seemed so pleased that I was an actress. And wasn’t this fine couple doing my laundry and making my lunch and dinner? Who the hell did I think I was depriving them of my delightful presence? This is what it feels like, I told myself, to be famous and have a maid.

At the theatre, I bragged about my circumstance.

“You are so lucky,” one of my co-actors chimed in. “I’m living in a basement that smells like the opened tomb of Tutankhamun.”

“That sounds kind of great,” I said, still imagining the romantic leanings of La Boheme.

I was just finishing my second week of rehearsal and was heading into tech when I arrived at the house, only to be greeted by the police.

“Hey, Hey, where do you think you’re going?” one of them asked as I started to make my way into the house.

“I live here,” I said.

“Not anymore, you don’t,” he replied. “We’ll wait out here while you pack your things.”

“What happened?” I asked

“Your landlady had an altercation with the man next door over tulips, upon which your landlord proceeded to break his nose."

What? How did I miss this? It was like finding out that Betty White was an axe murderer.

As I piled my fresh laundry into my suitcase, my landlords stood in the hallway blocked by cops and cried, “Lezlie, don’t leave. Don’t leave. Please.”

Out on the street with all my belongings, I called the Artistic Director. “Blake,” I said, “The police have removed me from my billet, and I’ve nowhere to go.”

Within an hour, he swung by the theatre, picked me up and drove me to billet number two.

This house was far less attractive on a treeless street close to the downtown. My new caretaker, Pat Bush, appeared to be ancient. In fact, she had a happy 70th birthday letter circa 1975 from Richard Nixon framed on her living room wall, which, at the time, meant she was teetering on one-hundred. Pat smoked. She smoked so much that the carpets and wood-panelled walls were sticky with nicotine. She was the kind of woman who was likely to fall asleep with a lit cigarette and set the house on fire.

Pat was nice, if not a bit eccentric. She did make me the occasional sandwich, which I was delighted to discover was stale, but otherwise, the whole atmosphere was pretty bland. No cracked plaster or chipped moulding. No worn wooden floors.

“How’s the new billet?” a castmate asked.

“Pretty harmless.” I offered

The following day as I was rushing out of the house, I stumbled into the kitchen only to find Pat sitting in her kitchen sink, naked. Beyond my astonishment at seeing her in this condition, I wondered how on earth she’d managed to get up there.

“Pat,” I asked, averting my eyes, “Are you okay?”

“Oh yes,” she replied calmly. “Sometimes I just don’t feel fresh in the morning.” As though sitting naked in your kitchen sink, having what I can only assume was a sitz bath, was the most natural thing on earth. Then she added, “I made you lunch. It’s in the fridge.”

“I’m late,” I said and bolted from the house.

As I biked to rehearsal, I questioned my senses. Had I really seen a naked nonagenarian in her sink?

Once, when I was a kid, I raced my bike around a street corner and hit a grey parked car full force from behind. As I flew through the air, I remember thinking, “Where did the elephant come from?”

That was pretty similar to the shock I was currently experiencing.

At rehearsal, I couldn’t get the image of Pat sitting naked in her sink out of my mind. Pretty soon, she was everywhere; naked in the dressing room, naked on the set, naked in the grocery store, casually pushing the buggy up and down the produce aisle.

“Lezlie!” the director shouted at me, “Is everything all right?”

“Actually…” I began, “I don’t think so.” And before I knew it, I was complaining about billet number two.

When I had finished regaling the cast, Blake looked at me and said, “Perhaps you need to consider lowering your expectations a little. This is pretty much what summer stock billets are like, everywhere.”

“Really?” I asked, and the cast nodded. One by one, they shared horror stories of dogs who defecated in living rooms, unwanted sexual advancements, and lonely widows who monopolized their free time with stories from their past.

“We could try to find you something better,” Blake added, “But there’s no guarantee.”

“No, it’s okay,” I said, “I’ll be fine.” Better the devil, you know.

That evening as I biked home, I realized that, even though my Sondheim notions of a life in the theatre weren’t exactly being met, I’d nevertheless arrived and blissfully sang to myself:

Nicotine carpets, la la la,

Saggy old mattress, la la la,

Naked old lady, la la la,

Hi-ho, the glamourous life!

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