Without warning and totally unexpected a soul rocking-blast from the past-package turned up in the mailbox this past Thursday. The ordinary 8 X 11 envelope contained a manuscript—a copy of the 1966 Master’s thesis written by a good friend in my youth, a friend dead from diabetic shock not a great many years later. I was unaware even of the existence of this friend’s thesis, and to find that he had written on a topic so very close to our youth, of our years between junior high and college…it was a profound surprise.
In the last year of junior high a gang of us got involved with a civic organization devoted to the enrichment of theatre arts among teenagers in our city of just over 200,000 people. The program had been carefully planned and included the construction of a building and facilities especially geared to the enhancement of youth activities and city parks. By the time we joined the fun, the building and program were three years old and by most measures a thriving, if not economically, then at least culturally vibrant operation. The goal of the program was certainly nothing new or innovative, but simply the hope that young people would learn, through the guidance and assistance of a professional leader how to put on theatrical productions, doing all the work themselves apart from direction and financing.
Phillip was one classmate involved in the program, and with everyone else worked long hours after school and during the summer to put on full scale productions of such plays as Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, Oklahoma, Thieves Carnival, Tom Sawyer, and Bye Bye Birdie among a list of others. For all of us those were golden days of fun, committed purpose, learning and wide-eyed discovery of live theatre. As noted in the conclusion of Phillip’s thesis, ‘a number of the youngsters moved on to work in little theatre organizations, fifteen or more pursuing professional careers in theatre and related fields, and others becoming teachers of speech and drama in schools and universities.’
No question that many, many others also participated in similar youth programs during junior and senior high school, but the impact of having those times, those experiences suddenly brought back on detailed pages written in colors, places and names almost tactile—to use an old hippy expression, it’s a trip!
After the first semester of college friend Phillip and I went in different directions, and though I got occasional news of him from my distant hometown, the details were skimpy. He married so and so and they were living in one place or another, both doing well. And then one day a letter said he was dead from either insulin too late or too much, details unclear. I was left with vivid memories of Phillip, ones that year by year receded into a dim recess. Until last Thursday and the mysterious receipt of his Master’s thesis on our days at Teen Town Theatre.
I read his thesis from cover to cover in one mesmerized sitting, once more awash in the memory of Harriet Tomlin belting out “I Cain’t Say No,” of Dianne assuring everyone that “Dogs are sticking to the sidewalks and the whole world is at sixes and sevens,” and Ruthie saying ‘goodbye to Mama’s butternut tree.’ Here was a document I didn’t even know existed an hour earlier reminding me of a dozen forgotten names and all the youthful exuberance of knocking stage sets together and putting on plays and musicals.
Phillip’s old thesis came to me from a close friend of those days, one of several copies he received from an old Teen Town acquaintance with access to graduate school files at the University of Southern Mississippi. I called right away to thank him for what I consider a crown jewel in the record of our youth.
The second photo above is one I have no memory of. The boy on the left is a forgotten name and face, but the one in the barrel is me wearing a Huck Finn straw hat. The bottom picture is of the program for our summer musical, Seventeen.