It seems like the more birthdays I put behind me, the more they become an opportunity to reflect. Not that I don’t still enjoy a rousing game of pin the tail on the donkey, but after blowing out the conflagration atop the birthday cake, it seems appropriate to try and make sense of one’s life, in addition to noting the fact that you’re still living it.
As I review past accomplishments and tragedies with family and friends, one particular moment keeps coming to mind that, in hindsight, put me firmly on the track towards being a professional entertainer. So if you ever wonder why creative people choose to do what they do (performers in particular), consider this short recollection a data point.
As with most stories told decades after the fact, some of the details may be colored by time, and one or two names have been changed. But for a certainty, in high school I was not what you’d call a ladykiller. Although not completely inept around the opposite gender, if you took a poll of every girl I knew up until late in my junior year, 70% would have marked me down as “A Good Friend”, 18% “Like a Sister To Me”, and 10% “Kina Weird, But Okay, I Guess”. (The remaining 2%, “Completely Botched His Chance”, is a compendium for another time.) Although I was good at talking with girls about classes, favorite flavors of Bubble Yum, and why Matt won’t ask her out, I had little confidence or vocabulary for expressing my own romantic interests. No, that’s not unusual for a 16-year-old. And it probably didn’t help that my misguided sense of nonconformity led me to neglect my personal appearance and, more importantly, my personal hygiene.
But the Mr. Gaithersburg contest in the fall of 1986 would change everything, instantly transforming me into an object of desire, granting me universal popularity and fashion sense, and leading almost immediately to a life of ease and sexual conquest with a variety of partners that would make even Warren Beatty jealous. Okay, not quite. Or even close. But it was the first moment when I truly believed I was capable of being more than just Her Good Friend.
I didn’t enter the Mr. Gaithersburg contest in 1986. Or ever. Even today I recognize that as a teenager, even if I’d brushed my teeth and changed my underwear every day, I simply wasn’t the stuff that typical schoolgirl dreams were made of. But my friend Russ was. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads all adored him. And his was success aided and abetted by his athletic physique and roguish swagger. Indeed, Russ was a panty-wetting chimera, equal parts Snake Plissken and Ferris Bueller.
I knew Russ through the theater clique that was my high school social hub. In addition to the plays, musicals, and choirs we participated in together, he was the third voice in “The Crew”, the imaginatively-named doo-wop group started by the two of us and my best friend Kevin. No, we never recorded an album. No, we didn’t typically sing entirely on-key. So no, you’ve never heard of The Crew, unless you were at any of the dozen or so school assemblies, choir gatherings, or talent shows where we unleashed our glorious caterwauling.
Or at the 1986 Mr. Gaithersburg contest, an annual event hosted by the high school which was to beauty pageants what “action figures” were to dolls. Until Russ asked if The Crew would help him out during the talent portion, I’d been completely unaware of the contest’s existence. Or if I had heard of it, I would have ignored it as just another distraction for the Izod-shirted drones who thought that “Dancing In the Dark” was EASILY Springsteen’s best song ever. But it didn’t matter–a good friend had asked for my help, and that was good enough for me.
At this point it’s important to note that singing a cappella, and doo-wop in particular, was not a “thing” in 1986*–and certainly not in Gaithersburg, Maryland. But we loved the sound and feeling of singing harmony, so we let the doo-wop fly, even as our peers loaded Madonna, Wham! and the Pet Shop Boys into their Walkmans. So given doo-wop’s zero status in the mid-80s, it was both a bold and risky move for Russ to make it a core element of his Mr. Gaithersburg strategy.
We started rehearsing even harder, having decided to re-work our ace in the hole song, “Come Go With Me” by the Del Vikings, and in the weeks before the contest I worked out the new harmonies and we drilled our dom-dom-doms until they popped and rang with splendor. We devised some simple staging, which of course would involve the three of us dressing as greasers, but spent most of our rehearsal time working out the rough edges of the song. In particular, we were having trouble nailing the ending. But by the night of the action pageant we felt it was solid, and the three of us met at the theater early to go over the plan.
The talent segment wasn’t until halfway through, and because the backstage areas would be crowded with Mr. Gaithersburg aspirants, Kevin and I would need to sit in the auditorium until shortly before Russ went on. No problem. Having done plenty of stage shows, we had the skill to quickly change into our Fonzie gear. We probably wouldn’t have time to run the song before we went out, but none of us were worried. We said “good luck” to Russ, high fives all around, and left him to change into his tuxedo.
Of course he did just fine during the formal wear segment, but as I watched the parade of spiffed-out dudesters, my own confidence began to erode. Sure, Russ would be able to keep his cool and sing well. But as I scanned the crowd that included every girl from our school, and then some, doubt began to trickle into my ears. What if I get out there and screw up my part? Or trip and fall as I enter? And even if I don’t mess up, every girl out there will know that I’m that weird guy with the big nose they’ve seen in the halls, and that by itself will blow it for Russ!
My disquiet only grew when the talent segment began. Stagehands wheeled out a portable basketball hoop, “Born In the U.S.A.” began blaring over the speakers, and a jock-type who’d tormented me on and off since elementary school began a display of dribbling, driving and dunking that drew many an “ooh!” and “aah!” from the young female hoard. I’m sure it was my imagination, but I could swear at one point that dunkin’ Ken looked right at me and sneered, as if to say “I know what you’re planning, and you’re all going to look like the TOTAL PUSSIES THAT YOU ARE.”
Thankfully they brought us backstage shortly after Ken’s exhibition. If I’d been exposed to even one more manly talent display, I probably would have bolted from the auditorium in despair and spent the rest of the night on my Commodore 64. But once we were on our home turf behind the theater curtain, my panic faded. Kevin and I got into our 50s gear and met Russ by the cement block wall where we’d written “The Crew” in cable grease.
“Are you guys ready?” asked Russ. He had a York Peppermint Patty in his hand, which shook a little.
“Yep,” said Kevin. “Russ goes out first, and we start walking out from either side when he takes the Peppermint Patty from his pocket.”
“Right,” I said. “Then Kevin starts the song, and we just do it like we rehearsed–and don’t forget about the new ending.”
Everyone nodded. One chord could easily be the difference between victory and shameful, shameful defeat. I may not have given a flying fuck about the Mr. Gaithersburg contest before, but after all the time we spent rehearsing, I was invested.
We took our places in the wings as another of my tormentors from years past jumped around playing air guitar to Van Halen’s “Eruption”. I was by myself in the stage right wings, and doubt began to seep back in. Sure, he’s not actually playing his instrument, but he’s one of the cool kids. And he can jump really high. But I focussed on the last notes of “Come Go With Me”, and before long Eddie Van Jumpy was offstage and the lights dimmed to black.
This was it. I’d stood in this spot dozens of times before, waiting for my cue. But I’d never been this nervous. The lights came up. Russ stood center stage at a microphone stand in jeans, shades and a white t-shirt, a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve. The crowd sat silent. After what felt like a full minute, Russ’s hand went into his pocket. I looked across the stage at Kevin. We nodded and put on our own shades. A gleam of silver shone as Russ’s hand eased from his pocket. I took my first step.
“When I bite into a York Peppermint Patty,” began Russ as he began unwrapping the candy like it was a taffeta dress on prom night. He paused again. The crowd remained silent. I eased towards center stage, and from the corner of my eye I could see several rows of audience. Girls. Lots of them. Cute girls…
“…I get the feeling of going back in time to the 50s…”
…and the judges at their table. I’d been told that they were cheerleaders for the Washington Redskins. They looked the part…
“…and singing some doo-wop with my friends.”
Kevin and I arrived on either side of Russ with the timing and precision of the Blue Angels. Blood drummed in my ears, but I kept my shit together despite the fact that the eyes of a thousand teenage girls and professional cheerleaders bored into us. I began snapping my finger and Kevin leaned into the microphone.
I took a deep breath as Russ and I leaned in to ring out the first chords…
Judging by the ensuing wall of full-throated, high-pitched screaming, we had in fact been transported back in time to 1964, and had become The Beatles. The jagged crash of sound was physically painful, like having your ears near a large-caliber handgun as it’s being fired, and it WOULD…NOT…STOP. Not only was I unable to hear Kevin or Russ, but although I knew my mouth was moving, I had no idea if sound was actually coming out.
Through a series of head nods and hand gestures we managed to make it through the song, the girls’ shrieking rising and falling like a monstrous tide. Every once and a while it dipped low enough for us to hear each other’s voices, but it’s possible we only sang for forty-five seconds. It’s also hard to say whether or not we nailed the ending, but by that point we all knew it didn’t matter. The screeching rose to a fresh crescendo as we exited together, and once off-stage we celebrated with a round of high-fives that miraculously didn’t pull my arms off out of their sockets.
I don’t remember the rest of the contest, but I recall no one being surprised at the end of the night when Russ was crowned as Mr. Gaithersburg. No, being on stage that night didn’t get me laid, or even directly lead me to getting a girlfriend: I was, after all, not even a contestant, let alone the winner. But being a big part a performance that made 1,000 teenage girls completely lose their shit gave me a major dose of self-confidence at a time when I sorely needed it.
In some ways I feel like I’ve been trying to recapture that moment ever since, seeking ever larger audiences the same way an adrenaline junkie might devise faster and more dangerous stunts. For a certainty, the Mr. Gaithersburg experience led me to sing a cappella in college, which in turn led to my participation in Da Vinci’s Notebook and to where I am today (for better or worse). In the short term, after the Mr. Gaithersburg experience I started changing my underwear religiously, every day, whether or not they smelled. And while that fact alone didn’t earn me the future Mrs. Storm’s love, it was at least an early step that made that path possible.
Is it healthy to hang one’s self-esteem on the approval of others, particularly of complete strangers and professional cheerleaders? Probably not. But character flaw or no, my deep-seated need to entertain and perform is part of who I am, and probably always was. And at the very least, seeking out audiences is much safer than skiing naked down Mount Rainier.
*The widespread popular rebirth of a cappella took place in the wake of Spike Lee’s 1990 TV documentary “Do It A Capella”, but that’s another story for another time.