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Sarah Heartburn and Son

by Laura W. Haywood


Until he was 11 years old, my son was raised primarily by my mother. My husband and I were both in our late thirties when he came along and we both had careers. My mother lived with us, and was delighted to have a baby to care for. When Johnny was 11, my mother passed away.

I had been stage struck since my grandmother took me to Radio City to see the Rockettes (I must have been five or so), and I was hell bent to be a singer and dancer. It wasn't until my early teens that I realized I could neither carry a tune nor do anything remotely like dancing. So I switched my ambition to acting. It was at that point that my father dubbed me Sarah Heartburn.

I was convinced I had talent because I was in all the school plays, and it was only some years later that I grasped the fact that I did have talent, but it was the sort that was valuable in school plays, not Broadway. My talent consisted of the ability to ad lib if others blew their lines.

But I had still managed to find a connection to the theatre. In addition to my regular nine-to-five job, I freelanced as a theatre critic for a New Jersey newspaper. I covered most of the state and did at least two reviews a week, and sometimes as many as five. Since the theatres tended to open on weekends (and some only played on weekends), I was invariably out Friday and Saturday evenings, and on busy weekends, I'd add a Saturday matinee and/or performances on Sunday.

When my mother died, I had a problem — what to do about Johnny. My husband was also working a second job on evenings and weekends, so he couldn't stay with Johnny. With some misgivings and after talking it over with my husband, I decided to take him with me to the shows.

We had already had some trouble with Johnny over theatre. When he was in first grade, I used to drive him to and from school (using my lunch hour for the return trip). I liked to play music as we drove, and I had three favorites at the time: Ben Franklin in Paris, Evita, and Shenandoah. One day, Johnny announced that he wanted to take a vacation in Virginia to meet Charlie Anderson, the central character in Shenandoah. I tried to explain that Charlie Anderson was fictional, and it suddenly dawned on me that he had no conception of the difference between real people and fictional. He knew perfectly well that Benjamin Franklin and Eva Peron were historical figures, but their reality was clear proof that Charlie Anderson was also real. It took more than a year for me to persuade him that we could go to Virginia, but we wouldn't find Charlie.

Around that time, a good friend of ours, Don Potter, was appearing at Radio City Music Hall as Doc in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We went into the city to see the show. Don had gotten us comps, and we met him at the stage door to get the tickets. I introduced him to Johnny, and we went in to see the show. When Don made his entrance, I nudged Johnny and told him that was Don. It upset him terribly-— Don in costume didn't look anything like Don at the stage door. He was even more upset when we went out for dinner with Don afterwards. Don to Doc and back to Don was more than he could handle.

That was also the memorable day when, at intermission, he announced it was half-time. I explained sweetly to my husband there would be no more football till Johnny had had some cultural exposure.

I felt I had failed him, a feeling that was reinforced when I was watching Star Trek III, The Search for Spock with him. At the end of the film, I was startled to see Dame Judith Anderson as a Vulcan priestess. "My God," I said to Johnny, "do you know who that is?"

"No," he said.

"That's Judith Anderson!"

"So?" he said.

"So, she's one of the world's greatest actresses!"

His eyes widened. "You mean like Joan Collins?" he asked.

Recalling incidents like that, I decided taking him with me to the shows I was reviewing wasn't a bad idea.

Until I got my first assignment after Mom died: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

"Now what do I do?" I asked my husband.

"Take him," he said. "I've seen the movie and it isn't all that bad. Besides, what he shouldn't understand, he won't."

So, on a Friday evening, we set off for a little community theatre to see The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The theatre had a lobby about the size of our kitchen. It was jammed as we waited for the house to open. It was at that point that Johnny reached up and tapped me on the arm. I looked down at him.

At the top of his voice, he announced, "If my grandmother were alive, I'd be at home, where I belong." He got a bigger laugh than any joke in the show.

Despite that incident, I continued taking him to the shows I was reviewing. Oh, he saw some things that were inappropriate, but he also saw Shakespeare and Ibsen and Chekhov and Moliere before he read them in school — and on his own for the sheer pleasure of it. And he loves the theatre. He even knows Joan Collins isn't in a class with Judith Anderson.


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