There is an old super-8 movie that shows my father and I marching around the living room of my early-childhood home with fire helmets on – backwards – pulling a little red wagon and a toy on a string. Although there is no sound on the film, I know that we were marching to a beloved recording of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. I remember the festive clown on the front of the album and the music full of brass, calliope and celebration.
In the film, I’m clearly having fun. But I keep glancing a bit furtively at the camera. I’m not used to being filmed while playing and the face of the three-year old boy parading around the room is self-consciousness. Almost fearful. You can see it over and over in multiple early films and photographs: the quizzical face of the boy who looks back at the camera as it records the circus parade, family vacations, and even birthdays. I seem to be asking: “What are you waiting for? Should I do something? How am I supposed to be behaving? Do I look OK?”
However, this tendency didn’t overwhelm my impulse to role play. In fact, one of my earliest memories of role playing as a child is a game of “Ed Sullivan” I played with my father in that same house.
My father was the pastor of a church and in the parsonage where we lived, there was a pair of glass French doors between the dining room and living room. I would stand behind the doors and my father would introduce me: “Ladies and Gentlemen, here’s Ed Sullivan!” I would come out of the doors – actually throw them open – and say, “We’re gonna have a really big shoe!” I don’t know if I had ever seen Ed Sullivan at that point (it was 1968) or if my father had given me the line to say. But Ed Sullivan is the first person I ever played as an actor. And even thought the casting wasn’t really age appropriate, the audience (my father) loved it and something was born in me that loved the attention and loved to pretend.