Family life in the footlights. The Meachums

The morning Kurt and Aubrey Meachum began their first day of theater classes was not an auspicious one. ``They were kicking and screaming,'' recalls their father, Wayne, a Dallas attorney.

``I believe I cried,'' Kurt says. ``I thought, `School is just over and I want to stay home, enjoy summer.'''

``But the next morning at the breakfast table,'' says Wayne, ``it was, `Come on, Dad, we're going to be late.'''

During that first session at the Dallas Theater Center in 1980, something special had happened: The world of the arts had stirred their young thought, causing currents that have deepened through the years.

``It took me one day,'' notes Kurt, ``and I've enjoyed it ever since.''

Now 12 and 10 years old, Kurt and Aubrey are both accomplished performers. ``I wasn't even aware of this program,'' said their mother, Bettie, as we sat in the living room of their attractive home. ``Wayne's the one who has the antenna out for these arts experiences. He plans them, and then I'm to drive them there. But I catch on later and decide, yeah, that was a very good decision.''

``It's been one of the best complements to their education that we could ever have provided for them,'' Wayne observes. ``It gives them their own methods of expression and their own personalities. We have had compliments because because they can stand up and express themselves so well.''

Kurt says he has performed in ``so many plays I can't remember half of them,'' including ``Aesop's Fables'' for the elite Junior Encore group. ``It was the first musical I did at the Teen Children's Theater [TCT],'' he notes.

His sister, a 10-year-old with an unpredictable sense of humor lurking in her smile, has also worked at the center, including a role in the musical ``Sleeping Beauty.''

``And guess what? I was her brother,'' says Kurt.

``He had one line,'' Aubrey adds.

``Aubrey's skills tend to be a little bit more in the musical area,'' says Bettie, ``as opposed to just straight acting.''

``She definitely is a better singer than I am, but I believe I'm a better actor,'' Kurt pronounces in a sage tone.

``I am known as Kurt's little sister at school,'' says Aubrey, ``because I'm the youngest and Kurt has made himself known in places.''

``If Kurt has a major role,'' Bettie says, ``they will feel somewhat obligated not to have another major role in the same family. That sometimes has worked to Aubrey's disadvantage.''

Wayne cites ``Kurt's development of responsibility'' as a benefit of his theater training.

``He has to have discipline to learn the lines at home,'' Wayne notes, ``to be at rehearsals, to have his props in place, to have his costume and makeup scheduled.''

``They get some of that in team sports,'' he adds, mindful perhaps of Kurt's impressive skills at baseball and soccer. ``But the individual responsibility on a cast member in a major production develops mature organizational skills.''

Among their other accomplishments, Kurt and Aubrey are both pianists. Aubrey is also a skilled dancer and equestrienne. And Bettie feels their work at the Dallas Theater Center has heightened their learning ability in school.

``In addition, they have experiences at the center that some kids don't get for years in their life,'' adds Wayne, ``disappointments, failures. They might try for a part they really want and not get it ... but they learn to overcome that and go on to the next performance,'' Wayne continues. ``And all of this is kind of a microcosm of life - but it's coming at an age when the consequences are not going to be detrimental in any long-term way.''

``Dad, I think your thought is just basically that we're miniature humans,'' Aubrey observes, grinning.

``Well, it is true to life,'' he notes, ``and it teaches them that failure is not the end of the world.''

Such comments from Bettie and Wayne are made from the long view: Their roots in music reach far back.

``I always was touted for having a good singing voice, and there was no doubt that I would major in music in college,'' says Bettie. ``That was all I thought I could do. I knew I wanted to teach. I thought I could do that well.''

When her family moved from Mississippi to a rural section of Louisiana, ``I couldn't afford music lessons,'' she recalls, ``but at this small Baptist church we attended I sang so loudly they asked me would I be their music director. I was 13 years old. I was scared to death.''

She went on to formal voice lessons and a major in music at Northwestern State University, where she met her husband, who was studying music and history.

While he got his degree, Bettie taught at rural schools in Louisiana. She went back for a masters degree in student personnel services, and later earned a doctorate in educational psychology at Baylor, where Wayne received his law degree.

``But I always wanted to be a singer,'' he says. ``I used to never miss `Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall''' on TV. While living in his small town in northern Louisiana, he recalls that ``They used to have little locally produced television shows in Shreveport, where the television stations were located. I won a contest and got to appear on one of those one time.''

``You were on television?'' Bettie exclaims. ``I didn't know that.''

Wayne intended to become a popular singer. ``But I guess I began to realize I was going to need something more than just the ability to sing for a living,'' he recalls, ``and I had always had a more intellectual side of me, with a genuine interest in history and law.''

The watershed for their lives in the arts came about 10 years ago in Dallas.

``I did some performing in clubs around as a singer, and there was a year or so in there when I toyed with the idea of leaving law and pursuing that a full-time,'' says Wayne. ``I gave it what I consider to be a pretty good-faith effort.''

``It was agonizing,'' says Bettie. ``I didn't have any part of the decision. Kurt was two years old and I was expecting Aubrey. The thought of him leaving a good job as an attorney scared me. But I have since learned that this life-long dream of being an entertainer just had to sort of be worked through. I'm sorry at the time I couldn't have been more supportive of it.''

Wayne says ``I guess that's probably something you never give up. You always think, well, one of these days....''

But despite Wayne and Bettie's background and their children's talents, Wayne says ``I don't think we have ever contemplated that they would become actors or singers professionally -- just as Kurt doesn't play soccer because he's going to be a professional soccer player.''

``Although that's still a possibility,'' Kurt points out.

``I have always approached my responsibility as a parent,'' Wayne goes on, ``by giving Kurt and Aubrey a chance to develop whatever innate abilities they had. You would not know what these are unless they had that exposure.''

But the exposure can be hectic: ``One time I was in `Hansel and Gretel' and we had rehearsal every night from 6 to 9,'' Kurt recalls. ``I was in piano at that time. I would have to get up at 5 a.m. and stay up until 12 midnight doing my homework, because of that. I think I missed a soccer or baseball game.''

``And I had performances with the Bar Association's variety show,'' says Wayne, ``and Aubrey had her first big-league horse show.''

``I got to the theater three minutes before the performance started,'' Kurt remembers. ``I changed into my costume in the car, put my makeup on, ran down the stairs, and as soon as I got down we went on stage - made it just in the nick of time.''

``And then Daniel and the Lion at church,'' says Wayne. ``That was all between Friday and Sunday.''

``Well,'' says Kurt, ``that's our schedule.''

Last in a series. Previous stories ran Nov. 24, 25, and 28, and Dec. 1 and 2.

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