My Days as a Ham

DO you like to sing? Are you good at telling jokes? Do you like to dress up in a costume and pretend you're someone else?

I certainly did. When I was about 12 years old, one of my favorite things to do was perform in front of people and make them laugh. Now don't get me wrong - I wasn't as good as some of the kids you see today on TV's "Star Search," who wear glittery outfits and tap shoes.

That didn't matter to me back then, because all I needed was a few props - like a fake microphone, a tape recorder, and my mom's wig - to set my imagination loose. And when it got loose, it ran wild. I was what you call a bona fide "ham," which is another word for someone who acts silly, exaggerating the way he talks or moves.

I loved being a ham. I guess I liked it because most of the time in life you're not allowed to be a ham. If you're at school, or church, or in a store, it's really not very polite to scrunch up your face and talk like a Munchkin or draw a mustache over your mouth with a black pen and lower your voice about three octaves. People won't understand what you're doing, and you'll get some nasty looks. Not to mention what your mother might do.

But there is a perfect time and place to be a ham - and that's on a stage. All you have to do is find some large space, like a garage or the front porch of your house, and you can be as ham-silly as you want.

When I was young, my stage was in the basement. One side of the room didn't have any furniture or storage boxes piled there, so that became my stage. My dad, who had long known of my tendency to "act up" at the dinner table, decided to build a small platform out of plywood for me. It was about six feet square and stood six inches off the ground. Wow! What a lift that gave to my acting ambition! In real life, most theater stages are up high off the ground, so in my mind, this platform was close to the rea l thing.

But it didn't end there. Half the fun of coming out on stage is hiding out backstage first. Backstage is the word for the place where you put on your costume and wait to perform. So I persuaded my dad to hang some old white sheets from the ceiling on each side of the platform. That way, no one in the audience could see me before I was ready. In theater language, when you are behind the curtains about to perform, you're "in the wings."

The finishing touch to my basement theater, however, was an old broken microphone that Dad found somewhere and stuck on the top of a tall metal stand with a circular base. It was perfect! He had probably seen me singing into my hairbrush too many times and decided I could use something a bit more realistic. I didn't care that the microphone didn't work - it was for visual effect.

With all the elements of my stage in order, I had to get my friends in on the act, namely, Sue and Doug, who fortunately had just as much of a goofy streak in them as I did. Doug was a terrific singer and had a knack for directing. (One summer he produced a scene from the movie "The Sound of Music" with all the neighborhood children unwittingly rounded up to play the roles of the Von Trapp siblings.) Sue had creative costume ideas and was particularly good at faking an English accent.

We'd get together after school and make up funny sketches. A sketch is a play that lasts about 10 minutes. My favorite one, I think, was a restaurant scene in which Sue and I were two old ladies who pretended to be innocent and sweet, but really we were robbers who liked to steal the silverware and vases on the tables. I can't remember the whole zany story, but I do remember that it ended with me covered with spaghetti and a shoot-out between Sue and Doug, who was the waiter and also an undercover police man.

You may wonder how we knew what to say during the sketch. Well, we just made up the words and actions as we went along, which is called improvising. You have to think fast and just say whatever comes to your mind. It can be funny because you don't know exactly what the other person is going to say next. Improvising is full of surprises!

Not everything we did was funny. We took our musical numbers as seriously as if we were auditioning for Broadway. After hunting down a favorite song on a record album, we would record it on a tape recorder, and then sing along with it, being careful to hide the tape recorder in the wings, of course.

ONE time we got together enough songs and sketches to form one long show that lasted about a half hour. We got some poster board and put up a sign in my driveway to advertise the show to all the kids in the neighborhood. Excitement was brewing! A lot of them came and some even brought their parents.

By performance time, our brand of show business had become very sophisticated indeed. We had a spotlight hanging from the ceiling, which was an old study lamp with a large, metal shade.

For further dramatic effect, I got Dad's permission to lay some footlights on the floor in front of the platform - simple Christmas tree lights that shined up on our feet. And we even recruited Shannon (a few years younger than we were and just breaking into the business) to be the junior stagehand - the person who turned the lights on and off, worked the tape recorder, and kept track of the props, like the cooked spaghetti.

The show was a success. All the kids laughed and clapped hard. When you hear the audience giggling and having a good time, it makes you want to keep going and be even more funny. That's the payoff for being a ham, I guess. Half the fun is thinking up ideas and practicing them, but you also feel really satisfied when the audience cheers you on.

Maybe the best part of all is taking the final curtain call after the show is over. You and your friends come back on stage, face the audience, and bow graciously on the count of three. That's when you give your biggest, hamiest, show-business smile.

`Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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