Title: Blast Off--The Biron Grade School Play
Date Occurred: May 1975
Date Written: December 14, 2006
Written By: Joel T. Kant
Copyright (c) 2006
I attended Biron Grade School in the Village of Biron, Wisconsin. An exciting event happened in December and a similar exciting event in May. The sixth graders put on plays. Since this was years before it was forbidden to talk about Christmas as being Christmas rather a generic non-religious Happy Holidays, the Christmas play always related to a Christmas topic. I doubt many of these Christmas plays would be allowed in a public grade school today, but nobody seemed to give that a second thought then.
In May as the school year approached its end, a second play was put on by the sixth graders. This had no predetermined theme or subject, but was a story written by the students.
The audience for the plays was parents of the sixth graders in the production, the other teachers, and the younger students in the lower grades.
When I was in grade school and before I reached sixth grade, I loved going to these plays. They were certainly a break from the typical daily routine! I looked forward to when I would be old enough to be in the production myself.
Finally, I was in sixth grade. I recall nothing extraordinarily good or bad happening with our Christmas play. The play we did in May was far more memorable to me.
What I loved when I was in sixth grade to the point of obsession was science fiction. The television show Star Trek was being shown every weekday starting at four p.m. I would get home from grade school at three-thirty. I would be seated in front of the television to watch Star Trek by four.
Dad went to work around seven-thirty in the morning and got home around four-thirty in the afternoon. This meant he got home when I was not yet through watching the hour-long episode. He complained that I wasted too much time watching television. Often, he shut the television off and sent me outside to play.
Other boys my age shared my interest in science fiction, especially for Star Trek. Steve Herman, Bill Nash, and I used to play Star Trek the way other grade school boys play cowboy-and-indians or cops-and-robbers. There was usually an argument about who got to be Captain Kirk, the most coveted role. We took turns as that character, but there was often an argument first.
The last of the genuine moon landings, Apollo 17, occurred on December 1972. This was recent enough history that my friends and I had enthusiasm and interest in genuine space missions rather than just science fiction.
When April 1975 came, it was time to decide what story us sixth graders would have for our play.
The girls wanted to do a love story, set in the past. There was strong disagreement among them about what period in the past would be the most romantic. There was also strong disagreement about location for the story. Some of the girls felt a romantic story had to be in a faraway country like France to be any good. Others wanted England. Some wanted to stick to the United States.
All the boys, certainly including me, did not want to do a historical romance play! The boys wanted to do a story with lots of action, preferably with fights and chases.
Initially, there was about as much disagreement among the boys on what kind of action story as there was disagreement among the girls on what kind of historical romance.
Steve, Bill, and I pitched to the other boys the idea of doing the action story as science fiction rather than a crime story or a spy story. We argued that Star Trek on television had plenty of action with fights and chases. We soon had all the boys agreeing that a science fiction story was the way to go. All the boys quickly agreed the story had to involve a spaceship.
After this discussion, the teacher had us take a vote on the type of story. With the girls still in strong disagreement about what century and country for their historical romance, the boys with the idea of a science fiction story that took place on a spaceship won the vote!
The teacher gently suggested, “We need to produce a play with roles for everybody. We have limited supplies and no budget for special effects. Because of this, perhaps a science fiction story is not the best choice.”
I joined the boys in a chorus of assuring her that we definitely wanted to do a science fiction story.
Now that the genre was chosen despite the teacher's notable lack of enthusiasm, we had to jointly come up with a story. I quickly began to understand the teacher's reluctance as all the boys wanted to star as a spaceship captain. That is, it seemed all the boys wanted to be the equivalent of Captain Kirk! The girls wanted starring roles as well, and not just as a space princess in need of rescue!
After this argument about roles raged for some time, the teacher stepped in and made a recommendation, “Before assigning characters and coming up with a plot, why not consider the setting? Please keep in mind what we can realistically do on our stage. All that was decided on in the vote was to have a spaceship.”
The main idea in this discussion seemed to have a rocketship take off, some adventures on board the ship, then landing on some exotic distant planet.
I think it was Bill who wanted to have something happen with the spaceship requiring a trip outside. He had a snowmobile suit. It is like a jumpsuit, but padded like a winter coat. With a backpack representing an air container, some tubes and cardboard, and some sort of helmet such as a modified football helmet he had, he argued that he could come up with a nice spacesuit costume quickly and cheaply. The color would be black and not be white like NASA spacesuits, but Bill did not think this would matter.
I liked the idea. I might have had a similar snowmobile suit. I thought that Bill and I could both go on the space walk.
However, many of the other students became jealous of the starring role Bill was coming up for himself. It seemed everybody wanted to go on stage in a spacesuit. Yet, only a few students had snowmobile suits. Although he had a nice, warm winter coat, I don’t think Steve had a snowmobile suit. He did not want to be left out. Neither did the other students, boys and girls.
To settle the argument down, the teacher exercised her authority.
“There will be no spacesuits if we cannot make them for everybody,” she demanded.
Bill protested his idea being shot down, but others smirked at him like this was a great victory for them since they did not own snowmobile suits. We tried to come up with a way to make spacesuit costumes for everybody, but none of the ideas sounded like it would look decent on stage. There simply were not enough helmets and snowsuits and backpacks in similar styles for every student to have one, all without spending any money. What could be made of only cardboard, tape, and like items would likely look so terrible that we did not want to go that way.
The spacesuit idea had died.
Steve consoled Bill, “It won't be so bad. We can just go to a planet with breathable air. That happens on Star Trek all the time.”
The next big idea then became a ray gun battle on the planet with breathable air. I joined Steve and Bill in promoting this. It would be like our pretend Star Trek phaser battle games outside school.
“That would be too violent for our play. No big battles allowed,” the teacher informed us.
That the phasers or ray guns only put people to sleep temporarily rather than killing them did not dissuade the teacher from forbidding it. This was proving much harder than I had expected.
The boys who had earlier wanted to do a spy story or a crime story seemed more disturbed about the teacher laying down the law on no gun fights then Steve, Bill, and I were. If their preferred genre had won the vote instead of science fiction, it seemed story options would be very limited indeed by this rule. Steve, Bill, and I felt we could still come up with a fun science fiction story even with the restriction.
Another boy, I forgot his name, suggested we consider what to show for the rocket ship blast off. This boy and his father launched model rockets. These belched real flames and smoke as they went up. He wanted to use one of these in our play.
The teacher spoke up quickly, “Absolutely no flames of any kind are allowed in the gymnasium! No real smoke either. What you are allowed to use is electric lights, aluminum foil, perhaps talcum powder for smoke, and things like that.”
Our discussion then lost most of its enthusiasm. Some of the girls argued for dumping the science fiction idea and get back to considering a historical romance.
However, the boy who had the model rockets did not give up so easily. Since he could not use real flames and smoke in the gymnasium, he wanted to get a movie camera or videocamera. He would film or video one of his model rockets going off outside. That could be shown on a video monitor when the spaceship was to take off in our story.
The enthusiasm was back in an instant. I think all of us students agreed it was a wonderful idea. If this play was being done now in 2006 where just about everybody has a digital camera and many of them can create a short movie rather than back in 1975, it is likely just what would have been done.
Video cameras were a lot rarer and more expensive then. Eight-millimeter movie cameras were more common, but nobody seemed to have parents that owned one. The grade school did have a large TV on a cart, but not a videocamera or movie camera.
This had been the first story idea that the teacher approved of, but she pointed out the lack of access to a video camera or movie camera. She also reminded us that even if a movie camera could be found, buying and developing movie film costs money. She wanted us to avoid any costs if we could, but we could use the art supplies already in the school.
I thought about how it might have looked on the television monitor if we had been able to film the model rocket going off. I had younger siblings, and I remembered baby toys sitting around the house even though all had outgrown them. One toy had a roll with an image of a boat on it. As the roller spun, the boat seemed to float across what seemed a small television screen.
I described this toy to the other students.
“So what?” said the disappointed boy who owned model rockets.
I said, “We could do something like that, but roll the paper upward to make a rocketship appear to fly up on a fake television monitor.”
This was discussed. While disappointing compared to filming the boy’s model rockets going off, this seemed accessible and possible for us.
The teacher approved my idea. She told us there was a big, wide roll of paper in the art supplies we could use. With something like broomstick handles as the rollers and an appliance box for the monitor, this was an effect we could do.
As the originator, I was given the task of drawing a spaceship on the roll.
We had one good effect for our play. At least, something we imagined could be a good effect. We could roll the other way for the spaceship coming in to land.
The teacher said that with that special effect which made the setting of the space ship seem workable to her, now we could go back to figuring out a story. She stressed we needed roles for everybody, except she wanted one or two boys to work behind the scenes on the special effects.
Since I had come up with the roll-up idea, I was talked into making it work rather than being an actor on the stage. I must admit I was nervous about acting in front of an audience, so I did not resist. The teacher seemed extremely pleased that there was one less student that needed an onstage role! She seemed so delighted that I was highly suspicious that I had just made a major blunder in accepting this position!
I tried to backtrack and recant, but the teacher made it clear that I now had my position for the play.
We still had a major problem of finding roles for all the other kids. Discussion on this went nowhere productive for a while. The teacher looked worried.
Then, Steve pointed out that on Star Trek, the spaceship called the U.S.S. Enterprise was supposed to hold about four hundred people, even though we mostly saw the same seven characters. Steve said that although real rockets only hold a few people, our play was set in the future when spaceships could be much bigger. All the students could have roles on the ship.
The teacher smiled widely at Steve's idea. I soon discovered why it made her happy. With his idea, she was able to steer us away from having a spaceship captain as the main hero with everybody else, especially the girls, as secondary characters.
What the story turned into was gathering a group of people to go settle a colony on a new planet. We would not get to land on the new planet in this story. Instead, the story would end soon after the spaceship took off. An impossible-to-miss parallel was made to early colonists in the Age of Exploration getting in sailing ships and crossing the Atlantic to settle in America. This was updated to be a spaceship going to another planet to settle there.
The story with the teacher playing a very large guiding role then turned into propaganda about the need and usefulness of many professions when going off to start a new colony. The colony would need farmers, electricians, cooks, bankers, police, and so forth. That is, the colony would need nearly the entire list you would get if you asked a bunch of sixth graders what they wanted to be when they grow up!
The big group would somehow finance and build their spaceship. The importance of all the jobs would be discussed in deciding on whom was to go on the voyage. Not much was not considered important. At the climax and after all the discussions of how important everybody's job was, they would all get on board the spaceship.
The effect of the fake television monitor would show the ship taking off.
In a set of cardboard control panels and fold-up chairs to represent the inside of the spaceship, the captain or perhaps the elected mayor for the new colony would give an optimistic speech about the colony they would form and make thrive with a spirit of cooperation.
I could almost imagine Big Bird or Ernie giving this speech on cooperation on the television show Sesame Street. Even in sixth grade, I thought the cooperation speech was sickeningly saccharine and hokey. Yet, to judge by her reaction, it seemed the teacher's favorite part of the whole play!
The curtain would then fall.
While definitely lacking in dramatic tension, the story served the far greater need of being achievable with what we had on hand and with roles for all the students that needed roles. It also promoted the sorts of values and attitudes that a grade school teacher is expected to teach her students.
I think Steve or Bill really did get to be the spaceship captain, but it was not nearly the major role that he had initially thought of it as being. The banker financing this and the elected mayor for the colony seemed about as important roles as the spaceship captain the way the story ended up written.
I had to get the fake television monitor working and the spaceship drawn and painted. What I came up with was more Fifties in style than Seventies. I looked at old comic books and things like that for inspiration. I drew a pointy-nosed rocket with big fins.
It rested on its fins on the ground. I drew flames and smoke about two inches under the rocket. That way, it seemed to be resting quietly on its fins, just parked. When it was time to take off and I began rotating the roller, the flames and smoke would appear.
Although I did the drawing, other students joined in the painting. It was a colorful spaceship when done. The flames were richly painted with oranges and reds. I had to argue with the painters about what was supposed to be flames and what smoke in my drawing.
A large appliance box was found from a refrigerator or oven. Thick wooden dowels like broomstick handles were mounted through holes.
The opening for the viewscreen was something like three feet by three feet or more. So, the picture on the paper was quite large.
When it was all done, I was very pleased with the effect. The teacher and other students seemed pleased as well. Actually, I would not see it during the show because I would be inside the box turning the roller. During rehearsals, another student spun the roller so I could get out front and see the effect for myself. The more evenly the roller was rotated, the better the effect.
I think the cue for when I was to turn the roller came from the captain or somebody giving a countdown of “Five, four, three, two, one, blast-off.”
During rehearsals, that cue worked fine.
Another part of the story needed weird electronic noises. I no longer remember exactly why. I had a pair of walkee-talkies. If kept within inches of each other and the mike on one of them keyed, a horrible high-pitched feedback squeal was emitted.
I brought in my walkee-talkies. We tried this sound in the rehearsal. Although loud with the volume turned high and high-pitched, it was too muffled when I made the sound from inside the box serving as television monitor.
At that point in the play, another boy was off stage. He tried the sound effect with my walkee-talkies from the side of the stage. Without being muffled inside the box, it made a loud and weird sound. Moving one walkee-talkie in relation to the other gave it an eerie warble.
I wanted to wire up some lights that I could make flash and other things like that to jazz up the production. If nothing else, it might make the fake video monitor look more flashy. The teacher vetoed using left over Christmas lights, claiming a potential fire hazard. I then suggested some flashlight light bulbs powered by D cells that I could make flash with a switch. I did not see any fire hazard from that, but it was also vetoed. I could appreciate not using real flames and smoke, but I could not see the hazard here. I was not persuasive enough.
My parents knew about the play. They told me they would be in the audience. I was not that surprised Mom would be there, but I had not thought Dad would be able to make it.
With my parents coming, I felt great disappointment since I knew my role in the production was completely hidden. I drew the spaceship, but who was to know that? The special effects that I had imagined would become so fun and elaborate had turned into little more than turning a roller at a certain cue. Even the weird electronic sound effect with my walkee-talkies had been passed on to another boy.
Another boy had gotten cold feet about performing on stage. He wanted to change places with me to run the fake television. I begged the teacher to let me switch roles with him. She would not allow it. She gave a speech about every task being important. I did not feel what I was to do was important, but I was stuck.
On the day of the play, the gymnasium was crowded. Several rows next to the stage were occupied by grade school children. Parents sat in the rows behind them. Since the floor of the gymnasium was flat rather than slanted like in a real theater, this arrangement let all see.
Soon, the play was on. I was in my box with the long wait until I spun the roller.
There was no back to the box, so I could see what was going on behind and to the corners of the stage, but I could not see the audience or the main actors on stage.
The teacher was off to the side of the stage, ready to take action if necessary.
It got to the point where the walkee-talkies were supposed to make the weird noise. I did not hear it. Peering from the back of my box, I saw that another boy had grabbed one of my walkee-talkies from the boy who was supposed to be creating the effect. The effect only worked if the two walkee-talkies were within inches of each other.
The boy given the task begged to have the other walkee-talkie back. He needed it.
“No! I want it,” shouted the other boy so loudly it had to be heard by the audience. “Show me what to do.”
In the middle of the play, there was nothing he could do but give it back, but he would not do it. Now was not a time to explain how the feedback effect worked.
The argument turned into a backstage scuffle. The teacher raced over, while motioning to the actors starring off stage at this confrontation to keep going as though the sound effect had happened.
After a few moments, the actors on stage got back into reciting their lines.
None of the electronic sound effects from the walkee-talkies happened in the show.
As the play got to where the speeches were being given about the importance of everybody's job, the young children in the front rows of the audience got bored. As they got bored, they talked loudly.
In my box, it got to where I heard the young kids talking more than I could hear the actor's reciting their lines.
I then heard the teacher from offstage hissing at me, “Roll it.”
The kids in the audience had gotten so loud that I had not heard the countdown!
I had blown my only task in the play! I started rolling.
Despite being late, the audience clapped and laughed at the depiction of the space ship taking off.
Soon enough, the play was over. I felt terrible. I had blown the one task I had to complete. None of the rehearsals had a loud audience, so I had fully expected to be able to hear my cue.
The audience clapped enthusiastically. The parents and teachers gave encouraging comments as though the production had been a masterpiece rather than the disaster it had really been of flubbed lines, missing sound effects, and a late lift-off of the rocket.
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