My friend B.J., who has produced theatre since before you were born, says it all comes down to the campfire:
When the first people gathered around the fire, and one got up to tell the story, that was the beginning of theatre.
I say it was also the beginning of community, which is why I decided last fall that the Fern Hill Spring camping trip would have a campfire on Saturday night.
Not just any campfire. A campfire of guffaws, cackles and howls, of side-splitting, aisle-rolling, doubled-up, on-the-floor hysterics. A big bang of laughter that the youngest child there awake would marvel about to her grandchildren.
To accomplish this level of communion will take far more than cleverness and timing. To accomplish this is going to take Mr. Happy.
I am thinking about Mr. Happy on Saturday morning when one of the Fern Hill mothers approaches.
‘I know you aren’t the host,” she says, “But we forgot our tent poles. Do you know where we can get some?”
As it happens I do.
Where was I?
A SHORT HISTORY OF MR. HAPPY
Mr. Happy is a man about two feet tall with the head of one actor and the hands of another. Mr. Happy’s origins have been credited to a comedy sketch on television, but he’s a lot older than television.
Many years ago I met Mr. Happy by another name in Boy Scouts, but I’m sure he goes back to Punch and Judy, which means back to Commedia, which means to the Middle Ages, which means to ancient Rome, which means probably Babylon and cave fires before that.
I think of Mr. Happy wandering with the Israelites in Sinai where legend has it that Moses, desperate for the talent to fill 40 years of evening shows, would give any lounge act a chance.
Eduardo, Don and I are rehearsing Mr. Happy Saturday morning. Rehearsal is an exaggeration, as it’s really a costume and prop search. We need a shirt they both can fit in, allowing Eduardo’s hands to slide from behind Don through the sleeves and Don’s arms to emerge below and slip into a pair of pants and shoes.
When it’s done right, the effect of the two-foot man is immediately weird and comical, and vaguely politically incorrect, in the way that a dwarf court jester was incorrect. Someone snaps a picture with his phone.
We enlist a couple of stage hands to hold the curtain. Then assemble a razor and shaving cream, a toothbrush, bowl of cereal, and assorted other objects.
Ripeness is all.
Eduardo, who has spent the morning under a blanket behind Don, looks at the picture. Eduardo is of the theatrical profession.
“We’re going to kill,” he says.
THE REST OF SATURDAY
The rest of Saturday I’m fielding complaints, most of which begin with, “I know you aren’t the host . . .”
My little email to everyone is coming back to haunt.
People are moving their tents, maneuvering to be closer to friends.
“Go wherever you like, you don’t need to tell me.” I tell them. “I’m sorry about the cars.”
“We don’t even hear the cars,” they say.
But I hear them.
At dusk, a wide circle forms in an open area where the pre-school families are camped. The elementary families wander in from up the road. It’s the one time this weekend we are all gathered.
A dad recites “O for a muse of fire” and we are embarked. We sing about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. We sing “Amazing Grace” to a harmonica.
Some rowdies in the back begin a chant—All Hail the Ghost—and begin bowing. It makes no sense until I notice they are actually chanting All hail the host, and are pointing in my direction. Troublemakers.
No matter. It’s time for Mr. Happy.
“Children,” I begin. “At Fern Hill, you pretty much learn on your own, but this evening we brought someone to show you how to do a few things right.”
The makeshift curtain rolls back, and Mr. Happy appears. Shhh. He’s asleep.
Mr. Happy wakes up and stretches. Mr. Happy does jumping jacks. He washes, brushes his teeth, shaves, and eats his cereal.
Mr. Happy does all these things with his hands, which are Eduardo’s hands. He does them to his face, which is Don’s face, which Eduardo can’t see. Mr. Happy is completely uncoordinated and messy. Mr. Happy is total shtick.
Shrieks of hysterical laughter from parents. Shrieks from children. Shrieks even from me. It doesn’t stop until Mr. Happy, exhausted and very wet, falls back to sleep.
Mr. Happy has killed.
DAY IS DONE
The fire, such as it is, dies. Families rise from their seats and mingle. It’s bedtime for younger children, though some, spying Don, crowd around him, crying, “Mr. Happy! Mr. Happy!”
Parents shoo them away toward their tents.
I wander among the moths and the trees and the voices. Oh, to be here tonight and five years of age, to have seen, in the company of friends, Mr. Happy for the first time, to be enfolded in the dark by a friendly universe . . .
It is very heaven.
The sudden community continues next time with Commencement.
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