I was so excited in fourth grade about an upcoming morning performance. We had been assigned the roles and given text to study for a theatrical. There were three of us to perform: a short boy, a rather dim young girl and myself. The event would take place in homeroom just after prayers and the pledge of allegiance. We were to prepare the material on our own and unrehearsed go from classroom to classroom to perform for our eager little classmates. The average number of children in one of these classes was 30, our average age was 10 and the average attention span was 30 seconds.
I had prepared mostly by searching out props. I had a hat, a chalkboard pointer and the text I was to read. We had been told we may use our text as reference and did not need to memorize or be “off book”. The three of us waited in the hall as we were introduced to our public. I remember my nervous excitement and my loud flourishing entrance while brandishing hat/text/pointer. Beginning my lines as I entered I believed I could walk and talk at the same time. I am sure I saw some actor make an entrance in this way and I was impressed.
Then my mind went blank, just as dry as the desert. Even with my text in hand I couldn’t think of one word. I just kept looking into my hat and gesticulating with the pointer. I looked out at the sea of supportive (mocking) faces of my fellow (dim) 10yr old eating – sleeping – teasing machines. The potential for months of ridicule on the playground was huge and the gleeful glimmering eyes were already starting to look menacing. I am sure I could see the beginning of toothy smiles.
I decided in that moment to “IMPROVISE”. From where I knew this term I have no idea but it seemed the right thing to do at the time. Words flew from my mouth and my eloquence astounded me. I was totally centered in the eye of the storm and better verse had never come from an actor anywhere ever in the history of the world! Certainly I was riveting and undoubtedly my audience was spellbound. I experienced that euphoria, the out of body experience when an actor knows everything is working and he is the absolute center of attention.
In what was the first well supported clarion stage whisper I had ever heard, one of my fellow thespians whined to our teacher on the side “He isn’t saying the words he is supposed to”! In a panic of disbelief I heard my other little scene stealing stage dweller say directly to our audience. “ He is not saying what he is supposed to be saying! He is making everything up!” She began crying as the other actor-seedling behind me started laughing and the class at large followed suit.
The teacher in charge of this little theatrical was a daunting – black clad – constantly rustling – crucifix wielding Catholic Nun who found herself suddenly outnumbered. Our omnipotent authority figure had clearly studied classroom management and tried to retake control of the room. She grabbed my pointer and began slamming it against the desk repeatedly and yelling for quiet. I thundered over this chaos (as would any would-be actor and sibling of Valkyries) and in my best supported stage voice bellowed: “I was improvising that scene and these two were supposed to “go” with it. “ I threw my hat and inferior drivel of text onto the floor and made a sweeping grand exit.
I was elated and rushing with adrenaline as I stormed down the hallway to the Boys’ room. It was clear to me that the other actors were to blame. It never occurred to me I might have handled this situation differently. I was stage struck! I knew I had “arrived”! My singer-performer ego was already establishing itself like an alien life force. I was 10 years old and I had learned two things. I wanted to be back out there in the eye of the storm center stage and English was my least favorite language to work in for the rest of my performing life.
I was born to S. Frank (Bud) Raftery and Marjorie (Marge) Raftery (nee Belt) on April 4, 1957 at the Columbia Hospital for Women a few blocks from The White House in Washington, DC. My dad was a General Organizer for the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades and by the time I came around my mother was a very busy fulltime homemaker. I am the 7th of 9 children: Elizabeth (Betts), Michael (Mike), Marjorie (Maggie), Barbara (Bobbie), Mary Ann (Mary), Virginia (Ginny), James Patrick (Patrick), Jane Marie (Janey) and John Joseph (Johnny). Our births covered a very interesting two decades. Betts was born during WW2 and Johnny was born into the turmoil of the early 1960s. Yes! We are baby boomers.
My first memories of early childhood are of being parked in a stroller on our driveway on Wadsworth Dr. in Bethesda Maryland. Our front yard was full of sweating heaving dark giants laying sod. I remember seeing the rolls of grass and fascinated with how they unfurled the rolls onto the dark brown dirt. I can still feel the heat, smell the grass and squint at the bright sunlight. I remember them pounding down the sod and watering with hoses and drinking out of the hose’s nozzle. Presumably my mom or one of my sisters was the person overseeing this work project and my morning stroll. I was very happy in that stroller and had no desire to run and play in the grass or roll in the dirt or be out in the sunshine. That much has not changed.
I remember the long nights in the summer of 1963 with my bedroom window open and the ceiling fan outside my door. When the noisy fan was on at night you could feel the air moving and smell the flowers outside in the garden and feel the weight of the heavy humid DC heat. I woke every day to the sounds of construction work from the top of our street, trucks and drilling. That section of “The Beltway” between River Road and Old Georgetown Road opened on November 15, 1963 and President Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963 just a week later.
I couldn’t know at that time how important these events would be on the world. I really felt the reaction of the adults to Kennedy’s death. I saw my teachers crying and every adult I saw on my way home from school was crying. The opening of that section of one of the great highways in America however meant that for the rest of time “inside the Beltway” would define life and politics in that small geographical area into which I was born.
Less than a decade after the opening of the Kennedy Center I was starring at the Terrace Theatre for The Washington Opera as Figaro in The Barber of Seville. I was 23 years old. Three months later I was still a pup crashing on my parent’s pull out sofa when President Reagan was shot. The President was speaking at the Washington Hilton for the National Conference of Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO and my dad was speaking to the same group. We didn’t know from the initial reports how many people were shot or the extent of the injuries. I waited with my mom by the phone for an update in those ancient days before cell phones, twitter, Facebook and constant news coverage. As it turned out dad was just fine but we had been reminded of just how unsettled the world could be.
The deaths of the brothers Kennedy, Martin Luther King, The Vietnam War with it’s protesters blocking our roads, Kent State and the attempts on President Ford were the background of life growing up in DC. I knew about The Watergate because of driving through Foggy Bottom to take my dad to work at The United Unions Building. I could see the Kennedy Center from my dad’s office when I was still in High School and I had a summer job in that same building next to The Corcoran Art Gallery a stone’s throw from The White House Rose Garden. All of this just blocks from the Hospital in which I was born, The Columbia Hospital for Women at Pennsylvania Ave and 25th Street.
Sitting here in Toronto in 2013 I contemplate how to begin the process of looking back at the past few decades. Suddenly it has been 30 years since being named “Artist of the Year” by the Washington Opera Guild. The success I enjoyed in the beginning of my singing career was a wonderful ride and an amazingly powerful gift. I felt like I was a surfer riding the crest of an amazing wave with no thought of a beach or sharks in the water or dark clouds on the horizon. Washington D.C. set the tone for my career and my life for many years. I am proud to be from that city of presidents and political squabbling. I had boundless support from my family and friends and there is evidence from critics like Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times and Paul Hume of The Washington Post that their support was not misguided.
Now let’s start at the beginning.