Boot Camp

There is a joke in Southern California that all the streets are named for the very thing that was bulldozed to make way for the new homes that sprung up in the fifties. There are people who live on Elm Street and Grove Street and all the rest, although there are no elms to be seen, and the groves disappeared decades before I was even born.

So, it takes a bit of an imaginative stretch to understand why I was in a group called “The Citrus Singers” for three years. It’s affiliated with Citrus College, which, of course, was named for the orange farms that were gobbled up when the school was built. The college is in the valley, just west of Montclair and North of Clairmont, if that helps.

It was incredibly difficult to get in to the troupe, there were usually hundreds of people auditioning for what were sometimes only six or seven open positions. I happen to get in to the group during an off year, when there were eleven of us chosen. And even if there had been only one open position, it probably would have gone to me. I’m not being arrogant here, for a “singer” I was just about the best musician these people had ever seen.

Keep in mind, this is southern California, so it isn’t exactly a cultural Mecca. I understand that it’s begun to blossom lately, but in the late 80s, Southern California could trace it’s cultural significance back about ten years, when David Lee Roth met Eddie Van Halen. Before that, there was the Beach Boys and, I guess, Jan and Dean or something, but basically southern California was where the shadow of the birthplaces of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon extended just to the edge of the valley, and just over that hill was where the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was snorting coke off willing underage hookers. If a guy with a nice voice shows up that can read music and recognize Bartok, you’d better grab him by the ankles.

Naturally, I thought I was the shit. Mostly because the staff kissed my ass a little bit. But, Holy SHIT, the other people in the program laid down the law on me hard. And thank God they did because it didn’t matter if I could sightread. Nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen to me.

Starting in September, we were preparing for Christmas. At the time everything flew at my so fast, I didn’t really do the math of what exactly we were putting together, but it now occurs to me that we were preparing four completely different concerts.

First, we had to work on the classical concert, which was a fully orchestrated 70 minute evening of chorales and selections from Handel’s Messiah. Which was fine, I had done the Messiah, virtually everyone I knew were pretty familiar with at least certain parts of it. My brother Kent used to giggle at the “Oh, we like sheep” part. Really the biggest challenge to this wasn’t learning the music, it was surviving the rehearsals. The tenor part… well, let’s just say that the tenor part is so damned high that a couple of us went to the library to try to figure out if maybe Handel was writing in the wrong key, if maybe back in his day those notes weren’t quite as high as they were now.

Or, I should say, a couple of us said we were gonna go to the library. We never made it.

The second performance piece was what we called “The Pop Show”. Now, this had nothing to do with Christmas, I admit, but we did have to put together a 50 minute show choir performance, complete with choreography and between songs banter, that would be performed throughout southern California starting in October. We would, in fact, perform this show throughout the year, going to resorts and golf courses and country clubs.

Which is weird because this is also where we did the third show, a stand-up a capella choral performance. 12 or 13 carols, done a capella in four to six part harmony. Oh is that all, you ask? No, I say. No. Because no Lilly is gilded enough unless there is also a 16 PERSON HAND BELL CHOIR that performs with you. Where are these 16 people from? From within the choir, dummy. You play handbells, sometimes as many as FIVE, while still singing your frickin tenor part to “Sleigh Bells” or whatever the hell it was.

So, yeah, I guess the third show contained a fourth show, inside it, which had to be rehearsed totally separately.

But the real fourth show, or, um, the fifth… Jesus, I don’t know… let’s call it the fourth show, the REAL fourth show was the grand-daddy. This show would be a 60 minute all original musical, full costumes, amazing sets, done at our 1500 seat Performing Arts Center. Ten shows a week, three weeks, sold out run all during the month of December, complete with Santa Claus, usually some kind of toy maker, sometimes Jack Frost, life-size dolls that have their own dance number, elves, the whole works. This is the crystal cathedral crowd, remember, where they went to see the Christmas pageant and saw real life camels and donkeys and the angels actually flew and they got to watch as God impregnated Mary.

Okay, there was no impregnating. But our show was the secular answer to that, with live donkeys, full Dickensian costumes, huge two and three story sets, real ice skating on stage, the whole works. It was a spectacular, written new every year to feature the best of the Citrus Singers. I should say, the plots and characters were re-worked every year, but you weren’t gonna be surprised by any of it. It was heavily borrowed from Hans Christian Anderson and Dickens and, *ALL* of the music was “borrowed” from other plays. I have no idea how they could afford the royalties, but I guess when you’re selling out a 1500 seat auditorium at 40 something bucks a pop, you’re doing okay.

So. Give me just a second to describe the schedule.

Monday through Friday, 9 AM to Noon was music rehearsal, Tuesday and Thursday it was from 11 to 1 and dance rehearsal from six pm to ten pm. Monday and Wednesday, from 2 to 6 was hand-bell rehearsal. Each section (tenors, altos, etc.) had their own sectional rehearsal. Ours was Tuesday and Thursday from 2 to 5 and Saturday from 6 am to 8:30 am. Saturday we had dance rehearsal from 9 until 6.

Now, this wasn’t nearly enough rehearsal for everything we had to learn. And, some of the people in the group were idiots and took classes from the community college as well. The fact that I could sight-read came in handy, I was usually ahead of everyone, but I still fell hopelessly behind expectations immediately. I mean, this was the scheduled time you had to be there, but every person put in at least another ten hours a week scrambling to learn all of the music and lines. I understand that med students and shit have it worse, way worse, but, I mean, if we could handle this, why the hell weren’t we in med school?

That’s the thing. The military, med school, fancy-lawyer school, those are all places that me and the rest of the Singers would have been frickin’ KICKED OUT OF. I understand that an eighty hour week is par for the course for a dude in residency, but we were the kind of people who did “Godspell” in high school and were like “man, performing is fun!”. It never occurred to us that it would be this kind of commitment.

(Also, just as an aside, none of us has ever made the kind of money that med school or fancy lawyer school guys do. I mean, honestly, actors don’t usually make as much money as… Jesus Christ, there isn’t even a comparison. Nobody makes less money than us.)

By the time we got to late November and the Christmas season was really on us, we started having extra rehearsals on all sides. Especially funny were the handbell sleepovers, where we would all cram into someone’s shitty ass apartment after having stolen the five handbell cases from the locked closet (community college, like community theater, is chock full of thieves. Nobody locked their keys in their car for long, I can tell you that. Most people in the group could get into your car in about three seconds). During these all-nighters, the bass clef bells would s
leep for half an hour while the treble bells rehearsed and then we’d switch off. I know one girl who could sleep and play her part damn near perfectly.

The handbells come into play in this story because they set off a peculiar chain reaction. My second Christmas with the group, there were three of us that sort of vied for all of the leads and all the solos and, frankly, all the extracurricular play. It’s incredible to think about, but we were all twenty years old, and if you worked us 80 hours a week, we were still going to find time to have sex with as many of each other as possible.

We had a set of rules about sexual contact. Anything that happened on the van or during an all-night rehearsal didn’t count as “cheating” on whomever you might be dating outside the group. Any “above the clothes” rubbing also was fair game. There was a fine line about sleeping with other people inside the group, it was totally fine as long as you didn’t take the person too seriously. There was a “time-zone” law created for while we were on tour in Hawaii and in Europe, which got switched to an “area-code” law during the Christmas season. If memory serves, after a particularly strange oral sex swap I had with an engaged girl while on tour, the “stairwells don’t count” rule got invented.

In any case, there was Me, Charles and David, and the three of us were constantly battling one another. Charles had beaten out David for a solo in something, but David had been cast as Santa Claus, leaving Charles and Me with the two larger but less impressive leads in the show. I was the “red shoes” style tinker and Charles was, I believe, “head Elf”. Everyone called us the big three

So, during one of our stand up -n- sing carols performances, while the handbell choir was doing “Dance of the Wooden Soldiers”, David kept whispering shit-talking right into Charles’ ear. Charles responded by swinging his G3 bell ever so slightly behind him into David’s nuts. It was guy stuff, even though by this point I was essentially in charge of all the guys, I didn’t worry about it. Charles, who was a shit-talker from way back, for some reason also didn’t think it was that big a deal. David, who was 6’4″, 290 pound former football center, took it kinda seriously.

About two hours later, there was an epic battle, which landed Charles in the hospital with his face more or less caved in and landed David clean out of the group and fired from the show. While it may seem like it would be hard to replace one bass and one tenor, and even harder to replace G3, Ab3 and A3 to the handbell section, we also had a mere eight hours to replace Santa Claus and Head Elf.

One of the voice teachers happened to be a fat guy, and also had been the one to teach all the music to Santa in the first place. He just had to learn twenty pages of dialogue or so, figure out a couple of dances, and try like hell to keep up with the blocking. For Charles’ part, a kid in the chorus got his shot. He had been in the group for 3 and a half months, living always in the shadow of the Big Three, had been to every rehearsal and done all of his work… and somehow he had also learned all three of our parts in the Christmas show. He knew the choreography, sort of, he knew the songs, kind of, and he knew all the lines and blocking, perfectly. If he had more talent, then the choreography and songs would have been great.

God. That kid. I still remember him. The little fucker.

Of course, the show is still remembered as “the Christmas Miracle” and the rest of the season went off without much of a hitch. And that one kid? Last I heard he was cast in “Avenue Q” in Vegas. Say what you will, that little fucker never let an average talent slow him down. I’ve also seen him, over the years, in several national commercials.

And I guess that’s the moral. When I got in the group I was massively talented. I still am. But talent means very, very little. It’s like saying that an atom has the capacity to be an atom bomb. Who the fuck cares? I didn’t find my own discipline until years later. In fact, I was there for all the hours I needed to be, all the other hours I didn’t do an ounce of work. I could sight-read and I memorized really fast, plus I understood the math of the music, I could always go somewhere that made sense even when I was singing in a quartet or a trio.

But that’s what I’m saying. If you’re not working during Christmas, it’s because you don’t want to. It’s because you’re not trying hard enough. And I went years without working during Christmas, until it finally dawned on me that maybe acting isn’t for me.