Mrs. Hooper and the Baby Bear
Updated: Dec 10, 2022
My first acting role was “Baby Bear” in the Carnarvon Community School production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I don’t recall an audition process, so most likely I was cast in the part because I was the smallest kid in grade 1.
Hanging in the basement closet at home was the perfect costume -- an old mink coat that had once belonged to my grandmother. It was dusty-smelling, plush and lustrous, with shiny black buttons. When I put it on it hung heavily on my tiny body and I felt protected and mysterious and infinite.
Mrs. Hooper was a sturdy woman, perhaps in her late 40s, with short dark hair, ruddy cheeks, and penetrating eyes. She taught grades 1-3, all in one classroom together. If memory serves, for this show Mrs. Hooper read the story aloud while me and other cast members vaguely pantomimed along with the action. Looking back, I would describe it as a very minimalist, text-driven production.
I don’t remember any rehearsals - - just straight to the opening performance at lunchtime in the school gym. Ensconced in my grandmother’s fur coat, my only prop was an empty plastic cereal bowl, robin’s egg blue, that held my imaginary breakfast. When it came time for Baby Bear to taste his porridge, I coughed and gagged, then pretended to vomit. The kids, over a hundred of them, hunkered down with packed brown paper bags and Scooby Doo lunch boxes, went nuts for the puke schtick. Their laughter washed over me in warm waves.
After the show, Mrs. Hooper’s grey eyes locked into my brown ones, probing for the source of my over-the-top performance. I was a shy kid, quiet and rather timid, and this was totally out of character. She explained to me that what I did was not only rude but was also distracting and unfair to the other performers. She told me I must not do it again when we did our second and final show for the parents that evening. I nodded my head silently and spent the rest of the day enjoying the rave reviews from my classmates. That night, with my parents in attendance in the packed gym, when my moment came to taste the porridge I not only coughed, gagged, and pretended to vomit, but I also hurled the blue bowl into the air and fell out of my chair in a fit of convulsions. The parents and brothers and sisters in attendance lost their minds, laughing and applauding for what felt like many minutes. My cast mates -- Momma and Poppa Bear and Goldilocks -- were laughing too. I caught Mrs. Hooper’s eye and she looked pissed. We got through the rest of the story, but it was all epilogue after my seizure.
The following year, Mrs. Hooper wrote and directed a musical called The 12 Days of Halloween, inspired, of course, by the 12 Days of Christmas. She also played the piano for all rehearsals and shows. I wanted the solo part of “An Owl Who Was Hooting at Me,” but was regulated to being in the ensemble of “Eight Monsters Shrieking.” Dressed in purple turtlenecks with “evil” eyebrows painted on with our mother’s make up, I knew the only thing scary about me and the seven other monsters was our singing. Stephen Parson’s portrayal of An Owl Who Was Hooting at Me was certainly repetitive and perhaps lacking in gusto, but I had to admit he could carry a tune.
Later that year, Mrs. Hooper announced that we would be presenting a collection of staged fairy tale vignettes. I immediately set my sights on the part of The Big Bad Wolf who terrorizes The Three Little Pigs. Maybe I didn’t get cast because I wasn’t believable as big or bad, but Kevin Wilson, who got the role, was a stiff. I remember watching from the wings, shaking my head as he lumbered across the stage, chasing the fleeing pigs, expressionless, wearing a brown tuque with cardboard ears safety-pinned to it. So lame. I was cast in a non-speaking role as one of the many children who belonged to The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe Who Had So Many Children She Didn’t Know What to Do. I phoned-in my performance, even claiming to have forgotten the required costume of a button up white dress shirt, intentionally wearing my favorite green and white stripped terry cloth T-Shirt for the one and only performance of this ill-fated production. We, “the children”, were directed to scatter across the stage energetically as Loretta Kolack, portraying “The Old Woman” in a dowdy dress and granny glasses, chased us around in circles us while yelling “come back here you naughty children!” I knew it was unrealistic that the children performed our action silently -- we should have been rejoicing, celebrating our naughtiness with laughter and whoops and cheers, but I did as directed, knowing that Mrs. Hooper really dropped the ball on this one. It occurred to me that while she was competent with physical staging, the verbal component of the last two shows was sadly lacking in truth. A wolf should growl, and children should make noise. It was so painfully obvious, but I was just a background player in her grand vision. Although I had impulses to improvise and get a laugh, I was haunted by Mrs. Hooper’s words about it being unfair to the other kids to distract from the story, so I silently soldiered on.
In Grade 3, I was cast as “Pie Elf” in The Christmas Pageant, an entirely original piece by Mrs. Hooper. This time I had a line! Reaching into a paper bag and pulling out an empty pie tin, I was to exclaim, “I have the grandest prize of all, a great big pie. Let’s all have a piece right now!” It was an awkward line; I mean what kind of 8-year-old says “grandest? But I was all-in. Dressed in my mother’s mustard yellow tights, shiny red blouse, and wide, black vinyl belt, (is there a cross-dressing theme here?) I did my best to communicate the generosity and excitement of Pie Elf. Overall, I believe I was a stand-out but the production as whole, was a shambles. Mrs. Hooper defiantly pounded out chords on the upright piano as the cast missed cues, botched lines, and bumped into each other as we scrambled though the blocking. Tony Dimitracopoulos, a chubby 10-year-old with rosacea, was cast as Santa. He came down with a bad case of stage fright, however, and was taken home in tears, so Kevin Wilson, the Underwhelming Big Bad Wolf, took over the role. Santa’s cardboard sleigh, pulled by a single Red-Nosed Reindeer collapsed into pieces as the show came to a merciful end and the curtains squeaked closed. While the tittering parents were ushered away to drink egg nog in the staff room, Mrs. Hooper held the cast in the gym and had us go through the entire show, word by word, move by move, beat by beat, until we got it right. Her focus, determination and investment in every moment was palpable, and the cast responded by stepping up and rising to another level. After we had performed the entire show and taken a bow in the empty gym, Mrs. Hooper took a breath, and said, “curtain,” more to herself than to us. Then she closed the lid of the piano and escorted us to our waiting parents.
By the time we got to the staff room, the best Christmas goodies were pretty much gobbled up by the parents, but we were filled with the satisfaction of a solid performance. Mrs. Hooper smiled broadly as she raised a paper cup of egg nog and said, “a toast to our wonderful performers! I’m very proud of each and every one of you! Bravo and Merry Christmas!”. Dry shortbread never went down as good as it did that cold December evening, basking in the glow of Mrs. Hooper’s forgiveness and approval.