I Hate Eleanor Hunt: Week #38 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On a life in the theater, sort of
I hate Eleanor Hunt, and I will take that hatred to my grave. No amount of life wisdom, middle-aged perspective, or lovingkindness meditation can blunt the edge of my bitter resentment of Eleanor Hunt. I don’t even know if she is still alive—I haven’t laid eyes on her since third grade—but no matter. No matter. If my lifelong study of English literature has taught me anything, it’s that a good revenge fantasy can (and should) extend beyond death.
It all began innocently enough. The students at Angeline M. Post Elementary School in Wilton, Connecticut, were going to put on a play. And not just any play: The Wizard of Oz! In the white middle-class suburbs of the 1970s, there was not a theatrical production better suited to incite eager anticipation in the female elementary-school breast. We all watched the movie every year on TV, mined its cast of characters for Halloween costumes, and named our small dogs—stuffed or animate—Toto. Most importantly, we all suspected that we were as adorable and tuneful as Judy Garland and it was just a matter of time before we were discovered and made into A Star. (That last part might have been true only of a small subset of the population.)
Our music teacher, whose name I have repressed but let’s call her Miss Gulch, was in charge of the production, so auditions took place during music class. Every third-grader was handed a mimeographed page of the script—a snippet of dialogue between Glinda the Good Witch and Dorothy—and lined up alongside the chalkboard by the side of the room. As we awaited our turn to audition, we had an opportunity to read over the script pages and listen to the other auditioners; I was far back in the line so had lots of time to plot my strategy. I was immediately struck by the fact that the students ahead of me all read woodenly and without expression as they struggled to decipher the words on the page. “Hmm,” I remember thinking. “That doesn’t sound right.” I was at a distinct advantage because I had been reading for years at that point, having taught myself at age two or three; I had the luxury of considering how I wanted to read the words rather than simply trying to decode them. After listening to the seventh or eighth child ahead of me painfully declaim “ARE you a good ... WITCH ... or a bad ... WITCH?” I had a blinding epiphany. What if I tried to make the dialogue sound natural, like I was talking to Dorothy in real life?
When it was my turn, I strode confidently up to the piano, cleared my throat, and simpered “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” at my music teacher. I even tried to imitate Billie Burke’s sugary falsetto lilt, trilling the “R” in the first word as I waved a pretend wand over the piano keyboard. My teacher was visibly startled, but we marched briskly through the entire page of dialogue with me hamming it up like a wee Ethel Barrymore, pointing to the Munchkins (the students on the other side of the room) as I movingly explained to Dorothy how she had freed them from oppression when her house landed on their tormentor. When we were finished, the other students in the class applauded, and I curtseyed prissily at them, still in character. A monster is born.
There were only one or two more students left to audition after me, and I feel sorry for them to this day. When it was all over and we were back in our seats, our music teacher turned to the class and said, “Well! I think there’s no need for suspense. I’m sure we all agree that we’ve found our Glinda, yes?” Probably my memory is embroidering events when I recall that at this point there was another round of applause, but there was definitely a chorus of murmuring assent, if not a “Brava!” from the back of the room.
And then. And then.
Fatefully, horribly, my teacher went on, “... that is, if no one has any objection?”
Oh, cruel words! What impish daemon led her to utter the portentous phrase that would seal my doom and scar me forever? Eleanor Hunt—Eleanor Hunt—raised her hand and sweetly replied, “Actually, I don’t think that would be fair, since Deanna played Mary in the Christmas pageant.” Played Mary in the Christmas pageant?! A “role” with no dialogue, that consisted of standing silently next to Joseph while he requested shelter from a ragtag roster of first-grade innkeepers! I hadn’t even wanted that part—I was chosen because, at a year younger than my classmates, I was the only girl shorter than the Wise Men.1 As I sputtered with outrage at this assault on my burgeoning stardom, my teacher thoughtfully (i.e. cruelly) considered my classmate’s protest. “Hmm. Yes, I see your point, Eleanor. That wouldn’t be fair.”
And then. And then.
If you are a reasonable, thoughtful person reading this essay and you have followed me thus far, I suppose it’s possible that you, too, might think that Eleanor Hunt had a point. There is a theoretical universe in which dramatic rôles in third-grade musical productions are distributed so as to foster the emotional, psychological, and social growth of the student participants rather than simply rewarding those who (clearly) have the most talent. I guess you could argue that elementary school is not an incubator for Broadway starlets, but rather a place of education. Whatever. But even if you do not hate Eleanor Hunt yet, I promise you will after you learn what happened next.
“Okay, then,” Miss Gulch went on, “since you’re the one who pointed out the issue, Eleanor, why don’t you take the part of Glinda the Good Witch?”
[Here I must pause to collect myself. Decades have barely blunted the edge of my bitter disappointment and white-hot rage.]
What important life lessons our music teacher felt she was imparting by awarding the part to Eleanor Hunt merely because she was the one who complained, I am hard-pressed to say. Snitches finish first? To succeed in life, throw your peers under the bus? Everyone loves a morally righteous little prig? Even if I had to be deprived my star-making turn before the dozens of parents and bored siblings of the students of Angeline M. Post Elementary School, at least the part should have been allotted in a fair and equitable manner. Even though the poor benighted second-best auditioner (her name is lost to the mists of time) was but a mote in the dust beneath my feet, even though she could never hope to touch the empyrean of thespian brilliance promised by the dazzling performance of yours truly, it was only fair that the pathetic creature be given a chance. I told myself that it was the injustice that rankled, not my petulance at having lost the part.
In the end, Eleanor Hunt was our Glinda, and she sucked. It was painful to watch her frog-march her way through her lines with nary a lilt, nary a simper, the limp tin-foil star on the end of her wand glintless and sad. I was not in the play at all, and so I sat with the rest of my classmates on the cold linoleum of the multi-purpose room to watch the moribund production, hating Eleanor Hunt with every fiber of my being even as I gloated at her terrible performance. Schadenfreude is but a chilly bedfellow, even for a third-grader.
There was a “consolation” play for all the students who didn’t make the cut for The Wizard of Oz. (Just in case you missed it: I should have been in The Wizard of Oz but was not.) The back-up play for losers was an “energy pageant,” a gloriously 1970s propaganda piece about clean sources of power: the villains were natural gas, wood, coal, and oil, and the heroes were solar, nuclear (!), geothermal, and wind. I played Mr. Coal. My mother really helped me get into the part: she tightly braided my hair and smudged dark eye shadow on my cheeks and forehead so I looked like I’d just emerged from a pit mine. I was also dressed in knickers and a flat cap, like a Victorian chimney sweep. (The sartorial choices here are a bit puzzling: why would Mr. Coal have been besmirched by the pollution he himself caused, or be engaged in cleansing fireplaces of his own byproducts? It’s the same bizarre logic behind representations of the sun wearing sunglasses, or barbecue joints with chef-toqued pigs offering platters of smoked ribs.)
Without tooting my own horn too much, let me just say that my performance as Mr. Coal led directly to the clean-energy provisions of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
While I was gratified by the positive attention I received for my portrayal of a malodorous air pollutant, the one-two punch of cruel disappointment followed by unexpected triumph set the tone for my lifelong relationship with acting. I suppose it was an early taste of the power of intermittent reinforcement, the same psychological phenomenon that fuels gambling addiction and keeps people in abusive relationships. The mouse that gets a food pellet every time he pushes the lever very quickly learns to stop pushing when the food pellets stop. But the mouse who gets a pellet only occasionally will keep pushing an unproductive lever much, much longer. It only makes sense—its little mouse brain is thinking “Well, that one time I got a pellet after 57 non-pellet pushes! I must keep pushing at least 58 times before I give up!” While the constant-reward mouse, after only one or two failed pushes, thinks to himself “Wha? No pellet? Fuck this,” and walks away. The life of an actor is pretty much exactly like that of a mouse in a Skinner box: most of the time you get either nothing or a nasty shock, and then once in a blue moon the machine dispenses that sweet, sweet pellet of applause and adulation, and you’re hooked for at least another 57 rounds of rejection.
I continued to act in amateur school and community theater productions throughout grade school and high school, experiencing my share of shocks and pellets, the whole time determined to go off to Julliard or NYU or Yale Drama School and train to become a Serious Actor. The public high school I attended in suburban Philadelphia had an improbably robust drama program—we had a large professional-level theater and stage (complete with roomy well-equipped dressing rooms where I learned to do many things for the first time) and a faculty member whose nearly full-time gig was directing plays and teaching theatrical design. (R.I.P. Mr. Fetterman!) We mounted four productions a year, including a big musical every other spring that also roped in the school orchestra and chorus, a schedule that allowed a ragtag bunch of hams and misfits to self-identify as “actors” year-round. Our gang of theater kids was the same as every gang of theater kids that has ever existed since time immemorial—if you didn’t happen to have one at your high school, they are still familiar to you from Fame, A Chorus Line, and Glee: tap-dancing musical geniuses and budding drag queens, mostly gay, with troubled home lives and heads stuffed with music written decades before we were born. (Does anyone want to hear me sing the little-known intro to “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”?) We even had a protagonist: a handsome football player who crossed the social divide at our high school to slum it in a production of Barefoot in the Park.2
My dream was ultimately nixed—or at least hobbled—by my father, who refused to pay for my college education if I majored in theater, and flat-out forbade me from going to school in New York or California, terrified that I would instantly become a lesbian should I set foot in either place.3 In the end I went off to the University of Pennsylvania, where I found myself too intimidated to try out for any of the theater groups, which all seemed to skew heavily toward improv. Instead I decided to prepare myself for a practical, lucrative career by majoring in English with a concentration in poetry writing. (I’m joking, of course, but at the time the majoring-in-English part did seem like a safe cop-out. Little did I know that by the time I got a PhD in literature, Tenured Professor of English would be a riskier occupational path than Broadway Star.)
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to play it safe. Even though I’ve been on the grueling, punishing academic job market approximately 672 times4 and had my share of precarious 4/4 teaching gigs, I’ve also been incredibly lucky to end up with tenure in two different fabulous English departments. I consciously chose the life of an academic because I wanted my career to have a clearly defined structure with someone always telling me what to do next. I rejected the terrifying life of the theater—never even gave it a try—because I wanted to be secure and free from danger.
But it’s all an illusion. There is no such thing as safety—which is both a commonplace thing to say and a nearly impossible thing to believe. No one really cares what you do next; there’s no Good Witch eager to dispense helpful travel instructions when you can’t find your way home. Eleanor Hunt neither thwarted my ambitions nor enabled them, and I think it’s probably time to stop hating her. She was just some random bratty kid trying to get ahead in the mixed-up crazy world we call ... THE THE-A-TAH. She was just another tap-dancing schmo trying to get by.
I’m not really 100% sure why a public elementary school in the Northeast was presenting a Christmas pageant.
While many of us went on to theater-adjacent careers, the football player (Kayvan, a.k.a. Adrian, Pasdar) was the only one to achieve anything like conventional Hollywood success. The “real” theater kids were pretty bitter about this plot twist, since we’d considered him a dilettante and poser at the time.
Poor Dad. If only he had known that I was already groping every girl I could get my hands on right there in suburban Philadelphia.