“Well,” one of the kids said. “We had been wanting to paint the ceiling black, right?”
I blinked in surprise at the jokey attitude, but the students of the Baldwin High School drama guild were dealing with it as best they could. Their drama room had burned overnight. An arsonist had set fire to it. The damage was extensive but it wasn’t a total loss. They were in a middle of a show's run, The Second Annual Diamond Lil’ Revue. Baldwin Theatre Guild was able to move the venue to the playhouse of another local community theater. The temporary loss of the drama room was devastating as well as the shock of the assault on each person who held that place dear.
But as loved as that room seemed, it wasn’t the walls and ceiling and the clutter of props and costumes that provided the magic. It was the kids, the alumnus and the adults who put so much of their lives and souls into the theater program there. I have never seen such talent in my life. For such a little island as Maui, there seemed to be a lot of burgeoning talents. Several have moved on to professional carriers in theater and film and music.
And there amongst all the drama on and off stage, the teen angst drama, the students in some of the most decisive and confusing times of their lives, were the adults. The drama teacher, Ms. Loudon, was like a mother, lion tamer, mentor and teacher of all things theater. Now retired, never replaced. Ms. Loudon is the type of person who comes along so rarely and touches so many lives that no amount of gratitude would ever match the love she showed. Other adults at the theater were local theater buffs, school alumnus, even kids from other high schools that didn’t have a good theater program. (That was me.)
I saw parents dressing in outlandish costumes and yucking it up or acting down the house. But one parent in particular was the one who played Diamond Lil in the Diamond Lil’ Revue. If you only saw her onstage and didn’t know her as a person you would be hard pressed to believe this. But stage presence and talent were completely outshone by a full heart of gold in Rita. Her energy onstage was only surpassed by her aloha offstage.
I was privileged to get to see the first few Diamond Lil’ Revues. They were formed as a royalty-free type of show full of song and dance strung together with a plotline. Rita hosted the shows as the title character. The first year set the tone for the rest. It was an old western dance hall. There was bar, a jail and of course a big stage with musical numbers, dance and a melodrama. The show was well received and they did it again the next year set on the Mason-Dixon line. That was the year of the fire. But the show went on. And the next year was a riverboat theme.
I got to perform for two of the three weeks for that 1985 show. And that was one of the quirky things about those shows. They would run two or three weekends for maybe 9 or 10 shows. No two were ever quite the same. Some acts were rotated to give more kids a chance to perform. Sometimes new acts were added in. Inevitably there was a lot of improvisation onstage.
The next year was a speakeasy. I only got to watch that one when I came home from college. Actually one night my friend let me take his part and be Elliot Ness at the end.
The next year was a Broadway showcase. I helped develop the plot for that show and then did the first weekend as a janitor and a magician. Then I went back to college for the spring. The cast of the show bought me a plane ticket to come do the last weekend with them. I will never forget that.
I missed the next couple of shows. They had a Christmas theme. When I moved back to Maui after college, Desert Storm was on everyone’s mind. I helped develop the plot for the next Diamond Lil’ which was a USO canteen theme. And for the next three shows I had the thrill of working alongside Rita as Eugene Toro, clipboard wielding assistant to Diamond Lil’. We did two USO shows. In 1994, Diamond Lil’ Revue had a theme that some folks had wanted since the very beginning. With the blessing of Ms. Loudon, a bunch of guys finally sat down and wrote out the plot and setting for what turned out to be one of my favorites, the science fiction themed Restaurant at the End of the Universe show. We had a blast.
We did one more USO show. Then I did my last Diamond Lil’ in 1996. It was a Nashville/Hillbilly theme, still full of talent and friends. At the close of the show I was waiting word to see if I would be going to Hungary to teach.
I came back to Maui two years later but was not able to participate in Diamond Lil’ that year. I sat in the audience with a severely sprained ankle. (That wasn’t what kept me offstage)and I wished I could be up there. It was the last show I saw on Maui.
And all that was just my experiences. So many others were able to do more. It was a wonderful part of growing up that went on into my adult years. For one USO show Ms. Loudon, (you didn’t call her Sue even when you grew up) asked me to write a letter for a girl to read onstage. The show had her as a movie star reading a letter from parents to their son on the radio. I wrote the letter and was very pleased with it. Then Ms Loudon lost it so I wrote another that I thought was better. She lost that too and I wrote an even better one. Today I wonder if she kept tossing them away, knowing that I could do better. That was what it was all about. We rarely ran the show fully through until opening night. Kids were challenged to do their best and have tremendous faith in themselves and in others. And today the world is a better place. Not just for that room that burned on night in 1985, but for the passion and life that no flame could quench.