I can’t sing a note now, but back at Camp in the summers of the 1970s, I sure felt like a star. I have Bob Greenman to thank for that. Bob was the head of the drama program at Camp Wicosuta, the all girls’ sleep-away camp in the white mountains of New Hampshire where I spent every summer from the age of nine until 15.
It’s difficult in the abstract for someone who has never been there to understand the magic of Camp. My friends at home in Westport, Connecticut certainly couldn’t. To them, summer meant long days basking in the sun at Compo Beach. How could I explain what it was like to spend eight weeks- year after year- with the same core group of kids and no parents, in a hilly green paradise like Hebron, New Hampshire? There was Color War, kitchen raids, campfires, and oh the songs!
Singing was a big part of life at Wicosuta. We sang at meals in the dining hall. We sang around the campfire. We sang taps at the end of the night; every camper and every counselor, standing in one giant circle, arms crossed, holding the hands of the girl next to her swaying, and singing, “day is done, gone the sun, from the lakes from the hills from the stars…”
Several evenings a week we rehearsed our plays, which is where Bob Greenman comes into the story. We did the usual shows, the ones you would expect to perform at Camp in the 1970s: The Wizard of Oz, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and Oliver. But because of Bob’s penchant for the more sophisticated musicals of the 1950s and ’60s, we also performed, with an unusual degree of polish and professionalism, shows like The Boy Friend, Bells are Ringing, Lil Abner, Hello Dolly, The Pajama Game and Fiorello.
If it seems improbable that adolescent and pre-adolescent Jewish girls from the New York area, the Midwest and Canada could play New York City politicians, hillbillies, lonely basement phone operators and disgruntled union workers the answer is, Bob made it probable. He made it work beautifully, with the help of a few other counselors, and his wife Carol.
Most of the girls at Wico didn’t have much singing or acting experience. Those kids who did opted for drama camps like Stage Door Manor. But we had our stars. I remember a certain girl, Sue S. a year or two ahead of me, who had a wonderful stage presence and singing voice, even at 14. She played Auntie Mame and Dolly Levi with breathtaking maturity.
Girls in my bunk were not without talent, especially Leslie, Donna and Robyn. Leslie, a bright, strong soprano, played the female lead in many of our shows. We compared her to Barbra Streisand more than a few times. Donna’s singing voice and perfect comic timing took her all the way to the New York stage as an adult, to perform her own one woman show.
I never had the lead. But I always sang, usually a duet and sometimes a solo. Bob respected my unabashed bravado, the way I would cartwheel into the audition and belt out the words of my song from the prior summer without a trace of self consciousness. We both knew I didn’t have the prettiest, most developed vocal skills. But he appreciated my strong lungs and comic timing, and cast me in roles I could play for laughs.
I did not trust most adults. I was afraid of my parents and often humiliated by my teachers, but I trusted Bob Greenman. He believed in me, and I trusted that belief. Thin and shaggy blond, Bob had the imagination of a Broadway director and the patience of a clergyman. Unlike my own parents, (who, incidentally, both grew up in same Brooklyn, New York neighborhood as Bob) he never yelled at me or criticized my work. Bob had tall expectations, but he never made me feel incapable of reaching them.
Though I was a girly girl, I trusted Bob when he cast me in mostly male roles. One of them, the philandering 50 -something Brit in The Boy Friend Lord Brockhurst, sang “It’s Never too Late to Fall in Love,” with Donna’s character Dulcie. I trusted Bob to coach me on the vocals, making sure I was in tune and comfortable with the key. He did this, and, as he often did, transposed the song a key or two lower to suit my alto voice.
I even trusted him when he cast me as drunken sailor Luther Billis in South Pacific. I still have a picture from that show, one of my few remaining photos from Camp. Robyn and I are on stage during the musical number Honey Bun: her character, female lead Nellie Forbush dressed like a sailor in navy sailor top and white pants, and me, a young teenage girl playing a man playing a woman in a grass skirt, cheap blond wig, Hawaiian lay, tube top and coconut bra.
In addition to playing the piano and serving as musical director for our shows, Bob’s wife Carol saw to the smallest detail; drawing thick black ‘hair’ on my legs with kohl eye pencil. After the final curtain, one of the bossy older girls sitting in the balcony rushed down to the stage: “Beth,” she said. “I could see everything from up there. You really need to start shaving your legs!”
I’m not much into live theatre these days. I prefer reading plays to seeing them, but I still love to sing, Especially those wonderful songs from Broadway musicals of the ’50s and ’60s. Thanks to Bob Greenman, I’ve spent the last 26 years happily serenading my husband in the car with songs like “Sur la Plage” from The Boy Friend: “what a lovely day what a lovely day for a dip in the sea! Of what fun it will be! Won’t you come and have a swim with me?”
It was our great good fortune, Donna, Leslie, Robyn and me, and all the other girls at Camp Wicosuta, that Bob Greenman sought to get his wife and three daughters out Brooklyn every summer and create something.
An artist who specializes in the portraiture of teddy bears, Beth Herman writes and illustrates children’s books. You Me and Mr. Moopoo Makes Three, and Mr. Moopoo in the Kitchen, are available on Amazon.