January 4, 2011

Carol Goes Backstage by Helen Dore Boylston (1941)

"Carol Page beamed upon them from the threshold--slender and dark-haired, her eyes startlingly green in a heart-shaped face.  She was so lightly and perfectly balanced that she seemed poised for flight in any direction, and her head, with the thick hair falling to her shoulders, tilted back with sudden, dramatic intensity.  'I was helping an old lady across the street,' she said.  'I was teaching boy scouts to build a fire in the rain.  My plane crashed in a snowstorm.  I've been all tied up.'"

How can you beat a character introduction like that?  Helen Dore Boylston was also the author of the Sue Barton nurse stories, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the Carol books--and not just because of the name.  My copy is a first edition, published in 1941 and withdrawn from a public library in Chisholm, Minn probably due to the coffee spills, pencil marks and torn, yellowed pages.  Considering I got it in the 1970s, it's holding up quite well. 

According to the blurb on the back of one of Boylston's book, Carol is one of "Two Famous Young Heroines from the books of Helen Dore Boylston."  Here's the description:  "Carol Page, who wants to be an actress.  Attractive, full of spirits, but serious underneath, Carol treads the difficult path toward a career on the stage, finding all the hardships--and thrills, too--that the theater has always provided for the girl who wants to reach the pinnacle."  She wrote four books in the Carol series, starting with Carol Goes Backstage, and moving on to Carol Plays Summer Stock, Carol on Broadway, and finally, Carol on Tour

As the book opens, Carol is late for the dress rehearsal for the high school play.  After making the appearance noted above, she goes outside to rehearse her lines and is "interrupted by the jerky arrival of a battered roadster driven by a tall boy with a thin, eager face and tousled fair hair."  This would be Ned Long, and don't get attached--the Boylston books are about careers first, then love.  She goes off in his car with him, which naturally breaks down.  She hitches a ride to the school with someone in a "long, underslung coupe", who talks to her about acting.  She has a great success in the play and heads off for a trip to New York with her older brother.  As she gets tickets for Candida, she walks through Times Square lost in daydreams of theatrical success:
"Broadway elbows and Broadway shoulders brushed against her, but she didn't notice.  Nor did she know that her sensitive young face and startling green eyes stood out sharply in the crowd.  She didn't know that her body had grace and ease of balance, or that she walked lightly, her weight on the balls of her feet--a perfect stage walk.  But there were individuals in the crowd who knew, and who turned to look after her with brief interest."
As the play starts, she realizes that the woman who gave her a ride is Jane Sefton, a great lady of the theater.  She goes backstage and tells Miss Sefton that she plans to go on the stage as well.  Back at home in Milltown, much drama ensues as Carol informs her parents (Judge Page, mind you) of her plans to become an apprentice at the Stuyvesant Theater School in New York.  She auditions, along with her good friend and future character actress Julia, and meets an annoying young man named Michael Horodinsky.

All three, of course, become apprentices.  Julia and Carol stay at a highly respectable girls' club and begin to learn the theater, from all things backstage, to movement, to speaking exercises.  This lecture comes from Miss Marlowe, the director of the Theater School:
"Talent is not enough.  You must realize that, too.  You may be the most talented person in the world and still have no place in the theater.  The real essentials for a theatrical career are discipline, steadiness, willingness to work and co-operate, manners, and respect for the rights of others.  an actor with 25 per cent talent and 75 per cent character will go farther in the theater than one with 75 per cent talent and 25 per cent character."
They put on their own scenes (directed by that annoying Mike), and get to watch a production from backstage, including a magical production of Peter Pan.

Everything is going well, until Aunt Salome stops by to check on Carol, and runs into Mike, who confirms all of the family's worst suspicions about the kind of riffraff Carol is associating with at the theater.  Her parents demand she return home, but first she needs to finish her commitment to the theater by appearing in one more student production: Dear Brutus.  In the audience for this play, however, is the manager of a theater who has an acting job to offer for one outstanding actor.  Guess who gets the job?  Carol!  But Julia and Mike and a few others get apprenticeships, so they'll all be together again in summer stock.

The charm of this book lies in the detailed and fascinating depiction of life in the theater--from high school productions, to off-Broadway productions, to the Broadway show in which one of the apprentices gets a walk-on part.  It's also very evocative of life as it must have been for the young apprentices in the New York theater scene.  Boylston's novels are fast-moving, and her characters and dialogue are vivid and dramatic.  Carol learns a lot about herself and acting, and as she gets to know Mike, she gains respect for his talent despite his gruff exterior.  But the central focus in this novel is always Carol and her journey on her way to becoming a real actress, despite her family's objections and the hard road ahead.

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