When I was twelve, a student at Saint Anne’s Academy in Marlborough, MA, the school put on a Winter Carnival. The year was maybe 1959, and this Catholic convent for girls was run by the Sisters of Saint-Anne.
There would be musical numbers with some students playing piano concertos, others learning violins and violas for the first time to add “filler music” to the grander musical numbers. Some classes would put on short skits and it is here that a posse of seventh graders grabbed at their chance for immortality. The excitement mounted as girls were chosen to appear in skits and all the girls engaged in production numbers were sworn to secrecy. The seventh grade was chosen to re-enact the journey to Bethlehem by the Oriental Kings.
Not only would there be three Royal Kings, but it was decided, also their Royal Dromedaries. Many wanted this royal entourage to be a real shocker to the rest of the school. This 7th grade had among its members many resourceful gals. Christine came from a horse family. She was short with striking dark auburn hair and freckles. Fitzy (Ann Fitzgerald, Worcester, MA) was a 60s fashionista before the word was invented. On Saturdays when we could wear skivvies (non-uniform day), she would pull out these small scarves and don her neck with wild colors, subtle lipstick and eye shadows. She was so Liz Taylor. The skit that our class would put on was of the 3 kings of the orient, so jokingly, I said that we needed camels. I knew that the maintenance crew had sawhorses in their garages, so I suggested that if we could make good-looking heads for the camels, we could probably pull off using saw horses for the bodies. But they would need to move across the stage without scratching the dickens out of the fine wooden floor. For this problem, many of the girls offered a day-long “think” before we arrived at a solution.
I came up with roller skates. We would need 6 pair of the larger sized-roller skates among all the skates of the 6th, 7th and 8th grade girls. Next came Christine who chirped in with an offer to lend three saddles, leather and horse blankets. One girl offered to braid three camel tails made of jute while referring to an old Christmas card for a sample of proper length.
This Christmas Pageant was months away, so the gang of seventh graders went over and over the details of how this would all work. Christine returned from a home visit one weekend with the saddles and long lengths of leather. We didn’t need entire bridals, just the leads. Her contribution was perfect. Earlier on, the nuns chose which three girls would be on stage: moi, Gosselin (Karen Gosselin from Troy, Vermont) and Tobin (Susan Tobin from, well I forget).
We realized that walking alongside the camels would not work since their bodies were too heavy to roll easily in the skates, so with the full regalia of the horse blankets on the saw horses, it was decided that the camels would require three “engines” to push the animals across the stage. The three Kings would appear on stage riding the camels, get down about mid-stage, walk a few steps, recite their words, lay down to sleep, an angel would appear with words of wisdom and we Kings would wake up all wisdom-filled as we rode our dromedary off the opposite side. Simple enough.
So three “engines” were chosen and the practice of pushing the camels with a rider both on and off began. Slowly, the engines got better at managing their own camel and rider and so practice for this portion of the pageant was declared complete and finished. Each camel had horse blankets to conceal the audience side of their bodies and their rump, along with yards of ultra-golden-colored drapes; discards from collections of goddy fabrics contributed by many of the girls. Each King also wore colorful clothing from yards of upholstery fabrics and lengths of voile and taffeta. I had grabbed a metal lampshade with a chimney hole, filled the empty hole with fabric and devised a chin-wrapped head ornamental-looking hat for myself.
To the credit of the Sisters who managed our group of girls from grades 3 through 8, the Sisters always left the older girls alone and uninterrupted in the coat room. Off this coat room was a smaller room known as the Club House and off limits to anyone other than 7th- and 8th-graders. It was just an empty space but this hide-a-way provided a refuge where all the popular girls hung out, told jokes, worked out problems and discussed whatever they wanted to beyond the scrutiny of the nuns’ eyes.
It was great fun to practice our lines in the Club House. As the days approached, we had draped and re-draped the camels dozens of times, many girls discovering which fabric would give more shimmer and shine to the camels for the audience’s pleasure.
By some measure of kindness, the nuns did not insist that the camels be present for the dress rehearsal the night before. They seemed to understand our determination in keeping the camels a complete surprise. Did I mention that our little Club House had a heating grate that rose to the Library one floor above and much of anything that was said in that room was broadcast into this second floor Library. No doubt, the Librarians had a field day with all the giddiness and laughter that they overheard throughout the preparation for this holiday gala.
The morning of the Winter Pageant, the official camel riders and their engines quietly moved the camels from the Club House down the long hallway to a service elevator, then to the back stage area of the school’s large auditorium in the basement. We all held our breathes as nothing fell off the camels, thank goodness – the menagerie was intact; inverted broom handle heads and attached tails. Next, the three stage actors turned to more pressing matters. Who would fix whose hair. Who had the deepest red lipstick. Who had the bluest eye shadow and would it show beyond my dark-framed glasses. A flurry of bees infected the Club House as a call for more elastics and barrettes permeated the body of the 7th grade girls. We totaled perhaps 30 in all; each twelve or thirteen years old and full of giggles and smiles.
The on stage moment arrived, and carefully, we actors each enunciated loudly (no microphones in those days) as we delivered our lines meant to thunder down the full length of the huge auditorium, disembarked the camels, pulled on the leather leads to signal the “engines” to wake up and push their camels a few feet across the stage, lay down and feign sleep as the words of God’s Angel descended upon us. And again, up on the saddles we re-embarked on the camels and rode away to massive applause.
With giddy excitement, the Club House girls gathered after the show, telling and re-telling the effect of it all. The “engines” spoke of their difficulties under the fabrics, one camel almost losing a skate, the tail that detached itself and hung mid-air. It was all very grand. During a lull in the conversation, the engine that pushed my camel confessed that my foot upon re-embarking on my animal almost crushed her skull. She had not realized how fast and with such force my foot would engage the stirrups. I could see that she was most earnest in her telling us this detail and I apologized over and over for almost killing her, which she believed I was trying to do. How the Sisters had the patient to put up with us gals, I don’t know.
We girls had everything that we needed: food, shelter, clothing, a good education, safety, the companionship of each other. What we didn’t have was our families, our own bed and pillow, our backyard, our street, our cat or dog, our grandparents. It was a happy time, it was a sad time.