One Friday night when I was in 11th grade, I went to see my very best friend Christian Rock in the role of Sir Lancelot in Archbishop Ryan High School’s production of Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot. Camelot is a musical from 1960 about King Arthur and the knights of the round table. The 1967 film adaptation of the classic musical had Italian actor, Franco Nero in the role of Lancelot. Franco Nero also played the hero, White Ninja in the Golan/Globus martial arts classic, Enter The Ninja. It was absolutely fitting that my good friend had landed the Lancelot role, because Christian Rock was a motherfuckin Ninja.
Chris was an exceptionally talented visual artist. He was the first of my friends to attend CAPA, the high school for Creative And Performing Arts, in South Philadelphia. The way he described it, it was exactly like the movie Fame. Mornings in the school cafeteria with hot girls and gay dudes in leg warmers smoking cigarettes and stretching their limbs to get ready for a school day during which the hallways were likely to erupt in song. Suicidal creative writing majors and tormented teenaged painters slinking by in the background, internally rendering their pain so that it might be retched onto page or canvas. He was a major bullshitter, and I got a more accurate account from people I’d made friends with later who described a far less glamorous version, but still I was intrigued. Even the blandest arts based education had to have my shit ass high school beat by a light year.
Christian didn’t last too long at CAPA. I think only about 2 years. He excelled in his drawing, painting, anatomy, and figure study classes but bombed Spanish. Then, when they sent him to summer school, he skipped it and came to hang out at my house almost every day during the summer of rock. His folks decided he needed more structure and discipline, so he ended up finishing high school at Archbishop Ryan, which also had my high school beat because it had a bangin theater program. My school had a super sucky drama department because there were no girls.
Camelot was not Christian’s stage debut by any means. In addition to the countless plays he produced, directed, costume designed, and starred in on his front lawn, (Flash Gordon and The Crucifixion of Jesus being stand outs) Chris had appeared in several other local productions. When we were in 7th or 8th grade, He absolutely killed it as Oz, The Great & Terrible in Thomas Holme elementary school’s regional adolescent staging of The Wizard of Oz. When the frightened Dorothy and her dog and friends tiptoed into the great hall to ask The Wizard for help, Christian’s voice came booming out of the sound system with such volume and rage, that everybody in the auditorium was as frightened and uncomfortable as Toto. Then, at the very end of the story, when The Wizard of Oz is revealed to be a frail old carnival huckster, Chris reduced his size and played the role with benevolent perfection.
Then, just the year before Camelot, Archbishop Ryan High School did Oliver!, the musical version of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The production was stellar. Realistic sets, triumphant music, impeccable choreography, and a stand out performance by a guy named David Johnson as the pimp of the pickpockets, Fagan. From what I understand, Johnson went on to have a working career in television and appears almost daily on the Oxygen and Hallmark channels here in 2018. Christian, however didn’t have a big role in Oliver! I think maybe he was just in the chorus for that one, but man, what a good show!
I had just gotten my drivers license, and my father talked his employer into selling him what had been his company car. He gave it to me for my 16th birthday. He was amazingly generous. It was a 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme 4 door. The night of the big show arrived and I picked up my girlfriend, Stacy Marbles. We drove out to Archbishop Ryan, which was way out in far northeast Philly. I had lived not too far from there, in Morrell Park as a little kid, but from my then current home in Frankford, it felt like the distant suburbs.
We went into the auditorium and took our seats. There was an atmosphere of excited anticipation as parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, and friends all got settled and waited for the curtain to rise. I was internally electrified as well. I knew we were in for a fun show. Stacy was neutral. Nothing ever pleased her and she wasn’t the least bit interested in being there. She was only there because I was not allowed to do anything without her for the three miserable years we dated.
The lights dimmed. The Orchestra launched into the overture. The curtain went up and Camelot was revealed in all its splendor and glory. The set was even better than Oliver!’s. I was transported into the world of King Arthur, his knights, his charmed sword, Excalibur (can you wield it?!?!?!). When Christian took the stage as Lancelot, he was transformed. He WAS the unbeatable white knight of Camelot, his singing voice strong and bold. He nailed every fuckin note with power and authority. He absolutely became it. At least to me, he kind of upstaged David Johnson, who was back and had snagged the lead role of King Arthur. I had never seen the film Camelot, and I wasn’t nuts about musicals, but I absolutely loved it. I had seen the movie Excalibur about 30 times. Stacy had read The Once And Future King, The Mists Of Avalon, The Hollow Hills, Taliesin, The Last Enchantment, The Book Of Merlyn, and fuckin Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court so she thought the whole thing was silly and pedestrian.
After the performance, we hung around a while to see Chris and congratulate him. That’s the funny thing about high school plays, though. EVERYBODY hangs around afterwards because they have to drive the cast (their kids) home. Eventually, Chris made his way out to the auditorium and we caught up with him. I told him how much I liked the show. “What are you guys doing now? There’s a cast party. Do you want to come?” I looked at Stacy. She shrugged. “Yeah sure!” I held up my car keys and said. “Dude! I can drive us!!”
After a little while longer we got the address of the party and about 8 of us piled into my car. Everybody was in a heightened state from having just had such a successful performance. We parked and found the house the party was at, somewhere in Morrell Park. The homes there have garages and basements that are level with the sidewalk. You can walk up a concrete staircase in the rounded mound of lawn and enter the first floor of the house where you’ll find the living room, dining room, and kitchen, or you can just walk into the basement front door next to the garage door in the drive way and never even see the parents. That’s what we did. All 50 of us. That basement was packed to beyond capacity with every theater geek in far northeast Philly. It was one of the first parties I went to that had unbridled alcohol consumption, so everybody except Stacy and I got pretty fucked up pretty fast.
The two of us sat on a couch, pretty overwhelmed as the party kicked into high gear. Everybody was dancing furiously in front of us in the packed basement. New Jack Swing was the dominant sound of the moment. They’d all form a circle around somebody who was busting a supreme move and shout their name. A tall lanky dude with a pork pie hat was strutting something extraordinary. “GO HARVEY! GO HARVEY! GO! GO! GO HARVEY!” They chanted. It was fun and silly and it might have been even more fun if I was there without my wet blanket of a girlfriend. I always felt like I had to be adequately miserable to keep her happy.
The music was pretty terrible. Tone Loc’s Wild Thing, Prince’s abysmal Batdance, Milli Vanilli’s Baby, Don’t Forget My Number, Love In An Elevator, Vogue, and C&C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat kept the dance floor jumping, pounding in my sober ears. Finally, after about 2 hours of garbage music, I heard the beginning of a song I liked, Superfreak by Rick James. Great, I thought. Something I can relate to. Only it wasn’t. After a few seconds some dickhead started rappin’ and Stacy and I got the fuck out of there.