Naked in Toronto

Though our mom was a single parent, with limited financial resources, often battling depression, she still had the chutzpah and “outside the box” thinking to pull off (sometimes in collaboration with her friends, sometimes on her own) some pretty impressive projects. This adventure in particular I recall fondly, because it was my introduction, at age 14, to theater as a compelling institution that I would be soon diving into deeper myself (see “JLO”).

It was 1969 as I recall, and the now iconic rock musical “Hair” had previously opened on Broadway and was now playing in Toronto, Canada, about 300 miles northeast of Ann Arbor. Well my mom and my “Feminist Aunt” Mary Jane decided that our combined families should go see it. To keep the trip as economical as possible, they decided that we would all travel in my mom’s car.

The combined family included three adults – my Mom, Mary Jane, and her husband Ray – all sitting in the rather ample bench front seat of our old early 1960s model Ford sedan, with Mary Jane and Ray’s youngest, age 8 sitting on her dad’s lap. (This of course was pre seat belts and would have been a horrendous tragedy if we had gotten in a bad accident… but nevertheless.) Their three sons, my brother, and I (five boys ages ten to fourteen) were all crammed in the back seat (this was one of those rare times when we did not have a station wagon!) Thus we set off first to Detroit, then across to Windsor Canada on the Ambassador Bridge, and finally the long straight trek across Ontario to Toronto passing a seemingly infinite number of farms on either side of Highway 401.

Like my mom, Mary Jane and Ray were parents outside the box. All six of their combined progeny stuffed in the car with them had been raised with that unorthodox mix of love, liberty and respect for their emerging personhood that was such a hallmark of the type of parenting that has inspired me to write this book. All six of us kids were closely woven with each other and I can not recall any permutation of one-on-one relationships between the six of us that was less than good. Mary Jane’s daughter had a bit of a little-girl crush on me and I was comfortable accommodating it by engaging in her attempts at conversation and letting her sit in my lap when we were packed in the car. My brother and Mary Jane’s oldest were both budding comic book artists. Stereotypically, you might call it one big “hippy family” (though my mom would never have described herself as a hippy), but us kids thought of ourselves pretty much that way, and with great pride too.
I was not involved in any of the logistical details of the trip (which in fact involved traveling to a different country), so I don’t know if we arrived in Toronto with either hotel or ticket reservations. I do recall that we stopped briefly at the hotel and were late getting to the theater and were seated in our upper balcony seats midway through the first act.

And then quickly came that magical moment which I can still recall vividly. In the final (as I recall) scene of the first act, the lights come up on all the lead actors standing and singing, facing the audience completely naked – breasts, penises and copious pubic hair in full display. It was a triumph of late 60’s “flower power” and “let it all hang out” (literally) and at least attempted to be some sort of celebration of human liberation from traditional sexual mores. That was the way I framed it in that moment, and I think Mary Jane, Ray, and most of the rest of us kids shared that view. My mom had a little bit more of that traditional streak in her, and I don’t recall if she ever shared with me her take on that publicly assertive nudity.

I apologize if my written words do not capture the full power of that moment and the impact it had on me then and going forward. As I have said before, I was a shy kid, and somehow seeing this handful of young actors triumphantly standing and belting out a song on stage, proudly and fully exposed and unguarded, planted a seed in my mind suggesting a path forward for myself. Though subsequently in my own stage experience I never had the occasion to appear on stage completely nude (though I got close, see “Lord of the Flies”), I did avail myself of opportunities to at least “let it all hang out” psychologically in some of the musicals I had the fortune to perform in (see “Junior Light Opera”). Subsequent to “Hair” in Toronto, the stage was soon going to give me the opportunity to expose and explore aspects of my own personality that I had previously, in my shyness, repressed.

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