MARJORIE WARD MARSHALL, my mother, was the first director I ever met.
Wearing an apron and teaching tap dancing in the basement of our Grand Concourse apartment building, she was a Bronx housewife and a tap dance teacher you didn’t want to mess with. She ran a tight ship, and little girls never dawdled in putting on their tap shoes and costumes in front of Mom. She believed that dancing and performing were good for children because they gave them self- esteem and a purpose all their own.
My mother taught us that the best thing in life was to entertain people and make them laugh. The biggest sin in life was to bore people.
“Beware of the boring,” she said.
“What is boring, Ma?” I asked.
“Your father,” she said.
Mom was a born entertainer who thought performing was not just a hobby or even a profession but a way of living that was as essential as breathing or eating. She was a five- foot- six- inch slacks- wearing perky blonde with a dancer’s body and a comedian’s mouth. Mom was always “on” from her hyper- cajoling of her dance students to her late- night intensity when she would type out the songs, dance routines, and skits for her dance recital. I would be in my bed and still hear her typewriter as I went to sleep. Her typing sounded like rain. Always working, she would go to Broadway shows, steal the routines, and come back and type them up for her students to perform. I knew right from the beginning that if I could make my mom laugh, then I could make her love me.
If Mom had been born at another time in history, she could have become a stage performer or actress herself. Born in 1910, Mom just missed the feminism movement and was faced with raising three children in the Bronx during the 1940s. Her goal in life was to teach as many kids as possible—including her own children, Garry, Ronny, and Penny—to tap dance. There was Ronny, the middle child and nice daughter, and Penny, the youngest child, whom my mother seemed to crown “troublemaker” the moment she came out of the birth canal. And I, of course, was the oldest child and the one who was always sick.
Mom’s students adored her because she was funny and irreverent whether she was charming your pants off or hurting your feelings. She commanded a kind of power and respect as a director that even Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese would find enviable. She could be encouraging to the students with talent, but spoke with a bite to those who didn’t show potential.
“You— the pretty girl with the fat legs. You should play an instrument instead of dancing.”
Or she might move someone behind the scenes altogether.
“Hey, Zelda, or whatever your name is. You have two left feet. You can pull the curtain for the show.”
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