HUMPHREY’S DEBUT • by Andy Spiegel

Humphrey was feeling so squeamish he was sure he’d lose his dinner all over the stage when he opened his mouth. What the hell was he doing trying to be an actor anyhow, he thought. He’d been born a rich kid who’d never have to work if he didn’t want to, with Father a much respected society surgeon and Mother famous in her own right as a portrait artist. It was she, in fact, who had engineered her son’s first professional appearance — at 15 months — by selling his picture to a baby food company for use in their advertising.

In less than two minutes, the skinny young man would know whether the acting lessons had been worth his mother’s dough. It was 1922, the Rupert Theatre — Broadway! — and Humphrey (still unsure about using that as a stage name, thinking it sounded sissy) was pacing in the wing, waiting to enter stage left and deliver the second line, second scene, second act of a second-rate melodrama called Swifty. It would be his first stage utterance ever.

Costumed in white linen slacks and white dress shirt and heavily pancaked, Humphrey knew his parents were sitting front row center, clutching their playbills, anxiously awaiting his stage debut. It was not a comforting thought.

One minute to go. Humphrey patted his slicked-back black hair and, in the traditional relaxation exercise of actors, arched his back, rolled his head from side to side, and wiggled his arms at his side. In an unconscious gesture he had acquired a few years previously, he ran his tongue over his upper lip, nudging a scar there. That slight pucker, the relic of a poke from a drunken shipmate, was temporarily masked by powder — though no one in the audience could possibly see it — for as the director had told him, “You’re playing a young gentleman, kid, not a goddam two-bit thug.” Humphrey had been amused by that, having purposely refused the doctor’s offer to sew up his lip because he thought the scar would give him a tougher look.

He certainly didn’t feel tough now. Thirty seconds more, and he was having a hard time remembering how to say his one line. All the weeks he he’d rehearsed to get that line just right, and in less than half a minute he’d be hurling it across the footlights into hundreds of critical ears, some belonging to critics.

“Jesus!” he spat aloud and thought, shoulda stayed in the Navy. At least I looked like a man in that white outfit.

Suddenly, he heard his cue…

“Goodness, where is that lad?”

The neophyte actor’s head was suddenly light, his mouth dry. On legs weighted as if encased in concrete, he managed to push himself forward. Bounding into the English drawing room set and vigorously slapping the air with a heavy wooden racquet, 20-year-old Humphrey DeForest Bogart announced to his fellow actors, the audience, his parents, and the critics his single two-word line:

“Tennis, anyone?”

Andy Spiegel spent his career in advertising and marketing. Now semi-retired, he is a freelance writer and audio-video editor and writes for pleasure.

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