Thursday, December 16, 2021

That Time I Flew Like Peter Pan (and Ward Kimball)


Ward Kimball flying as Peter Pan (Circa 1985)

I have written several times about my teens and early twenties and the work I had at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. (In fact that's where I met my wife, Lee Anne; another story).

I always think fondly of those times and the lessons I gained from Bill Shaw, Steve Wilkinson, Lisa Russel, Neil Malm, Jon Howie, Maria Farago, Ron Mascis, Ann Lauppe, and so many others. While these stories and folks appear to be unrelated, please bear with the author as I connect these moments and mentors.

in 1976, my family and I moved to Temple City, California from near by South Pasadena. I spent a great deal of the last two months of 6th grade in the library at my new school and had a tough time getting to know folks. I did however, spend a great deal of time that Spring and Summer riding my bike all over the new neighborhoods. 

It was on one of those rides not far from my home that I looked down a driveway and saw a railroad station and train. Yes, our little neighborhood had a turn of the last century (1900 Grizzly Flats Railroad). 

Ward and his Grizzly Flats Railroad in San Gabriel, California

For those who may not know Ward Kimball; he was one of the nine old men of Disney. A group that helped create some of the most famous Disney features and cartoons. Most famously, he created Jiminy Cricket for Pinocchio in 1940.

Ward Kimball pictured bottom row, 3rd from left

Ward also had a passion for trains and helped influence Disney's own passion project, Disneyland and the railroad that travels around the park in Anaheim, California.

Nearly 8 years later while working at the theatre, I had numerous conversations with Bill Shaw, the general manager and my former high school drama teacher. (I wrote about Bill in a previous BLOG "Thank A Teacher For A Pile of Leadership") It was one of those conversations where I talked about my work at summer camp and the high ropes course. Several of the staff at the theatre had recently climbed to the top of the roof via an outside covered ladder. I mentioned that I had a great fear of heights and that climb and those ropes courses at summer camp where quite intimidating. 

Bill asked me why I did it and my reply was what I paraphrased from W. Clement Stone who said, “When thinking won’t cure fear, action will.” There was also a Nke advertising campaign at the time that invoked, "Just Do It." 

It was a couple of years after that that Peter Pan came to the theatre in 1985. Suzy Starr  would be appearing in the title role. 

Program from that show (1985)

It is well known that historically that role has been played by female performers for vocal range, size as well as what author and theatre writer Riese called "eternal youth and rascally, androgyne qualities."

Whenever a show moved in the theatre, it was an all hands on deck affair to move and set up the pieces, show scrims, and sets. Late into that night, the rigging for Peter to fly had been set. I recall that it was almost one o'clock in the morning. Bill Shaw approached me. (I'll note that I have always been of slight stature and at that time weighed about 142 pounds and just over 5 feet 5 inches tall.)

Bill recalled that conversation about heights and said, we need someone to test the rigging before Suzy arrives tomorrow. It was not only a question, but a huge nudge to try something new. Within minutes I was being straddled into the harness (which is another explanation why Peter if so often played by a female). 

Now, I want you to imagine (Or if you have seen the show) that there is a scene where Peter flies out and above into the audience. At the time of this particular show, nearly all the flying whenever the show was performed was conducted by an organization called Flying by Foy.  They were and are, the standard in the industry for flying effects in shows and musicals presented on stage.

The scene were Peter flies out and over the s=audience is basically a 260 pound man jumping off a ten foot ladder at the other end of the rigging from Peter and that sends the performer out and up over the audience.

Peter flying just before Wendy, Michael and John take flight as well

I had the opportunity to fly like Peter and Ward early that morning and help concur a fear of heights. Later that summer I would free climb trees to set up rigging at a camp for the high ropes course as well. John Maxwell suggests that, "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face."

I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given in my work and life to encounter such amazing teachers and mentors. As I look back, I see how each played a part that helped define my character in what seemed to be unrelated incidents. I have often "failed forward" from these moments.

POST SCRIPT: Just for the record, in late Spring of 2019, I climbed a ropes course at a camp in the Adirondacks. My legs shook and I was still anxious as I looked fear in the face.

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