As the child of a broke single parent growing up in Maine, I had to find every free outlet I could to perform. When I was eight years old, my mom ran out of money to keep me in tap and jazz lessons, so I decided I was going to dance in the local Lithgow Library Talent Show. Not only was the talent show attended by about 100 people live, it was also taped by the local TV station and broadcast several times a year. One of the best parts about being in the show was that it cost no money. The biggest challenge for me since my mother didn’t drive, was going to be how to get to the library and TV station to perform in the shows. But since I wanted it so much, my mom figured it out and took me to the library on audition day via local public bus. With my cassette tape that had my recital music in tow, I marched into the basement of the library (which was the children’s floor) ready for my audition.
Tucked in the back of the children’s room resided a tiny raised carpeted stage with thick red curtains that opened and closed. I put on my purple recital costume from that past spring, and my tap shoes, and did the best version of the Elvis “Hound Dog” routine that I could remember. I had two major obstacles to overcome during this audition. The first: I was tap dancing on carpet which really defeats the purpose, and secondly: I was morbidly shy.
But when my song started, for those three minutes onstage I felt like I was where I belonged, and my shyness didn’t matter at all. I was never a good dancer, but somehow I still had the confidence to get up there and do my mediocre solo.
When I was done dancing, I instantly reverted back to my extremely shy persona. I looked down at the floor and told the children’s librarian Jane “Sorry I messed up a bunch, but I’ll practice more and do better if you let me in the show.” Jane was the kind of woman who radiated kindness. She had long white hair that she kept in a single braid down her back, and the most beautiful smile. She told me “I think that you did a very good job. For the show we should get a hard slate to put down onstage so everyone can hear you tap dancing. I would love to have you in the show this year.”
I went home that day overflowing with excitement and proudness that I had gotten in the talent show. Though in reality, this was Augusta, Maine. I’m sure EVERY kid who auditioned got in the talent show.
A month or so later, after practicing so much on our hard kitchen floor that our downstairs neighbor knocked one night and asked if I could shut the fuck up, I was ready to slay that children’s library room.
The day of the show all of the talent gathered in the wings as the stage’s thick red curtains closed. The emcee, who was a ten year old boy, introduced the show. The crowd who showed up that day was lively and the room was overflowing with people. Halfway into the show, when the emcee announced my name and the music started, I switched on my performer mode and tap danced my heart out. I felt so happy happy while I was on stage. Probably the happiest I had ever been. Performing live gave me the kind of high that could never be duplicated, but I would spend the rest of my life chasing down. After the show ended, Jane gave me a big hug and told me how pretty I looked and that I had shined onstage. Some of the audience members even told me I had done good too. My eight year-old-self was busting with pride. My mother however, looked at me with a frown. She said “Well, I can see where you messed up some. You kept pushing your hair back too, which showed them how nervous you were. One time you made a face that made you look ugly. You had better not do that on TV or everyone will notice.” With her words my pride and happiness instantly turned to embarrassment. I spent the rest of the day worried that everyone thought I was horrible.
Later that week the whole cast went over to the TV station to film the show for live broadcast. My Uncle Jesse had given me a ride over with my mom, which solved my transportation problem. As I sat through my first TV studio experience I was fascinated by the control room, the camera operation and stage manager who did the cues. As the show went on, I noticed one thing in particular. This ten year old emcee guy was getting a shit ton of TV time – way more than any of the talent in the show. I got up to perform my dance but instead of having as much fun as I did the first time, I had my mothers voice running through my head. “Don’t mess up, don’t show them you are nervous, don’t make that face that makes you look ugly, don’t touch your hair.” Despite that, I did pretty good for my first time on TV, and had a great time seeing myself on the show the times it broadcast.
The following year I couldn’t take dance lessons anymore due to money, so my tap dancing progress came to a screeching halt. Throughout the year, every time I visited the children’s room at library Jane was there to greet me with her warm smile and positive comforting words – something I severely lacked at home. When it came time for the next year’s talent show, I asked Jane if I could be the emcee. In my mind, the emcee was the real star of the show and I wanted all that TV time. Jane was surprised I wanted to host (especially considering how shy I was) and said “OK! You will be the first girl to ever be the emcee! Let’s call you the Mistress Of Ceremonies.”
I hosted the show that year and had my first taste of reading from cue cards and public speaking. I loved it as much as dancing. Everyone said I was a great emcee, except for my mother who of course lectured me about how I messed up and could have done better. Jane later told me that after I had performed my recital dance on TV the year prior, a sudden influx of kids from my old dance school had entered the talent show. I was such a trailblazer.
On my fifth year doing the talent show, I was twelve years old. We had another successful live show and headed to the local TV station to film it. I had been feeling kind of funny the whole day. I was really tired and a bit light headed but didn’t know why. As I stood for a few hours under the hot TV lights, they felt hotter than ever before. I started having really bad lower back cramps and was so uncomfortable. After we wrapped the show, I went to the bathroom. When I looked at my underwear there was a small nickel sized red blotch. I had just started my period for the very first time ever. I was too embarrassed to tell my mom with other people around, and since the situation looked pretty minor I rolled up some toilet paper to line my underwear.
Once I got home and told my Mom, she made a big deal out of it and called my grandmother to tell her the news. My Nana got on the phone and joked “Well Renée, now you are a woman!” If that was being a woman, I already hated it.
I continued to host the Lithgow Library Talent show until I “retired” at thirteen years old. Jane moved away and retired soon after that, and with no one there as passionate as she had been to organize it, the talent show ended forever.
I have so many great memories from my time doing the talent show, but the one that stands out the most will always be the time I “became a woman” on live television.