People ask me every day what keeps me going. Simple. It’s the PEOPLE in my life.
PEOPLE who through their innocent and generous attributes guide me, teach me and yes, love me.
As someone who is the ‘captain of the ship’, there are times where my hands sweat, my heart pounds as my vision tries it’s damnedest to stay on course. I do not ever do this alone. It is my players gently pushing me forward and forgiving me when I made a wrong turn. Together we triumphantly weather the storm.
As I have aged over the 46 years of the founding of the company (I still like to think I was 2 when I first started Famous PEOPLE Players), I have come to realize the beauty of all the people whose lives have touch me.
Today, I begin this blog with Renato. Many of you do not know him, but he was one of my very first performers. He lived in a room for 18 years with a towel over his mirror because he did not want to look at himself. We begged and pleaded with his mother to let him come and join FPP as she was afraid someone was going to take her son, whom she loved so much, off to a circus. Renato was born with a disfigurement on his face: an abnormally larger head and skin the colour purple. I loved him the minute I saw him. It was the other members of the FPP his friends from the Haney Centre who won his mother over and Renato came to join the company.
This was 1974 and we were referred to as ‘mentally retarded’. In our great country of Canada we were segregated and everyone was either in an institution, workshop or a segregated place where they were hidden. School buses came and took them to a school for the mentally retarded.
I was horrified and deeply saddened when I went to spent a day at the Orillia Institution for the Mentally Handicapped and saw how they lived. No doors on the washrooms, no forks and knifes to eat with. I could not understand why?
One doctor said they were afraid they would hurt each other with the appliances and as for the doors, well, that is a discussion for another time. Yet I saw these beautiful Christmas cards of paintings created by these same people and their beautiful pottery and that is what planted the seeds of my future.
I went to see a wonderful doctor at the institute - Dr. Alan Rohear - and I told him I had an idea. I believed that these people should not be hidden, that they could be integrated into society and when they were integrated they would normalize themselves. He agreed as this was his theory too. But the question was how do we prove this?
I began to tell him of my dream, the dream of the creation of Famous PEOPLE Players. The players would be hidden on stage, no one would see them and the audience will be amazed at the glow in the dark performance of their amazing puppetry skills. We had not started and yet I was already saying “we were AMAZING.” When they find out who was behind it all they will be shocked. No advocating, no activism, just quietly and with color and music we can reach out and touch the peoples’ hearts.
In the movie Special People it starts off with this beginning, only in the movie it showed us rehearsing in the basement of a church. We first started rehearsing in a small office at the institute about 12 x 12 feet with a little reception office.
More on this story can be read in my book Daring to Dream.
The players and their parents became my dearest friends. There was Greg, Brenda, Fred, Kevin, Eleanor, Brian, Tony, Cindi, an assistant Anne and, yes, Renato. He wore a scarf to hide his face and at first, worked out of my apartment. I was newly married to the man who later came by the nickname ‘St Bernard’. With his smile and compassion he was always in the background helping.
Renato would come to the apartment and answer the phone and take messages for me. I had no phone at the institute (remember there were no cell phones then). My mom called from Hamilton trying to reach me and heard this beautiful voice and was so impressed, she could not wait to meet the man behind the voice. In the long run, when we moved to the church basement, it was he who started building props with her.
There were many times throughout our years together that I had forgotten about the Renato that hid in a room. One of my fondest memories was when we toured to Las Vegas to perform with the great Liberace (more to come on him). We had done what we set out to do and were proving ourselves to be a professional theatre troupe. After the success, we were all feeling so wonderful and I was brought to tears when I saw how proud Renato walked down the aisle of the airplane, full of confidence, full of pride, and completely oblivious to any stares he might have received. Certainly anyone staring would not have seen a shy, insecure, embarrassed man.
Renato even went on to acting and played himself in the movie Special People.
No matter what happens in life, every beginning has a new beginning. Renato is no longer with us. Last year I gave his eulogy and quoted him from the movie Special PEOPLE.
When asked, “What Famous PEOPLE Players has done for him?”
He said, “I said to my mother it is time to take that towel down and face the world” and from that day on he walked tall and proud. My most stirring moment with him, is seeing him stand on the Great Wall of China with arms up open wide with all the Chinese visitors staring at him yet it did not bother him at all.
At his funeral there was a beautiful picture of him taken when we were performing at SeaWorld. It was of a dolphin jumping up and kissing Renato on his cheek. For someone who kept himself hidden, he saw the world with Famous PEOPLE Players and beyond. Even in my wildest imagination I could not have imagined that years later he would star as himself in the movie Special PEOPLE.
Renato learned to feel pride from within and that was so real and genuine and he carried that outward and onward for the rest of his life. I learned from Renato that life has meaning no matter what the circumstances. The answer awaits in the future as my dear friend, the last and greatest psychiatrist doctor, Victor Frankel reminded me of often.