Back in 1973, I was a wide-eyed Catholic school eighth grader who trekked to see her first high school musical at the "boy's high school" in our part of town. My best friend's sister was in the play... My Fair Lady that year. Being a South Philly city kid, I had only ever seen one other musical, when our 7th grade class bussed to New York City to see Jesus Christ Superstar the year prior. I was hooked, mesmerized. I wanted to be a part of a production like that.
So here we are, in the boy's high school theater auditorium, fiddling with our program, thinking this show won't compare to what I just saw on Broadway. But then the curtain rose, and we were taken on a magical musical journey into an English linguist's study, serenaded by spectacular singing actors, a live orchestra and a robust dancing chorus that resulted in two standing ovations. (And not just because their kids were IN the show. Because it was just that good. Were these all high school kids?)
Afterwards, we met the cast, and witnessed the flurry of post-performance joy swirling around the players... hugging, spinning, dancing, and crying the good tears.
At the back of the long hallway, there was a line of fans waiting to salute the larger-than-life director of the show - Frank Perri - and his always sunny sidekick wife Josie. To her bubbly contrast, Mr. Perri was a bulldog of a man, stately, proud, yet gruff with rippling jet-black hair and severe eyebrows to match. A strict teacher at Bishop Neumann High School, we learned he had also earned the reputation as a tough director who consistently transformed ordinary high school star-struck theatrical singers, musicians and dancers into Glee quality performers.
I HAD to be a part of that.
So, on a rainy Fall day in my first high school freshman year, I appeared - butterflies in tow - at audition day for the Neumann Players. I practiced show tunes all summer, belting out a duet with Barbra Streisand from my cassette player to her soundtrack of "Hello, Dolly," the next year's chosen show. Knowing that the audition also included dancing - the waltz and the polka - I coaxed my father to dance with me round our tiny row home living room for HOURS. Luckily, he didn't mind. One-two-three-and... one-two three, and... around and around.
So after hearing my name, there I stood, center stage - blinded by the glaring spotlight - squinting at the audition team, anchored in the center by the master show architect himself, Mr. Perri. He peeked at me over his jumbo 70's style framed glasses, sizing me up. All I could think of was, "Oh, God. You're a chubby freshman in a sea of gorgeous leggy talented upperclassmen, many who come back every year. You better sing like Barbra, girl!"
And so I sang. Then I danced with a partner - the waltz and the polka. Then I read some lines. And then it was over. "Next!" he belted. I clip-clopped down the stage steps, back to the herd of auditioners (to check out the rest of the competition.) Crap. These other girls were GOOD. I left feeling doomed.
The following week, a phone call. One I thought would never come. I made the show, as a member of the chorus!!!! No winning lottery ticket could have ever competed with that news! I would be on stage, as a FRESHMAN... a real Neumann player, among all that talent.
Enter rehearsal day one. A welcome speech from our director. As I began to discover, this man was part king, part marshall, and part ringmaster all in one. A seemingly stern, calculating, critical, and relentless showman who often stopped rehearsals because our performance wasn't up to par, we weren't paying attention, or we didn't know the song lyrics, or lines, or dance steps as we should.
That look of his said it all. The furrowed brow. The crossed arms. The critical stink-eye. His booming "not loud enough" jeers. His intense shushing when we got too loud in the wings. Or the reality check lectures when we were just too distracted. Too lethargic. Too robotic. Too timid. Too weak.
"Not good enough!" he would blare. "Do it again!" he roared. He was tough to please. Feared. But he was respected. Because he brought out the best. In everybody.
And when he did let his guard down - on holidays, at celebrations, during lay-back stage crew nights (while the elders played jokes on the newbies when they asked us to bring back a bucket of steam, or 30 feet of fallopian tubing...Ha-Ha!) - you saw the caring, humor-loving, giving man that he was, the appreciative and tender husband he was, and adoring father he was to his daughter Franny. (For a few minutes, anyway. Then back to work! Because the show must go on!)
As it did for 50 years. This man and his wife directed the Neumann Players for half a century. Even when the girl's school joined with the boy's to create the Neumann Goretti Community Theater, the Perri legacy lived on. He kept directing the productions long after he finished his formal teaching post.
But the Perri's provided much more than volunteer work for half a century. They created a home and haven for us theater kids to grow, thrive and be our best selves. A refuge from conflicts at home, at school. A forum to express ourselves. Exposure to the Arts. Skill-building. Team-building. Character-building. And the best friendships of our lives. (For me, my best and dearest lifelong friends Jerry and Vinny - who gave me away at my wedding - came from that first show.)
Ask any Neumann Player. They will tell you that the Perri's helped to create the very best HAPPY high school memories still cherished today. The kind of happy times we wish for our children and grandchildren.
Tomorrow, Mr. Frank Perri will be laid to rest at age 86, just a year after the Neumann Players officially closed its final curtain. I know he can still hear us. (He always did have an extra set of ears and eyes in the back of his head, didn't he?) So, thank you. Mr. Perri. You were an extraordinary man of mountainous talent, drive and dedication, who helped shape the performer I am today in all aspects of my life. For the funny and endearing stories you and Mrs. Perri and my fellow cast members added to my circle of friends. For the lifelong friendships that grew from the roots you planted in all of us. And best of all, for the shining example of what can happen when you GIVE... thousands of us have blossomed into solid performers on the stage of life, exuding the kindness, creativity and collaboration we learned because of you.
Take a bow, sir. And enjoy that heavenly curtain call right now with your beloved Josie at your side again. Well done!
Mary Ellen Pahlka Sokalski (Palkie to you, Mrs. Perri!)
Forever Proud Neumann Player
Mary Ellen Sokalski
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