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Summer Camp Musical Memories

By: Daniel Guss
Date: Jun 12, 2024

A fan recalls a personal journey to a love of musical theatre

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It's been a while since we published one of our Theatre Lovers essays and we're excited to share this wonderful remembrance of doing musicals at camp to kick off summer! If you'd like to submit your story for consideration, email TDF Stages.

"Camp," sings my mother. "You ought to go to camp!"

That pernicious earworm dominates my consciousness when I recall my career in musical theatre, which was kindled and flourished at Balfour Lake Camp in the 1960s. Other boys may have left camp with memories of sports triumphs or mischievous high jinks. I went home determined to write a musical about my experiences. The song from which that artless lyric derives is one of only two from Camp! that have survived in my memory (and, mercifully, nowhere else) since their composition soon after my first summer at Balfour.

Bernie Glickstern, the owner, was an elementary school principal who lived on Long Island in the town of Bellmore. Most of his campers came from Bellmore and two neighboring communities, Hempstead and Merrick. Bernie schlepped to our home on Manhattan's Lower East Side to sell us on the camp. Its main focus was athletics, not a plus for me, as I was uniformly bad at all competitive sports. But the camp staged a musical every summer. Not only did I have a burgeoning interest in musicals (having seen Oliver! and Baker Street on recent birthdays), I also learned that participants were excused from athletic activities during rehearsals. Bernie was willing to accept our booking for only the first four weeks, instead of the customary eight. The show was staged during parents' weekend at the end of the fourth week, so I could escape another month of "all sports, all the time," culminating in color war: four military-style days during which campers were divided into two teams engaged in nonstop competition… guaranteed humiliation for me. Perhaps I sensed how important my going would be for my parents; reluctantly, I assented.

Balfour Lake Camp was located eight miles outside Minerva, New York, a town about 250 miles north of Manhattan. Among the rustic buildings on the Balfour campus was a meeting hall with a stage and some wing and fly space, where the musicals were presented. At the end of the first week, tryouts were held for that year's show: Damn Yankees. Not knowing any of the songs, I was instructed to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner"—never a good audition number. I was unfamiliar with the concept of transposing a song to a better key, so our drama counselor and director, Don, decided I had no musical aptitude (despite my several years of music lessons), and I wound up in the chorus as one of the baseball players. I was disappointed, but at least I got to skip some sports.

Then—shades of 42nd Street—the boy cast as Joe Hardy, the lead ballplayer, got sick and had to go home. Our Mr. Applegate could sing, so the director recast him as Hardy and recruited a new Applegate from the chorus; I got the assignment. Applegate has one song, "Those Were the Good Old Days," which the director considered cutting due to my perceived musical limitations. However, it was needed as a crossover to cover a scene change. Before Don got too far into teaching me how to talk-sing it like Ray Walston, who originated the role on Broadway, I persuaded him to let me sing it straight. At the first run-through, I nailed it, holding the last note all the way to the final chord. Delighted, Don polished my performance, introducing a number of mannerisms I later learned were hallmarks of Al Jolson, whose shtick would be recognizable to the parents and grandparents in the audience. On that fateful Saturday afternoon, I stepped in front of the curtain for my solo and stopped the show. A ham was born.

The ham went home the next day, but my moment in the spotlight had consequences beyond my fledgling attempt at creating a musical. I started drama lessons at the Henry Street Settlement, where I was already taking piano and music theory classes. And in late autumn, I was given an award for my performance at a camp social event on Long Island I was unable to attend.

I returned to Balfour the following year ready for more stage glory. I had even committed to the full summer, counting on the show to sustain me through eight weeks of sports and my first color war. However, this summer's experience was rather different. For one thing, the musical had not been designated ahead of time, and I suspect the drama counselor was a no-show. A replacement was hastily drafted from among the remaining counselors, none of whom had anywhere near the qualifications of the last one.

The show ultimately chosen, Fiddler on the Roof, was familiar to me—I had seen it the previous fall on Broadway for my 12th birthday. After last summer's success, I expected a leading role, and I got one: Golde, Tevye's wife. Perhaps a more experienced drama counselor might have made a different choice, inasmuch as my voice had already changed whereas that of the camper playing Tevye had not. However, at an all-boys camp it was always expected that some would have to play female roles, so I gamely donned the dress and the babushka.

In a little over two weeks, we threw together a loose version of Fiddler. (Unsurprisingly, Tevye wound up with only three daughters in our production.) We were without a pianist that summer, so our drama counselor, Stan, doubled as the orchestra on his electric guitar. With minimal direction, I developed my Golde based on instinct and my memory of Maria Karnilova's dynamic Broadway performance.

Over the past six decades, I've seen numerous versions of Fiddler on the Roof, and I also produced a deluxe reissue of the original cast album for RCA Victor. But thanks to my Balfour experience, whenever I see Fiddler I always find myself mouthing Golde's song lyrics—"Tradition," "Sabbath Prayer," "Sunrise, Sunset," "Do You Love Me?"—and comparing other performers' interpretations with my own.

The meeting hall burned down after that summer and a gymnasium was erected in its place. Shows were performed on a wooden platform raised about a foot off the ground, with a curtain strung along the stage extending to the outer walls. It offered nowhere near the atmosphere of the old building but was a good lesson in how theatre can thrive in any environment.

Guys and Dolls was the 1968 production. A more experienced hand was at the helm this year: Steve Jaffe, the unforgettable Lola in our Damn Yankees. With my histrionic Balfour history plus my husky frame, I was cast as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the role that made Stubby Kaye a star. I got to perform three first-rate Frank Loesser songs: the opening trio "Fugue for Tinhorns," the title song and the indelible 11 o'clock number "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." My bunkmate, Harvey Kojan, played Benny Southstreet, who sings the first two of those with Nicely-Nicely. Harvey had also been in Damn Yankees and Fiddler as well as The Music Man the summer before I arrived. A few years later, he would become the drama counselor at Balfour. He used to crack me up, improvising new, frequently inappropriate, lyrics. We worked well together and became friends.

In addition to my parents, I was especially looking forward to performing for the mother of one of the other campers. Clark didn't make friends during his one summer at Balfour, in part because—due to his exotic (for the time) shoulder-length red hair—he looked as much like a girl as a boy. I tried to befriend him, but while I'm sure he appreciated that I didn't bully or tease him, he was not receptive to my overtures. Perhaps he suspected I had an ulterior motive. His mother was a famous singer, and I harbored the secret hope that if she attended the performance, she'd "discover" me and somehow create an advancement opportunity. As I launched into "Fugue for Tinhorns" at the start of the show, I was thrilled to see Clark and his mother in the audience, sitting toward the back; but by intermission, they had disappeared. The show must go on, of course. Late in Act II, the generous applause for my rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" assuaged the disappointment of it not having been witnessed by Judy Collins.

1969 was the year of Woodstock and the first moon landing; at Balfour, it was the year of Man of La Mancha. I had seen it already on Broadway and hoped to play Sancho Panza. But 1969 was also the year of my sister's wedding. Originally planned for the spring, it had to be rescheduled after a building collapse only a month before the event. No venue could be secured until the end of July—show weekend at Balfour. Therefore, I didn't audition, and Harvey won the role. Imagine my consternation when, 10 days before parents' weekend, the show was scheduled for Friday night instead of the traditional Saturday afternoon. For the only time during my Balfour years, I got to experience the musical from the other side of the curtain. Though I seethed with jealousy, I had to admit that Harvey made a fine Sancho.

Summer 1970 found me at a crossroads. I was not just a camper that year but a waiter, serving meals in the mess hall. Waiters paid reduced enrollment fees and received a stipend and a day off every week. They were also excused from compulsory athletics. I was between my junior and senior years in high school and knew I likely wouldn't be back in 1971, as I'd need to get a better-paying summer job to help with college expenses.

The show that year was Golden Boy. In the original Clifford Odets play, the protagonist is a young Italian-American man torn between a career as a violinist or a prize fighter. In the musical adaptation by Odets and William Gibson, written for Sammy Davis Jr., he is a Black man who abandons his ambition to become a surgeon for prizefighting. Thus, most of the characters in the show are people of color. Those of us playing those roles—mainly white Jewish boys—wore dark pancake makeup, only a few years before our collective consciousness was raised to understand just how wrong that was.

I played Eddie Satin, the fight promoter who corrupts the hero with the temptations of the high life. (In five years, I had gone from Mr. Applegate, aka Satan, to Satin.) Two of the jazzy score's finest numbers, penned by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams for Billy Daniels, were mine: "This Is the Life" and "While the City Sleeps."

My disdain for color war and all it represented had not waned over my five years at Balfour. I was still usually the last person chosen for any team, even though rules were in place that required each member to play a minimum of two minutes per game. But this year, I wasn't entirely worthless: During the senior division basketball game, one of my teammates had no choice but to pass the ball to me, as I was the only one the opposition hadn't bothered to cover. Five summers of layup and free throw practice paid off in that one moment, and I made a basket. The game ground to a halt as everybody gaped; I had stopped the show once again. You can bet I was covered for the rest of my two minutes on the court.

My talents and abilities faced a bigger challenge, however. Counselors usually ran color war, but this year the waiters were in charge. I realized I had a responsibility to make it a good experience for my teammates, especially the younger boys. So, I suppressed my cynicism and accepted the assignment as team spirit and morale leader. The most important aspect of this job was the final event of color war, the "Sing," which in a close race (as most of them were) could determine the winner. Each side had to prepare three pieces: a cheer, a fight song and an alma mater. In charge of our team's presentation, I wrote and rehearsed all three over the four days of color war. I even incorporated staging and effects, indicative of the drama counselor I could have been.

We duly impressed the judges: Bernie and his wife, Phyllis, the staff and the counselors. Even so, our opponents were declared the winners by the slimmest of margins. Cheers and tears ensued, followed by speeches and the announcement of MVP (most valuable player) awards. Six were given to each team—two apiece for the three age divisions—accentuating athletic achievement. When our team's captain, Terry Goldman—for much of my time at Balfour a chief antagonist—got to the last award, he started out by saying that outstanding contributions weren't necessarily confined to sports, and that there was someone on the team who had far surpassed all expectations. Then he said my name, and the hall erupted in cheers.

I was stunned. Applause for my performances in musicals was one thing, but this was totally new. In retrospect, I suppose I had been playing a role in color war, too. It may well have been the most bravura performance I ever delivered at Balfour. But in the moment, the irony of being validated for my achievements in service to a concept for which I had long felt the greatest antipathy simply overwhelmed me. Four days—indeed, five years—of tension released all at once, and I bawled like a baby.

I returned home with deeper craft and emotional toolkits. My 16th birthday came soon after, and another Broadway musical expanded my theatrical universe: Stephen Sondheim's Company. By the time the performance ended, my creative focus had shifted from performing to writing, mirroring my last summer at Balfour. I started composing songs for revues, and by the end of the decade I had earned a coveted berth in the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop under the leadership of Lehman Engel. I never returned to camp, or Camp!, but my theatrical experiences at Balfour Lake Camp would resonate throughout my life.

The author would like to thank camper/castmates Lew Bader, Harvey Kojan, David Kruh and Joshua Moritz for their consultation and memory jogs.

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Daniel Guss is a native New Yorker. During his career at RCA, he reissued over 1,000 compact discs, ranging from the recordings of such classical superstars as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leontyne Price and James Galway, to classical music compilations and Broadway cast albums. He is now general manager of the Early Music Foundation.