The Players Brought Christmas

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Cast of the 1964 Senior Class play My Sister Eileen Row 1: Margaret Allen, Sarah Onelo, Mary Jane Nania, Pat DuBois, Winnie Hedland, Frank Loverme. Row 2: Ray Tomb, Sandy Cheslock, Carolyn Demarest, Gary Haber, Jack Faft, Bian Hydie, Drude Blichfeldt, Joe Spitale. Row 3: Gail Gifford, Ray Frew, Sam Gane, Terry Mason, Phil Campanella, Tim Palmer, Tom Larson, Karen Bergwall, Tony Zanetia, Tom Ervin, Mike Forscey, Ed Martino.

Contributing Writer
Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist

On Friday, November 22, 1963 the country was plunged into disbelief and shock at the sudden death of President John F. Kennedy at the hands of an assassin. For those of us old enough to recall that day, I’m sure we all remember vividly where we were, what we were doing, and how or from whom we learned the tragic news of Kennedy’s passing. At the time, I was in my second year of teaching in the English Department of Jamestown High School, and one of my faculty colleagues passed on the news that Kennedy had been shot while in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, but that’s all she knew. I was in the middle of administering a test to my junior class during the last period of the school day, when the principal of JHS, Meade Anderson, came on the PA system to deliver the news that Kennedy had died. Stunned silence followed.

But no sooner than that announcement was made to the entire school that another quickly followed asking me and John Rood to report to the principal’s office. In a way it did not surprise me because the following day, Saturday, November 23, was to be the scheduled performance of the senior class play, “My Sister Eileen.” John and I were faculty advisors for the cast, and what flashed through my mind was the fact that we had to make a decision. How could we go ahead with the performance of the play, a comedy, in the face of such a sad and somber event that eventually would cast a pall over the nation? After some consideration and a brief meeting with Mr. Anderson, we agreed to postpone the performance for another two weeks, knowing that the TV coverage of the president’s lying in state and funeral would be prolonged, never mind recognizing that we now had a new head of the executive branch of the government in Lyndon B. Johnson, sworn in directly after Kennedy’s death. It was a lot for all of us to handle.

I think that this was especially true for this group of young high school students, those players, whose lives had been touched so dramatically by this overwhelming event that had also derailed their objective in presenting their senior class play, a tradition in the history of JHS. I was living with my parents at the time, and like most of the people in the country, we were watching all of the news on our local Buffalo channel, when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to discover, much to my surprise, the two female leads of “My Sister Eileen” standing shoulder to shoulder on the front porch. I invited them in, introduced them to my parents, and we all sat in front of the TV talking and trying to take in the events of a day that none of us had anticipated. But after they left, my mother, sensitive to the occasion, thought that these kids, as she put it, felt lost and upset and the only thing they could think to do that might give them some comfort and reassurance that things would get back to normal was to come and see me, their drama coach. I think she was right. They needed something to hang on to. I also knew that it would be hard to rally the cast after a two week hiatus from our original date of performance, but they all rose to the occasion and the play went on. I still have the silver Revere bowl that they presented to me with the inscription: JOAN CUSIMANO: In Fond Appreciation Cast of MY SISTER EILEEN 1964.

But that was not the end of the relationship between advisor and cast. By the time the play was over and Christmas was only a few weeks away, I invited all of them to come and join me and my parents for a “cast reunion” one Saturday night about a week before Christmas. Sure enough, many of them started to arrive on a cold winter’s night, and John Rood even brought a balsam fir with him that found a place in a corner of my parents’ living room that we all decorated, my father leading the way with lights and all of our traditional ornaments to turn it into a Christmas tree! Many names of my players are lost to memory now, but I can still see those young faces so happy and excited to be together that night after the sadness of those preceding weeks. My mother had prepared food all that afternoon, baking thick pizzas and other side dishes, with hot beverages and our homemade cookies and fruit cake for a buffet that was mightily consumed. It touches me deeply now, as I write this, recapturing that communal spirit that pervaded that night fifty-nine years ago. I don’t know where many of the members of that cast are now, but I hope they are well and have lived good lives, people just a little bit younger than I when, in 1963, they were only 18 and I was 23. Now, all these years later, my heart warms when I think of that time when My Players brought me and my family Christmas.

Happy Christmas to All and a New Year that I hope can be touched with reason, wisdom, kindness, compassion, and especially love that will engender the blessed peace that we are so in need of.