In the summer of 1972, Mid-Missouri went Hollywood.
A movie musical version of Mark Twain’s classic, Tom Sawyer, was set to be filmed in Arrow Rock, Missouri—just a hop, skip and a jump from my hometown of Columbia.
I begged, pleaded and subsequently hyperventilated until my parents agreed to take me to the open call for movie extras. After all, at the age of ten, my potential child star days were quickly running out.
Conquer movie stardom first. Then, I was almost certain to be cast as yet another new Chris on The Partridge Family…
My persistence, hysteria and irregular breathing eventually paid off as my mom and dad hauled me and 13-year-old sister, Paula Perfect, to the open call for Tom Sawyer at the Ramada Inn.
Already sounds glamorous, don’t it?
After an excruciating long wait in an equally long line, made even more intolerable by intense Missouri heat and suffocating humidity, Paula Perfect surrendered and agreed to accept a new ukulele as opposed to fame and glory.
However, as Paula always knew how to proffer a deal that couldn’t be refused, I have long suspected that acquiring a new ukulele was part of her master plan all along.
For my dad, a mere ukulele purchase must have seemed a small price to pay for access to the comfort of air conditioning.
Not surprisingly, I fiercely dug my heels in and insisted I stay because this movie was my big chance to be discovered.
For her part, my loyal Mom stayed at my side. I am also quite sure the mere suggestion we abandon the audition process would have resulted in a public spectacle—a dramatic performance of grand proportions—in the line outside of the Ramada.
A presentation that, in hindsight, may have earned me the role of precocious Cousin Sidney if witnessed by an astute casting agent. Is it too late for a do-over?
When my number came up, so to speak, I walked into the casting room and dutifully stood on the line in front of the camera. Of the few weary men in the room, none of whom seemed terribly interested in Columbia or honoring Mark Twain’s legacy or launching my career, most seemed to be focused solely on getting the native hillbilly casting done quickly and without much fanfare.
My audition, which was to consist of me stating my first name, last name and age, was briefly interrupted by a big scruffy man in a ball cap. Having noticed my oversized boy belly, Mr. Scruffy grunted sarcastically, “suck it in kid.”
This was followed by a series of intermittent chuckles from other members of the film’s staff.
But at nine years old, I stood there defiantly, sucking it in and sucking it up while I completed my brief but epic audition despite Mr. Scruffy’s insinuating barb.
Then there was the agonizingly long wait for the call that never came. A time period marked by foul language, crying jags and shrieks of a pending Armageddon–but this was simply my mother’s way of dealing with her intense frustration over my hyper-emotional state.
Apparently, “chubby” was out of style in Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri and I was shunned from the movie.
Despite my egregious omission from the movie’s ensemble, the show did go on with the balance of the Tom Sawyer cast and crew landing in Columbia, and nearby Arrow Rock, at the beginning of the summer of 1972. Having pushed my Mr. Scruffy-induced humiliation into the recesses of my mind, that summer was pure magic.
After all, I had convinced myself that I would find a way to become a memorable part of the Tom Sawyer filmmaking process anyway.
The above sentence, my dear friends, is called “foreshadowing.”
My family, sans my too-old-now-to-really-give-a-shit-sister Janice, traveled to Arrow Rock several times to personally experience the magic of movie making. Keeping in mind that “celebrity status” in Columbia was reserved for the likes of Garden Guy Ray Rothenberger and Columbia’s version of Dick Clark, local weatherman Paul Pepper, I was unabashedly star struck when I actually met Johnny Whitaker who was cast in the title role of Tom.
Whitaker literally ran down the street to escape after our initial meeting. No shit.
However, my most vivid memory of my time in Arrow Rock took place the day they filmed the scene introducing the character of Tom Sawyer to Becky Thatcher, played by pre-pubescent Screen Goddess Jodie Foster.
I could barely contain my excitement as Mom, Dad, Paula and I propped up our lawn chairs in the middle of the dirt streets of Arrow Rock to watch the action unfold in front of Becky Thatcher’s house.
I was about to breathe Jodie Foster AIR.
Among my mother’s most admirable qualities is the simple fact that she has truly never met a stranger. So, at some point during the filming, she actually managed to briefly bond with Jodie Foster’s mom, Brandy Foster.
Seated in my lawn chair, both hands clutching my empty soda can in anticipation, I watched as Johnny was hoisted into an upside-down position and left dangling from a tree. Dressed beautifully in a petticoat-lined yellow dress, Jodie appeared on the front porch and engaged in spirited dialogue with the then upside-down Johnny.
A massive camera was mounted on, what appeared to be, a simulated train track. Huge microphones hovered above both Jodie’s head and upside-down Johnny’s butt.
Clearly, the exhilaration of the moment finally got to be too much for me and my nervous energy centered itself on my only available outlet.
It was the “pop” heard round the world…
…or at least loud enough to ring out 20 miles east of Arrow Rock in Columbia.
Though I am certain this all happened very quickly, in my horrified, adolescent mind, slow motion prevailed as heads began slowly turning in my direction.
The director, the crew, the spectators, my parents, Paula Perfect, Brandy Foster and, of course, Jodie and upside-down Johnny—all of them were staring at me—the chubby boy in the Husky shorty shorts fidgeting in the lawn chair clutching the damning evidence…a soda can.
My self-preservation instincts immediately kicked in and I too decided to turn around and conduct my own investigation as to the source of the disruptive noise. As my head was approaching the 90 degree mark, my somewhat substantial stomach sunk to my knees, for directly behind me was a solid brick wall and not a single additional hapless spectator to take the blame off my shoulders.
You see, when one depressed the top of a 70s-era soda can for an extended period of time, and with great pressure, then suddenly released that pressure, it sometimes made a sound.
In this case—a very loud sound.
My mother swiftly removed the offending soda can from my hands and, without missing a beat, resumed mom-chatting with Brandy as if nothing had happened. Brandy, a mother herself, took the cue and responded in kind.
Thanks to impressive dual-maternal instincts, all was once again right with the world. Heads returned to normal forward positioning and the film work continued.
The upside was that I got to watch Johnny get reinserted into the tree as he and Jodie commenced filming the scene all over again.
This time, however, both moms made sure I remained beverage-free.
Being a mere nine years old herself, a spirited Jodie bolted from the steps in front of the Becky Thatcher house and, in a spectacular show of athleticism, vaulted over the white picket fence to face her startled mother.
Impressive though it was, Jodie’s Olympic-style dismount stuck just inches from a startled me. Brandy Foster was not pleased.
“Jodie, you’re in a dress with a petticoat! You could have gotten caught on that fence and hurt yourself. And you may even have fallen on that poor boy (that’s me!) and hurt both of you. Now you apologize.”
Though I am sure Jodie was thinking “Yuck—Soda Can Boy,” the gymnastic actress wisely chose to not talk back to her mother and quickly provided the requisite, if less-than-enthusiastic, apology, “Uh, sorry.”
But nothing else mattered at that moment…
I just saw Jodie Foster get in trouble—in public, no less.
Jodie Foster had to apologize to me.
Thank You, God!
Though I suppose an airborne Jodie Foster could have eradicated my very existence that day, what really killed me was the sudden realization that mega-child-star Jodie Foster was just as pathetic as I was.
All I knew was, both Jodie and I suffered titanic embarrassments that very same day and, from my vantage point, it was simply wonderful.
I wasn’t just pitiful Soda Can Boy; I was the most normal child on the planet.
Marketing guru, business humorist, professional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of RediscoverCourtesy.org and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida.