In the fall of 1980, my husband and I lived in Sioux City, Iowa. We had moved there after graduating from SUNY Geneseo, a small state college located in the Finger Lakes region of western New York.
When the Sioux City Community Theatre’s artistic director offered my husband the Head of Design and Production position, we were a bit embarrassed. After all the only community theatre productions we’d seen were small, poorly produced classics such as “Life with Father” and “Our Town” hosted in dreary church basements, with brownies and cider sold by the youth group as a fundraiser during intermission.
As it was his first solid offer, my husband solicited advice from our mentors, the resident set and costume designers at Geneseo. Charles asked if the starting salary was too low. They exchanged astonished glances, then enthusiastically agreed it was an excellent offer, and he should accept. We didn’t know that people in the mid-west take their community theatre seriously. They often rival the best regional theatres in the East, with generous budgets, astonishing costumes and production values of the highest caliber.
Like settlers on the Oregon Trail, Charles and I trekked to Iowa, leaving most of our furniture and treasures in basement storage. We packed our necessities into an old, open-sided garden trailer. We covered our belongings with a heavy canvas tarp and bound the pile tightly to the slatted sides of the trailer with ropes and bungee cords. That ancient trailer bounced and rumbled behind our little yellow Corolla through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and crossed the corn fields and hog farms of Iowa, finally reaching Sioux City, which is located at the far northwestern end of the state, where Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa meet.
We rented an octagonal-shaped house high on the bluffs bordering the Missouri River. At the time, there were only a few bushes and only a spare tree growing near the house. It stood alone; an eye-catching white beacon situated high up on the bluffs bordering the Missouri River. If you looked up as you crossed the river on I-29 from Omaha, Nebraska on the way north towards Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the house stood sentry at the entrance to Iowa. Walking out onto the bluff-side patio and the blinding Iowa sunshine, the broad vista lay open like a grand painting before us. Nebraska to the west, and the small thumb of South Dakota hazily visible to the northwest. Further north, the Sioux City Community Theater sat a stone’s throw away from the Big Sioux River.
We rented the house mainly because we loved the idea of it. Reportedly built by an old shipping captain, to watch the river traffic. It had a small eight-sided glass cupola centered in the roof. One could climb the narrow stairs, to a little room where two or three people could stand marveling at the panoramic view. I did this a few times when the thunder and lightning rolled across the northern prairie, flashing and crashing with frightening intensity. I never stayed long, preferring the safety of wood and sheetrock to the rumbling thunder, splashing rain and electric winds, which shook the thin sheets of glass a few inches away.
Sioux City was a small city, and the arts were a thriving and vital part of the community. The hiring of the theatre’s first full-time production and costume designers was news. As such, my husband and I became the subject of media and community attention which we were unaccustomed to. We were invited to go down to the Sioux City Journal to be interviewed for an article. To our surprise, we made the front page of the arts section. Three pictures of me doing costumer things and one of Charles working at a drafting table. It took up the entire front page. You couldn’t buy advertising like that, and it was free for the cost of about an hour of our time. Recognizing its value, our Artistic Director began accepting requests on our behalf for speaking engagements, comments, and TV interviews. These soon dried up, for, with no training or natural inclination, I was horrible at it, but it did generate invitations and attention.
A small German woman, Inge Hornburg, cast as a housekeeper in “Night Watch,” the second production that season, sought me out and invited me to join the American Business Women’s Association. When I lightheartedly objected I wasn’t a business woman, she demurred, that my position was a public one and I should consider joining. She invited me to be her guest at their next monthly luncheon. I wasn’t certain a professional crowd was right for me. But I was flattered and game for a new experience, so I agreed.
I was a tiny bit worried about what to wear, as I didn’t own anything that could be considered business attire. I decided not to worry. I’d just do what I did on opening nights. I’d forage through the theatre’s extensive costume collection and choose an outfit which matched the feel of the show. I arrived at the designated restaurant wearing a striped, brown and tan knit jacket, shot with gold thread from the 1960s. I’d paired it with chunky gold jewelry and soft brown wool pants.
When I saw the sea of little old ladies wearing Chanel suits gathering outside one of the ballrooms, I knew I’d made the right decision. Before me stood a gaggle of women wearing blue, black or brown tweed skirts and matching jackets, paired with conservative pumps, white blouses, and coordinated purses in hand, some even wearing hats and gloves. I briefly regretted I had not worn the beautiful brown felt hat with the bow of dark velvet ribbons I’d found wrapped in tissue and tucked in a large, circular hatbox.
Inge introduced me to one regal woman after another. At twenty-three, I was the youngest person there by a good thirty years, and as I’d feared, we had little in common and not much to sustain conversation. I was young and pretty and thought myself far removed from the practical mid-western business women surrounding me. At the time, I thought rather a lot of myself. My undergraduate costuming career had been well-timed and lucky. We had recently launched our first show, “Hello, Dolly!” to rave reviews. The audience had come out singing the praises of the costumes. I was stuffed full of the accolades heaped on me in the lee of its opening.
In this elevated state of mind, I strutted into the monthly meeting of the Sioux City ABWA wearing my borrowed finery and an attitude higher than the imaginary hat perched on my head. As I was new to the area and unfamiliar with its history, I grew weary of pretending I understood the significance of the information shared with me. Still, I chatted with the women seated at our table, exchanged polite queries into each other’s professions and whispered asides with Inge who imparted background and color to the interactions.
Lunch was served, and as we delicately poked at our chicken salad, served on a tasteful bed of iceberg lettuce, we listened to the speaker. She was in her early thirties with long auburn hair styled in a loose bun at the base of her skull. She had been invited to tell us more about the Crittenton Center and the related Stella Sanford Child Development Program. Located in the heart of Sioux City, these agencies provided practical help to women and children. It was similar to the Salvation Army but more progressive and better funded. When the speaker was finished, she began to visit each table, exchanging introductions, compliments and thanks for her presentation. We were served coffee and dessert. Cake, I believe it was. White with white frosting. A fitting end to the meal.
Trying to be polite, good-natured and as gracious as possible, I turned to the woman on my left, chattering about some inconsequential topic. She was quiet and sweet, one of those tiny ladies who everyone calls dear, as in “I saw dear Audrey at Harold’s today.” She and a friend had come together. They sat next to me quietly commenting to each other, without overture or invitation towards me. I wondered if she was shy and worried for a couple of seconds my boisterous voice and hooting outbursts might have frightened her. She seemed cautious, like a bunny nibbling on clover, warily eyeballing my every move.
I turned to her and noticed her face start to warp. A giant shiver or wave flowed over her face, distorting it as it passed. Then the back of her glasses began to fog. I thought at first it was steam, but that didn’t make sense. Water squirted over the glass, the jets clearing the fog in little streams which washed down and dripped on her cheek. I watched these changes in startled fascination, not knowing whether to comment or look away. Then to my absolute astonishment, her eyeball burst out of her socket. The blue iris surrounded by white pressed against the back of her eyeglasses, bulging and judging me in my horrified surprise.
Needless to say, the poor mortified lady quickly covered her face with her hand and napkin and turned to the comfort and understanding of her friend who quickly whisked her away, presumably to some tastefully decorated ladies room, where she could compose herself and emerge neat, tidy and whole.
While this was happening, the other women seated at our table all discretely turned away in submission to the rules of decorum and polite society, choosing to pretend it had never happened. Me, I wasn’t certain how I felt about it. Obviously, we were all embarrassed. Both for ourselves, witnessing such a disconcerting breach of the body proper, and in empathy for the unfortunate lady having to endure such an ordeal. But the mind boggle for me was, no one talked about it. Not in whispers. Not in frank discussion. Instead, the party broke up quickly. We skedaddled as fast as possible, myself included.
I have often wished I could say the things I wanted. How different life and interactions would be if I had carried a child’s curiosity with me as I grew into my adult awareness. You see when that lady’s eyeball popped out at me, what I wanted to do was pounce on her with a thousand questions.
“Wow, you’ve got a fake eye! Can I see it? Can I hold it?”
“Is it made of glass?”
“How do you get it in and out?”
“How do you keep your eyelids from folding under when you put it in?”
“How does it stay centered in your eye socket?”
“Do your muscles move it around? Can you move it from side to side?”
“Do you have them in different colors?”
“Do you have any that look like demon eyes?”
“How did it happen?”
“Did it hurt?”
I can imagine what the ladies around the table would have done or thought had I started grilling the dear woman as she tried to escape my scrutiny and questions. I suspect they, as well as most of you, are grossed out by my desire and questions. Ah, but you see, the answers would have been of more value to me than any discussion of how to write a business proposal or tips on how to obtain funding.
At the time, in my role as Costume Designer, things such as hairstyles, wigs, stage make-up, shoes, and accessories all fell under my supervision. While there may have been professional wig makers on staff and makeup artists, they all worked under the guidance and eagle eye of the Costume Designer. This included things such as prosthesis and foam rubber appliances, such as noses, and double chins an actor might wear to enhance a character. It wasn’t morbid curiosity alone motivating my desire for more information on glass eyeballs.
Those days are long over. Now I can type a few questions into Google and have more information on false eyeballs than I will ever need available immediately. The world has seen tremendous changes in the past forty years and for much of that time I’ve struggled to catch up. Every once in a while, I remember the lady with the glass eye. I wish I had reacted more honestly and acknowledged what was happening. I would have felt better, and I think the lady would have too. But what do I know? Perhaps polite pretending to have elective amnesia is the most considerate impulse. I’m wondering. What would you have done?