If I Only Had a Leg: Growing Up Gay with Cerebral Palsy
Munchkins, flying monkeys, and gold lamé
If I Only Had a Leg: Growing Up Gay with Cerebral Palsy
Up With Kids started as an unofficial offshoot of Up With People, the 1970s show choir now notorious for its ties to an evangelical cult, the Nixon administration and Halliburton. Our director Bonnie’s salad days had been spent touring with the group, which she referred to simply as People. It took a real insider to drop two prepositions. So much projecting over the years had left her vocal chords frayed and full of benign polyps. Now in her forties, an Up With Kids T-shirt plunging from her chest and a wad of nicotine gum in one cheek, she suffered from a permanent case of laryngitis, the kind only characters on Nick at Nite got with any regularity and only then for the better part of an episode.
Looking back, it was probably just the fact that she had been a smoker, but as Bonnie reenacted long-lost Super Bowl halftime shows in the Presbyterian church where we rehearsed, squeezing out notes like the debarked corgi on our block, it was like music itself had worn her out. I couldn’t imagine a better life.
Every summer my family took a trip with Up With Kids and patiently watched me scream “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” into a microphone on the boardwalk outside Universal Studios or snap and twirl through a Beach Boys medley, a plastic lei flying around my ears. Outside a tank of honking sea lions, we beamed that Sea World (not the more traditional choice, Disneyland) was the happiest place in the U-S-A and at an America Sings Summit in Washington, D.C., my preemie sister Chelsea and I didn’t worry that we weren’t good enough for anyone else to hear we just sang, sang a song, like the Carpenters.
Dragged to all of our cheesy performances, my older brother Danny called Up With Kids the Special Olympics of acting, which was fine with me. Sparkling in a loose-fitting gold lamé shirt while my little sister was trapped in a puckering leotard of the same material, I was the actor among social rejects. Bonnie’s daughter, for one, had Down Syndrome. Most of us Kids were damaged in more minor but no less noticeable ways: chronic pinkeye, deforming acne, facial hair. One girl with the last name Wood insisted we call her Holly Wood even though her real name was something like Sarah. Another boy pushed a walker around stage.
It goes without saying I have mild cerebral palsy, though my family downplayed the condition in my childhood by telling people I had “tight tendons.” In Up With Kids I found not just a fun after-school activity but also a place where dragging my right foot and having my right arm frozen at my side were not necessarily to my detriment. It would be an overstatement to say I used my limp to get plum roles, just that, in retrospect, they all fell into a certain pattern. I sat on thrones or made pronouncements from center stage, blowing kisses and doing small claps. No one could stand quite like I could. Pelvis thrust forward, my right foot dangled off my slender ankle so that my legs, in princely tights, formed a jaunty lowercase k.
By far my best role with Up With Kids was also, fittingly, my last. In the fifth grade, Bonnie cast me as Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. It was my best role, I should say, because I had always loved Oz. This was my excuse, with the help of the hobby shop in the basement of Cottonwood Mall, to essentially live over the rainbow. Before I’d even highlighted my lines, the merch began pouring in: an Emerald City snow globe, an accent pillow of Scarecrow’s face, a Toto stuffed animal. While my brother bought the latest Beckett in the card shop upstairs, tracking the value of his Shaq and Michael Jordan rookie cards like they were blue-chip stocks, I hauled out to the parking lot a life-sized cardboard cutout of Scarecrow, the Wizard and Tin Man and propped it at the foot of my bed to block out the sports wallpaper. Dolls of what I referred to as The Big Four danced on chunks of yellow brick on my windowsill, blotting out the sun.
For a kid with a limp, it was easy to see Dorothy’s plight as orthopedic. Skipping as best I could, I’d struck out on the replica of the Yellow Brick Road at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Waiting in line for The Great Movie Ride in Orlando, I’d saluted Dorothy’s ruby slippers, which shimmered in a glass case, by trying to click my own battered sneakers. Through my toddler years, I’d preferred, like Dorothy, never to take off my shoes, even when I slept. It felt better to keep my feet encased in a little magic. (This magic did not extend to the ankle-foot orthosis shoved into my shoe, but with socks on I could survive the rubbing.) Following surgeries on my tight Achilles tendon and hamstrings in the third grade, I made sure my cast was as close to emerald green as fiberglass could get, like it could have been sticking up from a field of poppies or out from under a house. Even the braces on my teeth at that age were green.
Sure, I knew that if Glinda could have popped onto the pilled carpet of Cottonwood Presbyterian she would have told me, in her airheaded way, I needed look no further than my own two feet. This had never stopped me from daydreaming. Tin Man needed a heart, Cowardly Lion needed some nerve and I needed a new leg, one that wasn’t short and small in circumference around the calf and ankle; one that wasn’t zipped up the back with scars; one that didn’t need to be taught how to skip.
Whether in a cast or not, I never stopped thinking about my leg. Part of my brain was always sending stray signals to the tips of my toes, making me feel mildly electrocuted. What I loved about the stage was that self-consciousness was a given and it was against the rules to walk and talk at the same time, which I can’t do anyway. It wasn’t a matter of forgetting about how my knee pointed inward or my right heel floated off the ground. It was about all of us feeling awkward together.
Once we did our vocal warm ups and tongue twisters, I’d sink into my role, feeling almost ecclesiastical, a golden angel observing some sacred rite. I couldn’t walk a straight line but ask me to shoot bolts of electricity out my fingertips and my hands would tremble with the effort. At the end of each rehearsal, I’d squash Chelsea’s munchkin costume under her coat as we waited beside the glowing Jesus marquee for Mom to pick us up. Come celebrate His life, it said, or Feeling sad?
As our first show neared, Bonnie crowded the stage with as many farm hands, crows, talking trees, flying monkeys, winkies and munchkins as there were cleared checks. She threw emerald smocks over the denizens of Oz and a gold tiara on the busty blond giant playing Glinda. Our Toto had rheumatoid arthritis and, though she yelped in pain, we only thought to bring her kneepads once we also thought to make her wear a migraine-inducing headband with floppy ears and draw whiskers on her cheeks. Chelsea and the other munchkins wore ruffled sleeves and scrunchies that even I had to admit were pretty cute. Being a munchkin was perfect for my little sister. She leapt around the stage like a replaceable idiot while I carried the show with my natural stage presence.
The same show business philosophy that led Bonnie to book our summer stock at amusement parks led her to schedule our final Oz performance in a homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City, Bonnie’s philosophy being that a captive audience is better than one composed exclusively of parents and relatives. Only those too sick or stoned stayed for the duration, their faces dirty and drawn, a bunch of Aunt Ems and Uncle Henrys doing their best to ignore the spectacle of Bonnie crouched in the center aisle, mouthing along to the action onstage, fleeing an invisible twister.
Sweat rolled down the back of my neck and dripped under my gold lamé as soon as the overture to “If I Only Had a Brain” blasted through the shoddy sound system and I hobbled to my mark, a masking tape X. My leg wouldn’t stop shaking as I swung it around. Nerves were a good thing, Mom said. They meant you gave a shit. I was a natural singer. I sang, naturally, all over the house. Sounding good in front of a crowd was an order of magnitude beyond me. And dancing, how to put this? Dancing was, if not my secret power, my secret joy. I wasn’t silly enough to think I was actually good at it, but it sure did get a rise out of people. I was only a little worried about what my brother would say.
Since I couldn’t hide my chicken leg, no matter how large my quilted poncho from the Costume Closet or how high I pulled my socks, I tried to turn it into part of the act, jerking around like a real-life man of straw, wincing animatedly when my jean shorts rubbed against the incision scar on my tight right hamstring. Seesawing into scenery, my clumsy right foot mashed crows’ feet and sent plastic apples spiraling into the first row mere seconds after bitchy trees lobbed them at us. There were genuine gasps when I fell and genuine applause when I got up again. Stuck for ages with a pole up my back, I was finally free to dance.
It wasn’t until this last curtain call, when Bonnie presented me, Chelsea and every other cast member with hollow plastic Oscar statues, that she revealed the big surprise: we were going to meet one of the last surviving munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. It must have been a chore to track down Margaret Pellegrini in those dial-up days of the Internet, and I’m not sure how my acting teacher did it. In any case, this chance encounter had the ring of fate as it represented the next logical step in my progression as an actor. I was about to be discovered. Margaret would know agents and producers. All I had to do was sing for her and I’d have it made.
“But I’m a munchkin,” Chelsea said.
“No, you’re a weirdo in a gold leotard,” Danny said. “Just kidding!”
Margaret is on screen a lot if you know what to look for, a flyspecked grain of color lost in some paddy cake choreography — as gape-mouthed and adorable as Chelsea had been in the same role. There she is on a footbridge, a flowerpot tipped on her head, as Judy Garland begins to sing “It Really Was No Miracle.” Later, as the chorus cheeps, “Wake up you sleepy head,” Margaret stretches from an egg in a pink nightgown and bonnet. When I paused the tape we’d rented from Video Vern’s, Chelsea squealed and kissed the screen, flying back when a branch of static shocked her.
“You idiot,” my sister Tiffany said from the couch.
Mom came over from the kitchen, drying her hands. “Look at that little thing rub her eyes. That woman really knows how to wake up.”
Mom wasn’t being sarcastic. She saw genuine talent in the Munchkin Pellegrini. Like the Pope, a munchkin didn’t have to do anything special to win Mom’s affection. She just had to be. “I bet she taught Judy a thing or two.”
“Look at what she’s wearing,” Tiffany objected. “A pink nightgown? In the afternoon? And she doesn’t even know the steps.”
Protest as my siblings might, when the time came we all piled into the Suburban to meet Margaret’s plane. Danny sang his version of “The Lollipop Guild,” a finger thrumming his small Adam’s apple, and Mom kept cackling, “I’ll get you my pretty” as I mugged in the mirror up front, practicing my toniest smile for little Margaret. “Brains? I don’t have any brains.”
“BRAINS?” Mom repeated, emoting to the nth degree. “I DON’T HAVE ANY BRAINS. ONLY STRAW.”
“ONLY STRAW,” I screamed back.
“This better be the smile I see at the airport,” Mom said, leveling a finger at me. “I’m telling you. I want you to be this obnoxious. Ham it up for her, Greg. Ham it up!”
Airport security was considerably more lax in those days and children’s musical theater companies could storm the terminal, shouting renditions of “The Munchkinland Song.” As I glided along the moving walkway, too tense to bend my spastic knee, Tiffany speed walked beside me. Even in her baggy pants she moved better than I did. “Don’t worry, Googers. You’re going to do great.”
If I was anxious about our melodic assault, trying not to scratch at the straw stuffed into my jeans, Munchkin Chelsea was downright gleeful, dancing around the terminal with a Tinker Bell wand balled in her fist. Not unlike Bonnie, she had the habit of saying the move she was doing. Leaping and then sashaying over to the gate, she sang, “Leap. Sashay.” Once there, she screeched at every stout woman lugging a suitcase. “Is that the munchkin? Is that the munchkin?” There’s nothing inherently wrong with the term “munchkin,” but like midget and dwarf, it’s the kind of word you don’t want to say too loudly in an airport.
More than fifty years after the release of the film, a munchkin’s visit was still a big enough deal to attract local news crews and a reporter or two. Passengers began wearily filing out, picking their noses and searching for signs to baggage claim. My mom pulled Chelsea and me to the front of the crowd, beeping, “Scarecrow, coming through,” and gave me an encouraging swat on the ass. “You can out-sing these spazzes. Make her think you’re the only one in the room.”
When Margaret stepped off the plane, our ensemble devolved into a rancid cult of celebrity. “The munchkin!” Chelsea cried. “Munchkin lady!”
We gave Margaret the kind of at-the-gate welcome usually reserved for boys returning from Mormon missions. Kids shook autograph books, snapped pictures and shook cutesy posters. i don’t think you’re in kansas anymore!!! In their minds, Margaret hadn’t flown coach; she’d fallen from a star. Bonnie’s hands flew into motion and we began dinging and donging, singing high and singing low to let Margaret know the Wicked Witch was dead.
Even before our song petered out, I noticed how strange Margaret looked, like she really had come from Munchkinland. Her hands were spotted like Tostitos. Her dress was trimmed with feathers where it shouldn’t have been and so long she couldn’t walk without tripping on it. She’d given up on the war with peach fuzz and the hair on her head looked like it had been dyed with whatever they use to turn cotton candy pink. Parted in the middle, it sat in two fluffy mounds on either side of a very small hat.
“Is she wearing a costume?” I asked as we followed Margaret to the escalator.
“She probably can’t find stuff that fits,” Tiffany said.
“Not that you can, either, skater girl,” Danny said.
“Honestly, you kids,” Mom said. “I couldn’t even hear you back there and now you won’t shut up.”
At the luggage carousel, Chelsea weaseled her way to the front of the seething crowd of gold lamé and handed Margaret her Tinker Bell wand. Instead of calling security, Margaret began casting spells. The whole time we pressed around her, and at the talk she gave at a local high school later that day, striding around the apron of the auditorium stage, the microphone Paul Bunyan-sized in her spotted hands, Margaret humored requests to rub her eyes and sing “Wake up you sleepy head.” She posed for photos, signed people’s crap and told every child she was beautiful. The word star was used liberally. “Maybe you’ll be a big star one day, or a little one like me.”
It’s hard to say exactly when it occurred to me, like the first twinge of a developing cavity, that all this was a little sad. It could have been when Margaret told the auditorium crowd, to an uproar of delight, that Toto made twice as much as she did because the dog had a better agent. It could have been when she projected the promotional poster onstage of Henry Kramer’s Hollywood Midgets, the acting company that had given her her big break, or when my mom elbowed me in the middle of Margaret’s talk to say she sounded just like a kazoo. “Isn’t her little voice just precious?”
Most likely, though, the revelation that Margaret was being exploited for her short stature came months later, on one of those death-by-senseless-errand summer afternoons, when Bonnie called my mom to offer me the star role in the new Up With Kids musical. They were doing The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I remember pressing the phone hard into my ear, my smile stuck in place as Mom piloted the Suburban into a parking lot and slapped me high five. Chelsea, who slept whenever we drove anywhere, yawned awake from the back seat. “What’s going on?”
“Greg’s going to be the star,” Mom said.
“You don’t have to decide right now,” Bonnie growled softly. I thought I could hear her take what must have been two tasteless chomps of her nicotine gum, trying to keep things light, perhaps sensing she’d erred. “Just think about it, OK? Like I said, no one could play it like you. You were born for this.”
I went to bed that night with a stomachache, the life-sized cardboard cutout of Scarecrow, the Wizard and Tin Man a monstrous silhouette at the foot of my bed. I didn’t want to be hired because of my disability, like Margaret had been. Duct tape a pillow to my shoulders and add a bell tower and the musical was pretty much my daily life. I wanted to be a star, not a groveling Hollywood hunchback. “They’ll find another kid to play Quasimodo it in two seconds,” Mom sighed the next morning. “But if you don’t want to have fun anymore, you don’t want to have fun anymore.”
Officially retired from Up With Kids, I got my acting kicks in school plays. I was the only seventh grader with a speaking part in Guys and Dolls. Honing my gangster accent, I played Joey Biltmore, tossing off lines like, “She ain’t a horse. She’s a doll!” The next year, my acting career once again became extracurricular as I got a callback to play a dwarf in City Rep’s production of Snow White. I didn’t get the part. After reprimanding me for having my hands in my pockets, my secret way of appearing nonchalant, the red-haired director tried to wrench my back straight and excused me as soon as she saw me struggle across the stage, saying I just wouldn’t fit into the show.
A chance for redemption came in the ninth grade, when my drama teacher announced we would be putting on The Wizard of Oz. I promptly threw my hand into the air and volunteered the use of my replica 1939 shooting script. I’d sprouted to a gangly five-ten and badly needed my hamstrings surgically lengthened once again, this time on both sides. My walk was a crouch and a persistent hammertoe on my left foot bloodied my sock, but I demanded to hold off on the operations until after the play. My school needed me.
At the audition, while my competitors struggled through tepid R&B songs and climbed on chairs a la Britney Spears, I crooned “If I Only Had a Brain” and trilled the scales. Leaving the auditorium that night, a goth kid in the back row slapped me high five. “Dude, you’re totally going to get it.”
I arrived late for the dancing portion of the audition the next day. A couple of girls walked me through the routine in the aisle and soon I was shambling up on stage to the tune of “Merry Old Land of OZ.” With a ha ha ha, ho ho ho and a couple of tra la la’s, I was skipping my way to the lead.
The middle-aged choreographer pulled me aside as I came off stage. This woman was not a teacher but one of the industry people my drama teacher had brought in to help with the production. I expected her to tell me I was a shoo-in for Scarecrow but instead she said, “What’s wrong with your leg? It looked like you weren’t rotating from the hip.” She clutched one of her sharp shoulders, wheeling it around to illustrate her point, as if just watching me made her sore.
“Are you talking about my shoulder?” I asked, hopeful.
“No, your leg,” she clarified.
I should have been flattered. She thought I was injured.
Ordinarily, I had an arsenal of excuses about my limp. Sometimes I told people it was knee pain from growing so fast, the kind that left Tiffany sobbing on the floor of my parents’ room, moaning about the end of her snowboarding career. Sometimes I said my legs were simply different lengths. I’d recently told a substitute tennis instructor at the country club that, yes, my tendons had been operated on but my orthopedic surgeon had screwed up and now it was a big mess. Who can say why the truth — at least the truth as I understood it — popped out of my mouth when a lie about tripping on plastic apples would have suited me better?
“I have tight tendons,” I said.
“Oh,” the choreographer said, not missing a beat. “Because it looked like your hip wasn’t working right.” Here again she worked her shoulder. The woman was as lean and elegant as a candlestick with her chignon and ballet flats, her cheekbones set at handsome angles. “Will it be getting better in time for the show?”
“No,” I admitted. “It won’t.”
The woman offered a serenely understanding smile, as if I were a golden retriever, all blond hair and bad hips. “Well, you did really great.”
Children are sad creatures, so full of hope and light and judgment. So sure of their place in the world. My first thoughts, as I waited for Mom to pick me up, were ones of anger. Who was this haughty witch to tell me what I could do? If she was so special, why was she volunteering at a junior high instead of choreographing on Broadway?
Of course, such thoughts denigrated the whole enterprise — the school, the play, my meager acting ability. Part of me wanted to tell her how believable I could be as Scarecrow. When I fell, the audience would gasp, and when I got up again they would cheer. It wouldn’t have mattered. I wasn’t in Up With Kids anymore. A kid with a limp didn’t have a chance at what my drama teacher had told us to call a “principal.”
In the choreographer’s gentle rejection lay a deeper truth: I would never be a professional actor. The fantasy was over. Later, I’d call this my munchkin moment: the moment I realized I was window dressing along the Yellow Brick Road, not the one skipping down it. I was one of the little people some other, more charismatic teenager would pledge not to forget. That night, I took down the glittery star that had hung on my door for years and fondled Margaret’s autograph in my replica Oz script as if she were a real celebrity. She’d signed it “Munchkin Love.”
My drama teacher was clever. Outright shafting the kid with the limp would have been poor form and so, instead, she gave me the title role. It was not lost on me that Professor Marvel prognosticated from a sitting position on a wooden crate and that the Wizard didn’t sing or dance and bellowed most of his lines in the wings, behind a curtain. Being upstaged by a dog was one thing. It took a special actor to be upstaged by a plywood head and a member of stage crew wagging the chin for comedic effect. Great and powerful I was not. Given so little to do, I overacted every scene I was in, shouting so loud the mic cut out, unleashing a low electrical drone as the house lights strobed.
If I came across as apoplectic, if my fingers flew in the face of anyone who came too close, I have my hand-dancing days at Up With Kids to thank. Because my gray tuxedo jacket was much too short, the sleeves rode up my wrists, leaving my cuffs to billow. With every herky-jerky hand motion, threads popped. I was a good man and a bad wizard, handing a diploma to Scarecrow, a medal to Cowardly Lion, and a ceramic heart to Tin Man. Like Dorothy, I knew there wasn’t anything in that leather-fringed purse for me. I wouldn’t be getting a new leg. I was stuck with the one I had.
During the curtain call of our final performance, I took my bow and retired to a wobbly rainbow platform at the back of the stage. A moment later, the chorus parted and Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion skipped in to a standing ovation. There wasn’t enough space on the rainbow platform to do anything more than sway to the music, to bob my head and arch my eyebrows to keep the spidery tears of self-pity from crawling down my cheeks. To someone in the audience, it might have looked like nothing at all: a kid worn out with happiness after a fulfilling run, and then, confused, making a premature exit stage left as Scarecrow and Dorothy presented my drama teacher with flowers.
It took a while to compose myself in the dressing room and turn in my costume. No matter how encouraging the rest of my family would be, my smart ass brother was sure to put me down for running off stage in tears. When I made it back to the auditorium, covered in flop sweat and runny makeup, they were waiting for me like always, scattered over a few otherwise empty rows. The Wizard of Oz head scowled down at us from the stage, his chin now wagging open like he’d suffered a stroke.
“You’re right. It was a nothing role. What can I say? You got totally, completely screwed,” Mom said, swinging her gold purse on her shoulder.
“I’m proud of you for toughing it out, Greggo,” Dad said.
“You certainly made the most of it,” Mom went on. “Ask anybody. You were the only one I could hear.”
I gave Tiffany a hug and tried to keep a neutral expression on my face as my brother shuffled toward me down the aisle, popping a pretzel into his mouth. To my surprise, he offered the only thing I’d ever really wanted from him: a positive review. “It was way less shitty than Up With Kids,” he said, chewing. “You had a real dog play Toto this time and Dorothy was pretty hot.” Putting a hand on my soaked head in an odd display of brotherly affection, his eyes lost that joking sparkle. “Seriously, Gregor. You were the best thing in the show.”
This, it turned out, was my final bow.
Leg surgeries the next Christmas kept me from auditioning for my high school drama department’s one-act play. I can’t remember what the play was called, but the gist of the plot was that a monstrously deformed writer was being held prisoner in a closet. As I was spread-eagle in a wheelchair at the time, encased in Ace bandages and knee immobilizers that went from my butt cheeks to my ankles, Crippled: The Greg Marshall Story would’ve been a fitting title. It’s not that I couldn’t have tried out. It’s that I didn’t have the balls.
There were other things to fail at in high school: making the tennis team and convincing my friends I was straight. None of them were as fun as belting out “If I Only Had a Brain” to the homeless. Little home-video footage remains from my brief dramatic career. I suppose this is for the best as it allows me to remember my histrionics as scene stealing, my voice as blunt and captivating. If I didn’t limp, I tell myself, I might really have made it.
For the next few weeks of that semester, as I graduated from wheelchair to walker, my teachers let me out five minutes early so I wouldn’t be trampled. I think it was tipping through those empty halls that I gained a begrudging respect for Margaret Pellegrini. If the opposite of being typecast for having a disability is not being cast at all, being a Hollywood Midget didn’t sound so bad. At a time when nearly everyone who had worked on The Wizard of Oz was dead, she was still signing autographs, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Mom was right: the woman knew how to wake up. Every Oz anniversary landed Margaret a spot on the local news, where she repeated her famous line (at least it was famous to me) about Toto having a better agent.
History isn’t told by the winners. It’s told by the living. When you’re a kid, you’re taught success depends on embracing who you are. It’s actually much simpler than that: to succeed, you have to stick around. By marching around in a replica costume like the veteran of some whimsical war, Margaret recast herself as an indelible part of the story. Outlive the Coroner and you become the grand marshal of all things Over the Rainbow. Sometimes surviving is its own form of stardom.