The teaching profession is known as a labor of love. It’s not the kind of job where you merely clock in and out and collect your paycheck on Friday. In particular, three teachers at Colfax Charter Elementary School in Valley Village push beyond their traditional roles to perform their own labors of love in the form of elaborate end-of-the-year stage productions.
A one. A two. A one two three …
Mrs. Gage’s Vaudeville Show
Paige Gage was a Colfax parent two decades ago, the school’s RIF (Reading is Fundamental) coordinator, and started the annual Readathon, a contest that rewards the students who read the most books. She is now one Colfax’s most popular teachers, and every morning as her 2nd graders line up, she greets them individually with a hug.
Twelve years ago, Mrs. Gage was teaching her class about long ago and today, and what people did at the turn of the century for entertainment. The kids couldn’t imagine a time before television, video games, computers, or even a time before electricity. Gage told them that often troupes would travel from town to town, set up a show in the town auditorium or church basement, and sing songs, tell jokes and perform magic acts.
Gage stumbled upon a cassette called Tin Pan Alley which featured songs like Baby Face, Bicycle Built for Two, and By the Light of the Silvery Moon, and played the tape for her class. They learned the songs and decided to put on their own vaudeville show.
Gage’s class and any 2nd graders who are not in her class but want to participate have been rehearsing every Wednesday afternoon and most Fridays since January. On June 10th she put on her 12th Vaudeville Show, which is now so popular the Colfax Silent Auction offers front row seats that can sell for more than $20 a piece. The seven- and eight-year olds are dressed in gowns and suits that Gage salvages from thrift stores. They wear top hats and canes for Dinka Dinka Doo and tap shoes for Tiptoe Through the Tulips. Yes We Have No Bananas is followed by a dozen or more banana jokes, and I Scream You Scream leads in to jokes about ice cream.
Eddie Lample also teaches 2nd grade and is an exceptional magician, so it’s fortunate that he’s been helping the students with magic tricks like Metamorphosis (in which a child appears from an apparently empty box), Bigger Card and The Magic Coloring Book. Learning Resource Specialist Jamie Mond teaches the students their tap numbers and 1st grade teacher Michelle Hamburger helps Gage with rehearsals. Piano accompaniment changes throughout the years and has been provided by various teachers, parents, and even talented students. This year Colfax mom and chorus teacher Susan Martin filled in.
The most impressive helpers are the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students who come back to help with the rehearsals every year. This is one of the biggest reasons why Gage puts on her Vaudeville Show year after year – because the kids love it. Gage really gets a kick out of the kids inviting their grandparents to the performance. She says that these days, “kids often don’t have much of a connection to their grandparents, and this is something that can offer them a connection” – by singing old songs that both the students and grandparents know.
One of the biggest rewards Gage sees is the participation by children with special needs. “Most kids will have a million opportunities,” Gage says when describing kids who sing and dance in front of an audience, but she is thrilled when “kids with special needs whose parents think their kids will never be able to do something like this stand up there and do it.”
Miss Kip’s Talent Show
No one ever calls Grace Kaprelian by her first name. Adults call her Kip, and her 3rd grade students address her as Miss Kip, even though she is definitely a devoted missus. After two decades in the corporate world working for Hewlett Packard, Kip transitioned to her new career and has now been teaching for 16 years.
Five years ago she put on her first talent show, and now it has grown into a huge production which attracts class alumni and includes trophies for the parents who have volunteered in her class and a huge pot luck after the show. She calls the production To You With Love - a play on the song To Sir With Love - and sees the show as a gift to the parents of her students.
“I view it as a vehicle through which (the students) demonstrate what they practice every year, and not something you’d see on a report card,” Kip reveals. She adds that the students learn “self-discipline, personal responsibility, and initiative,” and they end up learning to “do the right thing even when no one is looking, and doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do.”
Like Paige Gage, Miss Kip also points out that her show is particularly important to children with autism. She claims that while preparing for the show, the parents and special education teachers are concerned that the child won’t be able to do it. “They’ll say ‘no, he’s going to cry,’ but then the students end up coming out of their shell.” Miss Kip claims that “the ability to speak in public is one of the most valuable tools as an adult” and her talent show is a great jumpstart to introduce her students to public speaking.
Acts included Colfax dad Keythe Farley playing the ukulele and singing a duet of Rainbow Connection with his daughter, Ruby, Mackenzie Stuery singing Don’t Rain on My Parade, and Eileen Garcia and Ryan Strada playing violin. The biggest act featured Sawyer Peace hamming it up with a medley from musical Willy Wonka, and the most emotional one came from Tyler Ganus playing keyboard and singing a variation of the Plain White T’s Hey There Dalilah with the new title Hey There Miss Kip.
Miss Kip almost didn’t make it to her own talent show this year. She was scheduled for an emergency operation and planned to cancel the event, but a group of parents jumped in and rehearsed the kids. “It was a great opportunity not only to get to know the kids, but also to work with the parents toward a common goal,” says Keythe, the ukulele-playing dad and one of the parents who stepped in to help.
Fortunately Miss Kip’s operation was postponed at the last minute, and she was able to come and lead her students. According to Keythe, the performance turned out to be different from what Kip would have done, but he adds that because Kip was knowledgeable and had done the show so many times, if the parents had to continued alone, “we would have been completely insane.” The medical reprieve caused an evening of joyful tears and speeches filled with grateful compliments.
Student Lauren Notarianni has never sung publicly. After encouragement from Lisa Clyde and Mary Ann Hermansen – two of the parents who spearheaded the show while Kip was gone - Lauren sang a short solo and later told her mom Kristen, “I’m really proud of how I sang.”
Sometimes it takes a Village.
Mr. Walters’ Cats Show
In 1983, the Broadway musical Cats won six Tony Awards and was nominated for another four. Day in, day out, for a total of six years, the production stage manager was Don Walters, who now teaches 2nd grade at Colfax. During every Cats show, 50 tickets were donated to students followed by a question and answer session with the cast, and Don Walters was the man who handled the discussion.
As stage manager, Walters was “in charge of everyone behind the curtain – either a performer or a technician,” and he describes his former career as “organizing groups of people to function at their best.” These tasks aptly prepared him for his future role as an elementary school teacher, and also enabled him to spearhead his own production of Cats for his students.
It all started with a unit on imagination, and Walters thought that T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats would be an entertaining read for his students. He found that children who had difficulty reading actually loved reading the poems. Walters taught his students the song Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat, and fondly remembers last year when he had a student who was talented enough to actually sing Cats’ most popular song Memory.
Walters has had former cast members speak to and perform with his students, and make up artists come to expertly paint the children for their roles. His production is greatly truncated from the actual Cats play, but the students give 100 percent, rehearsing from April until the June performance.
This is Walters’ 6th year creating his Cats show, and in three years he retires from teaching. He feels that it was appropriate to have a total of nine productions since cats have nine lives. In 2014 and in his new life, Walter plans to take it easy and spend his time tutoring. And perhaps singing Memory.