FINDING ONE’S TALENT
Taking on the new adopted name of Francis Laster, life in Cedar Creek gave Frank a chance for the traditional childhood he would not have received on the carnival circuit.
FRANK: My new dad and I would always have fun, although in a very Protestant way. We used to play this game whenever we would walk down Main Street called Guess Who’s Coveting. You know, “That woman is coveting that dress in the window,” “That man is coveting his friend’s new car,” stuff like that. Every time that I’d get five covets, my dad would give me a ginger snap. I loved ginger snaps.
JEREMIAH LASTER: Thankfully, the town was small and not full of sinners or he would have become a really fat kid. He loved those ginger snaps.
FRANK: My dad would also take me out crossbow hunting. Since I was so small, he had to make me a smaller crossbow so I could use it. I could take out a rabbit from forty yards away at the age of six with that thing.
Although life at home was idyllic, Frank’s life at school was much rougher.
FRANK: I had two things going against me – one, I was a pastor’s son, and most religious kids are seen as weirdoes to begin with; second, my voice. I was this little kid with this deep foghorn voice. I tried everything short of cutting my nuts off to have a normal voice, but it was just a cross that I was going to have to bear.
During first and second grade, bullies would give Frank a hard time. The two bullies who would harass Frank the most were the Robusto Twins, Lonnie and Morrie.
LONNIE ROBUSTO: I was more of a head and neck kid, while Morrie was always focused on working the body…sometimes I’d say too much, but I guess I was a bit of a perfectionist back then. Frankie was a good target – he was small, but not quick; he had something that we could pick on (his voice); and he took his beatings very well. He was on our schedule for Tuesdays after school, and I don’t think that he missed one of his beatings, ever. He was a real stand-up guy. Either that or he just didn’t figure out that we had him on our schedule for Tuesdays.
MORRIE ROBUSTO: Frankie was very important in our development as bullies. At one point we were going through an experimental phase and we’d try out new bullying techniques, and Frankie was a big part of that. Frankie was the first kid that we tied to the flagpole and covered in peanut butter…now that I look at it, a lot of the stuff that we did was quite homoerotic. You know, I may need a moment to figure this out.
FRANK: I would hate the Robusto Twins, but if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have had my dancing career.
Indeed, it was from a moment of torture where Frank learned what would be his special gift.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE, DANCE DIRECTOR - WEST VIRGINIA MODERN DANCE TROUPE: I was having my morning brisk walk near the train tracks when I saw two ruffians throwing rocks at a scrawny little boy. At first I was planning on ignoring the incident, but then I noticed that none of the rocks were hitting the boy. In fact, the boy was avoiding them in such a way that it was nearly poetic. I continued to watch, and the young boy was begging for me to make the oppressors stop, but I couldn’t stop watching. I even started throwing rocks at him, too, just to see what would happen. Not a single rock touched the boy. By the time we ran out of rocks, the boy ran away before we could reload. I asked the two bullies who the kid was and they were kind enough to give me his name and address. After the moment passed, I had a good cry, as I was overcome with emotion.
FRANK: When Dr. Penchance showed up to my house, I hid in the attic for thirty minutes, as I thought that he was going to throw more rocks at me. When I realized that wasn’t the case, I came down and found out that he wanted to teach me how to dance. I don’t know why I agreed to do it – my dad said it might be good for self-defense, although I have no clue what that means. Maybe I just wanted something to do.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: It was very hard to find young boys in West Virginia that wanted to dance, even harder to find boys that would admit it. I think that Frank opened quite a few doors for young, male, West Virginian dancers.
Dr. Penchance chose an aggressive curriculum, starting with some of the methods of Martha Graham and working into the works of Twyla Tharp.
FRANK: I got pretty good with Graham’s “contraction and release” method, but I felt more of a connection with Tharp. She was a happening chick. In fact, the first dance that I performed in front of an audience was one of Tharp’s, a piece from As Time Goes By, which had Barishnikov, I believe. I didn’t really know what the dance meant, but I just liked to dance.
Word got around about Frank’s dancing ability, which got him some publicity in the West Virginian dance scene. It also helped him in his school life, as well.
MORRIE ROBUSTO: Frankie became a bit of celebrity, which meant that people had their eye on him more, and that meant that we couldn’t mess with him. Luckily for Lonnie and me, we were entrepreneurs. We took advantage of the situation. We became Frankie’s bodyguards.
LONNIE ROBUSTO: We still got to pound kids, but now we felt that there was some purpose behind it. I believe that’s one of the reasons why Lonnie and I both got into law enforcement.
FRANK: The press was really kind to me at that time. I remember being told that one paper called me “the Nureyev of the Appalachians”. I didn’t know who Nureyev was – hell, I didn’t even know what the Appalachians were at that time. But whatever – it wasn’t like I was reading the paper every day, I was watching Laff-A-Lympics on TV. I was seven. To me the most important thing was that the bullies weren’t messing with me, and that they were actually defending me. That was cool.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: It was quite refreshing to have one of my dancers not be a diva. Francis was refreshing, like a nice cup of cucumber tea. But he was also willing to take chances, extend himself beyond what was expected of him. When he came to me with Purple Nurple, I knew that we had something special.
Purple Nurple was an original dance that Frank created at the age of eight. It was a personal dance created out of self-discovery and reflection based primarily on his being tortured by the Robusto Twins.
FRANK: It was the first time I had an outlet for my emotions.
LONNIE ROBUSTO: It was very flattering. I think that he was able to understand the nuances of the bully’s milieu. He didn’t leave anything out.
The twelve-minute dance piece was so well-received during rehearsals that it was chosen to be the headlining event for the 1978 West Virginia Modern Dance Spectacular. This caused a great commotion as many critics felt that, while he was considered to be a dance prodigy, Frank was not yet ready for the big time.
RICHARD PICKERD, ARTS EDITOR, CLARKSBURG EXPONENT-TELEGRAM: Was Francis Laster a great dancer? Yes. Did he have the potential to become one of the all-time greats? Possibly. But you can’t make an eight year-old kid the headliner of West Virginia’s biggest dance event. It’s too much pressure.
DR. LARS PENCHANCE: Francis was ready. I truly believed that. I directed several big musicals on elite cruise ships and not one of those dancers had what Francis had. The boy had a smoldering spirit inside of him that singed the audience’s eyes. He was like the Phoenix rising from the ashes. It makes me want to whimper like a newborn calf just picturing him dance.
FRANK: I just was happy that my mom had said that we would go to Howard Johnson’s after the recital. Fried clams and that coconut cake…I wasn’t really thinking that I was going to create modern dance history.
(to see Chapter 3, click here)