Thursday, March 17, 2011


(if you want to read chapters one and two, click the links)


The following is a review of the 1978 West Virginia Modern Dance Spectacular, April 17, 1978, by Richard Pickerd of the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram.


By Richard Pickerd, Exponent-Telegram Arts Editor

It was the most highly-anticipated event at the West Virginia Modern Dance Spectacular since 1971, when then-Governor William C. Marland agreed to appear in Swan Lake as part of losing a bet with Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer over the previous year’s WVU-Pitt football contest. Eight-year-old Francis Laster, considered by many to be the future of modern dance not only in West Virginia, but in all of America, was to perform lead in his first stage production. Not only that, it was to be in a performance created by Laster himself. Purple Nurple, a twelve-minute piece based on Laster’s personal experience with bullies, was to be young Laster’s introduction to the world of modern dance. Indeed, the stakes were high.

Laster, in the role of “Youth”, burst onto the stage in a smart shirt-and-slacks combo from the Garanimals “Rhino” collection. Immediately, he leaps into our consciousness with a carefree ebullience, yet with a cocksuredness that belies his tender age. This is a boy in touch with his emotions, totally able to appreciate the beauty around him.

The music encompasses Youth’s persona perfectly, consistently playing at a frenetic pace, surprising since the only instruments used are a xylophone, maracas and a three-piece drum set. “I didn’t write the music for the piece,” Laster said in an interview before the performance in a deep voice that sounded like it couldn’t come out of such a young boy, “I just showed them where I was going and told them to catch up.”

Unfortunately for Youth, his fancy-free nature was soon to be tested. Entering stage right, The Bullies (played with gusto by 17-year-old Austin Peterman and 16-year-old Wyatt Turnbow) come in with leather jackets and scowls, reminding one of two young Fonzies. They instantly show disdain to Youth’s joie de vivre. Pouncing on the young lad like two jungle cats, The Bullies are ruthless, calculating and frightfully demonic. Yet Youth is able to overcome the savages’ taunts, withstanding their punishment and maintaining his upbeat attitude. Nothing that the young ruffians do will break the boy’s spirit. He is hope incarnate.

Creating a fight scene complete with more tumbles than a performance by the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Youth’s only hope is to not overcome The Bullies by beating them in hand-to-hand combat, but by winning them over with his personality. As The Bullies go in for their coup de grace, Youth extends his arms outward, fully accepting his fate. Youth’s gesture suggests a welcoming into his world of joy. It is a statement that says, “Come on in, I’ll take care of you.”

The two thugs, at first unsure of Youth’s offer, decide to pick him up and swing him around, threatening to toss him into orbit. But Youth remains blissful; his arms continuing to stay wide open. When The Bullies put him down, they realize that they have been beaten. They offer their hands in friendship, and then the three do a vigorous jig that energizes the room, leading to a solo finale by Laster that defies expectations. The crowd’s reaction was unanimous – the future of modern dance stood before them.

If only it were that simple. The cosmic phenomenon that brought Francis Laster to the world of dance may be the very one that takes him out of it. During a ten-minute standing ovation – almost as long as the piece itself - Laster leapt up to reach for a bouquet of roses being thrown to him by an adoring fan. On his way down, Laster landed wrong on his left ankle and tumbled to the ground, grimacing in pain. Laster then let out a stream of verbal obscenities that no young boy should be allowed to say, much less a drunken sailor. Combined with his surprisingly-deep voice, for a moment one could believe that Richard Pryor was onstage. The crowd, integrating the shock of the incident with the disbelief of the profanity-laden tirade, sat motionless, almost helpless.

We do not know if Laster will ever dance again – the injury was that serious, according to doctors shortly after the show. What we do know is that Laster’s father – a pastor, of all things – should wash his son’s mouth out with soap. What we also know is that, for fifteen minutes, Francis Laster was perfect, and that can’t be taken away.

FRANK: I had never sworn before in my entire life. Not a word. But when I fell to the ground, it just came out of me.

JEREMIAH LASTER: I realized at that point that I should have gone through the exorcism. But I don’t know what it would feel like to tear an Achilles tendon, so maybe I would have said a few blue words myself in that situation.

FRANK: I was never going to dance again. That part of my life was officially over.

DOROTHY FENNER, HOUSEWIFE: I was the one who threw the bouquet. For several years I was seen as a disgrace when in town, and I could always feel the whispers of others when I was around. That pain caused me to have a brief addiction to inhalants, but I’m much better now.

DR. LARS PENCHANCE: The only comparison that I could make is when Elvis died. We had lost the Elvis of modern dance. In Francis’ case, though, we only got to appreciate it for fifteen minutes. At least with Elvis, you can put Clambake in the video recording system any time you feel like it and appreciate his true brilliance. With Francis it’s just memories. The whole thought of Francis being out of dance made me want to mewl like an Abyssinian.

RICHARD PICKERD: The other thing was, when Francis started swearing, I realized that we not only lost a great dancer, but we also possibly lost a future “bad boy of modern dance”. And there is nothing more robustly masculine than a bad boy of modern dance.

SAMUEL PROCTOR, TELEVISION PRODUCER: I was traveling around the country, trying to get ideas for a show that I was helping get together called Real People. I had heard about Francis from several people in the arts community, they said this kid was the real deal. I went to the West Virginia Modern Dance Celebration and the first thing I noticed was how they treated this kid before the show – it was as if he was their one and only chance for greatness. They had no doubt about him.

I watched his dance piece, and I knew that he was perfect for this show. He was a hell of a talent. I was getting ready to sign him up, but the next thing you know I see him on the ground. I knew it was serious. I was ready to write this one off, but then the kid starts to swear like a guy with Tourette’s syndrome and a sugar high. And his voice. Wow. I knew that he wasn’t right for Real People, but I had this other show that I was working on, and I thought there were some possibilities.

FRANK: So I’m sitting in the back room, and there’s a bunch of people huddled around the doctor.  They don’t have to tell me anything – I know my dance career is over. But then Mr. Proctor walks in and starts talking to me. Doesn’t mention the injury, doesn’t mention the performance, just casual talk, real classy. But then he then tells me that he’s a television producer. And not local TV – I’m not talking about Farm Report, man. This guy’s from Hollywood.

JEREMIAH LASTER: Mr. Proctor said that he was interested in bringing Francis to Hollywood and putting him in a pilot starring Fannie Flagg from Match Game, a show I never watched due to its bawdy nature. But Mr. Proctor said that he could get Francis the best medical care available in Los Angeles and that was a good thing. I told Mr. Proctor that we’d have to give it a day and talk to Francis about it.

FRANK: Hell, yeah, I wanted to go! You know how some people dream about becoming a star? I never dreamt about it, I knew that I was going to be big. I was too young to understand the concept of fate, but I kind of had the idea that it was supposed to happen that way.  If dance wasn’t the way, then acting might be it.

GWEN LASTER: We are not the kind of parents who would hold back an opportunity. And he would get the best medical care and have a private tutor. Besides, we never had been to California before. It was worth a try.

FRANK: I remember that I really wanted to meet Suzanne Somers.

(if you want to read Chapter 4, click here)

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