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There’s no place like summer camp

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There’s no place like summer camp photo

There’s an old adage that goes something like this: “you can’t go home again”. Supporting that point is this bit of great wisdom from that noted philosopher Mike Ditka, “the past is for cowards and losers”. Granted, this came from the same man who once shouted his way through “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” at Wrigley, traded about 52 draft picks for Ricky Williams, and thought stumping for poor Sarah Palin was a good use of his time. (It wasn’t.)

So it is with great pride that I take this opportunity to refute the none-too-prescient words of Da Coach, and hereby proclaim that indeed, you can go home again. Or at least you can go to summer camp again. That’s exactly what I did during a recent July weekend, and if that makes me a coward or a loser, fine. At least I can go to sleep knowing I would have let Walter Payton find the end zone in the Super Bowl, unlike Mr. Ditka.

I should mention that one of my work endeavors is the first all-summer camp social networking websiteMyCampFriends.com. I’ve been a “camp guy” ever since my first of 15 summers at Harand Camp, back when I was 11 in 1985. (Interesting trivia: I was just a few inches shorter than I am now at that time. More interesting trivia: I’ll save future meanderings on my height – or lack thereof – for $150/hr therapy sessions.) I fell in love with camp immediately, a requirement for Jewish kids by most state laws. But Harand was – and thankfully remains – different from your average summer camp: it’s a theater camp. No, not like that creepy theater camp in the movie “Camp” where every camper looks like they’ll spend their lives acting in bad community theater productions of “Rent”. Harand takes a more well-rounded approach to the camp experience, where only part of the day is dedicated to theater, and the rest includes traditional camp activities. That’s not to say the theater training isn’t top notch. Indeed, Harand boasts such alumni as Jeremy Piven, Virginia Madsen, Billy Zane, and “The Fugitive” director Andy Davis. (And, of course, ahem, yours truly.) It’s just that Harand puts far greater stock on developing one’s confidence both onstage and off, which is one of the many things I respect about camp.

Most everyone I grew up with at Harand Camp still loves the place, but given my profession in comedy and music, I’m in the unique position where I can still visit and contribute to the camp’s theater program. Usually I’ll stop by for a day or two every few years, which at this point in my life, seems just about right. Part of the reason I finally left camp back in 1999 at 25 years old was because I just felt I was too old to share a bathroom with 12 year old boys, wake up at 7AM for breakfast, and date women just finishing their freshman year of college. (Legal? Sure! Creepy? You bet.)

This summer is Harand’s 55th anniversary, and after not stopping by in a few years, it seemed like the perfect time to head to Cheesehead territory for a visit. There was one wrinkle this time around which was a bit of an impediment – I severely sprained my ankle the day before I was to leave, and was unable to get around on my own or make the drive to camp. Enter my girlfriend of nearly 18 months, who happily (I think?) not only drove me to camp, but did the unthinkable: stayed with me and experienced camp for the entirety of my visit. That she didn’t dump me after hearing hundreds of stories ranging from, “So, there was this one kid back in ’88 who forgot all the words of his song in “Oklahoma”! to “We had a counselor get fired for showing the 10 year olds  the video of “Hellraiser Two” on a rainy day” is a miracle of the highest proportions.

From the minute I arrived, I was ushered to the theater to sit at the piano – my home for 3 days – and began rehearsing with the kids for the Pageant, the mid-summer show the entire camp does for the parents during the first visiting weekend. Because I’ve known most of these songs since I was a kid (90% of the camp songs don’t change from year to year, another great thing about camp), playing them came back to me immediately. So many of the kids looked familiar; either because I’d seen them at camp before during past years (Haranders, as Harand Campers are affectionately known, tend to come back for many years), or because Jewish kids (like me) from the north shore/Latin/Parker circuit tend to look the same in 2009 as they did in 1987; minus the outrageous hair and Depeche Mode t-shirts.

From the craziness of mealtime, to sharing a twin bed with my girlfriend; from the wild Wisconsin thunderstorm that passed by late one night, to drinking too many shots of Kessler whiskey at the town bar with other camp staff who’d been there for ages, it felt like I’d never left. It’s amazing how walking back into summer camp immediately places you right back into a certain time of your life no matter how much you try and fight it. This is a theory which was proven every time I entered the dining hall, where I ate like a 13-year-old: pancakes & sausage for breakfast, grilled cheese for lunch, chicken patty sandwiches for dinner, and ice cream cones for dessert. (At one point, I was one brownie away from extending my middle finger to the salad bar. How dare you exist in a world of such high calorie goodness?)

This routine went on for a few days, and then came Saturday, the night of the Pageant. I’d forgotten just how impressive of a feat the Pageant is, especially as it’s rehearsed in three short weeks. The camp, which is still led by the inspiring and ageless Sulie Harand (her sister and Harand’s co-founder, the equally wonderful Pearl Harand, passed away 10 years ago), ends its camp season with traditional musicals for each age group, which many campers prefer. But to me, Pageant captures the spirit of what Harand is all about. The show features every camper in his/her own “section” (usually a tribute to an era, such as the 1960’s, or a notable composer, like George Gershwin), and all the campers come together onstage for the finale. (The final shows are also great. But any high school in the world can put on “Guys and Dolls,” while Pageant remains a uniquely Harand concept.) Harand’s credo of “No Man Is An Island, No Man Stands Alone” could not ring more true than when every camper is assembled onstage singing together, and that, to me, is the defining moment of a Harand season.

I was surprised how nervous I was before the show began. As I mentioned, I’d played these songs for years. And in the ensuing years, I’ve played piano for some pretty high-level shows, including ones with Bill Murray and Martin Short. (Yes, I’m name- dropping. You would too if you got to play the Saturday Night Live, lounge version of “Star Wars” while Bill Murray sang along.) Yet something about playing at camp made me particularly nervous. Luckily, they were nerves I’d felt many times in that same environment, and once the show began and my fingers found their way to the right notes on the piano, I was instantly at ease. (OK, so perhaps the pain meds for my ankle had something to do with that. This may also explain why I slipped an occasional Pink Floyd reference into my scoring.)

Two hours and 10 minutes later - a record for anyone who’s ever sat through Pageant - the show was over. I caught my girlfriend’s eye in the audience, and could tell how impressed and surprised she was with what she saw. I became unexpectedly emotional as I watched the parents give the kids a much deserved ovation. Perhaps it was because I was genuinely happy for the kids, and knew exactly how they were feeling at that moment. But more likely, it was because in those kids, I saw part of myself from days past; a time in my life I thought would never end.

Of course, like most things, those days did end. Kind of. Because as long as Harand Camp exists, I know I’ll have a place to stop by for a few days each summer, play a little  piano, do my part to make a great group of kids feel good about themselves, and re-connect with a group of people who have always felt like family. And kids from all over the country will have an amazingly unique place to grow their own memories year after year. For those of you who might be too old for camp, MyCampFriends.com is there to help you re-live all those great camp memories. For me, I’ll continue to re-live all those great camp memories, and make new ones, in a way few others ever could: at camp.

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