The farce Act Your Age was written in 1943 by the Minnesota playwright William Davidson (1897-1982). It was handled by the Dramatic Publishing Company, which also managed Men are Like Streetcars, so it was mainly offered by American high schools, with a smattering of performances by local and church amateur dramatics groups. Like Streetcars, it proved exceptionally popular until the early 1970s. Audiences regularly enjoyed a whole range of comical scenes involving lady wrestlers, an accidentally shredded skirt, two feigned deaths and, for good measure, a sound spanking!
Angelica Goetz and Geraldine Joyce, Angy and Jerry for short, are a couple of teenage girls who have become pen-pals to a couple of American sailors on active duty, Jim Matson and Archibald Hoffenflugel, thankfully nicknamed ‘Gadget’. The correspondence has got a bit out of hand: the girls let it be understood that they are older than they really are, and somehow they have become engaged to the sailors, even though they have never met or even seen one another’s pictures.
The sailors remedy that in their latest letters, and the girls plan to have themselves photographed by way of reciprocation, dressed up in their elder sisters’ clothes so that they look the age they pretended to be and not the age they really are. But while they are getting ready, some surprise visitors arrive, unnoticed by anyone: Gadget and Jim, on a three-day pass, and bearing gifts (including a pair of Hawaiian grass hula skirts). Another person who is expected is the girls’ aunt, Sandra Stone, who is a teacher and is coming to give them some summer coaching in Latin. Luckily she is not going to be accompanied by her other niece, their cousin, a young brat named Elsie.
There’s an initial bit of bottom-related comedy when the girls are being photographed by Cora, the maid, cook and spare-time wrestler. Angy wants to be shown using a pair of binoculars, as if looking out to sea for her love:
Cora, trying to get the camera in focus, succeeds only in getting a view of Angy’s rear elevation as she bends over to peer through the binoculars.
And then the sailors turn up, and the complications begin…
Next on the doorstep is Aunt Sandra, who turns out to be an attractive young woman in her early 20s and not the dried-up old stick the girls imagined. But there has been a mix-up with her luggage: the suitcase she’s carrying turns out to be her niece Elsie’s, which means she hasn’t any of her own clothes to wear. Cora explains what her nieces have been up to, and Sandra takes charge. She intercepts the wire the sailors sent asking for an extension of their shore leave to get married, altering it slightly to get them into hot water with their commanding officer, who also happens to be her father. And as for Angy and Jerry:
SANDRA: Those girls should be taught a lesson they won’t forget.
CORA: But not by them sailors.
SANDRA: I think we can do it ourselves.
She puts on clothes from the suitcase and arrives again, this time in the person of Elsie. Throughout what follows it is completely clear to the audience, albeit not to some of the characters, that this is a young woman who is only dressed as a little girl and who is only acting a part. And the part she is acting is that of a holy terror. She attaches herself to one of the sailors, calling him ‘Uncle Jim’, and when they go out riding, she secretes a cactus under each of the sailors’ saddle blankets, to the mutual discomfort of Gadget and his horse. Jim, who hadn’t yet mounted when the prank was discovered, takes charge of the situation:
JIM: I’m afraid you have been very, very naughty.
SANDRA (in wide-eyed innocence): Will you tell me all about it, Uncle Jim?
JIM: Do you really think I have to?
SANDRA: No, I don’t guess so.
JIM: I hope you aren’t going to make it worse by lying.
SANDRA (pretending to stifle a sob): No. No, I won’t, Uncle Jim. Let’s neither of us say anything more about it.
JIM: You might have killed Gadget and your Uncle Jim.
SANDRA (apparently on the verge of tears): You mean I might have killed my sailor?
JIM: That’s exactly what I mean.
SANDRA: If I had, I’d’ve felt like I wanted to die!
JIM (grimly): And that is precisely the way you are going to feel now!
Before Sandra realizes what is happening, Jim tips her across his knee and spanks her soundly.
When Jim has finished his paddling he sets Sandra on her feet. She stands left of the couch and confronts him in high anger.
SANDRA (forgetting her role for a moment and speaking in her normal voice): I’ve never been so insulted in my – (She catches herself and breaks into a childish sob.) You’re a great big bully, that’s what you are!
JIM: No, Elsie. You are just a spoiled little girl who got caught.
GADGET: Some day you’ll remember this as the turnin’ point in your entire life. Jim had oughta spanked you with a cactus.
The girls join in, reminding her sharply of the pain she caused the poor horses.
JIM: Now, don’t all start scolding little Elsie. She’s had punishment enough.
SANDRA: Yes, Uncle Jim, and I shall always remember it.
Gadget comments, ‘Just watchin’ you lambast that kid drew the pain out of me like a poultice.’ Then Sandra gets rid of the girls and sailors by telling them she has seen a capsized canoe, and phones her father to let him know that Gadget and Jim are at the house and are ‘causing a great deal of trouble everywhere’ – and on the last word she rubs the part of her anatomy where they have caused her the most trouble.
In due course, a telegram arrives for the sailors. Sandra says she hopes it’s bad news.
CORA: You’re just sore because he spanked you.
SANDRA: Suppose Gadget had put you across his knees and spanked you?
CORA: When I gets on a sailor’s knee it’s right side up.
And this is something she goes on to demonstrate at the ‘curtain moment’ ending the second act, though it seems some productions aren’t altogether sure which is the right side up:
(All three of them are trying to keep the lid of the box closed, because Commander Stone is inside!)
But we’re getting ahead of things. When Sandra and Cora go to steam open the telegram, the sailors and girls return, having found no trace of any boat in trouble. ‘After that canoe story,’ says Gadget, ‘he ought to spank her with a paddle.’ Jim confronts Sandra over the lie.
SANDRA: I like to tell stories.
JIM: But people don’t like little girls who tell stories.
SANDRA: I don’t care. I like people to hate me.
SANDRA: People that hate you, you don’t have to be nice to.
JIM: That isn’t why you told me the story.
SANDRA (pretending to whimper): No. It was because you spanked me.
JIM: I didn’t really want to spank you, Elsie.
SANDRA: You never could have told it from my end…
All ends well, though not before Sandra tries to change back into her own clothes, finds the house parrot has shredded the skirt and so has to wear a hula skirt instead. Angy and Jerry learn that they should act their age, and ultimately Jim and Gadget do get girls: Gadget falls for Cora and the spanking works its usual romantic magic on Jim and Sandra.
The play premiered at the Roosevelt High School, Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 29, 1943; Robert Dease was Jim and Mary Markve was Sandra. It took off quickly, with at least four more productions before the end of the year, and Aunt Sandra was soon recognized as the starring role, responsible for a great many of the laughs – even if the actress gets some of them at dire cost to her bottom!
In a school context, with performers all the same age, it’s easier to gloss over the play’s central implausibility, the fact that Jim and others are so extraordinarily unobservant as to be taken in by Sandra’s disguise. But also in a school context, Sandra’s disguise presents another kind of problem…
How do you dress a grown woman to make her look like a little girl? Until the late ’60s, there was an obvious answer, being modeled here by LaJune Fredrickson in the senior play at Little York High School, Illinois, in the school year 1952-53:
And indeed even after the late ’60s, in the 1972-73 school year, the same approach was taken. Here’s an example from the junior play at Marysville High School Michigan:
And two years earlier, 1970-71, in the junior play at Drummond High School, Oklahoma:
Still in Oklahoma, the 1963-64 junior play at Byron Driftwood High School, Cherokee, seems to have remembered that, since Aunt Sandra is wearing clothes from Elsie’s suitcase, they are likely to be not only too young for her, but also too small for her:
Bearing all that in mind, let’s have another look at the spanking scene. This is the 1954-55 junior play at Austintown Fitch High School, Youngstown, Ohio, and Judith Antolik is being spanked by Lane Rigby:
In fact, you don’t see what you might think you see in that photo, as you can tell by taking a close look at this one, showing a later scene in which Cora is teaching Sandra some wrestling moves:
We’ll never know for sure what color panties Judith was wearing, but they certainly weren’t white!
If Sandra often wore shorter-than-adult skirts, however, the only people who seem occasionally to have been bothered were the girls playing her. It might mean she didn’t give a full-scale vigorous leg-kicking performance while being spanked – witness this decorously static example from the 1958 senior play at Ralston High School, Nebraska:
But there’s no evidence that the issue troubled anyone else until the play was already twenty years old. One obvious solution was taken by Sherry Harrison at Bettsville High School, Ohio, in the school year 1966-7:
A sailor suit (perhaps provocative when you remember that Jim Matson’s in the Navy)… with shorts!
But most ’60s and ’70s productions stuck to skirts, and some began making a feature of little Elsie’s big underwear. Here’s Teresa Bell effortlessly showing her knickers in the senior play at Schenck High School, East Millinocket, Maine, on October 21, 1971:
And here, in full period bloomers, is Donna Crandall in the 1966-67 junior play at Hale High School, Tulsa, Oklahoma:
And this approach kept Joie Miller safe from unwanted exposure when she was spanked by Paul Bushore in the 1962-63 junior play at Parshall High School, North Dakota:
That was the earliest appearance of bloomers in the play’s documented stage history.
Now we’re going to follow that history, more or less by half-decades, looking as we go at the other available photographs of the spanking scene.
There were at least 81 productions during the school years 1943-44 to 1948-49. The earliest known photograph of the spanking scene is from the production at Lewiston High School, Idaho, on November 19, 1943, with Dean Mosher as Jim and Virginia Richey as Sandra:
Spanking photos from 1940s productions are relatively thin on the ground, perhaps owing in part to the less than universal availability of good photographic equipment and expertise. Witness this image of Jean Hagans being spanked by Don Schlotz at Marion High School, Kansas, on January 29, 1946:
But thankfully there was better technology on hand out east the year before, leaving us this great image of Betty Kroll and Charles Mutti in the senior play at Croton Harmon High School, Croton-on-Hudson, New York, on November 17, 1944:
… or this one of the 1944-45 senior play at Curwensville High School, Pennsylvania:
And sometimes the press took an interest, as in this production at Rock Rapids, Iowa, from the very end of the decade:
The Early 1950s
There were at least 64 productions during the school years 1949-50 to 1953-54. We begin on March 24, 1950, with the junior play at Escalon High School, California. More of the cast are gathered in this publicity picture than will actually be on stage to see Richard Kearsley spank Miriam Johnson when it happens in the production, but Miriam is still putting on a good show for the camera:
355 days later, we come to the junior play at Thorp High School, Wisconsin, on March 14, 1951. The photographer hasn’t troubled to find the most flattering angle on Charmaine Wolf as she is spanked by Eddie Wojtalewicz:
Also that year, at Monticello High School:
On now to April 1952, when Act Your Age was the senior play at Hartford High School, Michigan, with David Rittase as Jim and Helen Dyer as Sandra. And as so often, when it comes to publicity, the newspapers did love a spanking scene:
In the same year, Toppenish High School, Washington, staged it as the junior play, and Bob Putney spanked Donna Hougey:
Here are Harold Larson and Jane Nielsen at Portland High School, Connecticut, in the school year 1951-52:
And here’s Harold spanking Jane:
And finally for this half of the decade, we get a bit of vigor at Farmington High School, Connecticut:
Curiously, she’s one of only a very few Aunt Sandras we’ll see attempting protective measures!
The Later 1950s
There were at least 65 productions during the school years 1954-55 to 1958-59. These included a non-school ‘amdram’ production at Stacyville, Iowa, in April 1956, that got a bit of publicity, partly because the author, William Davidson, was present, but mainly because the blonde actress playing Aunt Sandra had once been a professional model with the Patricia Stevens agency. Regrettably it wasn’t such good publicity that the papers thought to show us ‘Mrs Harry Mendenhall’ getting spanked…
But never mind, here’s a terrific shot from the school year 1954-55, captioned ‘the Navy takes command’, from Defiance High School, Ohio, with Marvin Schatz doing the honors and Roxanne Widmer giving us that all-important, panicked look that says, ‘Oh no, I’m being spanked!’
Westward ho to Wisconsin, to see Aloha Ponterio being spanked by Lewis Musser at a rehearsal for the production staged at Melrose Mindoro High School on November 12, 1954:
West again to South Dakota, where Act Your Age was the junior play at Hot Springs High School that same year:
North to… well, it has to be North Dakota, doesn’t it? To be precise, we’re dropping in on Towner High School, where the highlight of the junior play features Don Baglien and Verna Busch:
Now south to Oklahoma, where Doris Harrison of Tipton High School is getting her spanking from Parke Largent:
And westward again to South Bend High School, Washington, where Doug Pederson took Elva Christensen over his knee in the senior play on November 19, 1954:
Just under 50 weeks later, and we visit the senior play at Upper Dublin High School, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, on November 2 and 3, 1956. Richard Wolf is spanking Anita Lewis, but, in an unusual move, the production seems to have done away with the couch and has him sitting in the window seat:
And on November 15 and 16, 1956, it’s the turn of Janice Peterson to get a spanking from Bob Ardell at Marengo Community High School, Illinois:
Now we leap forward to the school year 1957-58, and call in on Independence Christian High School in Iowa, just in time to see Barb Brammer get spanked by Parker Holland:
And on April 25, 1958, Janet Husemoen was spanked by Gerald Bjorlo in the junior play at Spring Grove High School, Minnesota:
And seven months later, into a new school year, Myra Cantrell gets the same treatment from Mike McMullen in three performances, November 20-22, 1958, at Auburn High School, Washington:
And that is the only time you’ll see Sandra (as Elsie) wearing black stockings!
The Early 1960s
There were at least 34 productions during the school years 1959-60 to 1963-64. The earliest is the 1960-61 senior play at Trempealeau High School, Wisconsin, and it suffers from botched OTK positioning:
Janice White of Attica High School, Indiana, also seems a little off the flat in this senior play effort from 1961-62:
There’s a slight improvement at Clark County High School, Kentucky, when Gary Palmer administered his palm to Sandy Fulks, but she’s still not positioned quite right:
And still in 1961-62, the next two productions, both of them senior plays, suffer from the common problem of letting the girl keep her feet on the ground. First at Clay City Community High School, Illinois:
And now at Merchantville High School, New Jersey, with Joseph Reed spanking Lynne Mancini:
No, I hadn’t forgotten that last one when I mentioned Aunt Sandra’s stockings a few moments back. It’s part of a group of pictures from around this time where the photographer has shot a rehearsal of the spanking scene in which one or both of the actors are not in costume. The other two come from the following school year, 1962-63. First, the junior play at William Chrisman High School, Independence, Missouri, where Steve Fadler is properly dressed as sailor Jim, but Betty Palmer is in her regular clothes, not disguised as little Elsie:
And here’s a somewhat glazed Tom Wyne giving his performance rather less than the excellent Jean McDowall is giving hers in this rehearsal for the junior play at Eisenhower High School, Decatur, Illinois:
This shot from the November 1962 production at South Middleton High School, Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, also looks at first like an out-of-costume rehearsal picture: at least, that dress Sandra Lee Naugle’s wearing doesn’t look much like a distinctively juvenile disguise:
But take another look at her hair: she’s pinned on some little girl’s braids – which don’t even match her true hair color!
And still in 1962-3, we go to Dallas – Dallas, Pennsylvania, that is, where Michael Jones spanked Linda Rowett:
On to the school year 1963-64. At Stayton Union High School, Oregon, Barbara Spellmeyer is snapped just as she is being taken across Bob Koch’s knee:
Meanwhile, over at Ridgefarm High School, Illinois, Sally Livengood is already in position, though it looks as if Terry Dillman has a long way to reach if he’s to deal with her at all effectively!
The Later 1960s
There were at least 18 productions during the school years 1964-65 to 1968-69, but only two of them yielded spanking photos. Happily, the first is an excellent one from the senior play at Zeeland High School, Michigan, in November 1964, right at the start of the period. The production got an uncommonly long run of three performances, all of them featuring Ken Blaukamp as Jim and Emmy Janssen as Sandra:
Emmy’s outfit offers the opportunity to mention an ongoing trend in productions over the past ten years. The script specifies that Aunt Sandra’s ‘Elsie’ disguise should include a straw hat and ankle socks, but since at least 1955 a minority of Sandras have instead worn knee socks like Emmy, and indeed like Susan Rathborne in the junior play at Manchester High School, Iowa, on May 11, 1960:
In idle moments I wonder whether this might have anything to do with changes in sock fashion since 1943: as ankle socks became popular for older girls, did some directors start to feel they were no longer quite the right wear for Sandra’s young alter-ego? But whatever the truth, let’s enjoy those knee socks when they come!
Skipping ahead to 1969, we have no opportunity to see what Tara Waldrop is wearing on her legs as she is spanked by Rick Lynn in the 1969 production at Herrin High School, Illinois, but she is wearing a suitable expression on her face:
The Early 1970s
There were at least 14 productions during the school years 1969-70 to 1973-74. Our first port of call is the splendidly named town of Snowflake, Arizona, where Loretta Guthrie got a good spanking from Allan Adams during 1969-70:
Next we go to Quinlan, Texas, where Martha Jackson is taking no chances over underwear exposure during her spanking by Joe Fields in the 1970-71 junior play at Boles Home High School:
Now to Wisconsin for a performance at Kaukauna High School on December 4 and 5, 1972. Debbie Vanderloop has suffered as badly at the cropping hands of the yearbook designer as she is about to suffer from the spanking hand of John Femal (who, despite his surname and looks, is definitely male):
And finally to Arizona in the school year 1973-74, where Page High School gives us the latest known photograph of the Act Your Age spanking scene:
Tail off towards the end though it does, that’s still an impressive showing across more than thirty years, with a grand total of 231 known productions (including the April 1943 premiere), in almost every state of the union. And, as always with this kind of widespread high school play, I’m reporting only the productions I’ve been able to document from freely available online sources; there are likely to have been many more. But this play offers such a wealth of comic situations and visually striking moments that, unlike Men are Like Streetcars, it’s not uncommon for a photographer to overlook the spanking altogether.
Despite that, the productions can hardly have cut it out: the Dramatic Publishing Company is very punctilious about requiring clients to seek authorization to make changes to its scripts, and the spanking is such a central incident that removing it would require a lot of consequent alterations to get the plot to work. To put it simply, if a school doesn’t want to include the spanking, it had better not choose the play at all!
And that has a bearing on the next phase of its existence. At some point the DPC allowed it to go out of print, but, unusually, it remained on their books and continued to be offered in typescript. Their website features approving quotes about it from four schools in the Midwest and Texas, though there’s no way of knowing precisely when those productions took place. But in 2012, Jennifer Montgomery was looking for a 1940s period piece to put on as a school play. She was a high school teacher in Marion County, Kansas – yes, the same Marion County where that blurry old 1946 spanking photo was taken – and guess what period piece Jennifer chose, 66 years later! The play was performed at Centre High School in November, with this very pretty high-school high-flyer in the role of spanked Sandra:
And this seems to have begun a small renaissance for Act Your Age. In 2013, the play was considered for production at Greenon High School, Ohio, on a short-list that also included classics like The Importance of Being Earnest and Blithe Spirit, but all of them lost out to Aladdin. But later the same year it was revived again at a Wisconsin high school, with Sandra played by a student who had been Bianca in the same school’s 2012 production of The Taming of the Shrew. No spanking photos have yet surfaced from any recent production, alas, but it is fair to say that we have probably not yet seen the last of Act Your Age!
Note: Figures for numbers of productions correct at the time the article was republished in May 2015; more will no doubt be discovered in future! This article will be kept updated as further 20th-century productions are found; thanks to Richard Windsor for discovering some of the pictures featured in the updates!