Dropping your kid off at summer camp can open up a Pandora's box of memories—your first kiss, making s'mores around the campfire. For me, it brings back a very particular memory about a very unusual summer, when a few hundred kids and I accidentally appeared in a sleazy sex comedy. Oops.
Picture, if you will, a camp full of theater geeks, the kind of kids who pack tap shoes and sheet music in their duffel bags instead of swimsuits and cleats, who haul trombones and violins off the camp bus rather than tennis rackets and soccer balls. This is the kind of camp where you can spend the entire summer sweating in an un-air-conditioned shack rehearsing shuffle-ball-changes for a production of "No, No Nannette" without ever setting one toe in a freezing lake or swimming pool. In other words, heaven.
It was 1982, I was 14, and I had found my people. We were all convinced, in the deluded way of semi-talented high school students with indulgent parents, that we would be STARS one day.
So, you can imagine what we all thought when the camp director—a schlubby middle-aged dad with a comb-over and an outer-borough accent—stood up at lunch one day and announced: "Attention campers! I just finished meeting with a movie director: He's bringing a crew here to film 'Meatballs 2' ... and you're all going to be in it!"
If I shake my head a little to the side, I can still feel the damage in my eardrum from the screams that shook the dining hall that day. WE WERE GOING TO BE IN A MOVIE!!! WITH BILL MURRAY!!! THIS WAS THE MOMENT WE'D BEEN WAITING FOR ALL OUR LIVES!!
"Oh, one little thing," the camp director told us. "When your parents come for visiting day next week, they have to sign a release form allowing you to appear in the movie."
Who cared if the release form was vague? Who cared that there was no mention of unions or the possibly of getting paid to be in this big-budget Hollywood movie? It was "Meatballs 2," the sequel to one of my all-time favorite movies! Repeat after me: It just doesn't matter!
So our parents came, they signed, and we waited.
Then one morning, around 6 am, when the girls in my bunk were all still asleep dreaming of Chinese food and John Stamos, there was a pounding on the cabin door. "Wake up, it's movie time! Throw on some clothes and come on out!" a strange man shouted. Huh? Is this how Hollywood really worked?
Wiping the grit from our eyes and grabbing the first clean T-shirt from the piles in our cubbies, we all got dressed and wandered outside, where a small crew was setting up one rather sad-looking camera. "OK, this is the scene," the director explained. "You're in an exercise class, and you just follow everything the counselor is doing. Got it? Everything!"
"Wait, aren't there costumes? Should we at least comb our hair?"
"Nah, it's fine, your pajamas are your costumes!" one of the crewmembers joked. They then lined us up—the girls with the largest chests in the front row, the rest of us (including me) in the back. Remember, this was a group of 14-year-old girls. The same age my daughter is now.
Then the "actress" playing the counselor started doing side bends and lunges, and we all copied her. So far, so good. But wait for it … here comes the humor part: A teenage boy sneaks up and puts a (fake) frog down her back; as she writhes and screams, we follow along, as if we believe her freakish moves are part of the exercise class!
Even at the tender age of 14, I knew this was not good comedy. In fact, I think some boys I knew had already covered this joke—and did it much funnier—in a sketch they performed during fourth-grade recess. That's when I looked around and noticed that not one of the "actors" looked familiar. And, was I imaging things, or did the crew seem to be made of the sketchy guys who hung around at the pizza place across the lake?
After we finished shooting the scene, I worked up the courage to ask the guy who played the frog-dropper, "Excuse me, when is Bill Murray getting here?"
"What? Why would Bill Murray be here?"
"Isn't this 'Meatballs 2'?"
I never got an answer. Frog boy just bent over howling with laughter, "'Meatballs'? Hey, Frankie, get this, she asked if this was 'Meatballs 2'! Where's Bill Murray? Oh, sorry, maybe Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner will show up, too!"
Turns out, the movie our parents had unwittingly given us all permission to appear in was actually called "The First Turn-On." It was produced by Troma, the low-budget company best known for the "Toxic Avenger" series. It was rated R—a hard R, for lots of naked shenanigans (which, at least, they filmed off-campus).
The film crew stayed at camp for a week or two, filming a few scenes of kids running across the lawn or eating lunch, and then they disappeared and life went on. We went back to our rehearsals and dance lessons, and while a few of the kids did actually go on to be stars years later, it had nothing to do with Bill Murray or a cheesy sex romp made on a shoestring budget.
I actually saw the finished movie about a year later, when it played for a week in the grimiest, stickiest shithole of a theater in the next town. I will not describe the plot to you, since that is what IMDb is for, but let's just say it made "Porky's" and "American Pie" seem like Dostoevsky by way of Kurosawa in comparison.
A few interesting things I found out years later: Madonna—who was still a struggling club singer in the East Village at the time—auditioned for this movie and was rejected. And while the rest of the cast went on to obscurity, Vincent D'Onofrio, who later starred in "Law & Order" and movies like "Jursassic World," made his film debut playing a guy called, I kid you not, Lobotomy.
What strikes me all these years later is that, as far as I know, the camp director never got called out for lying to his campers and selling us all out to a sleazy company for what I presume was a small location fee. Today, that story would have been all over the Internet within hours, with outraged parents calling for his arrest and public shaming. Instead, it's just an amusing anecdote I tell my friends:
So … this one time in theater camp?