Nichols Hampton got "the bug" when he was cast as Joseph in the Fifth Grade Christmas Nativity play opposite Jessica Parkman as Mary. Young Jessie was already an experienced actress even at the age of ten, having vicariously lived the life of her community theater actress mother for as long as she could remember. What struck Nichols from the start was how knowledgeable and skilled Jessie was in the art of acting.
"Think about who Joseph is," Jessie advised Nichols at their first rehearsal. "You're not just some cardboard cutout standing there in the manger with me. What is it like to be the step-dad to God's kid? Why did you marry Mary when she wouldn't let you have sex with her?"
That was the first time Nichols heard a girl say the word "sex" in front of him and he turned red-faced with embarrassment.
"You do know what sex is, right?" Jessie wanted to know.
"Well, what are you thinking about Mary then?" Nichols asked defensively. (He hoped it wasn't sex!).
"I'm thinking about how blessed Mary must have felt to be in the manger with her son, a gift from God," Jessie answered. "I'm thinking about how much pure love Mary must have felt and so that's what I'm focusing on in my performance. Mary, the Mother of God. Can you imagine?"
Nichols' family wasn't particularly religious so he hadn't given that stuff much thought but after Jessie's little lecture he went home and read the Bible and researched the birth of Jesus and felt like he had a better insight into what it must have been like for Joseph, "the forgotten one" as Nichols liked to call him.
The play was a success and Nichols was swept off his feet by Jessica Parkman from the moment she opened the door to the technique of acting for him. From that moment on the two became good friends because of their shared Mary and Joseph experience.
Jessie got Nichols involved in other theater opportunities – both at Hillsboro Elementary School and through Community Theater because of her mother. They were chorus members together in the Hillsboro Community Players' productions of Joseph and The Technicolor Dream Coat and Peter Pan. They were some of the kids in Fiddler on The Roof and The Sound of Music. They were two of Annie Oakley's siblings in Annie Get Your Gun. They played Emile's children Gerome and Ngana in South Pacific and Jemima and Jeremy in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
And, in their most favorite roles, they were Jane and Michael in Mary Poppins with Jessie's Mom as one of the housekeepers.
It didn't take Nichols long to figure out that acting and theater was a fulfilling escape and distraction from Jessie's 'regular life' as she put it. Jessie never spoke of her father. She came to Hillsboro from Miller City in third grade when her mom moved in with "a guy" but that didn't last. Now they lived in an apartment in a rundown brick apartment building not far from St. Stanislaus Church.
Nichols lived in one of the big Victorians on the Hilltop section of town with his 'normal family' as Jessie put it. His father was a lawyer and his mother a nurse and he had two older siblings who were 'cool' in Jessie's eyes. She loved visiting his house "and not just because you have a built in swimming pool!' she'd laugh.
Jessie's Mom was a waitress (breakfast-lunch shift) at Johnny C's Diner. She appeared to be perpetually tired whenever Nichols saw her (and she seemed to have a drink in her hand often). She was obsessed with all things theatrical, constantly dragging Jessie to auditions and rehearsals. Jessie's mom was usually in the Chorus or cast in smaller supporting roles but even a novice like Nichols could see that it was Jessie who had the true and complete talent in the family (although he'd never say that to her mom's face).
Jessie told Nichols about her Aunt Jenny who lived in Miller City, married to a doctor and quite happy but she started out as a struggling New York actress, landing small roles in off Broadway plays and occasional New York based soap operas and television shows.
"Jenny's career never took off but my mother, who was much younger, moved down there too and tried to get something going herself but of course nothing happened," Jessie reported.
When Aunt Jenny married and left the city, Jessie's mom gave it another few years before finally giving up (when she became pregnant with Jessie), moving in with her sister and brother in law in Miller City where Jessie was born and spent the first eight years of her life before moving to Hillsboro.
Jessie was a pretty girl with long brown hair and sparkling brown eyes. She was emotional which made her a good actress but sometimes her high-charged reactions were a challenge as a friend because of her moods.
Nichols knew that Jessie's home life was a challenge and the unpredictability of her even more emotional mom played into Jessie's moods so he was understanding of the situation and patient with Jessie when she wasn't in the best of temperaments.
Community Theater was their common bond but Nichols' friendship with Jessie was so much more as far as he was concerned. He knew she used their friendship as an escape but he didn't mind her hanging around his house and he liked the idea of having a semi-girlfriend even though Jessie never defined their friendship in those terms.
Nichols was content on pretending they were romantically involved since he was an actor even though they had often played brother and sister on stage. Nichol's mother said he was too young for that romance stuff anyway.
Nichols had plenty of free time in the summer. He had a once-a-week paper route, he mowed lawns and did other odd jobs for pocket money, but he still had ample time for community theater work and hanging out with Jessie - which was something he would be happy to do 24/7.