Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Heigh Ho, Everybody! (Autumn Memories)

When I was in my mid-teens, I ran with a guy who came from a showbiz family. His mother, a couple years older than mine, had been a song and dance woman on the vaudeville circuit before WWII. Talkies had come along and in the mid-1930's, the old vaudeville theaters were being converted left and right to show motion pictures; the live stage acts were going the way of the dodo, and while the die-hards hung on, vaudeville was on the skids.

My buddy's mother had never been a headliner. She was a plain, not particularly pretty, Jewish girl who escaped home and managed a few years of kicking her heels up -- a fairly good dancer and singer -- before she got married. Left the biz after the war, had three sons, and after a divorce wound up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

At the time, I never thought to wonder why. Later, I did. Louisiana? Why would anybody Jewish move to Louisiana?

My buddy and his brothers inherited some entertainment skills. They grew up to various real jobs, but did stints as musicians, actors, and con men -- sometimes all three at once.

Each fall, around Thanksgiving, the family would put on a vaudevillian-style review. Songs, dances, bad jokes, skits, all of which were right out of classic routines old when Methuselah was in knee pants. These were, as I recall, put on at the CYO, or some school auditorium, and apparently drew a crowd. The family members were the stars, but they recruited others, usually classmates from their school, to fill in the chorus and such.

One year, my buddy -- call him "Green," though his name was "Greenstein" -- asked me if I wanted to be part of the show, even though I wasn't a student at his school. Since I was already fairly comfortable on a stage, I took him up on it.

We rehearsed the songs and skits and jokes, some of which were so corny they'd put Iowa and Indiana to shame. One segue song line: "Take a walk before breakfast on an empty stomach ...

" ... just be careful whose stomach it's on ..."

The material was, I thought, pretty tame, pretty lame, and I halfway expected dead silence when we got up to do it. I sensed a bomb in the making.

I was wrong. The audience -- about a hundred and fifty people, as I recall -- ate it up. Laughed at ancient one-liners so old they needed wheelchairs to get on stage: "Who was that lady I saw you with last night?" "That was no lady, that was my wife!" clapped after the songs and dances, and gave up a standing ovation when we were done.

What were they seeing and hearing? Nostalgia? Or the passing-parade phenomenon? Old jokes if you've heard them, but new if you haven't?

I dunno. But it was a fun experience, and a pleasant memory, my short stint as a vaudevillian ...

Here's the flavor of it:

The Fleischmann Yeast Hour

(starring Rudy Vallée)

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