Saturday, May 30, 2009
Old Time Entertainment
I don’t know if it is just my perception, but Spring seems this year to have arrived with a lushness that is unusual even in this lush and blessed Eden. Every blooming plant I have seems to have three times the number of flowers it managed to produce last year – indeed, a lilac I was considering removing because it was so sadly skanky and miserly with its blooms last year has astonished me with lavish lavender clusters this year. My wisteria, planted only two years ago has thrown out its first-ever bud and my climbing hydrangea, a plant that is notoriously slow to establish itself, has at least three flower heads about to bloom. And so it goes; every plant on the estate has either tripled its display or has suddenly bloomed for the first time. Peony plants, which are everywhere in my demesne, are practically invisible beneath the loads of buds they are bearing – even some I moved after they had already appeared this Spring have departed from custom and thrown out buds.
Some months ago my sister Lucy sent me some photographs that she had been given by our cousin Annie who has probably never thrown away any memento she ever collected, including a paper cup in which an aunt once gave her a drink (I am not joking here). A couple of these pictures are from an event my sibs and I staged so very long ago, and one picture in particular shows us so happy, so lively, so united that it smote my heart just a bit. I have wanted to post it here for a while, but something more than my complete lack of know-how has held me back – although I must confess, the lack of know-how and even greater lack of will to learn anything new involving computers may do the trick, however I resolved the other issue.
Speaking of the lack of will in the matter of computers, I must say my team leader called me aside yesterday and informed me that my boss’ application to get me a third week each year of vacation from the rigors of work at Smallville Solutions has seem to be stalled and that he therefore has directed her to tell me that I am to take my third week on the DL, so to speak, and that I was to tell her when I was taking this extra vacation time, and she was to record it for the department’s eyes only, up to the full extra 40 hours, while the department blatantly lies to HR and claim I am at my post. I will entertain no remarks here on the possibility that there will be no noticeable difference in the amount of work produced. I do need to note that my desperation to retire and my hatred of all things job- or computer-related has nothing to do with this particular place of employment, where I have a great boss (as just demonstrated), and perfectly satisfactory colleagues. The distance of my work from my home is debilitating after driving it for more than two years through rain, snow, sleet, sun and traffic citations. But it is the lack of discretion over the disposal of my own time and life that is becoming unbearable. Living in two places as I do, I am unable to get a social life going, or to pursue real interests (if I have any) in either place. I could, of course, but I am far too inert and too easily discouraged or distracted. It is time for me to have a real life, instead of this mess through which I have sleep-walked for lo! these many years. Yeah, I know – cliché, there. I called a reverse mortgage lender this week, and I arrived in Reedville to find a fat envelope awaiting me with the info I had requested from him. I am afraid to open it thus far, because I have gone so far in my mental retirement (no clever cracks here!) that I can’t bear to be disappointed by what I find.
But I digress. What I was about to talk about was a time long ago when I was about ten or eleven, when there appeared in various locations around Reedville posters announcing the coming of something called the “Darktown Jamboree” to our local town hall. I had no clue what this was all about, but any break at all in the dailiness was a matter of great interest in sleepy, never-changing, rural Reedville. Indeed, if a cow farted, my siblings and I would be diverted for half a day or more. Our Town Hall had been built in the 1930’s and included, besides the garage for the local fire trucks, of which there were two, and the local library and town offices, a basketball court along one side of which was a fine stage with heavy purple curtains (in my memory they are velvet, but I am sure that was not actually the case) and overhead stage lighting and the works. This building, which was built by an agency as one of those projects that made up Roosevelt’s attempts to provide employment during the ‘30s, was a real center for town life: we voted there, held suppers there, crowned the annual Harvest Queen there, spoke to Santa and received gifts from him during the annual cartoon show and party for the local children put on by the Fire Department there – I even attended first grade in its basement. And once in a great while, chairs were set up on the basketball court and some show or play was performed there upon the excellent stage. These were memorable events; this Darktown Jamboree was to be another such show.
I had no clue what the name portended, nor would it have made any difference one way or another if I had. But this was nothing more nor less than a classic minstrel show with local citizens in blackface performing Stephen Foster songs along with other music commonly associated with what we invariably called “colored people” in those days. Of course the central feature of minstrel shows is the group of men sitting in a row telling corny jokes with various broadly drawn reactions by the group to the punch lines. I recall very little about the show itself, except that we were convulsed with laughter throughout, and a new interest was born in the hearts of the Shaughnessy clan.
I realize now that minstrel shows were disrespectful and demeaning to the black people they purported to portray, and I would not consider attending one now any more than anyone in our town would consider performing in one. As a child, and I think this is common to many children, I could know several conflicting ‘facts’ at once. I could know that this show was depicting black people as somewhat buffoonish without ever once seeing any relationship whatever between these portrayals and the only black kid that I knew, Clinton Parks, of whom I have written. It would not surprise me at all to find that Clinton could – or did – attend this event and may have found it as removed from his experience or as unreferential to him as did I. Or perhaps that would not be the case, perhaps he would have found it hurtful. I have known personally a number of black people who were highly entertained by Amos and Andy, (as well as others who were decidedly not) and the show Amos and Andy really was no more than an extension of the minstrel show idea.
I am straying into territory where I have no authority at all, but it is my guess that for a group in power, such as whites in the U.S. in the 50s, there is very little that is admirable about shirking work, or laziness, or getting by on trickery. But to a group who are powerless, whose members can work their asses off, behave on jobs with complete integrity, and who can be the absolute model of the perfect worker and still make absolutely no forward progress in life or in society, the image of a man who ‘gets away with’ shirking his duties, or who puts one over on the boss or company, or on society, is a far more admirable or heroic image. So where the white man sees someone like – was his name ‘Kingfish’? – I never saw the show, and only listened to snatches of it on the radio; I was too young to comprehend it – but I am referring to the slick, feckless character that provided so much of the humor in Amos and Andy as kind of useless and typical of the ‘laziness’ of a group of people whose best efforts brought no reward, who had no reason whatever to work hard for the benefit of white society; someone who is in the powerless class whom Amos and Andy and Kingfish represented may see such a man as something quite different. Amos and Andy was just entertainment after all, and the writers probably never gave deeper matters a thought, but I am guessing that the character that was kind of the ‘straight’, socially acceptable character – was it Amos? – was kind of a stand-in for white society. No one would have considered putting on a show at that time based on blacks duping or frustrating actual whites. Indeed, there has been a string of fiction back to Robinson Crusoe, through Gunga Din and Uncle Tom’s Cabin right up into the ‘60s and beyond where the admirability of a nonwhite character was based directly on his selfless devotion to one or more whites. (Spellchecker doesn’t like ‘admirability’, but I do.)
As I said, Darktown Jamboree struck a chord in the Shaughnessy hearts. This was particularly true, I think, of Gary. Throughout his life Gary was hugely drawn to the oddballs, which one could argue the characters in a minstrel show were. He loved Jimmy Durante and used to do routines for the family, imitating him. He liked in real life people who were somewhat weird, but who were authentically so – who had no clue to their own eccentricities; although they may be aware that they were not popular. If someone was goofy-looking or had odd ways, Gary was drawn as the proverbial moth to a flame. He did not champion these people, or plead their case – he treated them somewhat roughly (I don't mean physically) as he treated everyone, but he liked them, and they tended to like him. He could laugh at their oddities – and did so – but he did not bully or mock them in front of others. He would directly address eccentricities, and was neither put off nor intimidated by them, as I would be. He could and did like a number of non-white people, without at all having any predisposition to like such a group as a whole. In this (as in so many other things) he was my opposite. Whereas anyone more or less had to earn Gary’s affection or interest, I was predisposed to like anyone whom I perceived as different from me. I am sure we were sides of a coin. Gary’s last great enthusiasm of this kind for a portrayal of an oddball before he died about 14 years ago, was the character Ed Grimley as portrayed by Martin Short. I knew the second I saw this character that he’d be right down Gary’s alley, and so he was. I wish so much I could have shared Mr. Bean, whom I first saw on TV in Saudi, with Gary. I tried; I brought a video tape home that I purchased in Riyadh, but unfortunately the video format was not playable on our machines.
I am having a hard time working out the timetable exactly, because I know that once we decided to put on our own Darktown Jamboree version, I was learning the format and history of minstrel shows in school along with the work of Stephen Foster, and eleven seems awfully young for that kind of study. Maybe I was older – it seems I would have had that kind of course in sixth, seventh or eighth grade. I look young in the picture, but I always looked young for my age. I was last carded for buying alcohol in my forties. I know that I was the one who came up with such facts as that the traditional names of the endmen were Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones; that there was a traditional sort of break in the jokes where the characters performed a ‘walk-around’ and even some of the traditional jokes, the only one of which I recall now being:
Mr. Tambo: Why is a trip around the world like a cat’s tail?
Interlocutor: I don’t know, Mr. Tambo; why is a trip around the world like a cat’s tail?
Mr. Tambo: ‘Cause it’s fur to de end of it!
We deliberately made our jokes as corny as possible. We tried to hew to tradition as much as we knew how, but made two innovations to encompass our circumstances; we added a female (called “Sapphire”, of course) to allow Lucy to join in, and we added a moment for Liam, who was very young, to perform. We did this latter by announcing “a word from our sponsor” at which point Liam walked out wearing a sign that said (Wait for it!) “Sponsor” and he said, “Hello” and walked off. A word – get it? Get it?
Gary was the driving force; anything in which he did not interest himself tended to peter out among us younger Shaughnessys; although I was the eldest, he was usually the leader. In a rougher age where I would probably have inherited the land, he would probably have assassinated me and taken over; happily for me, we managed to all follow Gary's lead without the need for such strenuous measures. We worked pretty hard at perfecting our show. We boys dressed up in Dad’s old cast-offs including the amazing number of old felt hats we found around the house, while Lucy padded herself out to look fat and wore an Aunt Jemima style bandanna and a red satin blouse. We rehearsed for days – probably weeks; we thought we were exquisitely funny. Finally we were able to perform at a big family picnic at my Grandfather’s home. It was there that the photograph that Annie acquired was taken, although I doubt that she was the one who took it. Most likely it was taken by Aunt Cassie, her mother and my Mom’s sister. Our ‘blackface’ was skimpy; we had remembered to bring our costumes, but realized once we got to Grandpa’s we had forgotten whatever we had been using for black, so we used the greasy black deposits that had formed over the years on the woodstove in Grandpa’s kitchen – a substance that we were to discover adhered to everything we touched and was nearly impossible to wash off.
Our minstrel show was one of those childhood events that we all remember fondly. The picture was taken at one of those family picnics where all my Mom’s sisters would gather with all the cousins and we would break up into age groups and head out for a day of mischief. Lucy and I usually wandered off with Annie who lived in the next county and whom we saw not more than two or three times in a year. Gary, being more of a ‘real boy’ than I, had no use for the girl cousins and would be off with Rob and Jack and whatever boy cousins showed up. All of us cousins (many of whom now can barely stand each other) loved those picnics at Grandpa’s and enjoyed each other tremendously. Grandpa had a big old house with the gloomiest-looking tall evergreens in the front yard and along the side (we always called them ‘pine trees’ as we did all evergreens, once we outgrew calling them all ‘Christmas trees’, but I think they were firs) – those gloomy kind where the sub-branches, which grow out of each side of the longer limbs that extend from the trunk, droop down and look like they are just waiting to drip rain on a picnic. There were rooms off of rooms inside the house – one attic-type room could only be reached by entering a big old bathroom and going through a creaky door at the far end – and all kinds of places to play could be found, most of which we were not supposed to be in, and which were rendered attractive by that fact alone. The house had a haunted, lonely feel; by the time of the show Grandpa lived there alone. Outside there was an alley paralleling the driveway formed by two rows of overgrown grapevines – mostly Concords with a single vine that bore white grapes that you could eat skin and all, and there was an excellent pear tree which bore a huge number of pears each year, two apple trees which bore mild yellow fruit and a big patch of bushes of some kind of sweet black berries which we called ‘long johns’. There were also two neighboring barns which we were straitly forbidden to visit and into which we usually managed to go surreptitiously at least once each summer.
Anyway, here we are together, happy, blacked up rather sparingly (thank goodness) a long, long time ago when all was possible and nothing bad had yet happened. There’s Lucy, then me, then Liam wearing his ‘sponsor’ sign (upside down, you may note), then Rob, Gary and Jack, the last of whom in every picture was always the cutest kid you ever saw.
So don’t say you don’t know what I look like.