The Glamour of Stage and Sound

Growing up with music

The sounds of wonderful records filled our home. Stravinsky’s Petrouchka,   Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, Debussy’s Fêtes, Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah “Bacchanal.” Or, my mother’s favorite, Offenbach’s Gaîté Parisienne. Plus there were live- in-person string quartets at other people’s homes where I was babysat as my father joined friends playing just for the hell of it. I’d drift off into sweet slumber to the soothing sounds of Mozart and Brahms, whose names I already knew.

Plus my father’s New York family was musical. When Dad had been a kid, his equally young sisters Erminie and Marion were the other two-thirds of Jacksonville, FL’s Kahn Trio. Grandmother had pushed them into starting careers, even though no one else in her family or my grandfather’s were musicians. Grandmom figured there was money to be made with a novelty act: little prodigies dressed all in white playing serious music.

Marion continued playing the piano for the rest of her life, accompanying singers and teaching. And she continued to love performing music. Aunt Min went into managing performing careers of other musicians, admiring their talents, loving them: composers Henry Cowell, Elie Siegmeister, and Vladimir Ussachevsky, lutenist Suzanne Bloch (composer Ernest’s daughter), guitarist Rey de la Torre, the Stuyvesant String Quartet, and others.

Marion had two grand pianos in her big Riverside Drive apartment. And even though I couldn’t play the piano, she’d invite little me to sit at one, tell me which keys to play, and together we’d bang out a stirring version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or something that sounded like Debussy. I loved that. She also introduced me to jazz. Not that she played it. But she admired Duke Ellington. Just before Christmas 1944 she bought us tickets for an Ellington Orchestra Carnegie Hall concert. Neither of us could get over how debonair drummer Sonny Greer looked. We liked the music, too.

At Marion’s apartment, my brother Gene and I would put on shows for the family where Gene and I would act out scripts that I had written, those resembling the kinds we heard on the radio with Fred Allen, Jack Benny, the Great Gildersleeve. I’d take the character voices, allowing Gene to be the announcer. Announcers weren’t interesting enough. Poor Gene, I was the pushy star; he was the shy younger brother.

On one such visit my mother’s sister Fanny bought theatre seats for Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town—the original cast—starring co-creators Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The music sounded great. But I didn’t understand the story. She also took me to Carousel, which got to me, making me cry through “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after seeing John Raitt’s Billy Bigelow go off to heaven and leave his sweet young daughter.

John Raitt in Carousel w name

As a pre-teen, convalescing from complications following what was supposed to be a routine appendectomy, radio constantly supplied entertainment. And re-connected me with jazz, still not knowing the word when Duke Ellington hosted a program, sponsored by Pio Wine with the singing jingle: “Bob-adda-be-bop Pio Wine, Bob-adda-be-bop Pio Wine. Ask for Pio Wine each time. There’s port, sherry, and muscatel, Jack, the flavor sure is swell, a wine that no one can decline, keep some handy all the time.”

Doug Arthur w name

Then announcers started to sound almost significant. Listening to daytime disc jockeys nearly convinced me. From Glenside, PA, WIBG’s Doug Arthur (born Lexington Smith), for example, every day said the same thing: “Doug Arthur. Danceland. Records,” introducing his show. No further words. That was polish. That was modesty. Over the years many d.j.s would do the same kind of thing: little signature phrases or sentences to start or end their shows. I did something like that myself eventually.

And there were transfixing radio serials with Pierre Andre making the most of “Captaaain Midniiiight, brought to you by Ohhhvaltine.”  Or Del Sharbutt’s creaminess making rich, hearty Campbell’s Soup sound resonantly nourishing. And there was The First Nighter. He hung out with actors! Going to plays at a little theatre off Times Square where he mingled with such stars as Barbara Luddy and Les Tremayne. Another performing future seemed glamorous: radio actor.

Aunt Fanny knew how I loved the radio and bought me a radio play set with scripts and a wooden microphone. Plus sound effect equipment: a wire brush to scrape on a table, simulating moving train wheels, a rack of wooden pegs to move up and down suggesting a marching army, little rubber plungers to bang on the chest and conjure horse hooves, pieces of plastic to crinkle and make a sound like fire. And I developed quite a repertoire of voices:  French accents, old ladies, tough guys, faking a man’s deep voice before I hit puberty. My New York family got regularly startled by getting phone calls from strange people they didn’t know, until I revealed the boy behind the vocal curtain. Were they humoring me? Maybe.

The voice was on its way.

 

 

The Kid Starts Starring…Sort of

Youth

(Partial entry)

In the 8th grade at Sanford Prep, our teacher Mrs. Russell wanted the class to put on a performance of The Knave of Hearts by Louise Saunders.

Knave of Hearts

I knew I was destined to play the lead; I just didn’t  realize which one.

Cute, giggly Pamela was to be Lady Violetta, the future queen who made the tarts. Actually I was assigned to be King Pompdebile The Eighth, not a lead role after all, because I could sound like someone really old with a cracked voice. Young people always think people’s voices change when they age. Only when we get to be that old do we realize that’s one of the few things that often doesn’t change.

When we started reading the script out loud it became clear that Pamela just didn’t have it to be Lady Violetta. She sounded like she was struggling even to read the words.

“Does anyone here think they can help Pamela?” Mrs. Russell finally asked. Good teacher, huh?

Guess who?

“OK, Gordon,” Mrs. Russell said. “Let’s go back to her first lines. Pamela, read them, please.”

Pamela made a face. I don’t think she wanted help. Especially not from me.

“Am I late?” she began reading. “I just remembered and came as fast as I could. I bumped into a sentry and he fell down. I didn’t. That’s strange, isn’t it? I suppose it’s because he stands in one position so long…”

By now we had all heard those lines often enough that we didn’t laugh. But Pamela read it all in a sing-song voice and missed all the chances to be funny.

“All right, Gordon. What do you think?”

I didn’t want to say that she really stunk; I had a crush on Pamela, not that she was interested. So I said, as friendly as possible, “Uh, Pamela, you should probably not make every sentence sound the same. Like when you say ‘as I could’ you should say ‘could’ like it’s the most important word. And the same with ‘sentry’ and ‘down.’

“Do you understand, Pamela?” Mrs. Russell asked.

“No,” Pamela said, pouting.

“Could I read it for her, Mrs. Russell?” I asked.

“Certainly. Go ahead.”

So I pitched my already deepening voice higher and read the speech. I was really good.

Everyone laughed. Including Pamela.

“That’s wonderful, Gordon,” Mrs. Russell said. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you read the part for now and let’s see how the rest of it sounds.”

I did get a lead role. One I didn’t expect. Lady Violetta. Mrs. Russell thought it would be strange for me to dress up as a girl—real boys didn’t do that sort of thing—so we’d perform The Knave of Hearts as a radio play. My medium, at last. I also provided sound effects and vocally doubled as one of the heralds. We set up microphones in the basement under the school auditorium and broadcast the show to everybody upstairs in the auditorium. No one in the class was allowed to tell anyone else that it was me playing Lady Violetta until after the performance.

I was a hit. But it didn’t make Pamela like me any better.

For the next five years I’d be on stage in class plays, plays for the French Club. In French. Plus plays for the Spanish Club; one  was Ollantay about one of the great Inca warriors. I played him in a cast that included Ecuadoran Frank Tosi and Venezuelan Leonore Garcia, native Spanish speakers.

Mary Rose

I had always gravitated to foreign languages; it was such fun sounding like someone from another country and pretending to be someone more special than who I found myself to be. I specialized in portraying fathers and other elderlies, not romantic leads.  

I played the father in J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose and an elderly  priest, Father Hart, in William Butler Yeats’ The Land of Heart’s Desire. One part of a speech from that  stays with me still:

“Put it away, my colleen;

God spreads the heavens above us like great wings.

And gives a little round of deeds and days,

And then come the wrecked angels and set snares,

And bait them with light hopes and heavy dreams.”

Why does it stay with me? No idea. And the play was such a mystical and odd choice for such a non-denominational school.

The school motto “No Talent Lies Latent” had another application. I became a different type of performer: a member of the football team. Until I got to Sanford, I‘d never play any sport except tennis and only against my father. He always complained, when I hit to his backhand, that I was taking advantage of his need to preserve his right arm for bowing his viola.

Sanford w words

In my first year at Sanford, starting there in the 8th grade, I was still 12 years old when arriving in September 1946. We boys were all expected to play football. One reason was certainly to get good exercise. Another was probably to build character. And a third was so that Sanford couldn’t actually field enough players to make genuine teams. There were not a lot of us.

Given my age, I was qualified to join the Midget team. Midget teams were, as the name implies, little kids, grade school kids. To be a part of such a team we had to be younger that 13 at the start of the season. That‘s how I made it, being born in October after the season started. I weighed about 145 pounds and was around 5’ 10.”  I qualified. becoming a tackle. Terrifying the little kids at some of the schools where we played. But against The Church Farm School I faced some tough looking guys around my own age.

With this start in the sport and thus advantaged, I came to love the idea of knocking down other boys with minimum danger to myself. Those were days, incidentally, when there was no such thing as an offensive or defensive team. We played the entire games. And by the 10th grade, starting at age 15, turning 16 in October, of course, I’d made it to the Junior Varsity and the next year as a regular sub on the Varsity team, a tough guard who’d knock’em down whenever possible.

Part of this performance was what our coach, Phil Sawin, Dean of Men (!) taught us: to mock the opponents across the scrimmage line from us. With such menacing and disorienting phrases as “Look out! The play is coming right over you.”

To build up credibility in our own power, the head of the school and its founder, Ellen Q. Sawin—mostly thereafter called “Mother” by many of us, given that we all lived there from September to June—hand-wrote encouraging notes to us. They were on small pieces of paper which could be folded up and put into our helmets (no pockets). They’d say such things as “Dear Gordon. I know Phil and the boys are counting on you to do your best. And you will. Love, Mother.” On the other side of the paper was a short prayer of which everybody had a copy. Then, before the game started, we’d gather in a huddle and read it all together aloud, but softly.

In my last game against Germantown Friends, in a Philadelphia neighborhood where I’d briefly lived (5th grade at Fulton Elementary), I was looking forward to heroic tackling and fierce blocking. But I never stepped onto the field. I’d left my cleats in the dorm and couldn’t play with street shoes.

Fight song: “A Sanford warrior is a big bold man and his weapon is a pigskin ball. When on the field he takes a big firm stand; he’s the hero of large and small.” So much for my heroics.

Sanford 2 (2)