He never blamed The Beatles for his being bumped, but, the day John Lennon was shot, while Pops was ill himself, I sort of sensed he thought there was some sort of cosmic payback ….”
by dan schneider
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a racist. It’s just that I sort of get nervous around white people. It’s not that I fear them, per se- this is the 21st Century, after all. It’s just that they’re so lame, y’know? I mean, think about it- what have white folk contributed to this nation’s culture? War, racism, disease, death- in general. I know. People will say, well, white folk gave us Archimedes and Mozart and Einstein and Picasso. But they were Europeans. Yeah, yeah, I’m just fooling. Just pulling your string. Take it easy. The truth is I’m not such a big fan of modern black culture myself. All these young rap stars faking their ‘bad ass’ childhoods, while most of them grew up in the suburbs. It’s silly- just like all that Ebonics crap back in the 90s.
Still, here I am, trying to find the seat I paid for in the Welk Champagne Theater, in Branson, Missouri. Yes, you heard me- the Welk Champagne Theater! As in Lawrence Welk– that old white guy from years ago, from somewhere out in the Midwest, the purveyor of ‘champagne music’- next to syphilis thought to be one of the sure signs of the return of the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. Now, you may ask yourself, what in the blue hell is a thirty-seven year old brother doing in Branson, Missouri- international capital for redneck music, aka country and western, and worst of all- not even at a country music festival, but at a shrine to a man, many years dead, whose music has even less seeming connection to himself or his people?
Well, that’s where you’d be wrong. You see, my pops, Albert Eugene, was a tap dancer years back, and during the spring and summer months when the Welk Orchestra was touring the country between seasons of their TV show, Mr. Welk would always bring my father along to thrill audiences in such Negro-less places as Boise, Idaho, Yakima, Washington, and Bangor, Maine, among many other places. Pops would be gone for months at a time, tapping his way across barn floors and saloon halls, but every month mama would get a Western-Union money order, and things would be good for the next 30 or so days. Now, I never met Mr. Welk. But, Pops said he was one of the nicest people a man could meet, of any color, and during the winter Pops would watch the Welk Show almost religiously. While other kids in my nabe were watching American Bandstand, and later Soul Train, I was still unweaned from the high-flying dance moves of Bobby Burgess and Cissy King. I could have sworn they were brother and sister but Pops said they weren’t. And what smiles. I’m surprised that Bobby and Cissy were not hired as spokesmen for Crest, Colgate, or Pepsodent. White folk with the whitest chompers I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it was a latent childhood sexuality, but when Bobby would flip Cissy around in the air, and her skirt would fly this way and that, and I could see her shapely muscular thighs bending and flexing, well, I just found that the most exciting thing on television. Hah! Imagine old Miss Cissy today, gumming down her food, knowing that she was the object of the sexual fantasies, and roving self-pleasuring fingers, of a nine year old Negro boy from Newark, New Jersey. Yeah, y’all can have your Diana Ross, Vanessa Williams, and even Beyoncé Knowles- to me, Cissy King will always be the most beautiful woman in TV history.
Of course, Pops had his own favorites. Myron Floren, the accordionist, was probably the man he was most friendly with out on the road. One night, in fact, during the winter months, Mr. Floren was in town for a funeral and looked up Pops, and jammed with him and an old jazz trio Pops knew over in Jersey City. It was sort of weird, I recall- like mixing psychedelic polka music with hip hop Duke Ellington. I can’t really describe it any other way, except I remember how easily Mr. Floren blended in, with not a hint of the usual fear white folk harbor to the very ends of their bodies about black folk. Either he was the most genuine white man I recall from my youth, or the most stupid. I’ve never really come to a definitive answer on that intriguing point. I also met, one time, when Pops had a gig on a Long Island nightclub, years later, Miss Peggy Lennon- one of the famed Lennon Sisters from the end of the Big Band era, who starred on the Welk Show for many of the early years in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember she gave me a cherry lollipop and complimented Pops on raising such a fine, handsome, young boy. All I recall is how I could not help but notice all the wrinkles on her face, which, close up, were like the rivers on a large topographical map, but which, if you stepped back a few feet, seemed to magically blend back in, giving her the illusion (almost) of being a young woman still. I recall walking to and from her, moving my head this way and that, as she and Pops gabbed, just so I could get an exact distance, a precise measurement, of where she went from old to young, and back again. I spent almost an hour fine tuning my observation until Pops slapped me in the back of my head and told me to go get some fruit punch for Miss Lennon.
But, this is all years ago. Tonight, I have time to kill on a three day business trip to Branson. What I do is not really important, but even if it were important in a national defense sense the actual particulars of what I do would still bore you to tears. I am one of the many forgotten cogs in a system that knows no names of a person, only their weekly paycheck amount- a goodly sum, I must admit. I don’t even have the meager satisfaction of making people happy like Pops did. He died years ago- of nothing in particular, but everything in general just giving out all at once. So did mama die, but hers was a heart attack, at night. It was quick. There were a few options for tonight- a movie, a wrestling match, or the Welk Show.
The movie playing at the hotel was an old film I hadn’t seen in decades- the Laurel and Hardy film The March Of The Wooden Soldiers, based upon the operetta Babes In Toyland. I watched the first half hour or so before leaving for this show. The costumes were as cheesy as I remembered, but there was something disturbing about the colorization. I remember the hue and cry a decade or so ago when classics like Citizen Kane were to be colorized, and I’m glad that it wasn’t. Still, although this film was hardly in that league I guess it was meant to be in black and white. Or, at least my brain was used to it that way, in the dozen or so times I’d watched the film, even though those memories, themselves, were decades old. It’s funny the way memory works. Anyway, I chose this mode of entertainment, I guess, because I was thinking of Pops. Also, because in ten days it’s gonna be Christmas and the show tonight, and all week, will be Christmas carols. Call me an old sentimentalist, but Christmas is still my favorite time of the year, even though it’s been over twenty years since I stepped inside a church, mine or any other- to bury Pops. Mama didn’t want a church funeral, so we cremated her. I’ve often regretted that- not for the church part, but because I’ve never been able to affix a proper final image to her. All I remember is how even on her last day of life she insisted on having her favorite perfume dabbed just behind her ears, so that the funeral parlor men would know she took care of herself till the end. Oh, well.
Anyway, here it is. The theater is really filling up- mostly with folks my age or older. I feel young again, somehow. Not a bad seat, either. I should be right next to this old white man with the beard and cowboy hat.
’Excuse me, is this seat 15?’
‘Sure enough, son,’ says the old white man, ‘park’er right there.’
‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’
He extends his hand to mine. ‘The name’s John MacAllister Tewksbury- but everyone calls me Mac.’
I shake his hand, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Thomas Eugene.’
‘Eugene, you say? I heard that- wait a minute. You wouldn’t be related to that colored dancer that was a part of the Welk Show, at least when they traveled around the country?’
‘Why, yes. I’m Albert Eugene’s son.’
‘Well, that explains it. Don’t find many of your people, I mean colored, at this type of music. Hell, even old Charley Pride- that old dog- rarely shows up here anymore. I think the last black singer I seen in town was Johnny Mathis, the crooner, of all people. It was on some double bill with the Osmond Brothers- y’know, without Donny and Marie. No, wait. Little Richard was in here a few years back, with his Gospel singers. Not bad, I must say, but gimme that old rock-n-roll, any day. Tutti Frutti still beats Nearer, My God, To Thee. Call me a heathen, but I believe that.’
‘Little Richard, eh?’
‘Yeah, he’s still fruity as ever, but a damn good performer. I only came here tonight for these old fogies ‘cause I love the Christmas songs.’
‘Me, too. Basically.’
‘Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a snob or anything. It’s just all this bubbly music stinks, quite frankly.’
‘Champagne.’, I say.
‘Champagne music, not bubbly music.’
‘Son, you know what I meant. Yes you did.’ And he slaps my knee in fun.
‘Guess it’ll be a few minutes.’
‘Yeah,’ says Mac, ‘I was torn between the Christmas show and seeing the wrestling match downtown, at the auditorium. I hear that the DODC even had a return appearance by Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. He was gonna be taking on some hot new kid from Japan- the Tokyo Tiger, or somethin’ like that. I heard the WWE even has a scout, looking at the kid. Jake, y’know, well- he’s an old-timer.’
‘I’m a wrestling fan, too- but what’s the DODC? I never heard of that league. Is that like the old NWA, or the WCW?’
‘Hah. I knew you were a grapplin’ fan. I just knew it. A rasslin’ man can always tell. I guess it’s like what them queer fellas call gaydar. ‘Cept I got grapdar! Grapdar, I say- get it?’
‘The DODC?’ I ask.
‘Yeah, that’s the Do Or Die Conference. It’s one of them, what you call, extreme rasslin’ outfits. A local operation run by Tubby Tibbets- he started it out of his garage a few years back. It does pretty good tourin’ around the south Mississippi Valley. Y’know, like most of the small operations, it’s the place where kids try out, hopin’ to make it to the WWE, or where old pros, like Jake ‘The Snake’ go to just hang on, make a few bucks. He thrills the audience with his snake schtick. I seen him one time, out in Iowa City, and I guess the promoter couldn’t come up with a real big, ferocious lookin’ serpent, so Jake DDTs his opponent and reaches into the bag, and there’s this garter snake- about a foot long. Jake gets so disgusted that the crowd’s laughin’ up a storm, that he chucks the old devil at the promoter, and walks out without even collectin’ his pay. I’m sure he got it later, and maybe a bonus for bein’ embarrassed, but I never forgot that night. Then, I seen him about two years ago when me and the wife were in England, on a tourist trip. He still was doin’ the whole bad guy/snake act. The Limeys loved it. It was real good American fun.’
‘Really?’ I say, ‘I saw him in that documentary a few years back and he looked all washed up- on drugs and slidin’ slowly to hell. Real what they call white trash.’
‘Yeah, I seen that too. But, he was lookin’ pretty good in England. Wanted to go and see him tonight. Like a tradition, or something. But then I’m thinkin’- Jake the Snake or the birth of Jesus? Which is more important? I’m not ashamed to tell you it was a down to the wire decision, not one made lightly.’
I say, ‘I remember when I was a kid, and me and my pals would sneak into some small venues, where the WWE, then the WWWF, would put on shows at local high schools- with mid-carders. Y’know, the guys you’d never, or rarely, see on a TV show, only if a ‘name’ was injured. But there, I was shocked when the ring announcer said that Haystacks Calhoun- y’know, the wrestler who weighed like 7-800 lbs?; that Haystacks Calhoun, himself, was gonna be in an Over-The-Rope Royal Rumble match against three dozen midget wrestlers. So, y’know, this meant that either he had to toss all thirty-six midgets over the top rope, or they all, collectively, had to toss, or push, him over the top rope. It was a daunting task for the little fellas, but so damn hilarious.’
‘Yeah,’ says Mac, ‘I seen Calhoun once, right before he died. He was still wrestling, but bein’ eaten up by cancer, or something- maybe drugs or booze. He was only, maybe, three hundred lbs. So, who won?’
‘No one. After several body slams of the midgets, a couple of them got behind Calhoun’s legs, and a dozen or so other midgets push him backwards, and the whole ring just collapsed. I swear it wasn’t planned, ‘cause Calhoun couldn’t get up, and he was laying on top of three or four of the midgets, who were wailing that they couldn’t breathe. But, it was funny, though.’
‘Hah! Sounds like a good time was had by all. That’s why I love wrestling. Baron Mikel Scicluna was my favorite. Of course, I always knowed it was fake. But, that’s the goddamn point! I never understood why everything in this life has to be a competition. Why couldn’t things just be fun? Why would there always have to be a winner and a loser? I think that’s what I liked about Welk, why I chose to come here. It was this, rasslin’, or some dumb old Laurel and Hardy movie. I could never stand the fat one- what’shisname? Anyway, even though some Welk acts became famous and others didn’t they always seemed welcomed back into the fold. It’s like the Welk Show was a real American family.’
‘I know, Pops made me watch it every Sunday night. The only other show I can recall him watching, when I was really little, was Ed Sullivan. He got booked one time on Sullivan, but then, a few days later he was told that they’d have to reschedule. That was because that was the week they booked The Beatles. Pops never got another shot. There was always some more famous dancer or some new hit rock band that got a call before him. Not that he’d’ve become a millionaire from the show, but it might have meant more, and higher paying bookings at swankier clubs, if only around the Borscht Belt. Pops always dreamt of a steady gig in the Poconos. He never blamed The Beatles for his being bumped, but, the day John Lennon was shot, while Pops was ill himself, I sort of sensed he thought there was some sort of cosmic payback at hand- y’know, that Lennon was going to heaven before he did.’
‘Son, I don’t think the good Lord gives a pickle’s damn whether things like that occur. I guess I’m just an old heathen, not to mention a full-blown hypocrite, since I’m here for a Christmas show.’
I say, ‘Not at all. I’m not religious, either. But I do like the music, nothing wrong with that- I especially love The Hallelujah Chorus.’
‘My favorite is The Little Drummer Boy. Rump-a-pum-pum, and all.’
‘Yeah, that’s good, too.’
At that Mac turns around. It looks like the show will begin in a few minutes. A man is onstage telling the audience a little of the history of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, the TV show, and, of course, the Grand Old Man himself. Mac seems drawn to every word. I wonder if Jake The Snake’s match is on yet? I wonder if the snake has been tossed? I wonder if Laurel and Hardy have foiled old Silas Barnaby yet?
I look around, and, although I’m one of maybe only eight or nine non-white faces in the whole building, I don’t feel alone. Pops is not far away, I know that, even though he’s many years dead, and many miles from here, planted in what he came from. Damn, thoughts like this only come when I’m sentimental. I wish I were at the wrestling match. I should just get up and leave. I should! Mac looks at me. He smiles. I’ll stay. What the hell? The first bars of a Christmas song I don’t immediately recognize are playing. The curtain rises and a long row of Welk Show regulars step forward in unison. They are all white, they are all smiling. Their suits and dresses are perfectly pressed, and their hair perfectly coiffed. I know them. I knew them. Most of them. A bubble-making machine off in the corner of the stage is blowing its reason, and fake snow is falling, some of it wafting toward Mac and me.
I cannot leave. I will not leave. I smell mama’s perfume under it all, somehow, although the truth is it gets weaker and weaker every time it returns. Yet, I am happy.
(illustration: troy dockins)
Dan Schneider: www.cosmoetica.com