This is a fiction piece I wrote several years ago as part of a larger project. I thought I’d post it now for the holidays. It’s based on memories, not only mine but those of my Aunt Toni (who provided details about food and food preparation, among other elements) and of others in my family—--my sister Kathy and cousin Bobby in particular. I’ve changed some names, but kept others. I found that in fictionalizing real events and people, that I would sometimes forget what the names I invented referred to. So in early stages of composition I kept the actual names, even if the people and places became substantially more invented. I hope no one who has these names feels insulted. If this ever goes to print, I’ll change more names.
I expect this will be of interest chiefly to members of my extended family, though the historical detail of life in western Pennsylvania in 1951 is as accurate as I could make it. So it is my gift, especially to my extended family, for Christmas 2002. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to them, and to everyone.
Flora had some last minute shopping to do before going to Arnwood to help Mum with Christmas Eve cooking, so Walt came home for a few minutes in the afternoon to pick them up. He was working at the store on Main Street today. She told Billy to call and remind him, and watched as Billy asked the operator for 409, which was the Singer store number. He knew that number and their home number (5329-M). She noticed again that when he put the heavy black phone receiver to his left ear he immediately switched it to his right. She was going to have to ask Dr. Spino about this.
Doris who answered the phone told Billy that Walt was already on his way. Billy went to the picture window to watch for the Singer sewing machine truck. Sometimes he could spot it at the bottom of the hill, at the corner where they got the green city bus to go into town, or the orange bus that took them to Arnwood.
The window was ringed with the new Christmas bubble lights that Walt bought and that Billy and Kathy would sit and watch. Kathy would soon tire of it, since she was not quite two years old, but Billy could sit there watching for a long time. The lights came on when Walt plugged them in, but it took awhile for them to warm up so that the bubbles started moving, and that's what the kids waited for. There were green, red, yellow, blue and orange lights, and they began bubbling at different times, so the kids had a good time watching them.
She was getting Kathy into a dress when Billy shouted that daddy was home. Soon she heard the front door open and Walt came into the bedroom. She told him they would be just a few minutes. He took off his coat but didn't hang it in the closet. He draped it over the back of the couch in the living room and sat down in the leather chair. He was wearing his good brown suit today because he was working the floor at the store, and he had on a brown tie only because Flora had prevented him from wearing a blue one. His color blindness was only a problem with dark shades, she noticed. He seemed to be in a good mood, but as soon as he got home he always started feeling tired.
Flora succeeded in getting Kathy's dress, white socks and white shoes on her before she started fussing, but getting her arms into her winter coat was a struggle. Kathy had worn braces on her legs for a very short time, but when she started walking it was clear that she didn't need them and her legs were healthy and strong. So already this was a happy Christmas.
Flora got Billy into his coat and hat and gloves, and Walt carried Kathy down to the truck. They didn't have real steps yet, just piles of big rocks that were flat but ridged, and some moved a little when stepped on. Walt and his brothers and one of the neighbors had built the walk last summer, using rocks the bulldozer had scooped along the hill from the street to just beside the house. Someday this would be their driveway, though now it was just dirt on a hard rocky surface. There was a little snow on the ground, but Walt had brushed most of it off the walk with an old broom this morning, and no more had fallen since.
Flora and Billy went around to the passenger side of the gray panel truck with the red Singer insignia on the side. Billy climbed in first, crawling over the seat and down between the two front seats into the back of the truck, where he sprawled on some old blankets. Then Flora stepped up and sat down, while Walt came around and then handed Kathy to her.
The road down the hill passed bunches of trees and a scattering of houses, then the gas station and the Hudson-Nash showroom, until they came to the corner of Hamilton Street, where the many houses were close together and the city of Greenbriar really began. The first few blocks of West Newton Street past the Hamilton corner, still lined with trees but now just a stately single column of them, was a mix of some big stone houses and other smaller wood frame ones, all of them built many years before the war. Then West Newton merged with Pittsburgh Street at the top of the hill that led deeply down and then sharply up like a roller coaster dip, cresting at Main Street, before another steep drop on the other side.
There were fewer trees as they started down the hill but they were very tall and pretty. Rich looking, Flora thought. She noticed a little snow on the large rolling lawns in front of the big stone buildings, formerly the mansions of the town's rich coal barons before they left town altogether, now converted to funeral parlors and the headquarters of an insurance company. There wasn't much snow, but enough to ensure this would be a white Christmas.
When Billy saw the golden court house dome at the top of the hill he knelt on the hump between the built-in seats to look at the gray stone courthouse itself, the largest building he had seen so far in his five and a half years.
Just before Main Street, Walt pulled a little ways into an alley to let them out. Once she and Kathy were down, Billy climbed out and watched the truck continue down the alley.
"Where's daddy going?" he asked.
"Just back to the Singer store," Flora answered. "We'll see him there in a little while. We're going to Royers now. Don't you want to see the flying bottle?"
For a moment he didn't know what she meant but the idea urged him forward with her. Kathy wanted down from her arms, and so their progress was slowed by Kathy's walk. Now Billy was impatient and skipped ahead. Fortunately, there was a side door to the store and she guided them inside.
Royers was the smallest and smartest and most expensive of the Main Street department stores, so Flora only bought there what she couldn't find elsewhere. She'd seen a cashmere scarf she liked on a previous visit and had decided to buy it for her brother Carl. She guided her children to the correct counter and made the purchase. Billy, who was looking at the lit glass cases and holding onto his sister's hand, heard the sound and remembered, and quickly looked up.
He saw the clerk wrap the sales slip and its carbon copy with a rubber band and put it in a dull gold colored metal cylinder. Then he opened a lid on a pipe the same color that went up the wall and across the ceiling. As soon as the lid was opened, the cylinder was immediately sucked up and sent whooshing and clattering through the pipe. "The flying bottle!" Billy cried. Flora smiled as Billy watched for the sales slip to come back through the pneumatic tube and clunk to a stop.
Back outside, they walked past several small shops--Nancy's, the La Rose Shop, Robertsons-- and the big Joe Workman store. Billy knew which one was Nancy's by its orange facade, because of the radio commercial that fascinated him: several men, singing "That's Nancy, with the orange face," slightly off-key.
Billy asked where they were going next and Flora told him, "Bon Ton's. Do you know where it is?" Billy looked past the McCory's five and ten (almost as big as Murphy's across the street)and the Masons building, and saw the big sign that hung over the sidewalk, with a clock in the first O and a temperature gauge in the second. "Right there!" he cried, pointing up at the sign. Billy knew the sign, a conspicuous landmark on Main Street, but he could also read it. He didn't quite know how to read, Flora had 33decided. He knew his letters, and he knew certain familiar words, like Bon Ton and Singer, but she didn't think he had put the two skills together yet. But he was close, and he wouldn't start school until next fall.
Flora thought about sending him to kindergarten, but there was only one nearby, and she didn't know anyone who sent their child there. Since Billy seemed to be learning on his own, and also since he still got upset and sometimes uncontrollable in a crowd of children--who could forget the monumental tantrums he threw at his surprise birthday party in Youngwood last year-- she decided against it. It wasn't worth the money. Her mother agreed, as did Doctor Spino, and so did Walt.
By the time they got inside Bon Ton, Kathy was fussing. Royers had been crowded but the Bon Ton was very crowded and loud. There were no rugs on the shiny wood and stone floors, and the ceilings were higher. She promised Billy some ice cream if he would help her with Kathy while she looked at lined leather gloves for dad. She talked with a clerk at the men's gloves counter while Billy stood nearby with Kathy looking at the lights on a Christmas tree, telling her the colors. He would point, say the color, and she would repeat it. Then he pointed and waited. She cried out the names of colors. Flora looked back once in awhile. Kathy seemed to know red but her other choices were guesses, and when she was wrong and Billy laughed, she would repeat the guess to make him laugh again.
But they both soon tired of this game, and Flora hadn't found what she was looking for, at least not at the price she thought reasonable, so they crossed the short side street to Troutman's, the biggest department store in town. She thought about taking them up to the third floor to see Santa, but Kathy had been frightened by the big man in the bright red suit when they were here a few weeks before, so she didn't mention it, and they stayed on the first floor.
While she held Kathy and bought a pair of gloves--they weren't much cheaper or any nicer than at Bon Ton's but she was ready to give up--Billy stood looking through the glass doors across Main Street where he saw the Singer sign. She thought this would entice him, but when she started to move that way he reminded her about the ice cream. She sighed and changed direction, going back out the side door and down some steps to the little diner below street level. She immediately regretted it for it was crowded and so hot that the glass windows were steamed up. But Billy was fascinated with the idea of being below the street and wanted to stay. He was just starting to work up to a tantrum when a booth became available and they all sat down.
Flora was impatient. It was silly promising ice cream when they would all be stuffing themselves for the next couple of weeks, and they would have cookies and candy within all too easy reach most of the time. And it was getting late. Mum would be beside herself trying to get everything done.
She tried to urge Billy along but he was still more interested in looking around and back up at the legs of people walking by on the sidewalk than his dish of melting chocolate ice cream. Fortunately, Kathy was also absorbed in looking around and a few spoonfuls of ice cream seemed enough for her.
At last she got them buttoned up and ready to go out again. They crossed Main Street to the Singer store. As soon as they got inside the door, Kathy ran across the carpeted floor. There weren't many customers and everyone who worked there knew them. Doris made a fuss over Kathy while Billy stood quietly looking around. Walt wasn't out on the floor. He could be downstairs in the shop or more likely in the back with a favored customer, sipping some holiday whiskey. But Doris' loud praise and Kathy's laughter must have alerted him, and he came out. Billy, who had been so eager to come here, hardly moved. Flora exchanged greetings with Ronnie Welsh, who said he and his wife Reenie would drop by, probably on the weekend. This would be the first Christmas season Flora was able to entertain visitors in her new home. Although she and Walt had spent an evening at the homes of a few of his coworkers and their wives, like Ronnie and Reenie, they had not yet hosted any. Now they could.
Flora talked quietly with Walt. He confirmed that he would have to stay to close up, since the manager had the day off and the assistant manager left early. Ronnie, the only other salesman there today, had the longer drive home. She reminded him that they were eating early so that they could go see his family afterwards. She gave him her packages to put in the truck, and gathered her children for the trolley ride to Youngwood.
The trolleys ran on Main Street so they caught one at the corner, and once they were past the last houses a few streets beyond Main, the six mile ride didn't take much longer than by car. From there to Arnwood the trolley ran alongside the railroad tracks, which Billy really liked. He loved trains, and wished aloud that they would see one go by. Flora was just as glad none did, for she was grateful for the quiet. There were enough seats for everyone on the trolley, and it was a quiet ride. Snow streaked the grass and clung especially to the trees higher up the hills they passed. The route itself was very flat. Soon they started passing standing coal cars and box cars that meant they were nearing the rail yards of Arnwood, and soon after, Depot Street.
When the trolley stopped near Depot Street, Billy wanted to stay on long enough to see the conductor take him stool from one end of the trolley car to the other for the return trip, but Flora told him they had to get off now or they would have to go back, and he wouldn't get any of the jumbalones grandma had made this morning. So they got up and walked in the cold and cloudy afternoon across the black coal cinders, onto the short border of grass and then onto the sidewalk, up Depot Street.
* * *
"Billy Boy!" grandma cried and gave him a big hug and kiss. First it felt warm and then too hot and he wriggled away. Pup pup was standing behind her at the door and he laughed. Pup pup's face was scratchy when Billy kissed him. He smelled like his after shave, Old Spice, which came in a white bottle that they got him for Christmas. Daddy's aftershave was in a green bottle, it was Mennen.
Mummy and Kathy were coming in behind him. "Close the door, close the door!" grandma said to them. "You want all the cold get in and all the warm get out?" She looked at Billy, so he shook his head. Then she laughed and tried to hug him again but he got away.
He ran down the hall, and looked into the living room when he heard voices. The room was darker than outside except around the lamps, the big one standing by the chair and the radio with the red shade, and the lamp on the table in the corner with the orange shade that looked like an umbrella with pictures on it. One of the end tables was gone and in its place was a Christmas tree. Billy was looking for Uncle Carl but he didn't see him. He looked especially at the big black piano. Instead there were three people standing looking at him. He knew them. They were sort of aunts and uncles but older like grandma and pup up.
"Who's that?" Mr. DisPasquale said. "Is that Billy? Hey, Wolule--que ce dice?"
"Look at him! He's so big!" Mrs. DiPasquale sang. "And so fair!"
"He still looks like Flora," Mrs. Gelfo said.
"Oh, yes," Mrs. DiPasquale agreed.
"Have you been a good boy?" Mrs. DiPasqaule said. "Are you going to get lots of Christmas presents from Santa Claus?"
"Or just a lump of coal?" Mr. Depasquale said just as pup pup came in, and they laughed.
"Of course he's a good boy," Mrs. Gelfo said.
"He's my Billy boy!" grandma said and tried to hug him again but he got away and everybody laughed. But by then they were all making a loud fuss over Kathy, and saying how big she was, too.
He left the noise and looked around the dining room. It was dark, too. All the wood was dark and shiny--the doors, the big dining room table, the cabinets and the wood around the fireplace--and he could smell the polish. There was a string of Christmas lights across the mantle, but they weren't on. There were just the little gas flames of two lamps with their curved glass covers, up on the cabinet with the drawers he could now reach.
But in the small kitchen the big light was on, and it was bright. Billy looked in. There were trays and dishes on the table but it was all stuff grandma was getting ready to cook.
Now everyone was coming into the dining room so Billy turned around and stood by the table.
Grandma was saying something in Italian and Mr. DePasquale--his name was Vince, Billy remembered--said something back and shook his head. "No, no," he finally said. "We have to go now. You're busy, everybody's got to cook, so we go."
"We just dropped by to bring some olive oil we got in Pittsburgh," Mrs. Depasquale explained to Flora. "We weren't gonna stay. But you come by on Wednesday, we'll be home." Flora nodded and smiled. Today was Monday and Christmas was Tuesday. They were for immediate family. The day after Christmas, St. Stephen's Day, was the day for visiting friends and relatives.
They were all standing near the small doorway to the hall so Billy outsmarted them like Hopalong Cassidy and went past the dining room table and into the living room the other way, through the big opening, past the big radio. He headed straight for the candy dish on the coffee table. But mummy saw him.
"Just one!" she said. So he took one silver wrapped Hershey's kiss, unwrapped it and ate it as they all kept talking and walking towards the front door. Mrs. DiPasquale and Mrs. Gelfo were nice but they were big and their flowery dresses smelled like lots of perfume and powder. He had been to Mr and Mrs Gelfo's house. They had an aquarium with goldfish in it. Mrs. Gelfo wore thick glasses so her eyes were real big, and looked like two brown fishes swimming in an aquarium.
As soon as they left, Billy asked grandma, "Where's Uncle Carl?"
"Up the street," she said. Then she turned to Flora and said something in Italian.
"He's up at the high school playing basketball," Flora said. "He'll be home soon."
"Maybe you like some jumbalone?" grandma said, and laughed when Billy nodded his head vigorously.
She took Billy into the kitchen and pulled down the silver cookie jar from atop the refrigerator. Inside were the jumbalone. More Italian foods were being sold in stores now, but Flora still hadn't seen anything like her mother's jumbalone. They were cookies but with a cake-like quality, shaped like figure eights and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Jumbalone could also be made like a cake in a pan, which is how Ant liked to make it. She put chocolate chips in hers. Flora made hers like this, but no one could get the shapes exactly as mum did, nor did anyone's taste quite like hers. She suspected that when mum passed on her recipes she always left something out. One evening as they washed dishes Flora suggested this to mum. She didn't deny it. " Maybe I want people to like mine best," she'd said.
Flora put Kathy in the high chair that was kept there for the latest grandchild to need it--first Billy, then Ant's boy Dickie, then Kathy, and now Ant's second child, also a boy, also named Billy, after his father. Dad would watch the kids as they had their jumbalones and milk, while Flora went down to the basement with mum to finish preparations for dinner.
As she made her way down the linoleum covered wooden steps, the smells from below rose up to meet her. These were the smells she'd known since her childhood-- flour and the other ingredients of the pasta in the big bowls on the table, the tomato sauce simmering on the stove, the fish baking and broiling in the two ancient ovens. She couldn't remember very much as far back as when she was Billy's age--her first clear memories were of the house on Stone St. in Greenbriar, and mostly of this house--but these smells were eternal.
This was the Christmas vigil dinner, and no meat was served, and it was the one day of the year when mum served seafood in such profusion. In quick Italian Mum brought Flora up to date on the progress of tonight's dishes, while she rolled out pasta dough on the wood table in the center of the room. She'd already made the spaghetti for tonight that would be served with fish sauce, and now it was time to make the ravioli for tomorrow.
Thin strips of cod were in the roasting pan soaking in water to draw the salt out. By the time they swelled to a half inch thick, they would be ready to broil to make baccala. This was Flora's first task--she saw they were ready and so she got rid of the water and put them in the broiler. At the same time, she put in the spots of black cod for the antipasto. The calamari was already made, and no one but mum touched the eel. Almost no one but mum and dad ate it, either, but she always made it. The cod dipped in batter and fried was served cold, so it was also done and in the refrigerator upstairs. There was cod baking in the oven, some in red and some in white sauce. More cod would be fried in bread crumbs and herbs, and this would be served hot. Flora set about cutting the cauliflower which would also be fried in bread crumbs. So would the smelts, the smallest and tastiest of the fish. Mum checked the sauce for the spaghetti--it was almost done, and ready to be flavored with tuna instead of meat.
By the time Flora went back upstairs to see to the relish trays, the kids were in the living room with dad. He had the record player on, playing a Sousa march which was his favorite music, and he was holding Kathy while dancing a little dance. As Flora got closer she saw that he had a red cherry wrapped behind each ear by its stem. This man who was so modest and dignified, and except for his occasional flares of rapid and seemingly angry speech, so quiet, was showing a side of himself to his grandchildren that even Flora had forgotten.
Billy sat in his grandfather's chair, trying to keep his grandfather's curved stem pipe in his mouth while laughing. Kathy was ecstatic. Flora checked herself from worrying about Billy choking and Kathy becoming overexcited and unmanageable. It was Christmas, after all. She watched for a moment from the dining room and then went into the small kitchen and turned on the bright florescent light.
When the front door opened she thought it might be Walt but then remembered that he always rang the doorbell first before walking in. It was Carl, who bounded upstairs to wash up.
As Flora washed the vegetables and the fruit, she heard the marches stop and the radio go on. Perry Como was singing "The First Noel." Mum and dad didn't have a television set yet, though mum was talking about getting one. At the Gelfos last night she had seen "Amahl and the Night Visitors," a new opera by Menotti written especially for NBC television. "Ah, Flor, so beautiful!" But of course she talked about getting the TV so the grandchildren could watch.
Then she heard Frank Sinatra singing "White Christmas." So many Italians on the radio, and now on television. Even some songs in Italian, like that Julius LaRosa song that mum sang with Billy on her knee. Or Rosemary Clooney--she had a big hit with "Come on a My House" which wasn't in Italian but she used an Italian accent. And she wasn't Italian either but at least she was Catholic. Now that Flora knew neighbors who weren't Italian or even Catholic, and some of the couples from Singer's, she was more aware of how their close world was getting to be part of the bigger one, even as more of them were moving away from it.
Billy wandered into the kitchen just as Carl came downstairs. Carl ruffled his hair as Billy looked up at him. Uncle Carl was the tallest man Billy knew. He watched in awe as Carl filled a tumbler full of water from the sink and drank it down without stopping. Then he showed mummy the elastic band pup pup made for his glasses so they wouldn't fall off when he played basketball. Billy wanted to ask Uncle Carl if he was going to play the piano, but his mother and his uncle were talking and he knew he shouldn't interrupt. Flora saw Billy standing in the kitchen doorway looking doleful and suggested that he go downstairs to help grandma.
That was a good idea so he headed that way--"Don't run down the stairs!"--mummy called after him. "I won't!" he cried. The steps down to grandma's cellar were a little big and hard anyway so he took them one foot at a time until he was almost at the end, then he hopped the last two steps and down to the floor.
"Billy boy! You come help grandma?" He said yes but there was nothing to do but watch. He wondered at how this dough became the ravioli he would eat tomorrow, so he watched carefully. But it took too long and he got restless.
"Be careful, no touch the stove," she warned him. "Very hot. Burn." He looked at the big black and white ovens and walked carefully by them. He climbed up the big step to the part of the cellar where the furnace was, and even though it was pretty dark in there he could see the cubes of black coal, with little gleaming spots coming from some of the top ones. He hopped right back down again and went to look in the part on the other side of the big center room, which was where the lawn mower and other tools were, and the door to the outside and the cement steps up to the little backyard and the long garden. It was too cold to go out without a coat, and the door was shut tight.
Billy came back into the center room and looked up at the big cabinets that held row after row of big jars. Grandma put stuff in the jars and kept them there, so she wouldn't have to go to the store all the time. That's what mummy said. He couldn't see what was in the jars and they scared him a little.
"So you watch Christmas story on television?" she asked him. "With Baby Jesus, and Wise Men sing to him?"
"No? You no remember? Last night? Maybe was on too late for you, huh?"
"I remember--a little bit."
"So, you see, yes? Beautiful sing. What else you see? You see Santa Claus?"
"Yes. On Howdy Doody."
" Oh, boy--You see Santa Claus on Howdy Doody?"
Billy nodded and told grandma the story. "Howdy and Buffalo Bob and Clarabell went in a rocket ship to Santa's workshop, but there was a bad guy--Ugly Sam--and he had Santa tied up."
"But he didn't know it was Santa. He thought it was the Bearded Bandit. But it was really Santa. And Clarabell fell down and hit the Jack in the Box, and Howdy showed Ugly Sam that it was really Santa and he untied him."
"So Santa okay now?"
"You think he come tonight?"
Billy was startled. Wasn't he supposed to come tonight?
"I think he come tonight," grandma said as she cut more dough with the little roller she had. . "Bring presents to good girl and boy. You been good boy this year? Listen to your mother?"
"Yes, I guess," Billy said, but he wasn't sure what being good meant. Did it mean all the time? He wasn't good all the time.
"Sure you good boy," grandma said. "I know. Santa Claus gonna come."
Even in the basement they could hear the doorbell ring.
"Who do you think that is?" grandma asked. "Go see." She wiped her hands on her white apron. "I come, too. Pretty soon we eat. You hungry?"
Billy shook his head up and down and made his eyes big. Grandma laughed.
When Billy got upstairs, daddy was in the kitchen with mummy, but when he saw grandma coming he went into the living room. Billy followed him. Daddy said hello to pup-pup and got the newspaper and sat in pup-pup's chair to read it. Billy went and sat on the couch with pup-pup and Kathy. Kathy was sleeping. He and pup-pup talked quietly about what to leave for Santa that night. Pup-pup said if he left a cup of cocoa and some cookies, Santa would be grateful because he had a hard night going around to all the houses on his sleigh and going down chimneys and back up again. Billy thought it was a good idea and went to tell mummy.
Flora was setting the table and smiled when Billy asked her if they could do what pup-pup said. "Yes, that's what we used to do," she said. "Although I'm not sure Santa likes cocoa anymore." When she said that grandma laughed. She was putting dishes of food on the table.
"Is it time now?" Billy asked.
"Yes, I think it is," Flora said. She saw that Billy was already standing in front of the china cabinet and looking inside. She opened the door for him and he reached in and took the small silver bell. He stood by the table and rang it, back and forth, back and forth. It was his job.
Flora put the bell back in the cabinet as Walt came in from the living room, followed by her father who was carrying Kathy, now awake. Billy found his place at the table. He was left-handed so he sat at the far left side, nearest his grandfather. His grandmother sat on the opposite end. Walt sat next to Billy, then Carl. Flora sat on the other side, nearest the kitchen, with Kathy in the high chair next to her. Carl said grace and the meal began.
Pup-pup and daddy drank red wine out of little glasses. Billy had the same kind of glass but he drank 7 Up. Plates and bowls began to circulate, but Billy didn't eat much of what was in them. Grandma had made him a special napkin to wear, with two strings that tied around his neck. Now she brought the big bowl of spaghetti and he ate plenty of that. He was still eating spaghetti when the plates of different kinds of fish were passed around. He liked the kind that was in the spaghetti sauce, although that wasn't as good as meatballs. He didn't like what was in the other kinds of sauce, but he ate some of the cold fish and especially the fried fish that tasted like the fish sandwiches daddy brought home sometimes on Fridays. The kind he liked best were the little fish, so mummy cut them up and took out the bones.
Daddy didn't eat much fish either, not even as much as he did. The others teased him.
"Come on, Walt," grandma said. "Why you no like?"
"That's squid, mum," he said.
"He doesn't even eat fish usually," Flora explained, then said to Walt, "It's mostly breading inside with some spices, it's in tomato sauce. It doesn't taste like fish. "
"No, it tastes like squid," Walt said.
"Hey, Walt, you work today?" pup-pup said.
" In the store."
"They make you work on Christmas Eve?" grandma said.
" People shop on Christmas Eve," Walt said. "So somebody has to work. What am I going to do, say no? Truman fired General MacArthur, mum."
Flora gave him a funny look. "What's that have to do with anything?" she said.
"Anybody can get fired, "Walt said.
"T'a me," was all that grandma said, but they all knew--even Billy--that it was short for poveta me, or 'poor me.' "I no think Truman fire you."
Uncle Carl didn't talk much, he just ate. Then he got up, said goodbye to everyone and disappeared upstairs.
"Where'd Uncle Carl go?" Billy asked.
"He goes see his friends," grandma said. "You see him again tomorrow."
Mummy took Billy's plate away and grandma asked who wanted Jell-o with whipped cream on top, and Billy said, "Me! Me!"
Billy was still eating his Jell-O when everyone else left the table. Walt took Kathy into the living room while Flora hurried to help her mother with the dishes. Pup pup came back with a deck of Old Maid cards, and he and Billy played for awhile. Then grandma hurried into the living room and turned on the radio. It was seven o'clock and time for the rosary.
The radio was big and brown like the furniture, and the record player was inside it. It had lots of buttons on the front all in a row, and a dial that glowed when the radio was on. There was a kind of ribbon of wood underneath the buttons and he liked to rub his hand along it like it was a real little fence, and his finger rode along the bumps. He wasn't allowed to touch the buttons but he was allowed to touch the wood, so he did. Sometimes he listened to programs on it, like Fibber, McGee and Molly, and Baby Schnooks. He used to listen to the Lone Ranger and the Jack Benny program but now he could see them on television.
But now everybody had to be quiet for the rosary. All the lights were out in the living room except for the little candle glowing red-it looked like Billy's Seven-Up glass except a little smaller. Grandma sat on the stool near the radio and turned it up loud so they all could hear the priest saying the prayers. The priest said part of every prayer and a lot of people on the radio said the second part together. The priest had a funny way of saying Jesus at the end of his part, but he said it the same way every time: Je-ZUZ. Then the people in the church would answer.
After the rosary was over pup pup turned on all the Christmas lights. They were red and green, white and blue. He turned on the ones outside, too. There were three candles in the window that were really electric lights, too.
The big people drank coffee and mummy told Billy it was time to go to United so he should go up to the bathroom now, but he said he didn't have to go now. They got their coats on and Billy kissed grandma and pup pup goodbye. While he stood in the hallway and waited for mummy to finish talking to them, he looked back at the Christmas tree. Tomorrow there would be presents under it for him.
* * *
They rode through the dark to United, along winding roads with rounded hills occasionally outlined in dimly seen snow. Billy watched the roads and tried to recognize where they were going, but apart from the darkness he didn't take this ride enough to remember it. He knew the route to Arnwood pretty well but not this one. When they suddenly slowed down and turned down a road with houses around it he was surprised. When they got out of the car, mummy pointed high behind them. "Look, Billy," she said. "You can see the coke ovens."
"Where? Where?" he cried and then he saw the orange glows in the distance.
"You can see them better on the way home. We'll pass a little closer."
They were parked on the hard black coal dust in front of Uncle Bug's yellow one story wood frame house. But only the Christmas lights were on there. Instead they walked up the dark brick walk to the tall gray wood house where Aunt Beatty and Uncle Joe lived with his other grandfather, granpap. Inside were Uncle Bugs and Aunt Rella and their daughter, Beverly, who was Billy's age. Uncle Bill and Aunt Carmella were there, too. They had a baby, a girl, named Carmen. Aunt Beatty had a baby, too, another girl, also named Kathy. Everyone said hello to him, and said how big he was getting.
Uncle Bugs and Aunt Rella were the nicest ones, though Aunt Rella talked really loud sometimes. But she laughed a lot, too. Uncle Bill and Aunt Carmella talked a lot, and so did daddy when he was with big people, but Aunt Beatty and Uncle Joe were quiet. They kept their heads down and didn't move them much, they just moved their eyes.
After a little while, Walt took Billy down to the basement where granpap was. Granpap was very glad to see him. He had shiny black and gray hair, and when he smiled Billy saw gaps in his teeth. He looked at Billy a long time, his eyes shining and his face all bright. Then he joked back and forth with Walt while Billy looked around. There wasn't much to see, and the ceiling was even lower than upstairs. Pretty soon they went back up.
The adults sat and stood in the kitchen talking with one another and it was not long before Billy was restless. He sat for awhile by himself in the living room, looking up at the low ceilings. His cousin Beverly didn't talk to him but stayed with her mother and the babies. There was nothing to do and no one to talk to. By now he had to go to the bathroom, but it was a long time before his father would take him out to the outhouse. It was dark and cold and he was a little frightened, but fortunately he only had to do number one.
Daddy said he was old enough to go by himself but he would watch him from the door. He had his coat on but it was still cold. The porch light didn't go the whole way but almost. He opened the door and it was dark and smelly inside. He went as fast as he could. On the way back he could see daddy in the door, looking behind him and then looking out towards him. When he got back inside he noticed the pump that was now inside the house. Grandma in Youngwood had a pump outside in the back, but it was just for watering the garden. Here it was where all the water came from.
The adults were sitting around the kitchen table playing canasta and talking. He watched them for awhile.
"So does Santa know you're living upstairs now?" Uncle Bugs asked him.
Billy wondered that, too. "Yes, he does," Flora said. "We wrote to him, didn't we, Billy? And now we have a real chimney for him to come down."
"Is Father Stephen coming around this year? I mean, the Star Man?" Uncle Bill asked as they played.
"Father Stephen isn't here anymore," Uncle Joe said. "Not for a couple of years. The new one doesn't do it."
"He scared the hell out of me when I was a kid," Uncle Bugs said. "With that big hat and long robe. I never knew the answers, either."
"Well, he shoulda asked you about rabbit hunting, not religion," Uncle Bill said. "You got the candy anyway, didn't you?"
"He scared me, too," Aunt Beatty said, "but still, it was kind of nice. The altar boys carrying that lantern with all the stars, you know, cut out so the light came through."
"Hey, Billy, what does your other grandfather tell you about--whatshername--Befana?"
Billy looked at his mother but she was looking at Uncle Bill.
"Just what are you talking about, Bill?" Aunt Carmella said. "What do you know about Italian things?"
"I work with Italians," he said. "This one guy told me that when he was little his mum and dad used to scare the shit out of him talking about Befana--or something like that. A witch. An old witch who comes down the chimney and leaves sacks of ashes and coal for bad kids."
"That's terrible," Aunt Rella said. "Terrible thing to tell a kid on Christmas."
"So?" Uncle Bill said. "I didn't make it up. This guy told me."
"Well, he must be Sicilian," Flora said, and they all laughed.
Then Billy's grandfather came up from the basement where he stayed most of the time and everyone gathered around the kitchen table, even Beverly. They all had little glasses and drank a toast. Billy's glass had root beer in it. Then a big, very thin white wafer was passed around. Everyone wished each other a merry Christmas as they broke off a little piece of it and ate it. They said it was bread but to Billy it tasted like cardboard.
Then it was time to go. Flora got Kathy from the bed upstairs where she'd been sleeping. Kathy cried a little when Flora got her into her coat, but she fell asleep again as soon as the car started up. Billy was almost asleep himself when he suddenly looked up to see the coke ovens glowing on the mountain. It was like orange fires in caves, but all the same size. He watched until he couldn't see them anymore. He felt himself falling asleep for sure now, but before he did he reminded mummy about the cocoa and cookies for Santa. She said she would remember.
* * *
Billy awoke early the next morning in his own bed in his own room. He wondered if it was too early, but he was awake right away. He had a double bed, his mother had told him, because someday he might have a brother. Kathy had her own room, too, but she slept in a crib that mummy said had been his. Kathy is still a baby, just learning things. He has to help her once in awhile because he is older. She is too little to understand what today is. He is going to go to school after the next summer. He thought about that more and more.
The sun was on the other side of the house, but he could see out his own window that it was definitely light. He got up, opened his door and listened. Everybody else was still asleep. He went into the hall and towards the light coming through the picture window into the living room. He saw the tree in the corner, the same as yesterday. And he saw what was different: the packages under the tree.
His eyes immediately went to something that wasn't wrapped. That meant it was from Santa Claus, mummy told him. It was large, a kind of box, yellow, with blue and red lettering. He knelt down to touch it. The surface was slightly rough. He opened the top. Inside the cover had a red and white stripped picture of Howdy Doody, and then he saw what it was: a phonograph. A Howdy Doody Phono-Doodle.
He ran to get his records. His big record, Tubby the Tuba, was already scratched and worn from use. He had other little records, some bought for him but most that used to be mummy's and she gave him or let him play. But when he got them he couldn't play them. Everybody else was still asleep.
He stood up, not knowing what to do. It was then that he saw it on the coffee table: an empty cup with a brown ring around the inside, and a saucer with a little bit of a cookie left on it.
Flora heard Billy in the living room, and not wanting to miss his discovery of his presents, she poked Walt once and got up. To her surprise, he started getting up, too.
As she wrapped the robe around her she glanced out the picture window. It looked cold, but there weren't as many clouds as yesterday. It was going to be a sunny Christmas.
As Billy found more toys--a western gun and holster set, a cowboy hat and a tin painted gas station--he turned around to see his mummy and daddy in their robes sitting down on the sofa smiling at him.
After he found all his presents from Santa Claus he opened the packages from mummy and daddy, and the ones that Ant Toni had sent. They were mostly all clothes. He went through them fast but mummy wanted to see everything. Then she went into the kitchen to make coffee while daddy showed him how to work the phonograph.
Pretty soon he was playing a new little record, all red, of Gene Autry singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He wanted to play more but mummy said it was time to eat breakfast and get ready for church.
There were mostly big people in church, and they stood and knelt and sat at different times, all together. Billy had been to church before but he was more interested today because he understood that the church they went to was downstairs from the school where he would be going. Sometimes Billy could see the priest and the altar boys and sometimes he couldn't. But he could always see the six candles lit above the altar, and he heard the organist singing. She sang in Latin. He didn't understand her, but as the Mass went on and on, he began to make up a story to the way the words sounded. It was about a mother telling her boy to do something. First she called him--
I thought I told you, she said
qui tolis pecatta mundi
and the boy answers no--maybe because he didn't hear her:
me say ray ray no bis
They went from church down to Youngwood in the Singer truck. The sun glinted off the snow, though there were patches of brown peeking through. Flora listened as the radio in the truck said there was more snow was on the way, maybe even tonight. She would keep an eye on the weather and try to get them home before it snowed.
The big meal on Christmas day was just after noon. Although Christmas Eve was more elaborate, there was still plenty to do for Christmas Day, especially since mum saved the best desserts for then. They would be eating all day, but first everything had to be made ready.
But mum and dad had presents for the kids, and they stopped their preparations to watch him. Billy was so completely amazed by the Hopalong Cassidy cowboy outfit mum and dad gave him. There were pictures of Hopalong Cassidy on the western style shirt, and a picture of him on his horse with a lariat that spelled out Hoppalong Cassidy on the chap-style pants. They even got him a pair of black cowboy boots to go with it. Knowing this, Flora had brought along his cowboy hat and guns and holster set. Billy ran upstairs to change out of his church clothes and into the cowboy suit.
When he came downstairs, his grandfather greeted him. "Hey! It's Hopalong Que-ce-dice!" Everybody laughed, as Billy drew his guns.
Her grandmother held Kathy, who gripped her new stuffed doggie and kicked her legs in excitement. She wriggled until she got down, and pup pup got his camera. Walt pulled the piano bench in front of the Christmas tree. Billy sat down with Kathy on his lap. Billy held her with one hand, and pointed a gun at the camera with the other.
Mum asked her about the morning. Flora told her about the phonograph. "He knows the names of all my records," she said, explaining why she got it for him. "Even the instrumentals. I don't know how."
Carl came downstairs and after the kids had opened all their presents, Billy asked if he was going to play the piano. So he sat down and played some Christmas carols. His hands and long fingers moved fast across the keys. Somehow they were making the music he heard but he couldn't keep up with Uncle Carl's hands. Sometimes it looked like the keys were still moving by themselves after Uncle Carl's fingers were already gone.
But when Carl stopped playing there was still plenty of time until dinner. To keep the children occupied and perhaps even calm them down a little, their grandfather bundled them up and took them for a walk down to the railroad tracks. They went slow because of Kathy. Pup- pup kept hold of her hand so she couldn't try to run after Billy, but pup up didn't want him to run too far ahead either, so he kept circling back. That was until they got to the end of the street, past where Timmy and Mary Ann lived. Then pup pup said Billy had to hold his other hand because they were crossing over the railroad tracks.
Then they got to the trolley tracks but to Billy's amazement they didn't turn back. They were going on to the stone bridge over the little creek. They stood on the bridge and Billy looked down, but mostly he looked beyond. On the other side of the bridge there was only the road disappearing into the trees. There was heavy brush there. In the summer when he stayed over at grandma's he could hear strange sounds that grandma said were frogs. Those frogs lived in the brush there, pup pup said. Billy looked at it, trying to imagine what wild animals might be in there and in the woods beyond. This was as close as he had been.
As they walked back to the house Billy wondered if they would go past it, and up the street to where the drug store and the other ice cream places were. Pup-pup took them there in the summer, when his cousin Dicky was here. But this time when they got to the house they went inside.
Dinner began with grandma's soup, the only kind of soup she ever served. Most people called it wedding soup, but hers was a little different, and it was one of those things she never gave a completely accurate recipe for, Flora reflected. She knew it had egg, broccoli and little meat balls, but Flora never attempted to make it herself. Her mother was just too vague about how it was done.
Then came the homemade ravioli with homemade sauce. Some were filled with cheese, others with meat. Billy cheerfully had several helpings at the smiling insistence of his grandmother. Anything less than several helpings she treated as an insult. Plates of meat balls and roast beef in the same meat sauce were passed around and then kept on the table. Another plate of meat balls without sauce made the rounds.
Then the roast chicken, roast potatoes and carrots. Side dishes appeared. Of these, Billy liked the breaded veal cutlets the best. He also liked salad, which he especially enjoyed with his chicken and cutlets. He didn't eat much of the cooked vegetables, Flora noticed.
Then came the coffee and the sponge cake, the Christmas pannettone, a yeasty, egg cake that Flora's mother still made herself. There were piles of pizelles, which they had spent hours that morning making downstairs with two large black pizelle irons on the burners of the stove. There were single pizzelles, some brownish, some light and crumbly. Some had an almond taste, some tasted of vanilla, and some of anise. Some were made into sandwiches with a fig paste between two pizelles.
But now specialty cookies could be more easily bought in nearby stores, some baked in Pittsburgh or closer, and some imported from Italy. The hard and the soft biscotti were easy to find, and assortments of small cookies that appeared at various times of the year. But the imported cantuccini sapori-- the chocolate covered cookie with hazlenuts inside--and the torrone--nougat candy in flavors of vanilla, lemon and orange--were only for Christmas.
And of course, the jello. Even after all that food, Mum was still insulted if you didn't eat the Jell-O.
All day the cookies and candies stayed on the dining room table. Flora put some of her cookie out, too--the snicker doodles, the Christmas sugar cookies in different shapes decorated with icings with different food coloring. Ant was even represented with the nut roll she'd made and sent through the mail.
Late in the afternoon and in the evening they would crack walnuts and hazelnuts. There was always fruit--pears, apples, oranges and tangerines. Billy liked the tangerines best, and then the pears. The relish tray also reappeared, with a special addition next to the celery: fresh anise, which looked just like celery but had its own particular flavor. Billy tried it, and seemed to like it.
He also liked to look at the pictures on the little torrone boxes, of the hand colored cameos of women with the blue ribbons in their hair and men with red vests and bow tie, and the scenes on the other side, of statues and buildings against white clouds and blue sky, or a scene Billy said was of pirates, but that was because the man wore an open blue shirt and white pants with high black boots that Billy only knew from pirate tales on TV.
After dinner, as dad and Walt dozed in the living room and Kathy had her nap while Flora and mum cleaned up, Billy was sent off to the movies with two neighbor kids, Timmy and Mary Ann. Pup pup gave him a nickel for his admission, and he gave nickels to Timmy and Mary Ann for taking him. They walked up the street, and down to where Billy had never been except to go to the movies, though it wasn't far to walk.
"What they see today?" mum asked as they washed and dried the dishes.
"Cinderella," Flora said. " The Walt Disney cartoon."
"Yes, I hear about it," mum said. "suppose to be good. Lots music."
"Yes, that 'Bibbety Boppity Boo' song is in it. I hope they don't make it too scary. When Billy saw "Sleeping Beauty" the witch and her poisoned apple really scared him. That's when he started imagining the mirror upstairs was a monster's face floating around the room."
When Billy got home from the movies, his eyes full of color and head full of songs, everybody was in the dining room playing a game. He thought it was cards but it wasn't. Everybody had a cardboard square.
"It's called Tombala," mummy explained. "It's like bingo. You've never seen it before--or you don't remember seeing it--because we only play it on Christmas."
Kathy was sitting on mummy's lap watching but then she tried to get down. Mummy held her and began to bounce her up and down and sang to her:
How much is that doggie in the window
The one with the scraggily tail?
How much is that doggie in the window
I do hope that doggie's for sale.
Kathy laughed. When mummy stopped to play the game Billy began singing, imitating Jimmy Durante shaking his head and singing Inka Dinka Do. Everybody in the family liked Jimmy Durante. Billy watched him every time he was on Colgate Comedy Hour (though he usually hoped for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.) Jimmy Durante always did a big number at the end with his friend Eddie who wore a big top hat, when they marched all around the stage, waving their hats. Then at the very end Jimmy put on his rain coat and hat and said, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are," and walked away through pools of light. Billy wondered if he ever would say who Mrs. Calabash was. He didn't want to miss that.
When they laughed he tried to roll his eyes all around like Eddie Cantor. Kathy looked at him for awhile but turned away. He started singing to her like Vaughn Monroe. He did it by putting his tongue at the roof of his mouth way in back. "Silly Billy," mummy said, smiling.
They were all waiting for Aunt Toni to call from Maryland, so when the phone rang the game stopped and pup pup turned down the radio. Everybody took turns talking to Ant Toni, though not for very long because it was long distance and cost a lot of money. Billy tried to imagine how far away Maryland was. He got a turn to talk to Aunt Toni and to Dickie. He told Dickie about going down past the railroad tracks and Dickie said he wanted to do that when they came up in the summer. They were just getting used to talking on the telephone when Billy had to get off.
It was getting dark when they were all in the living room. First Billy bounced on pup pups knee, pretending he was Hopalong Que ce dice going after bad guys. Grandma had Kathy on her lap, playing patty-cake. Then they switched, and Billy and grandma sang:
ting a ting un violino
pling a pling un mandolino
toot toot toot la saxaphona
tippety tippety top!
But when Billy played the toy horn he got for Christmas, daddy told him to stop. "That's enough now," he said. But Billy looked around and nobody else got mad, so he stopped for awhile and then started playing it again. Nothing happened so he kept playing, and this time daddy really yelled. "I told you stop that now!" Billy started to cry. His father got even more mad. "Stop that or I'll give you something to cry about!" he shouted.
Billy ran upstairs and lay down on the bed in the middle room and cried. Later he went back downstairs and stood out in the hall. Grandma saw him and told him he could go sit at the desk if he wanted, and later pup pup would get out the viewmaster. He nodded solemnly and went to the desk next to the living room windows. He turned on the desk lamp. The desk was very shiny and clean, not like the rough, banged up desk at home. He usually wasn't allowed to sit there or ever to play there because it was good furniture. But he could sometimes if he was careful. Grandma gave him some paper and a pencil and he sat drawing for awhile. He drew a man standing on the ground, with the sun above him, and a house behind him. He drew a tree and a bird in it. Trees were where birds live. Maybe the bird was a robin. They were called robin red-breast in the Book House books, but really they were orange.
Then pup pup got out the viewmaster. It was black and heavy, but not too heavy for Billy to hold up to his face by himself. Pup pup put one of the white flat circles into it and Billy put his eyes to the two places to look, and when his eyes got used to it he could see a color picture of mountains. He pushed the clicker and another picture came on.
By the time grandma's rosary came on the radio, Billy was very tired. When it was over, he lay down on the sofa. Just then the doorbell rang, and a big man in black came in. It took a minute for him to recognize Father Dunstan.
"Flora, Merry Christmas," he said. "I wasn't sure you'd still be here, but I was up at Holy Cross today--one of their priests went home to see his parents and I was filling in. So I thought I'd stop, but I got held up until now. How's Walt? How are the children?"
They talked some more and then suddenly Father Dunstan was in the living room. He looked huge standing above him. Billy didn't know what to say, so he answered Father Dunstan's questions very quietly. He was just starting to get interested when he felt a big hand on his head and saw that Father Dunstan was saying a prayer and making the sign of the cross over him with his other hand. Then he squeezed his shoulder hard, and he was gone, into the dining room.
Billy dozed until mummy told him quietly they were going home and to get his coat on. Daddy had already put all his presents in the truck. He kissed grandma and pup pup goodbye and said thank you. They hugged him and said Merry Christmas once more.
The truck was cold but he could lie down, and the thrum of the engine put him to sleep again. He awoke once and for a second he didn't know where he was. He was confused and a little mad but then he realized he was on his way home, the day was over and nothing more would happen, except his mother would put him into bed and kiss him goodnight, and he would be safe.
Monday, December 16, 2002
Monday, October 07, 2002
This is a new piece, unpublished so far...
EMPIRE OF THE ANTS-OR THE MOSQUITOES?
by William Severini Kowinski
It's perhaps an intemperate metaphor-and one tending toward the wrong end of the thermometer-to suggest that the West Nile virus outbreak throughout North America is the tip of the iceberg. But so far, few seem to realize why this might be so.
Media attention has focused on the geographical progress of the virus which has infected thousands in the U.S. and Canada, and killed at least 64 by mid- September. In California there's concern about whether the blood supply is contaminated. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont suggests it could be a bioterrorism plot. While there are many factors potentially involved, one is conspicuously unmentioned in most reports: global heating.
But even though the dots are all there, nobody is connecting them.
The September 14 San Francisco Chronicle reported the first confirmed case of West Nile virus in California. The front page of the same edition proclaimed "Hottest summer since 1930s" and "2002 drought worst since Dust Bowl."
Why press reports aren't making the connection is suggested in another pair of story in the next day's Chronicle: one story reports that the West Nile virus is killing more than 110 species of birds, including red-tailed hawks and great horned owls "by the thousands," and naturalists are worried about the endangered California condor. On the very next page, there's a story headlined "EPA report ignores global warming, with White House OK" by Andrew C. Revkin, reprinted from New York Times. It begins "Nearly every mention of global warming has been stricken from the annual federal report on air pollution..." quotes an EPA official "There's a complete paranoia [in the White House]about anything on climate...and everything has to be reviewed widely."
But at least one observer close to the ground at least alluded to the connection. When press attention was focused on the outbreak in Louisiana earlier this summer, a state health official commented, "As long as the warm weather lasts, we're going to have a problem."
As global heating continues, we're going to be having the problem for a long time. West Nile virus is only one of a number of diseases carried by mosquitoes and other bugs that are flourishing because of global heating. In many places in North America, the summers are not just hotter, they're longer. The winters are also warmer in places like Pennsylvania, so the usual diebacks in wood ticks, for instance, during the cold months isn't happening as much. Ticks can carry and infect humans with Lyme Disease, among other health hazards.
The drought in California is driving animals from their usual niches and into suburban and even city neighborhoods. Rats are drinking from the swimming pools in Beverly Hills.
The West Nile virus is in the news now, but the problem of mosquito-borne diseases has been quietly growing. Locally transmitted malaria outbreaks were recorded from Texas and Florida to New Jersey and New York, and as far north as Toronto in the 1990s, which was the hottest decade in 600 years. In September of 2002, malaria-carrying mosquitoes were found in Leesburg, Virginia, near the homes of two teenagers infected with the disease.
Malaria has also been found in southern Europe and parts of Asia and South Africa. Globally, the areas on mountain tops where it remains below freezing all year have shrunk; now mosquitoes are mountain climbing. Insect-borne diseases have reached the highlands of South and Central America, Asia and areas of Africa. There were cases of dengue fever in Mexico a mile from sea level.
The connection between global heating and the spread of these diseases has been made by scientists but hasn't yet made an impression on the press or public. But if global heating ever becomes a major emotional issue in the U.S., it will likely be because of disease epidemics. Chunks of Alaska could sink into the vanishing permafrost without bothering anybody in Manhattan (NY or Kansas) but an epidemic of Lyme Disease in the Hamptons or malaria in Los Angeles might break the ice.
But if the West Nile virus is the tip of the global heating epidemic iceberg, that iceberg might also be the first of a metaphorical Ice Age.
For if global heating continues to accelerate through the century, epidemics will be only one of the more visible indicators of crisis. Some scientists forecast the possibility of climate change so severe that the very survival of the human species-along with other mammals and perhaps all animals larger than rats-is in doubt.
Science fiction writers and moviemakers have speculated for years
on the possibility of rodents and insects conquering the human species.
So are these scenarios just fantasies that take advantage of the typical queasy reaction to bugs and other creepy-crawly things? Or are they uncomfortable previews of the future?
Issues of great public interest and importance that could not be openly raised have often been discussed first in works of art and in particular, in works that seem to be merely popular entertainments. Since the beginning of the industrial age, science fiction has made it possible for people to puzzle out their reactions to new technologies and apocalyptic possibilities of all kind.
There's a progression to these tales that begins with H.G. Wells 1905 story, "Empire of the Ants," which depicts the discovery of a new species of super-ants in the South American Amazon, possessing a poison lethal to humans and the apparent intelligence to plan and coordinate strategies of attack. They have conquered several villages, causing "the flight or slaughter of every human being in the new areas they invade." The narrator estimates they will reach Europe in 1960. "These are intelligent ants," one character cries. "Just think what that means!"
Like many of Wells' science fictions, this story illustrates a scientific idea he had already proposed in his essays for periodicals. Wells was contemptuous of the popular attempt around the turn of the twentieth century to interpret Darwinian evolution as meaning inevitable progress for humanity. Fresh from his university study under Darwin's friend and most renowned interpreter, T.H. Huxley, Wells asserted that not only was human progress less than inevitable, even the continuation of humanity at the top of the food chain was by no means certain.
"Even now, for all we can tell, the coming terror may be crouching for its spring and the fall of humanity be at hand," he wrote in "The Extinction of Man." "In the case of every other predominant animal the world has ever seen...the hour of its complete ascendancy has been the eve of its entire overthrow." Among the candidates Wells mentions for lowly animals that might yet evolve to overthrow humanity are ants.
"The Empire of the Ants" is a minor story in the Wells canon(though it still bears no resemblance to the 1977 camp movie of this title starring Joan Collins). It's impressive mostly for its descriptions of exotic landscapes that Wells had never seen--except for a brief visit to the European continent, he had spent his entire life to that point within roughly a fifty miles radius of London. Since it takes place almost entirely aboard a small gunboat on a river surrounded by jungle, it probably owes something to Wells friendship with Joseph Conrad.
In some ways it reads almost as a parody of Conrad. The characters are nearly comic, especially the captain. But on closer reading, the human foolishness and futility are part of the point. The ants are deadly serious, and know what they're doing. The humans are virtually helpless, caught up in games of rank and vanity, armed with technology that is useless against this enemy. All they can do is shoot a gun into the green void-something that also happens in Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness," and suggests an actual event that Conrad witnessed: a French warship shelling a stretch of African coastline with no actual target or purpose.
The ants represent Nature reasserting herself, as clearly suggested in the story's descriptive passages. "The forest was interminable, it had an air of being invincible, and Man seemed at best an infrequent precarious intruder," the young engineer observes. "Man at most held a footing upon resentful clearings, fought weeds, fought beasts and insects for the barest foothold, fell a prey to snake and beast, insect and fever, and was presently carried away."
For all we know, Wells wrote in an essay, Nature may be "in unsuspected obscurity, equipping some now humble creature with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction, to rise in the fullness of time and sweep homo away into the darkness from which his universe arose." "The Empire of the Ants" may well be Wells' version of "Heart of Darkness."
Wells' scenario is based on nature's own actions over time, but in our time it's become clear that humanity could provide nature with a short cut by taking a more active role in its own self-destruction. That capability became obvious with the atomic bomb. So it was no coincidence that a virtual epidemic of movies about nature's revenge on humanity spread out from Hollywood in the 1950s, with a new and important difference from the evolutionary fable of "Empire of the Ants." Although it was ants again that started it.
The march of the monsters onto 1950s movie screens began elegantly with Howard Hawks 1951 science fiction thriller, "The Thing (From Another World)," about a marauding space vampire resembling Frankenstein that was accidentally thawed out of the arctic ice. Then "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, " a film based loosely on a Ray Bradbury short story, added the element of the atomic bomb: nuclear explosions free a dinosaur (a Rhedosaurus) from its natural cryogenic chamber in the arctic. A low budget Warner Brothers B-movie, it was a surprise hit of 1953. So Warner invested more action and Hollywood production values in its 1954 release, "Them!," which upped the atomic ante with a controversial and very scary element: mutation.
The status of public and official response to mutations caused by atomic bomb explosions in 1954 was roughly analogous to the climate crisis now. The science was somewhat less certain than the current case for global heating, but there was anecdotal evidence emerging from the latest H-bomb tests in the South Pacific. On one exposed atoll with a population of 406, there were 19 babies born with genetic defects, and 3 stillbirths, including one child so deformed as to be "not recognizable as human." And there was growing laboratory evidence of genetic deformations in animals deliberately exposed to nuclear radiation.
But the United States government and its officially endorsed scientists had a long record of minimizing or denying that atomic radiation was all that harmful. They dismissed reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima as Japanese propaganda. Official reports denied that radiation sickness was even painful; one highly ranked administrator told Congress that radiation poisoning was "a very pleasant way to die." When islanders, a boat of Japanese fishermen and some U.S. military personnel were contaminated by a radioactive particles from an unexpectedly strong H-bomb test, officials lied about known radiation poisoning, and denied reports of contaminated tuna from the fishing boat. The head of the U.S. atomic energy commission intimated that the fishermen were really a "Red spy outfit."
The American public heard these denials, but they also saw the photographs and read eyewitness reports by journalists. They heard scientists like Linus Pauling who said fallout was already causing deaths, opposed by scientists like Edward Teller who said that the very low levels of radiation weren't harmful at all-in fact, they stimulated growth.
Radioactive fallout would erupt as a public issue in the 1956 presidential campaign, but this science fiction movie brought the idea of mutations out in the open two years earlier, even if it was the short distance from silence and the private unconscious to the shared public unconscious of the popular movie.
"Them!" begins with a classic suspense set-up. First the scenes of inexplicable death and destruction in the desert Southwest, but no witnesses left alive except a traumatized little girl who can only cry, "Them!" Then the cast of characters assembles to investigate-the usual set of Brains (usually the Scientist Hero), assisted by Brawn (sometimes the Action Hero) and Elder Scientist, and the inevitable Elder Scientist's Beautiful Daughter.
For awhile we see only the ruins of what the monsters have destroyed. Then the terrified face of a victim as the monster approaches, and its shadow on the wall. Then a brief glimpse of the monster, before the whole monster suddenly appears, waving towering tentacles and making an insistent, eerie sound.
But this alien with the huge eyes is not from outer space. It's an unnaturally immense version of a familiar creature in nature. It's an ant. (Talk about your stimulated growth.) The horror of the insect's alien features enlarged to nightmarish proportions gave visual power to the vague notion that the atomic bomb was in some profound way a violation of the natural order.
Though the human characters became standard issue for the 1950s science fiction genre, in "Them!" they were well written and played. They had human faults and conflicts, and were baffled most of the time. But in contrast to Wells' crew, they used intelligence, compassion, technology and physical courage to triumph over the giant ants-though as this film explicitly said-perhaps only temporarily.
The giant ants of "Them!" had been created by radioactive effects of the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. After they defeated these monsters, the four main human characters stood in the desert and talked of the future. "If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb tests in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" asks the Action Hero. "I don't know," says the Beautiful Daughter. "Nobody knows," says the Elder Scientist. The Brains-and-Courage character sums it up: "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world nobody can predict."
"Them!" was an innovative film and box office success in 1954-enough of both to attract Walt Disney to the theatre. Disney normally didn't go out to see other people's movie (he might have been scouting the creature work in advance of his release later in the year of "20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea".) His overall reaction isn't known, but he did take a liking to a young actor with a small part named Fess Parker, and cast him as the 1950s television icon, Davy Crockett.
In fact, "Them!" is oddly notable for having three future TV icons in its modest cast-Parker, James Arness as the Action Hero, who would rule prime time TV for a decade as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, and in an even smaller role than Parker's, Leonard Nimoy, the future Mr. Spock of Star Trek. Even the ostensible lead of the film, James Whitmore, would turn up in many TV dramas, and star in his own early 60s series, "The Law and Mr. Jones."
The success of "Them!" led most directly to a 1950s sub-genre known as the Bug-Eyed Monster movies (with a parallel glut of such stories in science fiction pulp magazines.) Soon screens would be crawling with ferocious giant scorpions, tarantulas, mantises and spiders. Together with other creatures and natural phenomena created or awakened by atomic weapons in movies of this era, these films added a new wrinkle to the Wells vision: nature in general, and other creatures specifically, wouldn't need millions or even hundreds of years to destroy humanity. They could do it overnight, thanks to the folly of technology humans used without understanding its effects.
Human hubris would be the species undoing: humanity was handing itself over to the ants. Creepy crawly creatures we overlook every day, just as our predominantly urban civilization doesn't see the life forms it dooms to extinction every day, will wreak nature's revenge.
After Wells' evolved ants, and the ants given gigantic advantage by the unintended effects of human action, we face a third possibility for which there is as yet no fiction. It's a real possibility, which may not be coming to your theatre soon, but to your life.
It's a combination of these two scenarios: the conquest of humanity by other creatures, including the ants, not because humans unintentionally altered the creatures, but because we have unintentionally altered the environment. It's humanity's latest way of assassinating itself.
By upping the temperature, we are creating a physical environment which is more suitable for these creatures, and less suitable for us. Wells stated the conditions all too precisely in one of those 1890s essays: "Imagine in our own time some far-reaching changes effected in the conditions of life on this planet, an increase in humidity, perhaps, or a change in the composition of the air effected speedily-say in a hundred years or so." In that period of time, Wells goes on, the smaller and faster breeding creatures will biologically adapt much quicker.
But of course some are pretty well adapted already to warmer weather, and that includes mosquitoes and the pathogens they carry that cause malaria, dengue fever, cholera, yellow fever and several kinds of encephalitis. Malaria right now kills between 1 and 2 million people a year, mostly children, but is limited to poor tropical areas. The uncertainty about the figure suggests how far below the Zeitgeist radar this disease and especially its victims has fallen.
But that invisibility could change-and may already be changing. Some climate models show that areas where 60% of the world's population lives could be endangered, instead of the 45% that's most susceptible now.
Warm seasons that get hotter in normally temperate areas are only half the problem-it's also the cooler seasons that don't get cold enough anymore. The whole circuit was in play when the West Nile virus hit New York City in 1999 where it killed 7, according to Paul R. Epstein in "Scientific American". A lot of mosquito larvae are normally killed by cold temperatures, but many survived the mild winter. The hot summer speeded up the maturation and activity of both the mosquitoes and the virus inside them. A similar pattern may be at work in Louisiana. New Orleans went five years in the 90s without a killing frost, which meant more mosquitoes.
A similar sequence may also be a factor in the spread of deer ticks into new areas, and their earlier appearance and greater numbers in their normal range, spreading not only some 16,000 cases of Lyme disease a year as well as other diseases.
So far government scientists and media reports focus on the usual culprits and language-the spread of contagions, eradication efforts, the swelling deer population, etc. All of these are factors, but sooner or later the public will notice the coincidence of climate change. It's worth noting that as rare as they've been in northern climes, no real vaccine exists for malaria and dengue fever, and drug treatments have often been compromised by resistance.
So what about the ants? There are some 20,000 different kinds, found almost everywhere. They've been around for some 100 million years. Many species thrive in tropical climates. There are several kinds of scavenger ants that are among the most heat tolerant insects yet identified. They live in the Sahara and Australian deserts, largely on the remains of insects and animals that die from heat exposure.
There is a recently discovered single super-colony of Argentine ants that begins underground in northern Italy and ends at the Atlantic in Spain-some 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) away. It contains billions of ants in millions of nests, but an ant at the Italy end will chemically recognize an ant at the Spanish end, and they will work together. These ants have eliminated 90% of other ant species in their range.
Some five years ago, super colonies of "crazy ants" from Africa invaded Australia's Christmas Island, which is famous for its millions of migrating land crabs. The ants spray poison that blinds the crabs, and the ants eat them. The ants have cut the crab population by nearly half, dispatched a few other species, and dominate a quarter of the island's rain forest.
Native and mostly non-native fire ants are rapidly expanding their range into nine southern states of the U.S, where they are creating all kinds of expensive havoc ($300 million worth of damage annually in Texas alone.) In some places they've wiped out entire species, directly and indirectly (by gobbling up the food supply.)
They've been responsible for mice, snakes and turtles disappearing from an area. They eat crops and their huge mounds disrupt irrigation systems. They've been known to damage machinery. They invade homes and cars. Their stings are painful, sometimes leaving permanent skin damage or leading to illness and occasionally death. They've caused car crashes by stinging drivers.
Nobody knows how to get rid of the fire ants without causing even more damage. Importing natural predators is being tried, but that's risky, too. The chemicals that eradicate fire ants also poison the air, water and other forms of life, including people.
That's also a problem in eradicating mosquitoes, the only effective method known to control the diseases they carry. The poisons that kill them also kill their natural predators, and they poison people.
Are the ants evolving in dangerous ways, as Wells suggested? We don't really know, because humans have been too busy watching "Survivor" to pay much attention. We are surprised to be finding life flourishing in places humans thought were too cold and too hot for anything to survive. We are also eradicating other species at an unprecedented rate, including many we know nothing about.
If global heating gets as bad as some scientists think it might, the human race on earth is doomed, along with most other familiar animal species. The ants and the mosquitoes might make it. They may wind up being the dominant life forms. But before they are, we may find ourselves battling for life against them.
We seem to have an instinctive fear of spiders and insects in general, but particularly the swarming social insects, like bees and ants. They have an order and thinking process we don't understand, and they are prodigious and relentless. Another 1950s monster movie, a little- known British classic called "Twenty Million Miles to Earth," manages to combine the "buried flying saucer" and "space monsters come back to life" motifs of "The Thing" with a particularly horrifying image: the revived space creatures-who had invaded the earth eons ago but had since been sealed away underground-- are like giant locusts. Seen in profile, on their hind legs and with antennae twitching, they are the spitting image of the devil.
We fear the ants no doubt due to the problems they've caused us in the past, and the damage they cause now. But maybe also for the trouble they can give us in the future, if this is indeed the eve of our entire overthrow.
Even if it isn't, the lesson for the present is a variation on Wells' warnings against human hubris. We act as if our conquest of nature is permanent, and everything we do is predestined to add to our success. But especially as our civilization becomes more and more dependent on a few technologies and a few fragile interconnections, we come closer to being thrown back to direct dependence on a natural world we have meanwhile been destroying. The rich environment that nurtured human development is fading. We may not be so well adapted to what we have in part created.
The answer isn't to demonize the ants, or to continue to view nature as implacably hostile, a deeply embedded cultural bias from Wells' time to our own. Neither is it to see ourselves as benevolent spirits protecting a harmless wilderness: Smoky the Bear guarding Bambi. Despite our blinders of concrete, we are a product and a part of nature-formed and nurtured by it, and subject to its forces. When we threaten our context, we threaten ourselves. We have to take care.
Posted by Captain Future at 6:02 PM
Thursday, September 12, 2002
Steve Allen died on October 30, 2000 at the age of 78. On assignment for the Smithsonian Magazine, I spent a week in his company in southern California in 1994, which included the 40th anniversary show of The Tonight Show, the program he started. The article that I wrote—and rewrote, producing several versions—was never published, despite the fact that Steve Allen called it "the best article ever written about me."
The writing experience was so frustrating that I never wrote for Smithsonian again, and in fact haven't written a magazine feature on assignment since then. I also didn't hear from my editor again, and she promptly gave my next assignment to another writer. An irony of that situation (if one were needed) was that while the assignment she gave to someone else was my idea, the idea to do an article on Steve Allen had been hers.
What follows is a very extended version of that article, cobbled together from various versions. My editor was never able to say why she didn't like it, or what I should change. She kept asking for "more" though of what I never knew. So in frustration I added much more in the last version I sent, including nearly all the backstage dialogue at the Tonight Show. That turns out now to be something of an historical record, especially the conversation between Steve Allen and comedian Phil Hartman. The two hadn't met before, and apparently became friends as a result of this visit. First known for his work on "Saturday Night Live," Hartman began his hit television show "NewsRadio" in 1995, and was killed by his wife in 1998. In their backstage exchange, they talk about comedy and Hartman asks for Allen's advice on series ideas then being developed. I was the only witness to this conversation.
Steve Allen was a generative and mythical figure. Allen originated almost everything good that today's talk shows do, including many of the most popular "bits" done regularly by Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno. His conflicts with the Mafia and the threats on his life in the 1950s are folded into the plot of the feature, "My Favorite Year" (though that film is primarily based on the Sid Caesar shows of the same period) and the character played by Alan Alda in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" not only has Steve Allen's habit of dictating ideas into an omnipresent little tape recorder, he also gives a definition of comedy that Steve Allen devised: "Comedy is tragedy plus time." The Alda character is pretty unsympathetic, which may or may not be why, when I mentioned the movie to Steve Allen, he professed not to have seen it.
From my childhood I remember my parents talking with relatives about this new program that was on late at night in the mid 1950s, in the hushed and mysterious tones that alert children to something important they apparently aren't supposed to hear. In this case, I gather that among these working people, the idea of staying up past 11 to watch television was itself considered sinful.
I do remember Allen's Sunday night show, which I watched with my family. But mainly I was one of those early Boomers who was drawn into the Allen universe with his early 1960s talk show syndicated by Westinghouse. I wasn't the only one. Our class parody play in high school was the Steve Allen show. I watched every night I could during the school year, but I was especially religious about it in the summer. I even had a ritual. I would fry a slice or two of Canadian bacon and toast an English muffin, grab an orange juice (Allen drank great quantities of orange juice from a coffee cup during his shows) and then I'd watch the show. I usually watched alone in an otherwise dark and quiet house, so I was totally in the Allen universe. I learned so much from him, as I hope is reflected in at least the last paragraph or two of this piece.
It was at this time that I got one of his books from the paperback racks at the cigar store (there were no bookstores in my town.) It was called "Mark It and Strike It," a television term for marking where the scenery is positioned and then taking it down until the next show. It was autobiographical, but also very philosophical. I remember my uncle seeing me carrying it, and registering his disapproval. He thought it was a trashy show biz book, and that I should be reading something more important. But though Allen's early life was much harder than mine, he also came from a Catholic working class background, and I was very interested in his observations about the larger world I aspired to enter.
That he had intellectual interests and was rationally passionate about social justice—and was still screamingly funny—was a revelation. Steve Allen made intellectual curiosity—not to mention people who wore glasses—at least potentially cool.
Steve Allen was also a major factor in my following an interest in music, especially the piano. I had taken music lessons a couple of times without much result. I never did learn to sight read. But I liked to improvise on what little I picked up, as I still do. I could also invent melodies and I had some little social success imitating Allen's gimmick of having people call out 3 numbers which he translated to notes and wrote songs around. I modified it to build a song around three letters (A to G)—this worked especially well with letters from a girl's name.
I had forgotten I made this modification when I said something to Steve Allen about this process of making songs from letters. It puzzled him because he only did it with numbers. Then backstage at the Tonight Show someone—I think Phil Hartman—also remembered that he did it with letters. Or was it numbers? he asked. At this point, Allen was totally confused. "Numbers," he said, "and sometimes letters," he added uncertainly.
But it wasn't his memory at fault, I realized later: it was mine. I was attributing to him the change I'd made in something I'd stolen from him.
Steve Allen was a tall man, and the week I spent in his company I was impressed by his aura of physical strength and endurance. But he was 73, and there were several times during the week he seemed very tired. He'd already had a heart attack a few years earlier, and another condition sometimes resulted in a slight limp. That condition was acting up the night he spoke to a full house in a ballroom on the Queen Mary, but typically he dealt with it with a joke. "You may have noticed my limp," he told the audience. "It's an old football injury." He paused, just long enough for the titter of disbelief to start. "I tripped on an old football."
His continuous round of activity did express the range of his talents and what he produced, but he was also still working for a living.
He had a large office with a number of employees, but unlike the "Steve Allen" in his mystery novels, he had no limo and driver, and often no entourage. After his evening speech on the Queen Mary, I walked him to his modest car. We talked about the long list of books he was working on. I said something about the book about talk shows, but he was not really interested in that one anymore—the one thing he wanted to write about the most, he said, was race relations. He was alone and seemed exhausted, and he was concerned about finding a gas station. I was a little worried about him, but he waved me off, and there was something about all that strength coiled in his long frame that said he would be all right.
Steve Allen was something of an anomaly. His humor consisted of whacky word play, wild and imaginative concepts and daring physical comedy. His music, and particularly his jazz piano playing, could also be kinetic and emotional. But he prided himself in being precise and rational, and was more logical than Mr. Spock. Raised Catholic and a deeply moral man who thought a lot about morality, he was a Humanist with a capital H. He was largely self-educated and many of his books dealt with ideas, but as he confessed in one of his books, he pined for the company of actual intellectuals.
He spoke only about how happy and fulfilled he was—how everything he did was fun—but I felt some sort of melancholy in him. Perhaps a loneliness—I think he really did feel that people whose minds he respected didn't take him seriously, that they were out of reach. He certainly had an exaggerated respect for the Smithsonian Magazine. Like others, he attached to it the aura of the Smithsonian Institution, although it is—or was—a separate fiefdom, with its own peculiar bureaucracy. It also wasn't a very good magazine, and was in the process of further dumbing itself down. On hearing I wrote for it, someone I met apologized for the observation but said that she felt that every article in the magazine sounded the same. It was true—it was edited that way, to conform to the same dull voice. It paid well, but it's no coincidence that real writers of importance ignored it.
As for Steve Allen, I hesitate to make deeper observations based on such a limited time in limited circumstances, and I certainly wouldn't do so in an article. The article I wrote was a celebration of a long and productive life that deserved to be celebrated, and I included what I felt was appropriate for that kind of an article, especially in the kind of magazine where it was supposed to appear. But I did feel he'd taken his intellectual rationalism about as far as he could, and there was still something missing. I also felt there were definite blind spots in his self-awareness. But of course that doesn't make him very different from the rest of us.
He was sincere, eager to share his inner life with a generosity that was also a need. He felt a real responsibility to contribute to making a better world. I hope his books promoting education and self-education find other young people who are in limited circumstances with apparently limited options, as I was.
He remained for me an admirable man, and in the end I was eager to be done with my role as interviewer and profiler. I don't know that a friendship would have been possible—with all the roles and agendas in these situations, one never knows—but I would have welcomed it. But the piece wasn't published and my career took a very different turn—and went nowhere near southern California. We exchanged a final letter or two, but years passed and then he was gone.
He left behind a pretty good library of tapes from his old shows—though some were destroyed and otherwise lost—and there are a few compilations for sale from his web site at www.steveallen.com. Some of his Tonight shows were rerun on the Comedy Channel, and there's been talk from time to time about rerunning his Westinghouse series. It certainly would be more worthwhile—and a lot funnier—than a great deal of what passes for comedy on television today. I hope it happens.
STEVE ALLEN: TV'S RENAISSANCE MAN
"Literally everything I do is, to use that dirty word, fun…"
copyright 1994, 2002 by William S. Kowinski
To celebrate its 40th year on NBC television and inaugurate its new studio, The Tonight Show planned a special anniversary program that featured the man cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for writing more songs than anyone alive---he would compose his 5,000th song on the show; an author of memoirs, social and philosophical commentary, serious fiction and popular mysteries who would plug his forty-third book; the creator of an award-winning PBS series; an actor and television performer whose antics included jumping into a tub of hot water clad in tea bags; and the man who hosted the very first Tonight Show, creating over the next few decades virtually everything later late night talks show hosts would do.
And that was just the first guest.
Steve Allen, the Renaissance Man of the television age who has done all of this and more, walked into the new Tonight Show studio at the NBC complex in Burbank, California, wearing a dark blue suit and red tie with a matching pocket handkerchief. It was a late September afternoon, about an hour before the taping of that night's show was to begin.
He was greeted with the ceremony and respect due him. Current Tonight Show host Jay Leno, still in jeans and a denim shirt, leaned down from the apron of the stage to shake his hand. "Great to see you, boss," he said. A
veteran stagehand came out to greet him. The Branford Marsalis band invited him to jam briefly as they set up. The producer and floor director came out to welcome him and talk about his segment on the show. Finally, Allen was escorted backstage to his dressing room.
Left nearly alone for a moment, he took off his suit jacket and opened the closet door. "Forty years," he said, "and still no hangers."
Forty years before this night, in 1954, Steve Allen was introducing something national television had never seen before. In the age of the early-to -bed Organization Man, he was beginning a show at about the time of night America was accustomed to hearing the national anthem and then the sound of static, accompanied by the bright nothing called snow. In an era of 30 minute and even 15 minute programs, he was introducing a 90 minute live show from New York City.
The show's length was what the then 32 year old Steve Allen meant when he opened the show by warning, "This show is going to go on forever." But it turned out to be prophesy. It hasn't been off the air since. Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno followed, and nearly every talk show copied what Steve Allen invented. No one, however, could do all that he did: he did funny monologues, and took on the Mafia by talking about organized crime. He did serious interviews like Dick Cavett, sketch comedy like Johnny Carson, wild stunts, man on the street interviews and hidden camera commentary like early Letterman. Only it was all of them who were "like" one aspect of Steve Allen.
He became the host of a famous Sunday night comedy and variety show, and started yet another successful late night talk show. He wrote short stories, novels and critically acclaimed plays. He wrote songs and instrumental music, and acted on stage and on film. No less an eminence than Noel Coward called him "the most talented man in America."
From his legendary west coast radio shows in the 1940s through his acclaimed Meeting of the Minds series on PBS in the 1970s, his network television comedy specials in the 1980s and his later cable and syndicated shows and appearances, Steve Allen has been a creative force and inspiring presence in American media for nearly a half century.
At age 73, he is not finished doing any of it. Besides television and radio interviews, Steve Allen performs in some 15 to 20 comedy concerts a year around the country, including a "Tonight Show" style stage show featuring two of his former regulars, comedians Bill Dana and Louis Nye. He plays piano at jazz clubs a half dozen times a year, among other musical activities. He often serves as a speaker or master of ceremonies for various events, he makes three or four benefit appearances each month for the many causes he supports, and there are the book signings for his constant stream of writings.
At home in Los Angeles he is just as busy. During the week of this Tonight Show he hosted a concert at a new Beverly Hills nightclub which consisted entirely of his songs. "It's a star-studded audience," he observed from the stage. "I see three stars, and fifteen studs." In fact, the audience at the El Ray Theater included novelist Sidney Sheldon, classic comedian Red Buttons and some of Allen's television gang, Pat Harrington, Jr. and the aforementioned Bill Dana and Louis Nye. They heard the 16 piece orchestra play Allen's lush big band compositions like "Red Silk" and "The Bluest Blues" as well as novelty numbers entitled "Rap Scallion" and "Samba de Else."
The next night he entertained a convention audience aboard the Queen Mary, now a hotel anchored in Long Beach. In the huge Queen's Salon, amidst columns of rich wood, tall fluted amber lamps, and huge gold reliefs on the walls at either end, Allen started by silencing the loud welcoming applause. "It's not because I'm being modest," he said. "It's just that I don't plan to be that great."
Nevertheless he provoked both loud laughter and thoughtful murmurs as he answered audience questions on subjects ranging from television and comedy to democracy, history, the philosophy of Hegel, the example of Parson Weems, inventor of the false tale of George Washington and the cherry tree ("he thought he could discourage American children from lying by lying to them") and his own daily regimen: "I get up at the crack of dawn, stuff up the crack and go back to sleep."
He bookended the week with two bookstores signings, the first at a former movie palace converted into a large Art Deco-decorated store in the Studio City section of Los Angeles. Comfortable in a blue sports jacket, beige slacks and a pale violet shirt with no tie, his tall frame was folded amiably behind a long table, as he chatted with a line of people snaking to the back of the store. He was calm and still when not responding to someone's question or comment, appearing more shy than self-conscious, and more self-absorbed than self-centered.
At the other end of the table sat Jayne Meadows, actress, businesswoman and Allen's partner in one of Hollywood's longest-running marriages. In vivid contrast, resplendent in turquoise jewelry a deeper shade of the color of her blouse, she chatted cheerfully and elegantly with old friends and new-found ones, while passing copies of Allen's then-latest book, Reflections, from the stack next to her for Steve to sign when he became involved in a conversation.
"It doesn't vary much," Steve Allen said later of these occasions. "There are always two guys who are named Steve Allen Jones and Steve Allen Watson, and they tell me the same story that their mother used to watch the show every night and they were born, so that's how that happened. And there are always three or four people who--seriously--tell very touching stories about 'the last four years of my father's life he was real unhappy, the one thing that made him laugh was your show.' They recall their first impressions, which depend on their age--if they're along in years they often mention the What's My Line? show, on which I was a panelist for some time. If they're a little younger than that they remember chiefly the Tonight show, or the Sunday night show. If they're in their mid-40s they tend to remember the show that David Letterman used to watch every night--the real wild talk show that was on in the early 60s."
People did tend to talk about their memories with him. One man who
says he was a child when he first met Allen, leaves him a Reese's peanut butter cup as a remembrance. Some slipped him show business cards and audition tapes, including a young man whose card proclaimed him as a dancing trombonist. Allen treats them all with unfailing courtesy. "That must be very difficult," he said to the dancing trombonist.
This being Los Angeles, some of those in line had encountered Steve and Jayne professionally: an actor/director thanked them for attending his showcase the year before, a dancer recalling tap lessons she had taken with Jayne--who still attends that class. Except for them and perhaps the unique L.A. wardrobes (the woman in the Wizard of Oz t-shirt, the man in the leather jacket with the image of the RCA logo dog holding a minicam) this scene could be set anywhere in the United States where Allen travels to entertain, speak or sign books.
"Oh I miss your show so much!" one woman wailed. "When will I be able to see you on television again?" This also apparently is an often repeated refrain. This time it is Jayne who responds. "Just tune in every night to David Letterman," she said, "and you'll see Steve's show." Both Allens laughed.
Today Steve Allen attributes his broadcasting career to the accident of timing, of being in the right place at the right time with the right skills, first when radio was expanding, and then when television was just beginning. But it is equally true that his creative inventions were the result of his instinctive responses to accidents and opportunities, many of them when something went wrong.
After doing comedy on a local Phoenix radio station and then a nationally broadcast program called "Smile Time," Allen was in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, quietly transforming a job playing records on a CBS radio station into his first late night comedy show. A studio audience for such a radio program was unheard of, but listeners began writing in for tickets to see the show live, so Allen simply invited them to show up. Ten or twelve people in a small studio became a hundred, then three hundred in a larger studio, and finally a thousand.
Though his delivery was casual, Allen was still writing all his comedy material in advance. Then due to a mix-up, singer Doris Day failed to arrive for a scheduled interview one night. With 25 minutes to fill and no material, Allen picked up the bulky studio microphone and went out to chat with the audience. The laughter received by these impromptu interchanges inspired more forays into the audience, and more ad-libbing. The resulting laughter made it a mainstay of his career.
Another night's disaster inspired his best known innovation—the man-on-the-street interview, for real.
"I was doing a live coast-to-coast radio show on CBS in 1949," he recalled, backstage at the Tonight Show. "I think I'd just introduced a singer and there was this really loud clatter coming from outside--the audience clearly heard it, and I said 'I'm sure you can hear this at home.' If it had been on tape we would have stopped but we were live on 200 stations. So I asked the ushers to open a back door, and there was an elderly man running a cement mixer. So I took a hand mike and went out to talk to him--the audience was already laughing. I finally got him to shut it off. I explained we were doing a radio show and asked him to stop. He refused. He was supposed to finish this work by a certain time and that was that. So I talked to him about it for ten minutes or so and the audience was screaming--I think it was so funny partly because he didn't seem to understand he was on the air, I was just holding some strange device in front of him to annoy him. Anyway I realized it was the funniest ten minutes of the day or the week or the month for that matter, so after that I looked for any opportunity--sometimes we would set up a situation but we always did it without any jokes prepared."
It was the start of the Steve Allen style. And with his show's growing numbers of devoted listeners, including Hollywood stars and children secretly listening with their radios under the covers, it was also the start of the Steve Allen phenomenon.
In 1950, CBS sent him to New York to try the new medium of network television. Allen adapted his radio blend of comedy, music and talk on a daytime show, while exploring visual possibilities. One of his later trademarks was to send the camera outside and comment on what he saw. Here he created a continuing character by focusing on a fly he noticed buzzing around on his desk. "Folks, we're very honored today to have that world-famed show business personality, Floyd the Fly, with us," Allen said, as the camera came in close. "Floyd has just landed on a saucer near a Danish here in our CBS theater and now he's bowing to the audience and waving his arms in that famous hands-locked gesture so familiar to boxing fans."
In what must still rank as one of television's most inspired sequences of spontaneous craziness, Allen suddenly sought to enliven a lethargic audience by leading them around the theater and into the street in a game of follow-the-leader. But when he led the now-laughing crowd back to the studio, he ran in first and bolted the door behind him. He returned to the stage and for the remaining ten minutes of the show engaged some stagehands in a quiet game of cards, with the background sound of the audience members outside banging on the doors.
But the daytime show didn't make a big enough impact for the network to continue it, and Allen's television career seemed in doubt. Until he took advantage of another accident.
In 1952 the most popular television show by far was Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Once when Godfrey was snowbound and couldn't get to New York, a panicked producer asked Allen to fill in. Though he wasn't familiar with the show and how it operated, Allen agreed. The result was a disaster--but a very funny one. Instead of smoothly doing the live commercials for Lipton's soup and tea as Godfrey did, Allen poured hot water into soup and tea together, and transferred the result into the hole in Godfrey's trademark ukulele, which he then tried to play.
Newspaper critics lauded his performance, and Steve Allen got noticed. He substituted several more times for a delighted Godfrey, and beginning his association with the panel show, "I've Got A Secret" (where in innocently inquiring about the size of a product, he asked a question that remains famous: "Is it bigger than a breadbox?") Then Steve Allen got his first late night television show--a local New York program that was soon picked up by the NBC network as a companion to its successful "Today" show, which they called "Tonight."
Still, he was an unknown performer with a quiet manner who was given the formidable task of pioneering late night television. When Steve Allen was first seen leaning on his piano in glorious black and white, the mid-1950s viewers who tuned in during those unfamiliar and vaguely dangerous hours of night had no idea what to expect. Beginning in 1954, America started experiencing his torrent of inventions--The Question Man, Late Show Pitchman, Big Bill Allen on sports, the mock-angry readings of incensed Letters to the Editor (with the audience shouting "Yeah! Yeah!") and the formal readings of rock lyrics at a solemn poetry podium.
He staged outrageous events: when the show traveled to Miami shortly after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Allen organized a mock invasion of the beach, complete with landing craft, flares and rifle fire, convincing some residents that a real invasion was underway. He was also more quietly creative: doing an entire show live from the New York Herald Tribune building, for example, but combining the usual entertainment with scenes of the real next morning's newspaper being put together. Like Ernie Kovacs, another early experimenter, he explored the technical possibilities of television while inviting audiences to laugh with its limitations.
Allen forged a winsome band of regulars and put together unlikely combinations of guests (one show ended with Allen singing "Home on the Range" in three part harmony with actor Charles Coburn and poet Carl Sandburg.) He involved celebrities in his comic madness--once he killed two clichés with one sketch by conducting a standard interview with actress Dorothy Lamour while participating in a parody of her most famous roles as the island girl in a sarong: they casually chatted about show-business trivia while strapping themselves to trees in a studio-simulated hurricane.
He spotted new talent: starting with the Tonight Show and continuing over the years on his other shows he introduced or gave early exposure to Elvis Presley, Jonathan Winters, The Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Lily Tomlin, Miriam Makeba, Bob Dylan, the Supremes, Frank Zappa and the Muppets.
He made stars of regulars in the audience, and turned a camera on the street to let his imagination create comedy out of commenting on mundane reality. The late hour seemed itself to inspire a contagious craziness that also infected the audience. One night he disappeared into a studio audience comprised entirely of men who resembled Steve Allen, and on another the whole audience hurled cream pies at the performers and each other.
His Tonight show became so popular that NBC gave Allen a prime time variety hour designed to cut into Ed Sullivan's formidable Sunday night audience on CBS. This equally innovative series (re-run most recently the Comedy Central cable network from 1990 to 1993) is fondly remembered for Allen's troupe of comedy players which included Bill Dana, Pat Harrington, Dayton Allen and the trio most famous for the "Man on the Street" routines: Don Knotts ("Are you nervous?" "Noop!"), Tom Poston ( when asked his name, the fading smile and dazed quizzical look), and Louis Nye ("I'm Gordon Hathaway, I'm from Manhattan and I'm too much. Hi, ho, Steverino!")
It was on this show that Elvis Presley made his second (and pre-Ed Sullivan) network appearance, performing "Hound Dog" the day after he had recorded it--- dressed in a tuxedo and singing to a basset hound.
Network executives were delighted with his comedy and the music that became another Allen trademark--whether trading songs at the piano with Jimmy Durante, jamming with Lionel Hampton and his band, or improvising songs based on notes picked out by people from the audience.
But they were not always so taken with his occasional insistence on seriousness, and pressured him to stop talking about books on his prime time hour. He got into another kind of trouble when he devoted a Tonight show to a dramatized examination of organized crime. It resulted in immediate threats, got him banned from working certain nightclubs and even years later resulted in the forequarter of a horse appearing on his front porch, "Godfather" style. Guessing the identity of the culprit, Allen had the carcass returned.
This serious streak also resulted in the award-winning PBS series, "Meeting of the Minds," in which Allen hosted discourses among actors speaking the words of such guests as Martin Luther, Plato and Florence Nightingale. Preserved in book, video and audio form, and used in classrooms today, this series first seen in the 1970s is Allen's choice as his most lasting legacy.
The absence of hangers in the closet was not the only problem before the 40th anniversary in Burbank, as the Tonight Show staff and crew frantically prepared for their first taping with a new set in a new studio. Allen requested coffee and some food, the normal amenities for a performer, but at first the only result is a series of visits and phone calls by various apologetic staff people. When someone arrives with only a cup of coffee, Allen thanks him but adds, "If you personally have any influence on the matter, we're still looking for some fruit, vegetables and dip, cheese--whatever is usually served."
"They're bringing that up at four," the server said.
"Well, it's ten after four," Allen quickly points out. "So if I could have it ten minutes ago, so much the better."
This somewhat acerbic kind of comeback, an Allen characteristic, derives (he says) from the "sarcastic way my family used to talk." Yet he seldom strikes people as sarcastic in a mean-spirited way. Allen's reasonable tone and demeanor (as opposed, say, to Groucho Marx's growl) and his characteristic chuckles seem to communicate that he is merely saying funny things as they occur to him with an ever-present delight in the twists and turns of language. ("When I ad-lib, I laugh," he said on another occasion. "I laugh for the same reasons the audience does: I've never heard the joke before, and I'm just as surprised as they are.") It doesn't even offend an interviewer who, while trying to formulate a complicated question says, "I don't know exactly how to ask this..." Allen's brief introspective chuckle is followed by his quiet suggestion, "You could ask it sitting down."
This rapid wit and improvised rapport with individuals he interviewed in the audience or outside the studio set him apart from other television performers. But he is aware of its dangers. "It's easy to slide over that line where you're laughing at somebody's expense," he observes. " You have to be mindful of the problem and try not to go over that line."
The promised plate of food then arrives, followed closely by comedian Phil Hartman, formerly of Saturday Night Live and another of tonight's Tonight Show guest. He introduces himself—Allen says that he knows his work. Hartman says that he's just read one of Allen's books on comedy, though he's unsure of the title.
"It was a retrospective of comedians," Hartman says, referring to one or another edition of Allen's The Funny Men or More Funny People. "It acknowledged the Jewish contribution to show business, especially comics and comedy writers, how our whole sensibility, our sense of timing--so much comes out of that."
"It's a fascinating subject," Allen says. "I never tire of writing about it--not comedy ideas but analytical ideas about comedy, partly because performers like you keep coming along and doing it in a fresh way."
"Well, you certainly had some fresh takes," Hartman says. "One of the things I used to love was when the audience would call out numbers and you would use them to write a song."
"I'm going to do that with Jay on the show today," Allen says. "I've been thinking lately about writing about the new kind of comedy you do--you and Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. You're all quite different but you have in common the ability to do what used to be called impressions but of a new kind--not the Rich Little or Frank Gorshin kind: you guys get right into the soul of the person."
"I really try to create the illusion that I am the person," Hartman acknowledges.
"When comics of my generation and older guys pretended to be somebody, it was still just Milton Berle or Bob Hope horsing around pretending, but it's very different with you--you really seem like Sinatra or whoever you're doing."
"I really love immersing myself in someone," Hartman says. "It's part of the thrill for me-- to make Phil disappear. And when I come out of it it's like waking up from a trance."
They look up at the television monitor mounted high on a wall that is previewing clips and pre-taped bits prepared for this show. At that moment the opening of the first Tonight show plays, with the black-and-white Steve Allen of 40 years before.
Hartman asks him where that show was filmed. "The Hudson Theater in New York, I think," Allen responds. "We did most of them there, but not all."
"Then when you were over at Vine Street [in Los Angeles], what show was that?" Hartman asks.
"That was the syndicated show we did--"
"That's the one I remember!" Hartman exclaims. "I was in high school then. Oh, man. You were the wild man! You were crazy!"
After three increasingly successful years, Allen had left Tonight to devote his energies to the Sunday night show and then several other successful prime time hours. But it was his return to late night with a show syndicated by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company in 1962 that has become legendary with baby boomers and the comedians of that generation, inspiring not only Phil Hartman but Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Dennis Miller and that Indiana teenager who saw nearly every show: David Letterman.
Many remember Allen's show-opening stunts--dressed as a mummy he ran down the street with his wrapping on fire. He gyrated on the wing of a World War I biplane in flight. He squeezed into a wooden box that was blown up with dynamite. He jumped into a tub of Jell-o. And wearing only a swimsuit, he was dolloped with ice cream, syrups and fruit to become a human banana split.
The wildness extended to some of his guests such as the hyperactive health-food advocate, Gypsy Boots (who sometimes made his entrance swinging on a vine), and to Allen's own frenzied ad libs and wordplay--including his sudden high-pitched shouts of "Schmock! Schmock!" What did it mean? It was just a word that sounded funny to him, like "fern," "fink," "creel" and the others he randomly repeated with an irrepressible joy.
Such spontaneous wordplay became an Allen trademark. On one Westinghouse show with guest Peter Sellers at his side, he was attempting to phone Scotland Yard (yes, he started the funny phone call tradition, too.) The overseas operator asked if she could monitor the call for technical reasons. "It can be monitored and Merrimacked for all I care," Allen answered.
In the comedy shows on television and radio, as well as specials and guest appearances throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Allen spoofed commercials, current events and the conventions of his own medium. He was the first to satirize charity telethons, and scooped Broadway with the comic premise that the musical theater would run out of subjects and turn to such unlikely stories as "The Bride of Frankenstein." The resulting sketch (featuring Jayne Meadows as the musical Bride) preceded "Sweeney Todd" and "Phantom of the Opera" by decades--and was much funnier.
The backstage banter before the Tonight Show anniversary has become a little more focused, as Hartman says he is developing a series of his own and would like Allen's advice. Allen says he'll be happy to meet with him anytime. As clips of Allen's Sunday night show spin silently on the monitor, Hartman asks him if he thinks variety shows will ever come back in prime time. Allen thinks they may, but not on a network.
Hartman asks how Allen found some of his comedy cohorts, Allen begins to tell him but his response is interrupted by a booming voice from the hall.
"Are these show business tales I hear?" Jay Leno intones as he raps on the door and strides into the room.
"How he discovered Louis Nye and Bill Dana," Hartman says.
"We're interviewing each other," Allen says.
But Leno's attention is on a bit for the show about to begin taping. "Well, the guest chair's a little rickety," he warns Steve. "Who wants to be the one to put the match book under the leg? I'll say the chair's a little rickety, you can take out a match book and say 'here's how we did it in my day,' I think that'll get a big applause."
"I had rickets as a kid, so--" Steve responds.
"There you go," Leno says. He pops back out into the hallway. "Anybody got a book of matches?" After a futile search, someone offers a lighter. Everyone in the dressing room laughs.
Finally a matchbook appears, which Jay hands to Steve.
"That'll be funnier than having some guy come out and fix it," he says," because everything's a little rickety."
"I'm sure you've already discovered that when things go wrong," Steve says, "it's better."
Oh yeah," Jay agrees, but dubiously. "And today it couldn't get any better."
A half hour later it's getting close to show time, and the dressing room and nearby hallway are filled with people, most connected with the show in one way or another. One producer is telling Allen about how he did the opening monologue in Jay Leno's at an earlier dry-run in the new studio: a joke he'd told successfully many times in other circumstances completely bombed with the audience--only the band laughed, and they were laughing at him. "So I have new respect for our performers," he concludes.
"I learned very early coming out of radio where nothing was moving but your mouth that television is like a basketball game going on around you," Allen observes. "I discovered that a great joke might get no response and very often the reason was that some stage hand had just moved something or the audience saw another performer getting ready for an entrance. All it takes is one second of distraction..."
Jay Leno, now in his sleek on-air suit, pops back in. "It's going to be great," he says to Allen. "Thanks for being part of this."
Suddenly the halls are empty and everything is quiet. Allen finishes a final conversation with this comment:" Oddly enough, even though it's all comedy, if you have a thousand comedians you have a thousand different people. Some of them are easily put into categories--there are extraverts who are never off, much more extraverted than others socially. Some of us--and I put myself in this category--aren't so loud in a social context but become different on stage in front of an audience. That has basically to some extent been for a long time the case for talk show hosts. John Carson is very shy socially. Jack Paar is the same. Myself. David Letterman is a mix, but basically a pretty solitary creature. A few years ago when I was inducted into the Comedy Hall of Fame, the producers arranged to fly David out from New York to talk about me and hand me the statue. And so Jayne and I sent word through his office that when he gets here we'd be honored to take him to dinner, that evening or before the show if he has no plans. The answer came back, thanks a lot but he gets so nervous when he performs that he can't even see people let alone have dinner."
A few minutes later the show begins. On the dressing room monitor Allen watches Jay Leno's monologue and the ceremonies inaugurating the new studio: Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Oral Hershieser throws out "the first ball" from the stands, and comedian Rip Torn bursts from a packing case to shower those in the first few rows of the audience (including Jayne Meadows) with confetti.
Allen puts on his suit coat and takes a last glance at the mirror, as the monitor again showed his black-and-white image of 40 years before laconically introducing the very first Tonight Show, but now millions of home viewers are also seeing it. Then he is led through the maze of bare plywood forming the back of the set to await his introduction. When he makes his entrance as the first guest, he is greeted by Jay Leno kneeling at his feet. Allen responds with a papal-like hand on his head.
On the air, Allen chats about his Tonight show years--and fixes the rickety chair leg. He gets laughs, as do the clips from his long career.
After a commercial break he sits at the piano and in a variation of a bit he'd done many times, asks Leno to choose four numbers between one and eight (the number of notes in a scale). " 2, 7, 6, 3," Leno says. Allen plays them first in E flat, "but suddenly it occurred to me that if I switched the key, those notes and the relation to each other would be prettier," he said later. He produces a sweet melody in B flat that he plays with a soft Latin beat: he had just written his five thousandth song.
After first feigning resistance Allen calmly sits in another chair which the final guest (John Evans, billed as having "the strongest neck in the world") balances on his head. True to his earlier observation about distractions, Allen couldn't get the audience to quiet down in time for his quip and it was lost.
After the show he is greeted backstage by his wife Jayne Meadows and their son, Bill Allen, currently the president of MTM studios. (Steve Allen has three sons by his first marriage: Steve, Jr., a physician who lectures on the health benefits of laughter; Brian, a real estate executive; and David, a songwriter.)
"Fabulous show!" Jayne Meadows declares. "Jay is so warm!"
"She was absolutely panic-stricken when you went up in that chair," Bill Allen tells his father. "She's in the audience--'this is a very bad idea, what is he doing? He's not 27 years old anymore--get him off of that chair!'"
This anniversary is also Jayne's birthday, so during a commercial break the Tonight Show band had played "Happy Birthday" and she was presented with roses. She remembers all the trepidation of that first network night.
"Louie Nye said to me, the country is never going to understand our freewheeling comedia dell arte approach, it'll not last. I said, Louie, it's the only show of it's kind, I have ESP, today is my birthday which is an omen--this show is going to last for years and years and years. And I had absolutely no idea what I was prophesying-- it's the longest-running and biggest money-maker of any show in the history of television, and he created the whole thing!"
But Steve Allen seems less interested in reaping praise for his historic appearance than in talking to his wife and son. While the room crowds with well-wishers, he intently picks out pieces of confetti from Jayne's hair as they discuss their next destination. So what spectacular Hollywood party would Steve and Jayne be attending to celebrate? Though the Tonight Show is still seen late at night, it is now taped in the afternoon. So after accepting more congratulations on his triumphant return to the show he started two generations ago, Steve Allen leaves with his wife and son for open house at the school of one of his grandchildren.
The next day Allen is back at his Meadowlane Productions offices, a ten minute drive from his hillside home in Royal Oaks, where he and Jayne have lived for more than 30 years. The lobby stairs are lined with magazine covers featuring Steve, usually with Jayne (Look, Newsweek, Parade, California Chiropractic Association Journal, Valley People, Downbeat, TV Guide), album covers ("More Funny Fone Calls," "How to Think," "Bebob's Fables," "Allen Plays Allen") and movie posters ( He starred in "The Benny Goodman Story," and co-starred with Jayne Meadows in "College Confidential"). Inside, past the huge desks of the spacious outer offices housing his staff of six, there is a long, narrow storage room. Below the usual shelves of office supplies are stacks of Allen-authored books; the opposite wall is filled with black-bound volumes of transcripts and clippings, alphabetized by subject. There is an equal number of these files at Allen's home.
This degree of organization is in marked contrast to the chaos of Steve Allen's early life. His parents were traveling performers. Comedian Milton Berle said his mother was the funniest woman in Vaudeville. But his father died when he was little more than a year old, and his mother had to go back on the road, leaving Steve with her various Irish relatives that Allen described as "highly unstable, highly irrational people." Drinking, arguing violently and being very funny were equal staples of the many households in working class neighborhoods of several cities where he grew up. When he was later asked, "What sign were you born under?," Allen's quip--"Furnished Rooms for Rent"--was not far from the truth. Steve responded by becoming a rationalist ( even as a child relatives called him "the Philadelphia lawyer"), averse to alcohol--and also very funny.
His only sanctuaries were Catholic schools (he attended 18 schools in all), the movies (he learned to be a gentleman, he says, by watching William Powell) and the streets he roamed with his best friend and now celebrated actor, Richard Kiley.
These circumstances, along with an adolescent thirst for adventure, led him to an impulsive escape and the experience of hitchhiking across half of America, alone and often hungry. In describing it on this afternoon in his office, he comments on his own logical narrative with dry humor and punctuates it with chuckles, especially when referring to painful episodes. This habit of mind suggests one of his formulas for comedy (echoed in one of Woody Allen's movies) that tragedy can become comedy with the passage of time.
"When I was sixteen years old I ran away from home in Chicago," he says. "It wasn't much of a home to run away from. It was me and my mother in one room. I was not very content with my situation so I did the classic dumb teenager thing, I ran away and bummed around the country for a few weeks, and learned a lot about life and human nature and hunger and poverty and all kinds of things of that sort."
"When I left Chicago I arbitrarily headed east for no better reason than the Indiana border was--and is to this day-- quite close to the South Side. Before I officially ran away I'd had the rather exhilarating experience of getting on my bike and just riding and thinking,' wow, I'm in Indiana, I'm in another state'--when you're fifteen that seems like a big deal. I had done that three or four times and come back four hours later, so when I finally thought the hell with this, I'm getting out of this, I just automatically went in that direction."
But it was autumn and the midwestern weather was turning cold. "So since I wanted to be warm I did the sensible thing-- I headed south, figuring if I did that long enough it would get warm, and that part of it turned out to be true...I gave up the bike very quickly--that's no way to travel giant distances--it's great for 12 blocks but after that it's a drag. After that it was hitchhiking."
Allen made it to Texas, tired and hungry--very hungry. "I hadn't eaten in two or three days and that really changes your outlook on life. You suddenly become like a heat seeking missile--you become a food-seeking mechanism. So I went into this restaurant in Del Rio and ordered roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy and apple pie, and that was such a wonderful experience I ordered the same thing again. Then I told the guy I had no money--I offered to work, of course. But I ended up in jail for three days."
"I'd been having a really rough time hitchhiking, it's a very bad way to get around. What's worse is having to walk everywhere ... So I was in Sanderson, Texas, after I got out of jail in Del Rio-- on this particular day I found myself near a rail yard, and I got to talking to these two guys there. They said forget hitchhiking, it's dangerous and so on, you should ride the trains. How do you do that? Hang around and do what we do, there should be a train through here in about an hour. So after that I traveled largely by train."
It was then that Allen finally found a destination. "I remembered that at about the age of five I had a nice time living at 1803 Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles at the home of a family called the Foxes--Nora Fox was my mothers sister.
I sort of automatically drifted out there, and spent that year living with the Foxes and going to high school here, and that got me through my sophomore year. Then I went back to Chicago."
By the time he attended a year of college on scholarship at Arizona State Teacher's College in Tempe, Allen had gone to no fewer than 18 schools. When he managed a one-year scholarship to Drake University to study journalism, his sense of humor began to take the creative lead. Assigned to write a straight news report of a football game for the campus newspaper, he instead wrote it in mock-heroic verse. The game was played in torrential rain so Allen wrote: "A center plunge--a fumble--a pile-up--and a shout!/ Six men fell in a puddle, but only five came out./ Oh, they're looking still for Harvey, they're looking still for Jim,/ For it seems the lads went in the game and never learned to swim."
(Allen later turned a similar assignment into another comic opportunity during his job in television--as a wrestling commentator. "Leone gives Smith a full nelson now," Allen intoned, "slipping it up from either a half nelson or an Ozzie Nelson... He has him pinned. Now they're rolling over. It's sort of a rolling pin."]
Thinking he would be drafted during World War II, Allen married his college sweetheart. But the Army rejected him and he broke into radio, first as an announcer in Phoenix, but very quickly added comedy and music to his on-air repertoire.
After local success and even more acclaim in Los Angeles radio, Allen headed for New York and television. But his marriage had ended in divorce. About the time he started the Tonight show (which actually began as a local New York program called The Steve Allen Show before it was picked up by the NBC network) he met a successful young actress named Jayne Meadows.
Allen is often asked about the longevity of his marriage to Jayne Meadows. "I give Jayne 80% of the credit," he says. "She's beautiful, highly intelligent, very organized, very talented, she's always entertaining--you can never be bored in her company." They met at a dinner party. "I've heard her say it many times--in her case it was love at first sight, not because of any virtue in me, but because I looked like her father and had sort of his general quality. After a few weeks of enjoying her company I came around to being attracted to her, too, but we were both in a shaky state from the collapse of our earlier relationships so we weren't looking for a marriage partner--just a way to avoid loneliness on some evenings." Nevertheless, within a year they were married.
But he resists any implication that he and Jayne are to be especially admired because they've been married so long. "We're willing to discuss the fact that we've been married for 40 yrs, but were both uncomfortable with being praised for it, because that carries the implication that we are morally superior people, that our very nobility is the reason. That's not how we perceive it and I think we are accurate," he says. "First of all, we have both failed at marriage. She was married before and I was married before... I think it's probably because we failed in the first instance when we tried marriage, we are highly unlikely to ever get divorced despite the problems that from time to time present themselves."
The failure of Allen's first marriage--at just about the time he was experiencing his first television success with the Tonight show--was a painful experience he recounted in his first novel, Not All of Your Laughter, Not All of Your Tears. " I wrote the book as many writers do out of personal tragedy, suffering, and somehow writing is a way to deal with it," he says now. His divorce precipitated a moral crisis, which he recounted during this afternoon in his office.
"I can remember two instances, one trivial and one major, where I discovered that I was a sinful person-- that I was capable of sin... One occurred when I was about seven years old. There used to be a substance called tin foil--now it's called aluminum foil. You would find it on Hershey bars and on packages of cigarettes and other things. Almost all the people I knew that were poor--we most certainly were--would try to make a buck here and a buck there as the old saying goes. So we discovered that the old men who used to drive their junk carts down the alleys of Chicago would give you a few cents for a ball of this tin foil. You would actually walk around for weeks and weeks and if you saw some in an alleyway you'd pick it up, put in your pocket and eventually you'd roll it up all in one ball. And if somebody had a candy bar you'd say, hey before you throw that away can I have it?"
"So you had this sort of baseball-size ball, I don't remember what we were paid for it, four cents let's say, and I can still remember the first day the possibility of committing an evil act occurred to me-- and I committed the act. I suddenly realized you could start with a stone--already you're starting out with something the size of a golf ball, and wrap the foil around that. At the end of the process yours looked as honest as another's kids--maybe they had stones in theirs, too, I don't know. But I actually did that--I only did it once. I don't remember whether I felt guilty when I got my four pennies a few weeks later but I did start with a stone instead of 100% tin foil."
"My next moral shock about myself came when I found out that I was capable of wrecking a marriage relationship so that a divorce occurred. That came as several kinds of shock. First of all it always very painful when anything fails, but because I had thought in kind of an innocent dumb way that I was one of the good guys, suddenly I found myself in the bad guy category. I guess today people say,' well okay, I screwed up, now let's go have a bite of lunch,' but I just couldn't handle it that way. It just knocked me for a loop."
But out of this crisis came personal change, and a source for one of his personal passions that has become yet another of his careers: education.
"It was at that point, oddly enough, that my education began," he continued. "I never really learned much before that, I'd gone to school and gotten good marks with no trouble, but it all came easily to me, and I don't think much of it soaked in deep--certain elements of Catholic teaching did obviously, but other than that, not much. But at 30 I began to read, to try to understand--everything: the physical universe, the whole field of philosophy, psychology, psychiatry--I read everything I could find...It was a good thing that happened out of a bad situation. It changed me quite importantly. I began to see myself as someone wrestling with questions that were painfully ancient, in some cases still not adequately resolved to the satisfaction of the world jury."
The young man who devoured Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, Gibbons' The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, books by Will Durant and Thomas Paine, issues of the National Review and The Worker, eventually became the producer of the PBS television series, Meeting of Minds, which replicated on stage the kind of dialogue that might have gone on in Steve Allen's head: Martin Luther contending with Voltaire, Plato and Florence Nightingale, or Adam Smith debating money and morality with Mahatma Gandhi and American birth-control advocate, Margaret Sanger.
The format was unprecedented: actors engaged in lively dialogues using the ideas--and much of the time, the actual words--of important historical figures, most of whom could never have met in their lifetimes. Allen tried for 18 years to get the series on television, and even though he won awards and acclaim for 4 seasons, no corporation would underwrite the series and it went off the air.
Today Allen said he had nothing to add to his statements about Meeting of the Minds in the introductions to the published scripts (by Prometheus Books, as are many of his books). In one such introduction he speculated that the series didn't get financial support because "those who make such decisions on behalf of assorted foundations and large business firms were never entirely comfortable with a program in which all ideas were subjected to sometimes breathtaking scrutiny and criticism." The 24 shows that were produced are available on video and audio tape, and are still used in schools throughout the country. Allen believes this series is his most lasting achievement.
"Education is of great importance to me," he says on this afternoon. "I'm appalled at what passes for reasoning, for thinking." But in addition to reforms of educational institutions, he recommends the path he took, of self-education. In his recent book, "Dumbth"--And 81 Ways to Make America Smarter, many of those ways don't require formal schooling : #23, "Familiarize yourself with at least the basic elements of logical reasoning," #10 "Beware of arguments by slogans or epigrams," #68, "Understand the difference between fact and opinion," #4 "Beware of falling in love with your first answer,"#43 "Take advantage of your local library," #48 "First learn--and then remind yourself every day--that simply because you read something in a book, magazine or newspaper, it does not automatically follow that it is true," #51, "If your car has a cassette-tape player, start using your auto as a private university on wheels," #53 "When possible, spend time with people brighter than yourself" (Here he confesses, as he does in his Reflections that one of his great regrets is not spending more time with intellectuals) #70 "Enjoy the classics," and especially Rule #34--"Decide to continue your education until death."
Then there is # 37: "Watch less commercial television." Though he recommends watching the best of the talk shows and public television, he suggests that the profit motive is responsible for the deterioration of commercial television and its failure to fulfill its potential for education.
The decay of television he writes about in Dumbth and elsewhere are, in his view, part of more pervasive problems. "It's money that counts in our society," he says on this Los Angeles afternoon. "As long as the economic factors dominate as they clearly do, you'll have great moral and ethical problems, and a great weakness in addressing them and confronting them. In Catholic doctrine there is something called the 'near occasion of sin.' For a drunkard the near occasion of sin is a bar, because that's where he is most tempted to commit his particular sin...It occurs to me that entire free enterprise system is for all of us an occasion of sin because not only is it very easy to commit moral offenses but it's very profitable to do so. Cheating--putting water in the milk or whatever you can do to put out a product that costs 3 cents less than your competitors."
Though at 73 years old he thinks about aging ("Age does not come in strictly measured increments/it comes in waves./ Some Thursdays we are younger than on Monday of that week..." begins an Allen poem) he is generally enthusiastic about his life now.
"I'm a much better piano player now that I was ten years ago," he believes. "I write books much better now than I did, say, 25 years ago. There's been a little bit of improvement in the quality of the writing, but there's been a remarkable acceleration in the pace it's created. It surprises even me." He keeps a list of ongoing writing projects, which on this particular afternoon included some 30 books in various stages, not counting a forthcoming collection of song lyrics, a children's book and a collection of letters. "My most time-consuming activity is writing letters," he says. "Whenever I am concerned about something I have to act on it. I have to write a book, make a speech, send a check, write a letter, something. Especially if it concerns injustice or dishonesty--it drives me nuts. It drives me crazy when I hear about unfairness and suffering."
One book he was just finishing is Murder on the Atlantic, the latest in his series of mystery novels. "The publisher [Zebra Books] came up with the idea of doing conventional Agatha Christie plots, but with me and Jayne appearing like Nick and Nora of the Thin Man movies," he says. "They all have show business settings, and one of the things I do to give the books an illusion of reality is I use the names of actual people for characters. I'll just drop my social friends in for a page and a half, for example if there's a party scene. One of my good friends is Larry Gelbart, a humorist and playwright, who wrote M*A*S*H on television--a very witty man, one of the funniest I know. When I wrote to him to tell him I'd put him into Murder in Vegas, his answer was, 'Pat and I are so pleased to hear of this because it will go a long way to our having been cut out of War and Peace.'"
His tightly logical non-fiction texts don't usually begin with such a high degree of organization. "Oddly enough when I write the original manuscript it's usually a series of digressions and it's not even obvious what I'm digressing from," he says, after our conversation has digressed hopelessly. "I've always written in that chaotic fashion...Fortunately or unfortunately my brain at any one time is full of ideas, and by using the device of capturing them on tape, I can later do a lot of sandpapering and blending."
Allen's acquaintances are well acquainted with his omnipresent mini-tape recorders, which he keeps in every conceivable place at home and carries with him at all times, so he can whisper into it when a thought occurs to him, no matter what else he is doing. Cassettes are collected and his staff transcribes them. He hit upon this method of writing when an idea for a novel sprang, almost fully formed, as he was falling asleep one night some years ago. "But I couldn't get back to sleep, the idea began to develop itself, and none of it was volitional--in fact it was like I was watching print come up on a screen, I was actually seeing print. A fascinating explosion of creativity."
"So I said all right, I'll go upstairs to my typewriter, type four or five pages, get it out of my system and get back to sleep. But somehow my right hand picked up tape recorder. It was all very clear in my mind, I was ready to go, so without ever thinking about it I sat down and began to dictate, and after an hour or so I realized I'd better take that cassette out and put in another ....I was still there at 2:30 the following afternoon. I was there for twelve hours straight--I went down to go to the bathroom, get some orange juice, ate breakfast at one point--but after twelve hours of dictation I had a stack of seven or eight cassettes, there was never a pause, just coming out at an incredible pace.."
"Finally I was totally exhausted, and I got back to sleep. Now I had the concern that it had come so fast but it might be wrong or weak or bad writing, so I couldn't wait to see the transcribed pages--we do it here on pink paper to separate it from all the white paper that goes through. And it turned out to be something like 84 pages, and I was thrilled when I read it because it was no better than what I wrote at the typewriter but I was willing to settle for that because it was no worse."
Ironically, though he has added to it since then, Allen has yet to finish this novel, a thriller entitled I Kill, Therefore I Am.
Perhaps his greatest pleasure remains song-writing. "I'm a second-rate piano player," Allen insists, "but I'm a damn good composer. That's my primary gift." By the age of 8 he had discovered his ability to make up melodies. "When I feel I might be about to create a song--it's very hard to explain it, I don't think anyone can--but I do get such a feeling--and I hurry to the piano and as each melody wells up from my subconscious to my consciousness, I turn on the tape machine and play the song. It generally takes less than a minute to do the creation. That's pretty much how long it takes to play a 32 bar song if you only play one chorus."
His best-known songs include "Gravy Waltz," "Impossible," the theme from "Picnic," and his own theme song, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" which came to him, literally, in a dream. His compositions have been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Tommy Tune, and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, among others. He has written music for Broadway shows, Hollywood movies and television shows, and the official theme song of the National Football League Hall of Fame. But he claims not to be motivated by the business of music: of the 15 to 20 songs he writes each month, few are ever recorded or even heard by anyone else.
"The initial impulse is mysterious and internal, and you just write that song," he says. "Composing is a somewhat lonely activity, but to me, extremely pleasurable...Musicians get rewarded by being able to create beauty. I create beauty by playing Gershwin, for example. I do that 94% for my own enjoyment. How could it be otherwise if I'm home alone, it's 4 in the morning and I'm sitting there in my underwear or my pajamas, playing Jerome Kern songs for about an hour because suddenly I just want to hear them?"
"If you have a hit song," he continues, "you can profit from that, it's nice but it's not why I write songs. I've never written anything--a book or a poem or a joke or anything--after thinking, God, I've got to get some money going here, I know what I'll do, I'll write ten great jokes--it never works that way. I'll just be watching something on television or listening to a newscast on radio and suddenly a phrase hits me and I've got a joke. Then later the question comes up who do you sell that joke to, or if you're performing, what show can you perform it in. "
It's not that Allen has retired from the money-making world--he often repeats that he works seven days a week. But he can afford to follow his enthusiasms--for a song, a joke, a book as well as a booking. "With so many things on the cafeteria counter for them to choose from," he points out," somebody's usually interested in something I'm doing at the moment."
"Literally everything I do is, to use that dirty word, fun," he says. "Professional comedians have a delightful role in life. You're constantly being told how funny you are, hundreds of people laugh at what you say--it's constant gratification that school teachers other people who do more important work in the world don't get."
But for all his involvement in an active present, his life incorporates a rich past. Especially in his public life Steve Allen cannot escape the constant context of a long career and the effects he's had on people's lives. Back at that bookstore signing, another incident suggests the sometimes antic texture of this ongoing interchange.
From the line of fans emerges a man with a round face and big gentle eyes who hands Allen a card that identifies him as a professional clown. "Look at that face!" Allen says, smiling at him. "That's a clown's face." Speechless with delight, the man moves on, but Allen is reminded of a story.
On his New York morning television show in 1952, he finished an interview with a circus clown who had applied some clown makeup to Steve's face and added the floppy wig and big red nose. Thus attired, Allen took a hand mike into the audience, and thought it would be appropriate to talk to a five year old boy he spotted in the front row. But instead of being enchanted by the clown getup, the boy bolted in fright. "The audience laughed, thinking it was planned. But it put a damper on the next ten or twelve minutes for me."
"About thirty years later I got into a cab in New York," Allen continued. The cab driver recognized him and asked him if he remembered this incident from 1952. "I told him, 'yes, I've been worrying about that ever since. I felt so guilty. I didn't mean him any harm.' He said,' well, you don't have to worry any more. I was that little boy.'"
"'No kidding?' I said. ' At last I get the chance to apologize.' 'No, you don't have to,' he told me. ' It worked out great.' He said, 'Guess what I do for a living now?' I said, 'It looks to me like you drive a cab.' He said,' No, that's just during the off-season. I'm a professional clown.' "
His story was over only a moment before Allen became aware that the clown he just met had returned and was standing next to him--wearing his red clown's nose. Allen responded with his unforgettable laugh.
"I actually carry one of those around sometimes--those rubber noses split in half so you can put it on fast," Allen admits. "On certain occasions to break Jayne up--every two years or so, any more than that it would really be annoying--if she stopped looking at me and we're arguing about something, I'll put it on and walk around in front of her and say, 'Yeah, but I'm not clowning around about this! '"
Allen probably would not escape such encounters even if he could. "I am comfortable talking with eccentrics," he says. "I don't know why." But there is one element that troubles him, and it occurs nearly everywhere he goes-- somebody says, "you're my hero."
"Gosh, I really feel uncomfortable when that happens," he says. "I don't see anything heroic about me and modesty has nothing to do with it. But whatever I've done for better or worse has been done in the sight of thirty million people sometimes, so it's that magnifying effect that accounts for that heroic stature."
Yet it's clear that for many people, he is a kind of hero. He was funny, but a lot more: he personified possibilities. For succeeding generations--especially of young viewers-- Steve Allen showed that you could be comic but still smart, you could wear glasses and still be cool, you could be witty and still sincere. He showed that even without pedigree or pedagogy you could do and be many things at once: a physical clown and a verbal wit, a hip cat and a concerned citizen, a free-spirited improviser and a freelance scholar, a responsible listener and an irrepressible creator. On one of those late night shows he might discourse seriously on some philosophical questions he hadn't quite answered for himself, and a sip of orange juice later, laugh with uncontrollably delight and shout "Schmock! Schmock!" He was Everyman as potential Renaissance Man.
There is even a theory that Allen's career has been hurt because he does too much of too many things. But that, of course, is why he is not just a performer but a model of a multi-dimensional human being, making full use of all his dimensions. That he puts others to shame is our shame, not his. "The real problem is not that there are too many Steve Allens," wrote professor of philosophy Thomas Ellis Katen, "but that there are too few of the rest of us."
Posted by Captain Future at 2:25 PM