Make-believe Ballroom

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My brother called me from Youngstown recently with a bright idea. Why not get up a three-piece band for a meeting of his musical club next month when I planned to be in town? Verne Ricketts was available to play the piano, and Hype Hosterman might be rounded up to play the drums.

The idea left me cold. My hand holding the phone was filled with arthritis, and I hadn’t touched a sax for about a half-century. And Verne Ricketts—he must be ninety. He played Idora Park when I was only eight. I was about to ask my brother why he didn’t play the sax himself. He could always cut the stuff better than I could, and his imitation of Ted Lewis was absolutely the best I ever saw. Then I remembered. He’d lost three fingers back in 1942.

So I told him maybe and let it go at that.

But his call tapped something in my brain, and memories gushed out, memories of those hundreds of nights during the Great Depression when I played sax for people who were trying to wring a little fun out of a ten-cent beer, a nickel bag of chips, and a few dances.

I had a union card in those days, but I’m not claiming to have been much of a musician. I had a card because the union boss (when sober) made the rounds of the joints, and it was wise to have a card even though he knew we weren’t making union scale, which was three dollars per night. I never had many lessons and knew as much about a cord of wood as a chord of music. When I ad-libbed, what came out was a matter of pure chance.

But I remembered playing one night at the Blue Crystal. The place was about empty, and we played “Stardust” mostly to pass the time. When the last notes died and the room was absolutely still, the drummer, Bob Grandmontagne, tapped me on the shoulder. “That was the sweetest music I ever heard,” he said.

 

Later on Bob was smart enough to get in the Air Transport Command, and last I heard he was a chicken colonel. Maybe he made general. I hope so, after he paid me a compliment like that. I’m not trying to put down all the stories you hear today about the patriotism of the World War II generation, but some of the guys I knew looked on the service as a business opportunity. The three hundred dollars a month they paid air corps lieutenants looked mighty big to us who were making anywhere from ten to twenty dollars a week.

But back to music. I had a hard reed on my mouthpiece, not like most sax men today, who use reeds so soft that all you’ve got to do is breathe into the horn. They get lots of execution that way, but the tone is a buzz, even a honk. My hard reed made sweet music, and I didn’t worry about execution because the stuff we played wasn’t all that tough.

The Mill’s patrons spruced up their old clothes and tried to put a good face on the situation.

The moments I liked best were when my sax purred out “June in January” or “Take Me in Your Arms” and I could see the dancers moving closer together with beautiful expressions on their faces. No one can ever tell me there’s no such thing as love because I saw it and even helped create it. In those joints, warm little refuges from the cold, poverty-stricken world, it popped up time and again during those moments, and it left me feeling mighty good.

My first music job was playing Saturday nights at the Inn, a speak outside town, during the winter of 1931–32. When I mentioned shaving, the leader, Nob Connor, said I should put milk on my beard and let a cat lick it off, which was sort of insulting. My friend Warren Haenny was on piano, and we often discussed how to lure people into the place, which was dead as a squashed squirrel on the road. We talked about making a sign reading GUY LOMBARDO , then, in very small print, “is not here, but Nob Connor is.” It shows how desperate we were. Poor Warren was to die at age forty-two from a rare and deadly disorder called syringomyelia.

We were desperate because our wages were the fiftycent cover charge, if any was collected, and a club sandwich after the job, a consideration in those hungry times. One night Nick, the owner of the Blue Crystal, gave us a nickel each. With youthful optimism I put mine in the slot machine and blew my whole night’s pay. I could have used it for a pack of rolling tobacco, but I had a cigarette holder, and I could usually spot a decent-sized butt on the street if I looked hard enough. That way I got to know all the contemporary brands from Omar to Fatima.

Everyone smoked in those days. “Gimme one of those coffin nails,” they liked to say. This may have saved the government some money later, but a whole lot of us were to survive and collect old-age pensions.

For a long time I wondered how Nick stayed in business. Later I found out that the real action was in the back of the place, where people paid fifty cents for a pint of pretty good hooch, and they didn’t have enough money left to pay the cover charge. But for two months I played in a speak without even knowing it.

Prohibition did more for the crock business than anything before or since. People who wouldn’t go near a bootlegger (except maybe at Christmastime, when brandy was needed for the plum pudding) took to making their own wine and beer during the 1920s. At least that was true in Youngstown. I don’t know about other places, because my generation never went other places until the war came and uprooted America forever.