Make-believe Ballroom

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The Torino Club was a dead joint on the outskirts of town when we first went there. It was run by two young Italians forever attempting to beat each other at the “Red Dog” game. We had quite a few people who followed us here and there, and in a few months we had built up the business real well. Then one Sunday, when the place was closed, somebody got himself shot and killed there. How and why never came out, but it finished the Torino. I hated to leave the place. One night I had hit one side of a twin jackpot before the dance and the other side after it. It brought me $8.40, not much short of a week’s pay.

The Clover Club was a very odd one for its time. It had an all-male floor show, men dressed as women, and it attracted a large number of curiosity seekers. As I played along with one of the singers, who was standing in the spotlight, I had a strange feeling and had to tell myself this was actually a person of my own sex. I had an even stronger feeling when I was in the restroom and he-she walked through the door.

Playing floorshows is tough. Believe me, playing five hours and doing shows at eleven and one is about equivalent to doing big labor eight hours at the steel mill. Sometimes the customers put on their own shows. I remember one usually dignified silver-haired gentleman standing on his head in the middle of the dance floor.

I recall even more clearly the night one hot summer when I was playing in a dead joint in Struthers. A well-rounded early-middle-aged woman in a flimsy dress came in and up to the band. “Boys,” she said, “gimme ‘Some of These Days.’” We responded unenthusiastically until she started to dance and twirl and showed she had nothing on under the dress, which made us get down to business with plenty of rim socks on the drums. We played chorus after chorus until a guy, probably her husband, came in, and pulled her out. This would be no big deal today. But in those days it was, believe you me.

She and the silver-haired gentleman had both had too much to drink. This reminds me of a couple who used to show up at Cousins place about eleven on Sunday nights and wait for the bar to open. When it did, and the waitress brought them their doubles, their faces lighted up like those of the dancers when I played a smooth tune. They were a perfectly matched lush couple who never made trouble for anyone.

My childhood friend Frank was a fighting man to the end. It came at the Battle of the Bulge.

Some normally nice guys got nasty when they had too much, like one of my childhood friends named Frank. One night he invited another guy outside because of a fancied insult and asked me to see it was a fair fight. Back then men could settle minor differences that way without being afraid of lawsuits later. Frank was a big, handsome guy, but slow with his dukes. He took a hard one on the nose, and it wasn’t pleasant to watch.

Frank was a fighting man to the end. It came in World War II, at the Battle of the Bulge, I think.

Among the joint owners, the Italians were particularly interesting because they had a sort of Old World affection for music and knew a lot about it. Louie at the Victoria, when things were dead, would come up to the bandstand, grab the mike, and sob out “Come Back to Sorrento” with a gusto that would have brought bravos at La Scala. Some of the owners were ex-bootleggers who pretended to sigh for the good old days, but I think they really liked being legit because they’d never let us play one minute beyond the deadline set by their licenses. They had their house rules, and everyone knew they were the kind of guys who would enforce them. They’d sell you enough booze to get plastered, but not stiff. Bad language other people might hear was out. So were chippies. I never saw one work any place I played. The owners didn’t pay us much, and I don’t think they did all that well either, because their customers were the traumatized survivors of 1930–32.

Walk down a working-class street any night during those three dismal years, and you’d see lots of dark windows and a few with glimmers of light. Many of these houses were empty, and those with the low light contained people who hadn’t paid their bills and were doing with kerosene lamps. At three cents a gallon, kerosene did pretty well for both cooking and lighting. In those days, if you didn’t pay your bills, they were quick to turn off your electricity, gas, and even water. Some had it real rough. In the worst cases, when the people were flat broke and couldn’t get the hard-pressed Allied Councils to come up with some coal, they’d go to bed on cold winter nights in their overcoats—if they had any. These worst cases began to disappear in 1933, but life was still in a minor key.

So many houses were empty that you’d wonder where the people went. Mostly they doubled up. Three generations plus a relative or two in one small house was not unusual. Young newlyweds often brought home an extra mouth to feed to one of their homes. You’d think this situation would have created tension, but I don’t recall that it did.