September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
A veteran recalls the everyday courage of a threadbare generation
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 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.
I jobbed around for a time and ended with a seven-night-a-weeker in late 1934 at the Dutch Mill, a fairly large old white house that had been converted into a beer garden. It was run by Andy Daley, one of the decentest people I ever met. Maybe I’m prejudiced, though. He raised our pay from $1.00 to $1.25 a night, and that extra $1.75 more than paid for a weekly bus ticket to get to the place.
The boys who came to the Mill hung around in the barroom. Those that caught a turn in the Mill now and then played tong, discussed the prospects of the Cleveland Indians, and called each other “Lubert.” Where the name came from, I never knew. The lucky guys with steady jobs on the three to eleven shift came in after eleven and always had a couple of beers.
The usual patrons of the Mill were nice couples, who spruced up their old clothes and put a good face on the situation. Then there were the K.M.s, the kitchen mechanics who worked in some of the big homes on the North Side. They came in in twos, sat down, and ordered a Coke or beer, which they could, if necessary, nurse the whole night. Andy didn’t mind. He knew that when they got up to dance, some of the guys from the bar would cut in and probably buy them a round.
Three of them who habitually came in beat anything they had in Hollywood. After a time I could tell they came more on business than recreation. There is nothing like a Great Depression to make marriage attractive to young girls, and the K.M.s had their eyes on the guys at the bar, especially those who came in after 11:00 P.M.
Like everything else, sex was subdued in the 1930s. The boys, regardless of religion or national background (or most backgrounds, anyway), had a sort of mystical respect for the good girl, which was the only kind they would consider marrying. The K.M.s knew this and behaved accordingly.
If marriage considerations shaped up the girls of the period, the gruesome stories about the treatment of social disease—this was before the wonder drugs—did the same for the majority of the boys. Only the hard pressed or foolish would mess around with the nymphs, as they were called.
The managers tried to keep the nymphs out of their joints, but one occasionally came to the Dutch Mill, and another to the Mayfair Tavern when I played there. The nymph to end all nymphs was one at the Shamrock in Warren, who, one Saturday night, went from parked car to parked car and serviced about twenty daring guys. I always felt sorry for the nymphs. The last time I saw the one at the Mayfair, she was an eighty-pound skeleton, but still going strong. No doubt they have all long since passed to their reward, and my hope is that the Lord went easy on them because they sure got little of the good life down here.
My particular problem at these joints was to get the people up and dancing. If we played the wrong songs, the couples would have a beer and leave, and the manager would take notice and be unhappy. If the couples were in their twenties or thirties, I’d call “Say It Isn’t So,” “It’s the Talk of the Town,” or something else slow and sweet. If that didn’t stir them, I’d try something with lift like “The Object of My Affection,” and if they still kept their seats, there was nothing to do but play “Stardust,” which, short of the national anthem, was the best getter-upper ever written.
Of course, getter-uppers came and went. No tune I ever played made a hit like “The Music Goes ’Round and ’Round.” The people went wild about it. We might have to play it five times in a night. But it lacked staying power. The “Beer Barrel Polka” had a lot more of this and taught thousands of Americans a new way to dance. It was still going strong when I left for the service.
I played hundreds of tunes and worked with hundreds of musicians. Most of us were “never-weres,” and “never-would-bes,” but occasionally I played with someone who had made it to the big time and for one reason or another had slipped down again. One violin player had been with the Cleveland Orchestra, and a number had been “on the road” with different bands. But I remember especially Tess Schaffer and May Bloom. They had banged pianos in the local theaters for the silents and had had to follow the mood on the screen, which meant going slow and tender, then fast and loud without having much to do with rhythm as such. They made the transition all right but never could quite fit because they used music.
Music cost too much. In our situation we had to pick up new tunes and words from the radio. One of the piano men I played with the longest, Frank Brindle, I doubt could even read music. But I could play through a tune quietly and he’d reproduce it in no time at all in either C or G, which meant I was always in three or four sharps. No one would invite Frank to play at Carnegie Hall. But on the other hand, the Carnegie Hall guys could not have made it with us. None of them had the heavy left hand that Frank used to pound out the beat.
There were musicians and musicians and also joints and joints. We were at a low point when we played the Bucket of Blood and at a high point when we played a new country club, a layout like you see in the movies with a roulette wheel, tables for playing 21, and guys in formal wear. We didn’t last too long at this club. The people there had money and weren’t our people. Besides, they expected at least an eight-piece band.
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.
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.
People still enjoyed life. Families, and maybe some neighbors who didn’t have radios, would assemble in front rooms in the evenings and laugh at “Amos ’n’ Andy,” or some other program. Playing five hundred didn’t cost anything, and ten-cent jigsaw puzzles were very popular. Some of my Catholic friends got a lot out of making novenas. Indeed, there was a sort of subdued cheerfulness among the people maybe because deep down all of us believed that the future would be brighter, and anticipation is more enjoyable than realization.
More than any people I have known, I admired these threadbare Americans who worked so hard to keep up a respectable front while having to think twice about getting a fifteen-cent haircut.
So I think I’ll take my brother up on his suggestion after all.