How far back?
Wayne Nelson of Forest Lake writes: “Some of the BB writers have been sharing their memories of how young they were when they can remember things and events. I thought that I would share a couple pictures and short stories with you all of my young-childhood memories.
“I came upon this old picture of me in my mother’s old photo album. It was taken when I was around 1-1/2 years old. I have faint memories of playing in this sandbox in our back yard. I can remember my father building it for my sister and me; it was painted green by my father. I can remember digging in the sand searching for the shovel so I could fill up the pail.
“Note my young mother standing in the background.
“This next photo was taken of my mother and me when I was 2-1/2 years old, in 1950. Look at how some ladies would get all dressed up just to go shopping downtown.
“I have more memory of this picture. My mother and I were walking on Robert Street in downtown St. Paul when a fire truck went by with its siren and red lights on. That is what I was looking at as it went by. It was a long hook-and-ladder truck with a person sitting in the rear who had to steer the back end around corners with a steering wheel.
“There were a couple of people, a man and a woman, standing behind a card table with a black tablecloth over it. The table was positioned next to the curb with an old-style camera (on a wooden tripod) that had the black cloth that went over the operator’s head while taking a picture. On the table was a large book that was opened up, and it had signatures on it.
“These people with their camera were positioned in front of a photography business with many pictures on display in the window. What they were doing was taking pictures of people walking down the street and then stopping you to try to sell you the pictures that they had just snapped of you. I remember my mother signing the book after they stopped us, and then we left.
“She had the picture that they took of us made into postcards. I forgot all about these postcards until I saw one in a photo album of a relative about 15 years ago, and then it all came back to me like it was yesterday.”
American Icons (yes, for once, an icon that’s truly iconic) Division (responsorial)
Cee Cee of Mahtomedi: “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey say that once the elephants were gone, attendance plummeted. I say it’s because they didn’t hire Tim Torkildson as their ringmaster!”
Tim Torkildson: “Subject: Of Clown Wigs and Clown Names.
“‘Our clowns are not to be laughed at,’ frequently intoned Swede Johnson of Ringling Brothers. Besides the obvious crazed satire implied in that statement, there were aspects of professional clowning that were no laughing matter — such as being able to afford the best professional clown shoes, wigs, and costumes. And coming up with a good clown name.
“If you were a hobo clown or character clown, it wasn’t such a big deal. Your wardrobe came from Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Your own hair usually worked well as a wig. But an auguste clown or a classical whiteface had higher, and more costly, traditional standards to adhere to.
“I was fortunate enough to have an accomplished seamstress as my mother. After she got over the initial shock of having a son who wore more makeup than she did each day, she was happy to run me up a pair of parti-colored baggy pants whenever I asked her. I bought polka-dot pregnancy blouses by mail order for a song. On me, they looked good.
“As a whiteface clown, I was willing to spend a month’s salary to buy a pair of basic black clown shoes my first year with Ringling. I traced the outlines of both my feet and mailed the tracings, with a money order for $200, to a specialty shoe company in Chillicothe, Ohio. A month later they arrived— 2 feet long and padded with horsehair. That one pair lasted me for the next 20 years. There was a cobbler in Venice, Florida, who specialized in resoling clown shoes, so I would take them to him every winter. And they were the most comfortable shoes I ever had. When I switched over to classical pantomime a few years later, down in Mexico, I insisted on wearing them instead of the de rigueur ballet slippers, much to the despair of my Paris-trained mime instructor.
“My wig and my clown name proved more difficult problems that first circus season.
“All First-of-Mays were required to come up with a clown name before the show reached Madison Square Garden in April, so that the new programs could feature our photos with our clown names. I thought Tim the Clown was just fine. I didn’t want to get stuck with some silly appellation like Boo Boo or Clanky or Duffo. I liked my own first name and thought it would be peachy keen to see it immortalized for the ages in the circus program.
“Art Ricker, the publicity director for the Blue Unit, thought otherwise. ‘No can do, pal,’ he said to me while the show was still in Greenville, South Carolina. He called everyone ‘pal,’ even the star acts. ‘You gotta have a cutesy name — direct orders from Mr. Feld.’
“I pointed out to him that veteran clowns like Prince Paul and Otto Griebling didn’t have ‘cutesy’ clown names. They were simply called by their first names. I merely wanted the same professional courtesy.
“Ricker’s eyes narrowed to slits before he answered me: ‘They’ve been here 30 years, pal. They’ve earned the right to be called by their own names. What’s your claim to fame?’
“He had me there, so I promised to come up with something before we hit the Big Apple.
“All of us First-of-Mays held a conclave a few days later, at an all-night diner that served biscuits and sausage gravy and little else, to thrash out our new names. Various monikers were floated around: ‘Cuddles.’ ‘Chucko.’ ‘Binky Boodle.’ ‘Floogle’ (this from a guy who was obsessed with Abbott & Costello, and could quote their Floogle Street routine verbatim).
“I toyed with my biscuits and gravy, nothing but a sodden clump of mush by now, and told the group I’d rather cut my own throat than go through life with a clown name like ‘Winky.’
“‘We gotta be more classy!’ I declared.
“Guzzling iced tea like fiends, we rededicated ourselves to the task — and finally came up with some fairly whimsical clown names. Roofus T. Goofus. T.J. Tatters. Elmo Smooch.
As the night wore on, a clown name was developed for everyone. Except me. The creative juices dried up when my clown character was discussed. The only halfway-decent name suggested was ‘Pinhead,’ since that’s what Swede Johnson called me anyways.
“I was spared such a fate when the short-order cook behind the counter turned up the TV for a wrestling match. The featured contender was announced as Dusty Rhodes. Voila! Dusty the Clown sounded just right. Short and informal and affectionate. I told it to Art Ricker the next day. He approved.
“Would that the clown-wig problem could have been resolved as easily!
“Back when Nixon infested the White House, I had luxurious light brown hair that curled winsomely when I let it grow down to my shoulders. A natural clown wig, I thought. But the veteran clowns were unanimously against it.
“‘It looks cheap,’ said Prince Paul.
“‘It’s not a good fit with your whiteface,’ counseled Mark Anthony.
“And the boss clown, LeVoi Hipps, warned me: ‘Mr. Feld won’t stand for it. All whitefaces have to use a professional clown wig, or he’ll throw them off the show!’
“A professional clown wig meant either a Zauder wig or a Bob Kelly wig. They were both headquartered in New York City, and used nothing but yak hair for their clown wigs. Yak hair stands up to wear and tear (and custard pies) much better than human hair or synthetic materials. And yak hair comes only from Tibet. So a full wig cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 smackers back in 1971. Today I don’t think you can even get one.
“Now, I had made myself a solemn vow that come pestilence or pyrotechnics, I was going to save $2,500 that first season out of my clown salary. My colleagues and contemporaries, if you ever run across any of them escaped from Arkham Asylum, will gladly testify that I was as close-fisted as they come — unwilling to spend a dime that was not absolutely necessary to keep body and soul together (unless it was a book from a used-book store). I had put out for my clown shoes, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it for a Zauder wig. My hand became palsied when I held my bankbook and contemplated the damage that would occur should I give in. And yet I risked losing a job I really loved if I didn’t comply.
“I tried using a cloth bald wig, as Prince Paul did. But the mass of curly brown hair bunched up under the bald wig gave my head a bizarre lumpy appearance that sent children screaming into their mothers’ arms. And I didn’t want to get a crewcut. I bought cheap frowzy wigs from Goodwill and dyed them bright orange, but they kept slipping off my noggin at inopportune times during clown gags, and disintegrated so readily that I had to replace them every few weeks.
“I finally settled on the expedient of using oversized felt hats, dyed bright green or red, pulling them down over my head until I could barely see. That got me through the rest of the season without any further disparaging remarks from the senior clowns or management. But it was very uncomfortable and a darn nuisance — it messed up my clown makeup terribly.
“After my LDS mission, when I came back to Ringling to repair my fortunes, I tried using the hat trick again, but times had changed, and Ringling clowns were expected to have well-groomed and brightly colored hairstyles — no exceptions. So I knuckled under and got myself a $500 Bob Kelly yak-hair wig in a fetching straw yellow. I’ve still got it packed away in a freezer bag in my storage closet. It smells faintly of stale popcorn and manure, even after a thousand washings.
“I guess I could give it to one of the grandkids for next Halloween. Naw . . . one of these days, I’ll donate it to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, so they can put it up on display (or more likely file it away under ‘Health Hazard’).”
Gee, our old La Salle ran great!
The Gram With a Thousand Rules: “When the Ringling Brothers Circus came to town, gawkers gathered along the streets in Minneapolis to watch the Parade of Elephants make their way down the street from the railway station to the Big Tent. It was exciting for everybody — even for people like my oldest sister Ruth, who liked to think she was as sophisticated as Katharine Hepburn.
“When I was about 6 years old, Ruth decided on a whim to take my 12-year-old sister and me to see our first circus. (She forever after claimed that the decision was made in a temporary state of insanity.) Ruth did not suffer little children gladly — or quietly — but still we were thrilled with the prospect of the outing.
“My memories of that day are spotty: the huge elephants, the gigantic tent and all those tempting vendors plying their wares. My sister and I knew we would be taking our lives in our hands if we dared to beg for something from our bossy 21-year-old sister. That didn’t stop us from slowing our pace to look longingly at those adorable little stuffed monkeys on the sticks. Ruth yanked us along, ignoring our hints — and then, in a rare moment of compassion, she stopped and bought us each a box of Cracker Jack, telling us: ‘NO . . . don’t open it until we are in our seats!’
“After we settled ourselves on the bleachers, our big sister finally gave us the go-ahead, telling us: ‘NOW you can open the blankety-blank Cracker Jack!’ (She must have learned to curse from our father.) I remember tearing open the box to see what my prize was. It was one of the slow-motion moments in life, and I can still feel the anguish I experienced as I fumbled and dropped the box through the bleachers onto the ground below. I spent the rest of the circus — head down and peering through the bleachers, eyeing that box, hoping no one would pick it up, so I could retrieve it after the show was over.
“Ruth never offered to take me to another circus.”
What’s in a (movie) name?
Plus: Everyone’s a (movie) critic!
Kathy S. of St. Paul: “At the recent Golden Globes, two people famously mixed up the name of the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ with that of ‘Fences’ by August Wilson, so the resulting title was ‘Hidden Fences.’ Which is causing a stir because these people mashed up the only two African-American movies up for awards.
“I found myself doing the same thing today while buying my ticket to it — as the people around me also goofed them up. Though I mainly miscalled it ‘Hidden Numbers.’
“If in doubt, I’d suggest calling it ‘the NASA movie.’
“BTW: It is an excellent movie, and PG, but the sound of those high heels made me cringe….”
Then & Later
Lola: “The recent pictures and stories about watermelons made my mouth water. Watermelon was and is granddaughter Ava’s favorite food.
“I am going to have to get one before the next time family comes over for dinner.”
Band Name of the Day: Cracker Jack and the Blankety-Blanks
Law Firm of the Day: Boo Boo, Clanky & Duffo
Website of the Day: Abbott & Costello on Floogle Street.