Su Lum: Slumming
June 22, 2010
Last Friday I attended the local musical revue “Defying Gravity” (don’t miss it, it’s great) and found myself zapped into the past as if I had stepped into a time machine when I heard “Standing on the Corner” from the musical “The Most Happy Fella,” the last New York show I ever saw.
It was the fall of 1956. I was 19, about to marry my first husband, Dave Gilligan, on Groundhog’s Day of the following year. Gil was what they called back then a “hillbilly singer” – think Hank Williams with a new touch of Elvis – and he had made friends with a man named Shorty Long, who had just had his break of a lifetime by copping the role of the singer of the opening number of that show.
I don’t remember a thing about “The Most Happy Fella” other than the curtain going up and the diminutive Shorty Long bringing down the house blasting the words, “STANDing on the CORner, WATCHing all the girls go by. STANDing on the corner, giving all the girls the eye.” It was momentous.
These days I am prone to mental lapses such as finding my dachshund Nicky’s sugar snap peas (he’s on a diet) in the tool drawer, but the memory of Shorty Long singing “Standing On the Corner” is vivid.
So Gil and I were beside ourselves with excitement when Shorty Long invited Gil to sing at his Santa Fe Ranch outside of Reading, Pa., a weekly event held on Shorty’s one day off from the show, where he hosted a host of hillbilly singers on a rough outdoor stage he had erected on his ranch. Whoa!
Some details are murky, but the long and short of it (so to speak) was that Gil and his mother and I took a bus from Jersey City and somehow made our way to Shorty’s ranch, which was way the hell out in the middle of nowhere, and we were greeted warmly by Shorty and his wife, Dolly.
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Lots of people, lots of performers, Shorty Long the man of the hour due to his newfound fame. Gil had to sing something that the band knew, not one of his best, but a grand time was had by all (Shorty sang “Standing on the Corner” to screams), and next thing I remember was hiking a long way down a country road in the wee hours with Gil and his mother, in the dark, in a teeming rain, to catch the bus back to Jersey City.
When we got to the backroad stop, the bus did not arrive. I guess we finally figured out that we had missed the last bus, and we ended up hiking back to Shorty’s place in what I still think of as one of the most humiliating moments of my life. Gil and I would have slept in a field, but we had his mother with us and had to swallow our pride. I think the mother had come along at the last minute on a whim.
We were soaked and bedraggled when we arrived back at the ranch; everyone had gone home and Dolly and Shorty were just turning off the lights when we, mortified, knocked on their door.
They were as nice as they could be but you all know that feeling – the party’s over, you’re about to hit the hay and NOW WHAT. I don’t know where they put Gil, but his mother and I peeled down to our slips and slept in the same bed. I barely knew her and it was awkward for both of us, but it was probably three in the morning by then, a time beyond caring.
The next morning they were already up and Dolly insisted on feeding us a big breakfast. She and Shorty adored each other and over the stove was a flowery placard reading, “Dolly and Shorty’s dream come true.”
I often bitch about the evils of progress, but one thing I really love is the Internet. When I got home from “Defying Gravity” it took only a couple of Googles to find Shorty Long and the name of his ranch and BANG, there was a photo of Shorty and Dolly taken about the time we had been there, and even a photo of the stage itself, which was just as I had remembered it.
Shorty’s real name was Emidio Vagnoni and his wife, whose stage name was Dolly Dimples, was born Gladys Ulrich, a couple of sweet love bugs whose dream had come true.
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