Su Lum: Slumming
October 2, 2012
Life was pretty tame when I was growing up in Boonton, N.J., in the ’40s. We were all terrified of World War II, but nobody in my hometown had any money and everybody was too hampered by prohibitive gas rationing to go anywhere. The days of summer were long, and the days at school were longer.
Then, in the middle of the decade, my mother began taking my older sister and me to The City (no one referred to it as New York) to see occasional Broadway shows.
We had no TV, just radio shows and a movie at the local theater, so this was a very big deal. Hair rolled in rag curlers, awake half the night in heart-thumping anticipation, then all dressed up to go into The City. Broadway was 25 miles away, but it might as well have been a hundred.
One of the first shows we saw was, “Oklahoma” – a production I now find exceedingly tedious – but which, at nine, was a thrill of a lifetime. My sister and I would bellow the title song and “Poor Jud is Daid” at the top of our lungs.
The son of my grandmother’s Alabama minister, who was also some kind of third cousin twice-removed, worked at The City’s classical music station, WQXR, and a kind of trade was established. Willis would come out to Boonton for a peaceful weekend in the country with fresh vegetables from my mother’s vast garden (“Miss Mae,” he would say, licking his chops, “these are the finest carrots I have ever tasted.”) and, in return, he would find us cheap tickets to the shows and take us to lunch at Sardi’s restaurant, pointing out all the dining stars and identifying the iconic caricatures on the walls.
Alas Willis, a “confirmed bachelor,” made the mistake of showing up one Friday night with a gentleman friend, both schnockered out of their minds, putting an end to an idyllic relationship. (“I am show shorry, Miss Mae.”)
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Meanwhile, we had seen “South Pacific,” Victor Borge, “Kismet,” “Top Banana,” “Where’s Charlie” with Ray Bolger (stupendous) as well as “The Ice Follies” with Sonja Henie and Frick and Frack the comic skating brothers and, “New Faces of 1952,” which introduced the world to Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostly, Paul Lynde and Mel Brooks.
As the memories of the long, boring days of childhood fade into a gray swamp, what I remember most is taxis to the theater, the opening notes of the orchestral score and The Rockkettes at Radio City Music Hall.
Especially thrilling was attending The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, the show to end all shows, trying not to miss anything going on in the three rings. Lion tamers, elephants, high-wire acts, clowns who were a little bit scary even then, and best of all, the Freak Show.
My mother refused to look at the freaks and I was determined to, so my sister was enlisted to stay right with me down the long row of horrors and back up the other side. Fat people, giant people, the little girl with no arms and legs who wrote with a pen inserted between twisted toes; caterpillar man who was nothing but head and body, who could roll a cigarette with his mouth and smoke it; tiny people, skinny people, people with elastic skin – many of whom were featured in Irving Thalberg’s movie, “Freaks,” a must-see.
Belated thanks to my mother for the memories.
Su Lum is a longtime local who went on to be a puppeteer and never lost her love of the biz. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at email@example.com.