REVIEW AMERICANA

 

Fall 2013

Volume 8, Issue 2

http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/fall_2013/kristofco.htm




JOHN P. KRISTOFCO

 

Amateur Hour

1961

 

Rudy Spacik was the first kid at St. John School with a D.A. haircut; at least, he was the first one Alex Allen saw there. It was black, curly, shimmering with Vitalis, hanging like a spring halfway down his forehead. Rudy was skinny, and the cleats on his shiny black shoes clicked along the polished tile halls with every bouncing step he took, often on his way to the principal’s office. This afternoon was such a day.

“No, Sister Sebastian, I did not trip Mike Nigalski on purpose at recess.”

“Are you sure about that, Rudolph? Michael seemed certain that you did. He said that this isn’t the first time that you’ve done it either.”

“Yes, Sister, I’m sure.”

“What happened, then, Rudolph?”

“I was just standing by the fence, minding my own business.”

“Was anyone with you?”

“I think maybe Tommy Graham and Billy Riddicci were there too; we were just
talking.”

Rudy’s light blue eyes scanned the small room and paused at The Complete Augustine on the shelf behind the old nun’s desk.

“Michael said that he and some of the other boys were running along the fence and that you called him a ‘stupid Polack’ and stuck out your leg and tripped him.”

“He might have bumped into me.  I mean, he was playing keep-away, and he was
running by.”

“Did you call him a ‘stupid Polack?’”

“I don’t remember saying that.”

“Rudolph, this is the third time since Easter you’ve been in here.”

Spacik shrugged his shoulders and cocked his head to the side. Sister Sebastian rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand. The office lights shone in her rimless glasses.  She had a sharp, angular face with light eyes that most of the children could not have described as green. Certainly, they would not have noted them as sparkling, but they were.

“Rudy, Michael Nigalski is two years younger that you. He’s going home today with rips in his new pants and shirt. Why should his mother have to repair those new clothes? What would your mother say if you came home like that?”

Rudy let the answer in his head pass silently. He looked out the window. The afternoon sun was bright on the young leaves; dashes of red, green, white, and pink flickered in the light. He watched the colors, thought about the cool, fresh air.

He pushed his coiled hair back and looked up into Sister Sebastian’s glasses where he saw both himself and the nun’s eyes.

“I don’t know,” he mumbled.

Sister Sebastian shook her head slowly, sat down behind a black desk, and took a notebook and pen from her squeaky center drawer. She looked up at the boy who was now running his left hand through the thick hair at the back of his head. A sheen of grease shown on his skinny fingers.

The nun reached for the phone at the corner of the desk. She knew the number: Spacik, Victoria: LU 7-3682. She dialed.

“My mom won’t be home.”

Sister Sebastian looked up as the phone rang a third then fourth time.

“She’s at the salon. She won’t be home til after eight.”

Sister Sebastian nodded and replaced the receiver.  She wrote on the pad. “I want you to give this to your mother. I want her to discuss it with you and send me a note back tomorrow.  You bring her note back to me before classes start. Do you understand?”

Rudy looked away and nodded slowly. “Yeah, I understand.”

“Rudolph!”

“Yes, Sister. I understand.”

Alex Allen was stacking the school’s milk crates just outside the principal’s office when Rudy Spacik burst from the building. He pushed the heavy metal door open with such force that it snapped back loudly against the metal railing. Sister Sebastian stood at her window, watching Rudy thump down the steps.

Alex looked up as he passed, but didn't say a word. He never spoke to Rudy Spacik. Alex was in seventh grade, Rudy was in eighth, and besides...

“What are you looking at, you little creep?!” Rudy snapped, the polished tips of his black shoes stopping about a foot from the last of the crates to be stacked.

“I, uh, I….wasn’t.”

“You got a problem, you puke?”

“No, Rudy, I sure don’t.”

“Rudy!? Do I know you, punk?”

“Uh, well, I guess not...”

A sinister smile spread across his hard, thin face. He kicked the last crate aside and stepped forward. “You’re damn right you don’t.” Rudy reached for the collar of Alex’s shirt and began to pull him up.  Just as he did, a loud tapping came from the window.

“Rudolph!!”

Both boys looked up to see the scowling nun, shaking her finger.

“Leave Alexander alone,” she called loudly, even from behind the glass.

Rudy Spacik’s grip released; he patted down Alex’s collar, nodded, and turned toward the window. “Just visiting here with ol’ Alex,” he smiled, backing away from the younger boy. “See ya around, Alex," he snarled quietly as he walked away.

His thin figure strode across the playground to Penfield and off down the street, shiny hair bouncing with every step. His black jacket menaced even the merry-go-round and the swings. From her window, Sister Sebastian watched him go.

The next morning, Rudy Spacik came to school just early enough to have five minutes in the principal’s office before class. He handed Sister Sebastian an envelope his mother had given him the night before. The nun read the brief message several times before she looked up, rubbing her forehead. 

“Did your mother say anything to you when you gave her my note, Rudy?”

“No, just ‘take this back to the principal.’”

“And that was all?”

“It was kinda late.  She didn’t get home until nearly nine.”

Sister Sebastian sat silent for a moment, looking out the window.

“O.K., Rudy,” she said finally, “you can go.”

Rudy Spacik’s heals clicked loudly as he sauntered down the hall to Sister Dorothy’s first period math class. The heavy door creaked open, and thirty-five children and the short old nun fell silent. Rudy nodded toward two boys in the back. 

“Mr. Spacik, take your seat please; we’re on page thirty-six.”

Rudy slowly made his way along the cloak room wall and up the third row to his desk three from the front, in the center of the class.

 

                                                *                   *                *

 

Alex had forgotten about Rudy and the milk crates almost as soon as he got home that afternoon; after all, it was Friday. There’d be a fish fry for dinner and then the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Walt Disney. Saturdays were, well, Saturdays. Even Sundays had their appeal; scrambled eggs or omelets and toast (sometimes French toast or waffles) for breakfast, all seven Allens around the table in the kitchen.

At noon on Sunday, there was the Gene Carroll Show, a local amateur hour hosted by a short, thin man, one of Cleveland’s television pioneers.  It had been on Sundays forever,   featuring seven amateur acts in its first thirty minutes followed by a half hour of local "professional" performers.

The amateurs came in all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes: ten-year-old family prodigies crooning songs from Broadway shows, teen-aged trios doing top forty hits, jugglers, magicians with home-sewn capes, dancers large and small working through unintentionally robotic routines. There were periodic accordion virtuosos pumping out ladies of Spain, tap dancers, ventriloquists looking like grim victims of imperfect dental surgeries, and little girl dance troupes from the panoply of local studios.

Each week, the viewing audience sent in post cards voting for their favorite acts. The third and second place finishers received gift certificates from Giant Tiger, a local discount chain that sponsored the show. The winner, however, won a cash prize and was invited back as the final amateur act for the next week. A particularly popular act might be on four or five times and would, thereby, become something of a local celebrity. In rare cases, multiple winning amateurs would be invited to perform during the "professional" segment. Thus, their status as "entertainer" would be secured. Such a star might even be asked by Gene Carroll himself to perform at the various appearances his pro troupe made in the area each year.

At the end of the "professional" segment there was usually a dance number performed by girls, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. Sometimes they were just introduced as the Gene Carroll Dancers. Whoever they were and whatever they were called, they usually wore high-cut dancing togs with fishnet stockings; sometimes they wore black leotards.They almost always wore too much make-up and were rarely any good, with at least two or three  a half step ahead or behind the others. When Alex was ten, he never watched the dance number. By the time he was twelve, it was his favorite part of The Gene Carroll Show on Sunday. It might even have become his favorite five minutes of the entire weekend. 

 

                                             *                       *                     *

 

Two weeks after the episode at the milk crates, Alex received a note from Sister Sebastian summoning him to the office after school. For the fifty minutes of his final class, the young boy wracked his brain for the reason. He hadn’t done anything, had he? Maybe Ralph Nolan told her that he took his Snickers bar at lunch; well, I didn’t! He just lost it, probably threw it out with his lunch bag! Or maybe my milk count was off, and she thinks I took the money - oh God!  I re-counted all the classes three or four times; I was sure it was right. What if I messed up? Oh God - she heard me say ‘shit’ at recess. That’s it. Oh God! Now I’ll have to take a note home and mom and dad will have to...

“Alex, oh Alex,” a sound came from somewhere.

“Mr. Allen?” Why is everyone looking at me?

A black shadow was descending upon him. Oh God! I’m going blind!  Did I pass out?

“Mr. Allen!” Sister Clotilde called, now standing less than two feet away.

“Huh, whaaaaat? Oh, Sister Clotilde?”

“Alex, do you know what the largest city in Illinois is?”

 “Oh shi - Chicago!...It’s Chicago, isn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it is Alex. Now let’s try to pay a little better attention, O.K.?”

“Yes, Sister Clotilde; I will.”

Alex trembled as he approached the door to the principal’s office. He couldn’t see through the webbed, milky glass, so he didn’t know where she was in the room. Was she standing just beyond the door? Did she have the paddle ready? Oh God! I’m going to be paddled!  What if I cry! He stood frozen for a moment. Maybe I could just go home. I could tell her that I never got the note. What would she do to me?

The heavy door clicked open, and a long, black sleeve appeared. “Alex, is that you?  I thought I saw someone standing out there.  Come on in and sit down.”

The boy entered slowly, all the while looking at the milky glass. How did she see me?

He sat in the chair facing the principal’s long black desk. In front of her was a shoebox filled with what looked like baseball cards. It was a box from Crown Discount Shoes on Turney Road; it read “size 7, high heel.”

What the heck was Sister Sebastian doing with a box for high heel shoes? An image of the tall nun in her Ursuline habit and pink high heels floated through his mind. Where did they get those bulky black things they wear anyway? He never saw them at Faflik’s or Thom McAnn’s when he went there to get his Keds. What was she doing with a load of baseball cards?

“Alex, I wondered if you could help me with a little project?”

“Sure,” he muttered, his pulse slowing.

“I’ve got this box of postcards I need to have arranged and taken around to the classrooms.  Do you think you can do that tomorrow after lunch?”

“During recess?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind. Mrs. Kovacic and I have to work on the Parents Night packets, so we can’t  get to this until Monday, and these need to get to the students before the weekend.”

“Sure, that’s O.K.” Alex looked at the box and back at Sister Sebastian  “What do I need to do?”

“It shouldn’t take too long. Just count enough cards for each class, put a rubber band around the stack, and put one of these announcements with each.” She held up a blue half-sheet of paper. “Then take the stacks to the different rooms. There’s a list of classes and room numbers in the box. It shouldn’t take more than recess time, but I’ll write you a note for Sister Clotilde just in case. I’ll leave it with these things.” She leaned forward. “Is that clear? Do you have any questions?”

He looked at the box, at Sister Sebastian, back at the box, and shook his head, “Nope, I think I’ve got it.”

“Good, then just stop by after lunch tomorrow, O.K.?”

“Yes, Sister, I will.”  He pushed back the chair and had just reached for the door when Sister Sebastian spoke again.

“Alex?”

He half turned to look at her, his right hand gripping the doorknob, “Yes, Sister?”

“Alex, please watch your language on the playground.”

His heart began to race again, and he could feel his hand moisten on the knob.

“Alex?”

“Yes, Sis....Sister, I...I...will.”

“Promise me, Alex?”

“Yes, Sister. I promise.”

Alex hurried through lunch the next day - even the ice cream sandwich - and arrived at the office almost ten minutes before the start of recess. Mrs. Kovacic was sitting at the desk when he pulled open the door. He looked around the small room.

“Sister Sebastian’s in the hall helping Mr. Jennings set up for the fish fry tonight,” the short, black-haired school secretary said, barely looking up. “But she left this box for you.  You can work over there.” She pointed with her pen to a small round table just behind the door. She lifted the box across the desk.
 
“Here you go, Alex.”

He took the Crown Discount Shoes box over to the table, removed the lid, and took out the folded papers that were placed atop the cards. Alex had never realized just how many kids went to St. John. There were two of every class starting with the first grade. Most of the classes had thirty-five to forty-five students, and grades one through three were the biggest. He reached into the cards for the thirty-nine he’d need for Sister Assunta’s first grade class. As he counted them out, he realized they all had the same thing written on the front. 

                                    The Gene Carroll Show
                                    T.V. Station WEWS
                                    Cleveland, 14, Ohio

He looked up blankly,  “Mrs. Kovacic?”

“Yes, Alex?”

“There’s writing on all these cards.”

“I can’t help you there, son. I don’t know anything about that box. Sister S just told me to give it to you when you came by. I’ve got about three-hundred parent packets to finish up here myself.”

He turned back to the cards and grabbed another stack. These had the same address, only it clearly had been written by someone else. Further into the box and the writing changed once again. He flipped over the top card in the first stack:

              I would like to vote for Act Number_____on the May 22nd show.

As with the addresses, this message was on every one of the nearly eight hundred postcards, the same front and back. It took Alex about fifteen minutes to count out and rubber band the individual classes. There were no blue half-sheets for the teachers. Instead, there were sixteen tan envelopes with a different teacher’s name on each.  Alex could see the blue forms inside. It took Alex another fifteen minutes to deliver the cards. There were about twenty strays left in the box along with Sister Sebastian’s tardy note. Though he didn’t need it, he took it anyway, together with the rubber-banded stack of cards and the envelope for Sister Clotilde.

The recess bell rang just as he arrived in the classroom, and the students were coming up the stairs from outside, smelling of fresh air and kid sweat. Alex placed the cards and the envelope on the teacher’s desk and sat down. Sister Clotilde, sweating a bit herself, came in with the class. She picked up the envelope, read the blue message, and nodded.

“Thanks, Alex,” she said.

There were three subjects in the afternoon schedule of the seventh grade at St. John: geography, spelling, and science, and that day they seemed to go particularly slowly, and Alex found himself making a circuit of looking up at the clock, over at the tan envelope on the front desk, and out the windows along the north wall; 2:25, the envelope, a red Chevy rolling up Penfield; 2:30...

He was on that circuit for the sixth time when he heard Sister Clotilde snap the gray science book shut.  “Well, let’s end with that.”

There was a sudden, roomwide rustling of papers and fumbling of books.

“Children, just a minute, Sister Clotilde’s voice rose above the din. “Sister Sebastian wants me to read a note to you and give you something for the weekend.”

Puzzled looks spread as the cards were passed down the rows.  Alex’s own three-by-five sheet seemed fragile and alone as he took it and sent the remaining two back to Becky Wiggens behind him.

Mutters rose from the class. “What’s this? Gene Carroll?” came from several corners. “I vote for the dancers,” came from the back of the room.

“Quiet, children, let me read Sister Sebastian’s note so we can get the bus lines, walkers, and riders lined up.”  The rustling and murmuring tempered.

“On Sunday, May 22nd, Rudy Spacik’s mother will be performing on The Gene Carroll Show. She has prepared these cards for the students at St. John to make it easier to vote. All you have to do is write her act number in the space on the back of the card. Then put a three cent stamp on the front of the card and just put it in the mail. Thanks for all your help. Good luck, Mrs. Spacik!”

The week-ending bell rang sharply at the precise moment of Sister Clotilde’s final word, and a clamor far louder than before broke out.  The short nun had to yell.

“Children! Settle down. Crossing guards go first, then the bus lines, riders, and walkers last. Ernie Carino, remember I need to see you for a few minutes, so don’t you leave now.”

“Oh geez,” the skinny redhead muttered, slipping back down into his seat. Ernie would be taking home a "behavior note" tonight, and the prospects for his weekend seemed dim indeed. His father, Howard, would be fidgeting impatiently out in his Ford wagon as soon as Ernie was even the slightest bit late. 

Alex was among the twelve kids in the class who walked home from school, about seven blocks. He left the building with Paul Miller who lived nearby.

“Hey, Alex? You want to trade places with Ernie tonight?”

“Not hardly. He’s going to catch it from his dad for sure.”

“Howie won’t be pleased at all,” Paul added, pushing up his glasses. Though none of them ever said it specifically, the kids were all glad to know someone whose dad was named "Howie."

"What’s this stuff about Rudy Spacik’s mom?”

“I have no idea.  You know, I took those cards around school today.”

“So, that’s what you were lugging around at recess.”

The May afternoon was warm and thick with the smell of new leaves and flowers. High white clouds billowed above the gray and black roofs of the houses along Grace Street.

“So, what do you think she’s going to do?” Paul asked.

“Who?”

“Mrs. Spacik. What the heck is she going to do on Gene Carroll?”

“Maybe she plays piano.”

“I’d be surprised.”

“I bet she sings.”

“Maybe she’ll come out and do a hairdo.”

“What?”

“Yeah, maybe she’ll come out with Rudy - with his hair just washed and hanging down, and she’ll whip it up into that pompadour of his.”

 

     *                       *                     *

 

“Now, whose mother will be on Gene Carroll today, Alex?”  Mary Allen asked her son.

“Rudy Spacik.”

“Spacik?” She repeated, looking vacantly across the room. “I don’t think I know her. Do you know him very well?”

“Rudy? I know more about him than I actually know him.”

“He gets in trouble a lot,”  Alex’s sister Jean said. “He’s in the other eighth grade class from ours.” Joan, her twin, nodded.

“Hmmmm,” Mrs. Allen managed as she put the platter of French toast on the table. “So what do you suppose she’s going to do on the Gene Carroll show today, Alex?”

“I don’t really know, but I’d guess she’s going to sing something. Paul Miller says she’s probably going to come out and perform a hairdo on Rudy.”

Jean and Joan smiled.

“A hairdo?  What is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I guess she’s a hairdresser or something.”

“Oh,” Mary nodded absently.  “The syrup’s on the table.  Does anyone want powdered sugar?”

By the time The Gene Carroll Show started, Alex was feeling a little anxious. He had his card and a pen on the table beside the television.

“What act is she?”  Mrs. Allen asked.

“We won’t know til she comes out.”

As usual, Gene Carroll was wearing a suit from Robert Hall, one of the show’s sponsors. He introduced the week’s first act:  Bonnie and Lonnie Breslin from Berea, singing “Lollipop.”                                                                                        

The two girls managed what could only be called an indifferent rendering of the teen staple, with strained harmonies and overblown gestures, but both Bonnie and Lonnie were pretty cute, and Alex wouldn’t have minded seeing them once again, though he didn’t think they had much of a chance of coming back.

“Thank you Bonnie and Lonnie, that was wonderful,” the short, thin host gushed Ed Sullivan-like as the two girls curtsied out of sync. “Remember, viewers, that’s Bonnie and Lonnie Breslin, act number one.” The two girls scurried off stage behind Gene as he flipped their card to the bottom of his small stack and read his next introduction.

“Now we have the magic of Percy Washington from East Cleveland, today’s act number two,” Gene Carroll stood off to the left, extending his arm out toward the center of the stage.

Percy Washington didn’t wear a cape or turban or any of the other customary magician’s trappings. He was tall and thin, graceful, dressed in a dark suit with white gloves. Moving behind and around a small table he had carried to the stage, he proceeded smoothly through a series of water-into-paper, disappearing bird, and pigeon-out-of-hat tricks. He performed them with amazing dexterity, drawing oohs and ahs from the stage crew and whoever else stood or sat on the other side of the camera (there was no studio audience at The Gene Carroll Show).

When he was finished, Percy Washington took a deep, sweeping bow.

Applause erupted from the crew, and Gene Carroll smiled broadly as he repeated, “Percy Washington, act number two.”

The theme music for Giant Tiger, the show’s primary sponsor, came on - louder, as usual, than the program itself - and one of the store’s ads filled the screen.

“Gee, that guy was really good, wasn’t he Alex?”  Mary Allen said, walking into the kitchen.

“He sure was.”

“And now,” the host returned, “today’s act number three, from McKinley Heights, Vickie Starr.”

“Vickie Starr? Is that her Alex?”

“I don’t know mom.”

The curtain parted and out stepped act number three.  She was wearing a very tight, long, sequined dress with a slit high up the right side and quite a low-cut top, low enough that...

“Oh, my” Mary Allen said, probably to herself, but loud enough to hear.

The singer had very curly hair falling several inches below her shoulders. Heavy rouge sat like two great circles beneath her eyes. She grabbed the microphone, and the Gene Carroll band (a piano, drummer, and an upright bass) started the first notes of Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”

Vickie started to sway with the music, vamping her shoulders and slowly grinding her hips, hips which seemed to have outgrown the confines of the gown. The impact was only heightened by the first tones from her lipstick shimmering mouth. She started a little behind the band, or maybe she started a tad above the band; Alex wasn’t sure of the exact preposition, but she was never quite with the band.

She was loud, though, and she stayed saucy throughout. In fact, she grew saucier as the song went on.

Alex actually felt his mouth drying as it hung open. Jean and Joan giggled behind him on the couch. Mrs. Allen stirred uncomfortably, and Alex found himself glancing at the band, at the flowers on the television, or at the card that rested  with the stamp and pen on the table. It all seemed to take forever.  At last, the final “what a lovely way to burn” wriggled out.

“Well, that was interesting,” Mrs. Allen managed eventually. Jean and Joan were still giggling on the couch.

“Do you think that was her, Alex?” Mary Allen asked.

“I think maybe it was,” he managed softly.

Jean went into the kitchen. After some fumbling in a drawer, she came back with the phone book.

“Yeah, it’s her. Victoria Spacik on Oak Park.”

Alex got up, not looking at his sisters or mother, grabbed the card, stamp, and pen, and went to the bedroom. He didn’t come back out until after the show was done, not even for the dancers. Especially not for the dancers.

After dinner he stuck the stamp on the card, wrote "act number two" on the back, and walked to the mailbox at the corner, a block down. He took a long route home, going six blocks out of his way. He was gone about an hour. His mother didn’t say a word when he got back.

Rudy Spacik didn’t come to school the next day. On Tuesday, he got into a fight with Billy Riddicci at recess, and he was suspended for three days.

On Friday, Sister Sebastian sent a note around to all the classes:

Mrs. Spacik won third place on the Gene Carroll Show last Sunday. She will receive a gift certificate from Giant Tiger. Thank you all so much.

 

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