This is my grandfather Carl's dance band, or one of them, anyway. It could be the Red Birds, the band he was in when newly married to my grandmother Esther while they were both in college, but he led a dance band even earlier than that, since it helped him pay his way through high school, so I'm not sure.
Carl is the banjo player in the above photo, although he played clarinet, too, and several other instruments, I believe. Now, when you see a banjo you think BLUEGRASS, right? Fancy picking, intricate melodies interwoven with jangly chords. Or is that just me? My dad and me. Because Dad had expectations from banjo players, and those expectations didn't involve rhythmic strumming. My grandfather was probably the source of my band-geekiness, so I LOVED to hear him play the banjo, even if he played only a rather uninspired rhythm banjo by the time I got to hear him. Dad, however, was not interested.
Whump, whump, whump. That became shorthand in my childhood home for "Papa's prowess on the banjo." Whump, whump, whump. Not exactly Roy Clark or Earl Scruggs or Grandpa Jones. Whump, whump, whump. That's okay; I'm impressed that a (mostly, if not completely) self-taught musician could support himself by leading a dance band and playing the banjo.
When I was about eight years old I got to hear Papa play in a local production in the town where he and my grandmother retired -- Fort Brag, California, neighboring fishing town of the more quaint and famous Mendocino. Aunts, Uncles, and cousins all attended the broad vaudeville show put on by the town's performance troupe The Footlighters, of which Papa was a band member. Couldn't tell you anything about any of it, except for one thing. I was allowed to stand on the very large booth seat because no one was behind us and I could see better that way. A guy in a red- and white-striped jacket, white pants, white spats and a straw hat came onstage to perform a song called "Hot Nuts." I think he threw roasted peanuts to the crowd, who must have been mildly titillated by his bawdy lyrics. After all, this was the early 70s in extreme-northern California, and Hot Nuts sounded pretty risqué to us, I think.
(Photo stolen from these guys)
I blew kisses to this oddly-dressed stranger on stage, and he blew kisses back to me. I was instantly star-struck and mortified the same time, which, if you think about it, is probably how Oscar presenters and Capitol Hill pages feel all the time.
I shrank down in the booth in humiliation.
A defining moment for me. Had I remained standing and blown more kisses I would have attracted the attention of the crowd and the theater's lone spotlight, eventually going on to achieve even greater fame than old White Spats throwing the nuts, becoming the darling of Salinas or Modesto, eventually torpedoing my gin-soaked career in some sleazy cow town production of "Auntie Mame."
Wha- what? Oh yeah -- "Hot Nuts." So much for my visions of stardom; there's room for only one star in the family. Whump, whump, whump.