This year, baseball season starts and finishes early. According to Commissioner Bud Selig in USA TODAY, “Anything we could do to finish in October, is what I wanted to do. The difference in weather between October 29 and November 2 is like the difference between Canada and Canada a few days later. Burn those long johns boys!”
When I began this series of blog posts three weeks ago, it was still winter and St. Patrick’s Day was two weeks away. The difference between the beginning of March and a few weeks later is also big. I think that is partly the reason why the green decorations that Phyllis and her friend held under the fluorescent lighting of the First Christian Church of Wellsville, Ohio’s social hall seemed so jarring at first.
“Is one of you Phyllis?” I asked, connecting the last several wires of my laptop, speakers, and slide show projector.
“I am,” the shorter one with blonde hair and large blue eyes said, stepping forward with a smile. She handed off her armload to the taller one without even looking. “Will you need a table for the book signing?”
“Is there an extra one? That would be great!” I stood up.
Phyllis and I found a light plastic folding table in a Sunday school classroom and moved it into a corner of the social hall next to the ping-pong table.
“I was a Dancer in Rock Springs Park starting when I was 11,” Phyllis said, helping me lock the folding table legs in place. “Have you ever heard of the Jennie Fae Dance Studio in Chester?”
“Give me a straw hat and a cane. Lemmie go dancing down the lane,” I sang, remembering my little sister wearing a red outfit and a Styrofoam boater-style hat. “My sister Marianne danced for her. Why?”
“Jennie is still at it and a friend of mine,” Phyllis leaned in. “She says I talk about my experience at Rock Springs Park like it was no big deal, but she says it’s kind of amazing what happened to me.”
I stopped arranging books on the table and gave Phyllis my undivided attention. As she talked she kept glancing over her shoulder at the tall one. Phyllis knew full well she was shirking her duties, but was unable to contain her excitement to tell me all about Rock Springs Park.
“I was part of a dance troupe that performed regularly on the band shell in the park when I was a little girl. There was a contest when I was older and a scout from New York was one of the judges. I won a chance to dance in New York City.”
Coincidentally, the band shell, shown here, was moved to the Chester City Park in 1974 and fell apart soon after. It was replaced by a cinder block amphitheater which my sister, Marianne, tap-danced on for Jennie Fae. (Courtesy of Richard Bowker)
“You must have been good,” I said, fully aware that as Phyllis spoke my preconceived church lady-view began to fade; replaced by a much younger Phyllis with a dancer’s graceful moves. It will be as if they have dipped themselves in magic waters. (Terrance Mann, Field of Dreams).
Phyllis smiled and blushed. “I got to appear on The Jackie Gleason Show.”
“The Jackie Gleason Show” is the name of a series of popular American network television shows that starred Jackie Gleason, which ran from 1952 to 1970. Most people only know it from the sketch comedy “Honeymooners”, but that original sitcom was part of a longer variety show. The show typically opened with a monologue from Gleason, followed by sketch comedy involving Gleason and a number of regular performers (including Art Carney) and a musical interlude featuring the June Taylor Dancers. (Taylor was Gleason's sister-in-law; he married her sister Marilyn in 1975.)
“So the contest winners got to appear on The Jackie Gleason Show? That’s very cool!” I said.
“No,” Phyllis continued. “I was a regular dancer on the show. My mother took me to New York the following summer. I was fulltime.”
I don’t know why I have to keep learning the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover lesson over and over again, but I made the mistake of stereotyping Phyllis as a church lady/Arts Club refreshment volunteer and here she was an actual star and Pioneer of Television!
“So what was Mr. Gleason like?” I asked.
“Oh he scared me.”
That made sense. I recently saw an interview with Andy Griffith in which he described how he almost didn’t do the Mayberry show, because his first introduction to television sitcoms was a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas Show. He explained that there was a lot of yelling on the set and he didn’t like all that yelling. If Danny Thomas scared Andy Griffith, imagine how Jackie Gleason might be perceived by a young female dancer from Chester, WV.
Phyllis continued to dance professionally until she met and married a pastor. In true Footloose fashion, that meant the end of her dancing career, but I could still see a bit of the dancer in her. Phyllis did say that Jennie Fae was putting together a dancing class for older women and she was seriously considering joining it.
I hope she does.
Jitterbug contest winners at Golden Star Dairy Picnic in 1954 at Rock Springs Park. (Photo courtesy of Frank Dawson Collection as seen at http://eastliverpoolhistoricalsociety.org/rospr54.htm )
Besides waiting patiently to hear Phyllis’s story, it has come to my attention, and rightfully so, that readers were worried about Sayre W. Graham, Sr., whom I had made an effort to visit on my way to the Arts Club book talk in Wellsville, Ohio, on March 1, 2011.
If you remember, I wanted to give Mr. Graham a signed copy of my book for allowing me to visit his home to talk to him about his experience working in the park and maintaining the park’s buildings. He had been a general contractor in Chester for many years, having built the IGA, state store, and the American Legion building in town. After retirement, he restored Chester’s roadside giant and icon, the World’s Largest Teapot, and built the gazebo which stands in the middle of the Virginia Gardens Memorial Park.
I phoned Mr. Graham yesterday when I was in town signing copies of my book. He answered and said I was welcome to visit.
When I arrived at his house the front door was open. I knocked on the storm door.
“Come on in,” He called from his study, a small bedroom converted into a TV and trophy room.
“I’m so glad I was able to come today,” I said, finding Mr. Graham in his leather lounge chair watching a western on TV. The volume was up but he made no attempt to mute it or turn it down. “I stopped by a few weeks back but you were not home.”
Mr. Graham looked better than he had even over a year ago. He was wearing a long sleeved white T-shirt which matched his shock of spiky whit hair. I noticed his eyes were bright and his voice strong.
“I promised you a signed copy of my book,” I said showing it to him. “I have your name in here in 3 different places: the acknowledgements page, the page where I describe how you and Roy Cashdollar rescued the Teapot , and the page with the memorial park.”
“This is really nice,” he said over the sound of a pioneer family singing along with a harpsichord in their sitting room. Was it a musical? “Do you have anymore? I’d like to give my daughter a copy. How much is it?”
“Uh, 20 dollars,” I said thinking of James Earl Jones in my favorite movie. It's only $20. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack.
I ran to car for another book and some freebies: Rock Springs Park postcards and posters. When I returned Mr. Graham was at his desk counting change from an old jar, including a 50 cent piece. The television, now beind him, was still playing loudly. “How much did you say it was?”
“Uh, never mind,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. I just really appreciate you letting me come here and talking with me about the park. What’s your daughter’s name?”
As I wrote a message in her new book, I heard a familiar voice on TV. “Is that Burt Lancaster?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mr. Graham said without turning around, He was absorbed in the book illustrations. “That thing is on all day. Half the time I don’t know what it is.”
It was a very young Burt Lancaster with extremely Technicolor-blue eyes wearing buckskin. The movie, I later discovered, was The Kentuckian (1955) directed and starring Lancaster who, of course, played Dr. Graham in Field of Dreams.
It was absolutely surreal to be sitting in Mr. Graham’s man cave surrounded by trophies, plaques, and memories, while at the same time I was hearing Doc Graham’s voice on the Encore Western channel. Focusing on the movie for a second, I saw Burt Lancaster talking to his son about writing a letter a to the President of the United States. “I swear. That letter writin’ came hard,” he said. “No wonder they say a man ought to have an education.”
I smiled because WRITING IS HARD, even for an educated man. Still, I highly recommend it.
In a weak moment, later in the film, Lancaster’s character in The Kentuckian has given up his dream of going to Texas with his son and is trying to live his brother’s life as a businessman, he lies to himself saying, “The way to start off new is to shuck off what’s old.”
Lancaster later comes to learn that just the opposite is true and so have I. It is extremely important to embrace ones past and to keep it alive. Sayre W. Graham, Sr. has done that with the teapot and Virginia Gardens Park, and I hope in some small way my book will do the same.
Here are a few other odd coincidences between my experience and Field of Dreams:
1. In the movie Ray’s daughter is watching Jimmy Stewart in Harvey. “Good evening Mr. Dowd.’ Anyway I turned around and here was this six foot rabbit…” Costner flips off the TV and says, “The man is sick.” I played Elwood P. Dowd in 1983 and my son played him in 2009.
2. While visiting Chester over the weekend I stayed at a Holiday Inn in Weirton. My room number was “118.” Kevin Costner was born on January 18, 1955. My wife was born on January 18, 1964.
3. In the movie, Ray is talking about hearing voices in his field while at the feed store. All the locals are staring at him. Over the weekend, I was signing books in the corner of Werheiser’s Hardware while customers in line with pipe fittings and bags of ten-penny nails were staring at me. “Who is that guy?”
4. Oh and I look just like Kevin Costner.
Until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.