Monday, December 12, 2016

Meet Me in St. Louis

Mr. Braukoff was beating his wife with a red hot poker and has empty whiskey bottles in his cellar.” “Tootie Smith in “Meet Me in St. Louis”
 Kelli Manigrasso, Raegan Smedley and Lexie Coberg as Smith sisters

Toni and I enjoyed a Memorial Opera House production of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”  Ten year-old Raegan Smedley was fantastic as youngster Tootie Smith. While her older siblings were proper young women, as befitted the American hinterland in 1903, Tootie was full of spunk and mischief.  She created fantasies about a neighbor poisoning cats and burning their remains in his furnace.  She’d claim her dolls died and stage funerals for them.  After losing a tooth in the process of carrying out a prank, she claimed sister Esther’s boyfriend had tried to kill her.  Like granddaughter Becca, Raegan always remained in character.  According to the Playbill, she (like Becca) previously played Molly in a production of “Annie.”   Sunday’s performance was the last of a three-week run.  At curtain call Raegan broke out in tears but, like a trooper, bravely completed the last number before losing it.  It was akin to how Tootie would have reacted to an important phase of her life coming to an end.

At intermission I ran into Rich Van Meter, Raegan’s grandfather, whom I used to bowl with at Cressmoor Lanes.  His wife Lynn, a former student, had written about her father-in-law for an assignment. I published this excerpt, entitled “Deck Her,” in my “Postwar” Steel Shavings (volume 14, 1988):
  Steelworker Richard Van Meter’s first home in Gary was the Knights of Columbus Hotel.  Starting work in 1949 at Gary Sheet and Tin’s 160-inch plate mill, he made approximately $250 every two weeks.  One of his favorite hang-outs was the Local 1014 union hall, which had a tavern and two bowling alleys in the basement.  During his first visit there two women got into a fist-fight.  One was named Virginia Decker, and the crowd chanted “Virginia Deck – her.”
  Not all the women patrons at the union hall were rowdies. In fact, Richard met his first wife there.  They loved to dance and found a hang-out named “Little Hawaii” (at 422 Virginia St.) where they became well-known because of their dance prowess.
Kristie Van Meter (Raegan’s mother, perhaps?), wrote about former Nursing student and professor Linda Rooda, excerpts of which appear in my oral history of IU Northwest.  Excellent dancer Graham Votaw played Tootie’s brother Lon.  I wondered if he might be Geology professor Bob Votaw’s grandson.  No sign, however, of my old colleague. 

Based on short stories by Sally Benson that originally appeared in New Yorker magazine, “Meet Me in St. Louis” was originally a film starring Judy Garland as Esther and Margaret O’Brien as Tootie.  Its first Broadway run was 1989.  In addition to the title song, other familiar numbers include “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  In the final scene of both movie and play the Smith family attends the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. On the east wall was a huge replica of the 1944 movie billboard.  Scores of people had painted a small square not knowing what the finished product would be.
Jimbo, second from right, and cast in "Meet Me in St. Louis"
My senior year at Upper Dublin I played Grandpa Prophater I “Meet Me in St. Louis.”  I had white powder in my hair and granny glasses.  I couldn’t see much with them on and once went on stage wearing my regular glasses by mistake.  Grandpa Prophater, played by Memorial Opera House regular Mark McColley, had numerous clever lines and brief solo parts in several musical numbers – something I don’t remember.  Was our production even a musical?  It had to have been.  My friend Chuck Bahmueller and sophisticated Judy Otto played Tootie’s parents.
thespian Mark McColley
My first visit to St. Louis was on the way back from Kanas City with Toni’s mother Blanche, who loved the Museum of Western Expansion, located in the same facility as Gateway Arch.  We also went there to spend Thanksgiving with Kirsten and Ed Petras and had a drink at Chuck Berry’s Blueberry Hill nightclub.
Bob Dylan did not show up to receive his Nobel Prize, but Patti Smith sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Dylan sent a message that read in part: “Please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize.  If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon.”
 Larry Werner in front of his display; NWITimes photo by Jonathan Miano

It snowed all weekend but didn’t accumulate so much as predicted because the temperature hovered around freezing. Saturday our bridge group dined at Abuelo’s in Merrillville before playing eight rounds at the home of Brian and Connie Barnes (I finished second to Dick Hagelberg).  As we were leaving, Brian and Connie directed us to Teal Crossing, a nearby subdivision, where the Werner family had assembled a fantastic Christmas display.  Danny Werner told NWI Times reporter Vanessa Renderman: “As a kid, I looked at Christmas lights with my family.  We used to get in the station wagon with hot chocolate and drive around for hours. Everything has been designed by me and fabricated by either me, my friends or people I know. I'm trying to keep it clean and classy. You won't see a blow-up, an inflatable. I won't do it. It's not me. I try to do everything myself. I don't want to go to a store and buy it.”

Post-Trib correspondent Nancy Webster’s feature on pioneer Cedar Lake resident Peter Surprenant, a French Canadian whose wife LaRose was from an Algonquin tribe, included an interview Peter’s great-great-great grandson Nathan Surprise.  When the Potawatomi got forcibly removed from Northwest Indiana, he said, the family was allowed to remain, in his words, “as long as they kept their Indian heritage to themselves.”  Around that time Peter changed his last name from Surprenant to Surprise.  The patriarch allegedly lived to 109, and his tombstone contains the dates 1794-1903.  In my Cedar Lake Steel Shavings (volume 26, 1997) I use this passage by historian Beatrice Horner, a family descendent:
  In 1833 the area’s first settler, Frenchman Peter Surprenant (Surprise) brought his sharp-eyed, black-tressed Indian wife LaRose and his six-month old son Henry to a small log cabin home southwest of Cedar Lake in an area that became known as Pleasant Groves. They fished often in the waters of Cedar Creek and trapped and hunted nearby. With Potawatomi as neighbors, the Surprise family took root to eventually number eight living children.
Nancy Webster also wrote about local artists, including Jesse Johnson and Corey Hagelberg, whose work will adorn Gary bus shelters, thanks to a $25,000 grant administered by the Legacy Foundation.  IUN student Johnson, 50, told Webster: “I look at the bus I get on and I thought “Bus 22” (above) would be a good painting. Everybody knew each other, and I loved the connection they had with each other.”

Thanking me for Jean Shepherd’s “In God We Trust:  All Other in Playboy magazine.  Gaard Logan said she and Chuck were big fans of his New York City radio show.  “In God We Trust” begins with the New York sophisticate visiting his Region home town after many years: 
  I could see the cab driver giving me the eye in his rear view mirror.  He was wearing the standard Midwestern work uniform of lumberjack, corduroy cap, and a red face.
  He mopped his windshield with a greasy rag.  The cab’s heater was making the windows cloud up.  Outside I could dimly see the grimy streets lined with dirty, hard ice and crusted drifts covered with that old familiar layer of blast-furnace dust; ahead of us a long line of dirt-encrusted cars carrying loads of steelworkers, refinery slaves, and railroad men to wherever they spent most of their lives.
  We continued to rattle through the smoky gray Winter air.  I watched a giant gasworks drift by our port side.  On the starboard a vast, undulating sea of junkyards rolled to the horizon.
  A crossing gate banged down in front of us, its flashers angrily blinking off and on.  A warning bell clanged deafeningly as a giant Diesel locomotive swept across our bow, towing a short string of smelly tankers.  Four brakemen clung to their sides, yelling to one another as they roared past.

In a Time issue announcing Trump as Person-of-the-Year columnist Joe Klein eulogized Barack and Michelle Obama:
  There would be little melodrama and absolutely no hint of scandal during his time in office. The conservative fever swamps would be no less pustulent than they were during the Clinton presidency–indeed, the level of race-based hatemongering was frightening–but somehow the Obamas never let it get to them. They radiated a sense of militant normality, a mother-knows-best family on the world’s brightest stage. The First Lady let the White House staff know that Sasha and Malia would make their own beds. The President went up to the residence for family dinner most nights. The First Lady planted a vegetable garden. She gave her husband grief when he got too full of himself . . . .  Their physical, emotional and intellectual grace was daunting. They never lost their cool in public. He controlled a supersharp sense of irony; he was never harsh.

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