And the Dreams of Vaudeville Follow Us All Home
Step up to yesterday and yes
the heyday of play. If vaudeville
be the food of live, play on. One
more encore, encourage irreverence
and revere performer. Brava! diva,
broad, vibrato. Keep clapping till
the raven stops rapping and the only
thing knocked backed longer than drinking
is the slapsticking and the stinking jokes.
Tip tumblers, hats, and tables till wood
and glass slivers like tinder and the general
brouhaha belches hoi polloi into night
streets and sleek streetcars shift dirty men
from concert saloon to salon to one-room
studio and grave shifts worked hung over
and humming. And the ukulele strums
linger melodies in men’s heads, vibrate
lips as they slip home lately, hopes hopped
up on music, magic, and that frantic
slapstick. The chugchugchug
of the train tracks syncopate dreams
in a whole city’s brains and enflamed
aspirations for a better tomorrow haunt
the commonest man and his poor wife,
both eking out a working class subsistence.
Sitting by the radio, cheap pipe and sewing
respectively in hand, and each quietly
imagining a secret, separate,
existence: he, a professional juggler,
and she sings like a bird.
Memories of Ukulele and the Girl Who Loved Her
She was born--like they all were--on the wrong side of the tracks. Sleeping on hard bed like a fret board, listening to the woo-woo of the train wash over her like ocean waves. She saved every dream for the stage and gazed at the night stars in that certain romantic way in which the rough-and-tumbles store up hope like pinched pennies.
But the years skipped by like scratches on wax cylinders; she let her bob grow out and joined the working class, breaking back, unpacking boxes, moving up the ladder slowly--as far as a girl like her could go. Then sick and aching for forgotten yesterday, faux vaude, and joie de vivre, she heaved her zombie body from the millstone and willed her way to the great white way, a Broadway whale to her rehab Ahab.
She hit the train tracks, pulled up stakes so they couldn’t follow her. She walked away slowly awol, then running, she made her getaway. Oh, she got good, lammed it as far as her gams would get. She tapped on creaky stages, juggled in saloons, sang off key in concert halls, creeping ever closer to that Broadway Whale, with its fishtail and Mae West body that reverberates va-va-voom when you touch it.
And she touched it.
Its four-string fret board plays like a rib cage, weeps gently and shrugs off trouble. Hums melody like a tumbling wave, strums chords like a short skirt. She stopped short on the sidewalk, saw it tug her from the window. She gave the man inside the last of her juggling money, hugged the ukulele to her body. Ukulele. She said the word again, in the Hawaiian way. ‘Ukulele. It brushed her lips like kissing sublimity. She let her thumb skim down the strings and her spine shivered in the way that meant she was changed for ever. She thought back to the shack she grew up in, the pain, the factory bosses and fatcats, the humiliating auditions and rejections at one dime museum after another in every one-horse town on the small-time circuit. Never again. She plucked a few notes so sweet they brought tears to her eyes, and she knew it was true.
Skylaar Amann is a poet and artist living in Portland, OR. In 2005, Skylaar was a Kidd Tutorial fellow at the University of Oregon. Her poetry has recently been published in Cirque and Sea Stories. She writes regularly on the subjects of the sea, love, and chronic pain. When not writing, Skylaar enjoys the ocean and playing her ukulele. www.skylaaramann.com
Q: We’re on a series of one-night stands for the vaudeville troupe. What is this town we’re pulling into, where the show will set up this evening? What do you see from the train window?
A: We’re in every town in America, from New York City to Seattle and every small town in between. We’re playing in concert saloons, variety theaters, and music halls. Heck, we’ll even play a dime museum or a street corner if the price is right. Over the years, the audience ranged from rowdy drunks to high-society ladies and children. Despite the romanticized fantasy of the vaudevillian performer, life was tough…theater bosses were cutthroat and cheap, conditions were lousy, crowds were rough, hours were long, racial tensions were high. Still, I’d trade a desk job for a ukulele any day.
Q: Why the ukulele?
A: I always loved the ukulele...I just didn’t realize it until I started playing. The uke was a big part of old vaude and was ubiquitous in the films and music I grew up with everything from Cliff Edwards records to Marilyn Monroe movies). I picked up a uke of my own a few years ago, and the rest is history. While I am still learning to master the instrument, the connection was immediate...I felt a kinship with the past and an era I have always related to. The ukulele is small (perfect for my small hands), easily transportable, and above all: fun! Playing the uke, I am a performer, a jokester, a musician…a vaudevillian, which, really, since the first time I saw Harpo Marx on camera, was all I wanted to be.
Q: Are the memories and dreams of the working class spangled with sequins?
A: Growing up in a rural, low-income environment, imagination was a big part of my existence. Anything I couldn’t read in a book, I dreamed up myself. I cut my vaudeville teeth at an early age, watching Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Mae West films reverently (even copying the jokes, timing, and movements in life and on paper). I yearned for the power these comics possessed...their linguistic gymnastics, anarchic
physicality, and general freedom...something not commonly found in a life of financial limitations. In adulthood, having pursued arts and academics over wealth and business (an often laborious and unrecognized task), I continue to dream of sequins...the money, the notoriety, the independence, wondering what other paths my life could have taken, and may still.