Saturday, November 15, 2003

Arthur Duncan

In preparation for moving to the tropics (for who knew how long), my boyfriend packed up a few things and stored them at his parents' house in Portland. These consisted mostly of career-related items, e.g., cassettes of shows he'd played, publicity stills, etc. There was also a box of snapshots he'd left behind.

Right before we left Portland during our recent visit, we stopped by to see his parents and grabbed most of those left-behind items. Then we hightailed it to a Mailboxes, Etc. to have them packed and shipped back to St. Thomas. There was one large box shipped via Parcel Post. It finally arrived yesterday, 5 weeks later. Here's a mailing tip for you: When you ship Parcel Post, there's no way to track the it's not for the faint of heart. We were beginning to wonder if it would show up, but boyfriend had had a drum customer here whose drums were accidentally shipped Parcel Post from Portland and they took 4 to 5 weeks to arrive. So we were aware of the timetable. (But you can imagine how nervous that poor drummer was. If you'd just laid out a couple grand on some custom drums, you wouldn't exactly want them being sent to you via the slow boat to China.)

So last evening, we spent a good chunk of time going through the items in the box. It felt like receiving an early Xmas present...the kind where you already know what's inside. We looked through the box of photos (many of which I had taken during our Portland years together) and flipped through the publicity stills. Our favorites are two B&W shots of the boyfriend in a pool, with a cymbal on his head, taken at a famous L.A. music producer's house in Malibu, by boyfriend's old college buddy, who's now an Oscar-nominated film director. (Funny where life takes us.) We don't like them because of who took them or where they were taken--we just like the vibe. (They might sound dorky, but trust me, they're cool.)

After looking through all of the photos and reminiscing about old times, boyfriend started going through some of the cassettes. He'd pull one out of the box, read the label to me and then play a few minutes of it. I was lying on the couch during this listening session, doped up on Benadryl. At one point, he popped in a tape without telling me who it was. It sounded like an older African-American gentleman singing. I said, "Who's that?" He said, "Arthur Duncan." I asked, "Oh, he sang, as well as tap danced?"

All you youngsters can skip right over this next section because it's just for us old fogies. When we were kids, many of our parents and/or grandparents watched "The Lawrence Welk Show." When we lived in Portland, the PBS station there used to air those old shows, which I could never watch because they sort of creeped me out. My parents were not Welk fans. I'm sure they considered themselves much too hip for Welk's brand of champagne music (even though I'm sure Welk had a huge viewership in my small town.) I grew up listening to people like Dave Brubeck, Ramsey Lewis, Jester Hairston, Bola Sete, Herb Alpert, and Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. But my Italian grandmother was all over Lawrence Welk. Never missed a show. And don't mess with Nanny when Welk is on! Which of course I tried to do anyway.

Nanny's favorites were the dancers, Bobby and Cissy. I think she thought they were a real couple...which to my teenage eyes seemed an impossibility, since Bobby could not have seemed any more gay. Bobby had been a Mouseketeer on "The Mickey Mouse Club" when I was a kid.

Anyway, being the bastion of diversity that it was, "The Lawrence Welk Show" had one black performer in the cast, Arthur Duncan, the tap dancer. (Although boyfriend tells me that the show later also had a black drummer.) Fast forward to 1983. Boyfriend's 19 years old. He's one of several Portland-based musicans who are hired to tour around the Northwest to back Arthur Duncan for several shows. He said he was sitting behind his drum kit, terrified--here was someone he'd grown up watching on TV (so I guess they weren't all white viewers.) The quality of the recording is surprisingly good. Yes, you can hear Arthur tap dancing, quite clearly, and he sings a few tunes. But it's the between-song patter that really gets me. Having been on one of the whitest shows in America for all those years, Arthur's unbelievably corny jokes and remarks sort of make me wince. It's not just that it's corny--it's that it reminds me all too vividly of what black performers of a certain era had to go through to be able to perform for certain audiences. It could easily be a performance from the 50's, rather than the 80's. But the overall show is classic stuff. It reminded us of a show boyfriend did with Steve Allen about 6 months before he died. Picture a legendary performer playing to a convention center full of seniors and you'll get the idea.

But my favorite line on the Arthur Ducan tape begins something like this: "You know folks" (something Welk always said), "The Lawrence Welk Show has been broadcast in color for the last 16 or 17 years..." I LOVE that! Because kids today can't begin to comprehend what it was like to sit in front of a big-ass, boxy wooden television set and watch one of your favorite shows in black and white on on one of your TWO channels: "The Jackie Gleason Show" (I used to imitate the drunk guy...probably unseemly in a 10-year-old), "Lassie" (my little brother's favorite), "The Lone Ranger," "Let's Make a Deal" (I DESPERATELY wanted to be Carol, the hand-waver), "Palladin" (Richard Boone looked exactly like our Uncle Paul), "Queen for a Day," "The Mickey Mouse Club," "American Bandstand" (yes, Dick Clark is ancient), "The Ed Sullivan Show" (the Beatles and Rolling Stones!), "Captain Kangaroo," "Leave it to Beaver," "Hazel," "The Donna Reed Show," "Dr. Kildare," "Perry Mason," "Mister Ed," "My Favorite Martian"...I could go on forever...

Screw "Nick at Nite." I got to see those babies in their original runs. And you know what? I wouldn't trade it for the world.


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