Saturday, February 19, 2005

Next stop Altoona

Charleston, West Virginia, my home town, isn't what I would necessarily call preservation conscious. Nearly every architectural touchstone of my childhood from the 1950s has been decimated to dust. One of the few exceptions is the 53,000 square foot, 3,400 seat Art Deco Municipal Auditorium, originally constructed in 1938. (Pronounced "Mew-NIS-pull," heavy emphasis on the middle syllable.)

The old place sure holds a lot of memories for me. The Gene Autry Show, circa 1950, with---doesn't seem likely, but this is what I remember---jazz singer Anita O'Day!! Could it have been? At any rate, I have a distinct recollection of someone singing one of O'Day's signature songs, "That's What You Think," whilst seated on a swing that flew out over the audience. And for my tenth birthday present, a ticket to the road company production of Oklahoma playing that week at the Auditorium.

In the immortal words of Joe Brainard, I Remember when a bunch of us went to see Carol Channing there in the mid-1960s. The crowd was sparse and we were just about the only ones laughing. So much so that at one point Carol stopped the show, came downstage and offered to take us on the bus with her to the next stop on the tour, Wheeling, West Virginia, home of the famous country n' western radio show, the WWVA Jamboree. No doubt she could have used us there as audience plants in the worst possible way. I can just hear her now muttering under her breath, as the audience failed to begin to grasp even the most accesible of her sketches: "My gawddddd, are we ever in Hicksville."

Then there was the night, our bravado fueled by hemp, we second-acted something. . . we weren't sure exactly what it was we elected to do on the spur of the moment. There the stoned lot of us were: sneaking in the side door and sliding into our front row seats just as the curtain rose to reveal:

"Jesus Christ, it's the touring company of Betty Grable in Hello, Dolly!," I blurted out rather loudly.

I was present for the 1955 rock/ r n' b concert in the accompanying advert, and I can still recall the disappointment I felt over my favorite at the time, Bill Haley, not sounding at all the way he did on records. More like a third rate polka band, replete mit accordion, yet. Another show at the Municipal that I recall featured---just for starters---Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ruth Brown, Choker Campbell, the Turbans, Clovers and Cadillacs. I get a bad case of chicken skin(as the Japanese call goose bumps) just thinking about it.

These were mostly black shows for black audiences with---in a reverse of racist tradition---whites relegated to sitting in the balcony. That's the way it was with the "Sippi Presents" (a local promoter) productions that came through town. I also recall that admission cost 2.50 for blacks, but the "spectator tickets" for whites in the "buzzard roost" were only 2.00.

I Remember that (see bottom of adjacent ad) Galperin's had listening booths large enough to accomodate a wing of the June Taylor Dancers. Their record department was managed by a somewhat effete young chap, Wayne Paxton, but who we tended to call "Penny Paxton" behind his back. It amazes me that, a near half-century later, I can still recall that, along with the name of Madge Orchid (!), manager of the same department at Londeree's. With a name like "Madge Orchid" I could die happy!

One Sippi show I recall, I just couldn't take it any longer. With everyone else on stage far too busy dancing to notice my adolescent whitebread presence, I spent the entire night sitting, literally, at Ray Charles' feet while he played and sang non-stop for more than three hours. The show, which featured a very young Betty Carter, was so exhilararating that afterward I followed the Charles troupe several hundred miles all the way to Columbus, Ohio for the next night's performance.

I was back home a few months ago and, as usual, asked to be driven past the old place. I am happy to report that she's still lookin' good. It was night, and the Municipal Auditorium looked remarkably like it does in the accompanying hand-tinted postcard. I asked my sister what they used it for now. I was told: "Oh, honey, graduations, things like that." But I just now googled for upcoming presentations at the beautiful, venerable old hall. And when I did, I came down with another serious case of chicken skin. Among other events, on March 11th at 7 pm, it's none other than Jerry Seinfeld. Those who know me well are aware of the fact that there is no one in the realm of the performing arts of whom I'm fonder. Boy howdy, I just might be tempted to hop on a plane
and. . ..

Just googled, though, and most of the tickets are gone. Surprising! The MONSTER TRUCK CAPITOL OF THE WORLD is one way Charleston bills itself (I'm so proudddddd). I can see that kind of event selling out there. Or Merle Haggard maybe. But that there jooboy from the TV!? I guess Charleston is getting to be a skosh hipper than I give it credit for.

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