Command performance

TWENTY-FIVE years ago my life revolved around three youngsters, a small blue Ford Falcon, and a rather undefined job with a fledgling public relations firm in Milwaukee. The Falcon was frequently unre-liable and offered very little in the way of creature comforts. I mention it because it plays a role in this story.

My boss had accepted the challenge of managing the nascent Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. A minimal staff and limited resources made it necessary for me to wear many hats. One was a chauffeur's cap: Frequently I had to meet, greet, and escort the guest performers who came to town to appear with the symphony.

My little Ford was no sleek limo, but it was an improvement over its predecessor, an ancient Volkswagen ``Beetle.'' (On two occasions Arthur Fiedler had abandoned all pride, cautiously ducked his silver-crowned head, and ridden in it from hotel to concert hall without complaint.)

An evening arrived when my enviable assignment was to provide safe passage for the great baritone William Warfield. At zero hour my baby-sitter reneged. Promptness was imperative, so I bustled my three lively children into the back seat of the Falcon and set out to pick up the artist. I issued directives on good behavior en route, fortified with mild threats in the time-worn manner of mothers the world over.

Warfield was, at that time, known, loved, and admired throughout the world. A few years earlier he and soprano Leontyne Price, who was his wife, had appeared in the title roles in a State Department production of Gershwin's ``Porgy and Bess.'' The tour had taken them to 29 countries in Europe, Asia, and South America and was warmly received and critically acclaimed.

It was with considerable awe that I approached my meeting with the man whose rendition of ``Old Man River'' was already a part of America's musical heritage. An imposing figure, tall and handsome, Warfield was ready and waiting. Accepting my hasty apologies for the back seat filled with children without comment, he gracefully settled his huge frame into the space beside me.

I concentrated on keeping the trip as trauma free as possible. The Falcon had a stick shift and I had never won any prizes for the smooth exchange of gears. Furthermore, I was apprehensive that at any moment the kids would start acting ``normal.'' The unnatural silence in the rear ended when my happy, bubbling little eight-year-old could contain herself no longer.

``Mom says you are a famous singer. How about singing something for us?''

Appalled by the innocent effron-tery of the suggestion, I tried to apologize. Warfield reacted to the ingenuous request and my embarrassment with a laugh that seemed to come from the soles of his feet.

``But of course! What would you like to hear?''

Giggles from the rear but no concrete requests, so Warfield made the astounding choice. The Falcon vi-brated as the great voice filled every iota of interior space with the familiar sound of the Ajax singing commercial, ``USE AJAX, THE FOAM-ING CLEANSER . . . FLOATS THE DIRT . . . RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN . . . glubba, glubba, glubba, glub.''

Shrieks of delight brought forth an encore. ``RINSO WHITE . . . RINSO WHITE . . . Happy little wash-day song!''

Could this really be happening? The star warmed to his responsive young audience, rocking the car with mirth and music all the way to the concert hall.

Now the little Falcon is long gone. The children have children of their own. What remains gloriously unchanged is the echo in my mind.

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