We stop the show with our vaudeville act

David Morin was the littlest and nighest neighbor, and at preschool age was a virtuoso on the guitar. He'd come across to our house, struggle himself and his guitar through the back door into our kitchen, and coax a cookie by demonstrating his newest tune. For the curtain-closer on his performance, David always sang "When I was single, my pockets would jingle,/ I wish I was single again!" There was good comedy value in that tune at David's tender age. Then we moved, David grew up, and we lost touch.

So it was a happy day when David, now approaching middle age, appeared with a jingly wife to say, "Remember me?" David lives in California and always calls on us when he comes East to visit our home State of Maine.

The theme of a six-year-old married man is amusing, but I had fooled around with it before. My Uncle Ralph's country store was in the town of Anson, and when I'd visit him in the golden summers, he taught me to bag sugar. On Saturday afternoon I could take a delivery horse and wagon and ride over to Lakewood, the next town, to tent out over Sunday.

On these adventures my companions were Chippy St. Peter, Nornie Baxter, and a Henry boy named Joseph Peter Pacific Adrian Emile Raoul Hermanigild, who we called Stinky. We had a wall tent and gear, my uncle fixed us up with grub from the store, we had hay and oats for the horse, and Lakewood had a place to tent. And each of us had a quarter to get in and see the regular Saturday night vaudeville show at the Lakewood Dance Hall.

Later, Lakewood would become a celebrated summer theater, but back then it was a trolley-car park, called an amusement park. The building that would become the theater was an open-sided dance hall with a stage meant for an orchestra but adaptable for a couple or three acts of vaudeville. After the show, the seats were moved out and dancing prevailed until midnight, when everybody rode home to Skowhegan and Madison on the electric cars. By that time, we boys were snug in our tent and ready for the music to stop so we could sleep. In the morning, we skinnied in the lake, fed the horse, and owned the place. I can tell you about it, but the day is gone when you could try it.

The Lakewood vaudeville stage was partial to magicians. Everybody likes magicians, and so did we. As our camping trips brought us one magician after another, we boys noticed that each used the same joke in his warm-up. He'd call for some good "young man" in the audience to come onstage and be his assistant. The routine was always the same:

"Good evening, sir, and what is your name?" (Business of shaking hands violently, as if priming a barn pump.)

"Charlie Wilkins."

"There, now, welcome to the show Mr. Wilkins!"

(Charlie is stage shy.)

"Tell us about yourself, Mr. Wilkins. Are you married?" This always got a laugh, Saturdays on end.

So we set it up, and one Saturday night we had about 20 boys in a half-dozen tents, all from the neighborhood of my uncle's store, and we filled the first row of seats. The magician appeared and we were ready.

"To start," he said, "may I please have the assistance of some young man from the audience?"

Chippy St. Peter jumped up and climbed onstage.

"Ah, thank you, sir, and what is your name?"

Chippy was cooperative. He said, "Chippy St. Peter." We boys all lay in wait.

Then the magician said, "Are you married?"

But before the audience could start laughing at this, Chippy said, loud and clear, "Yes, I am! My wife and family are in the audience."

Then we boys in the front row clapped and cheered and called, "Hi, Daddy!" and the magician looked as if somebody had just yanked his act out from under him. It was Chippy's only theatrical exposure, but he was a sensation. The magician, I can add, was named Stillwell.

I heard long afterward that as Stillwell became a prestigious illusionist, he frequently contrived to work this gag into his act, having a claque to do what we boys did.

When I've told about Chippy in later times, not too many listeners know about Stillwell, trolley parks, and vaudeville, but they are interested in the fact that my uncle's grocery store made deliveries.

Each morning, soon after the store was swept out and opened, delivery baskets were lined up and orders "put up" to go in the baskets in delivery order. Bob Norton went one way and Carl Baxter the other, the horses knew the routes and stopped at back doors. As each order was left, the lady gave her next day's order.

After Saturday's deliveries, the horses could be used for Lakewood camping, as there were no Sunday deliveries. Chippy, Nornie, Stinky, and I were just turning 13, and none was married. We sometimes used Fan, the chestnut, but usually the bay gelding, Simon Bolivar, for a particular reason. Fan delivered every day to the route we took to Lakewood, and would stop at every house, whereas Simon didn't know that route. Simon didn't take so long to get to Lakewood.

Today Madison has a public access to Wesserunsett Lake about where we camped. There is no trace of the small arch where we had our campfires.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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