The adventures of my mother, The Music Woman

My wife and I have spent the past week at our local summer theater rehearsing for a production of "The Music Man," a favorite musical of mine. The protagonist, Harold Hill, comes to town selling musical instruments. He promises to teach the children how to play them, but he doesn't know how. Hill is presented as believing himself to be a fraudulent promoter. He is as startled as everyone else when the children somehow figure out how to play the instruments, at least enough to please their parents.

But I've always been a great fan of Harold Hill and have never been surprised that he could deliver. My mother, as it happened, once had a very similar job.

In the summer of 1937 she was a new college graduate and aspired to a career in theater. The company that employed her might well have employed Harold Hill. A salesman traveled from town to town, selling the promise of theatrical fundraising programs to local organizations. He got them to pay a deposit - whatever he could talk them into paying. He kept the deposit as his pay, and sent the contract to the company. They then sent my mother, whose job it was to produce and direct the play.

She would come into town and recruit every available child for the cast. She then recruited local businessmen for speaking roles. Having the children perform meant the parents would attend. Having the parents attend meant the businessmen would agree to perform. Once they had agreed to perform, they would buy advertisements in the program.

The local organization sold tickets and kept the proceeds. My mother kept half of the advertising sales and sent the other half to her employer, who provided the costumes. The play itself had little plot, but it took place in a circus setting. This allowed for a large number of animal and clown costumes for the children, and as many lion tamer and ringleader roles as were needed for the businessmen.

I have a letter she sent her mother. It reports that on leaving one town in Ohio, she had a net profit of $13.47 after all expenses, and, in her own words, "I feel like a bloated plutocrat."

My brother and I grew up on tales of some of her early adventures, and this included some bizarre bits of history. The publicity for the play included a parade the day before the first performance, and in one Southern town the local fire department assured her it knew how to liven up the parade. "Just come tomorrow, Miss Sisson," she was told, "and don't worry. We'll give you a real nice parade."

It may have been the most amicable Ku Klux Klan parade ever organized on the occasion of a Jewish woman visiting town - not that they knew that she was Jewish.

Another acquaintance during her travels, also not knowing her religion, urged Miss Sisson to "stay here after the play. Don't go back to Boston. Boston is dangerous. Why, do you know, there are Jews up there in Boston? Jews have horns. They wear those little round caps so you won't see the horns." As my mother said when she told these tales, "1937 was a long time ago."

The production my wife and I are in - we are just volunteers in the chorus and crowd scenes - is very professionally produced. I've never before been in a production that came equipped with a full staff of producer, director, choreographer, stage manager, costume and makeup personnel, and so on. My mother had to keep her cast and audiences happy with a professional staff of exactly one: herself. She coped with local cultures and prejudices and learned a great deal about the country in the process. Recalling her stories makes me marvel anew at her abilities and at the remarkable passion that people in the theater have for their work.

But I'm still not sure why the character Harold Hill ever thinks of himself as a fraud. If my mother could make her productions work, then certainly he could, too.

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