How do you get to Philadelphia? Practice, practice

My ticket to glory, 1950 (a memoir)

10 minute read
With some of my fellow Maccabees, 1950. I'm in the middle. And no, we weren't Jewish.
With some of my fellow Maccabees, 1950. I'm in the middle. And no, we weren't Jewish.
In the beginning, music came from a white plastic radio in our kitchen in Quakertown, Pa., and I loved it.

I didn't care for TV. Uncle Jakie, who lived right next door, bought a set in 1948 and played it so loudly that it kept me awake at night. Dad and his brother loved the Friday Night Fights. They hooted and hollered as two grown men in bathing suits— usually two large black men— slugged each other while bouncing up and down in a square called a ring.

Television didn't make much sense to me, and the women never watched the fights, either. But the radio was always on, and they always sang along.

I was about eight when Mrs. Wrigley, a music teacher in Quakertown, organized a new children's accordion band. I had no interest in joining. To me, accordion players were old men in white shirts and red suspenders who played at weddings. I didn't understand the words to their German songs, nor did I like their German music. But my sister, Margie, and my cousins signed up for the band, so I had to as well.

Hanukah connection

I'll never know why Mrs. Wrigley named the band "The Maccabees." The Maccabees were a clan of courageous Jews whose rebellion is celebrated today at Hanukah. If there was a single Jewish kid in our Maccabees, I would be surprised. Our costumes— red satin blouses, black slacks, white sashes and flat-brimmed black flamenco hats trimmed with white ball fringe— made us look more like Spanish cowboys than Hebrew heroes.

We took lessons at Mrs. Wrigley's music store, where she sold glockenspiels, drums and, of course, accordions. Squeezing the bellows while fingering the keyboard at the same time was hard. I hated it. I watched the clock every minute of every hour. Mom made sure I practiced every day, preparing for the next lesson on every beautiful, wasted Tuesday afternoon.

On top of practicing and lessons, we had Saturday morning band practice. After a few months Mrs. Wrigley said we sounded ready to perform.

Performing for mosquitoes

At first we marched in Halloween parades on crisp, fall evenings, and right in front of Santa Claus in a cold Thanksgiving Day parade. We played on Memorial Day when other kids were slugging home runs. We played on old bandstands where the mosquitoes outnumbered the audience, and on Sunday afternoons in hot, smelly nursing homes in towns like Scranton and Reading after long, stuffy car rides.

The audiences, half of them our faithful relatives, applauded enthusiastically. We got our picture in a local newspaper.

Then after one concert, Mrs. Wrigley, always on the lookout for other opportunities to perform, brought us great news: the Maccabees would play on television. In Philadelphia! We'd be contestants on Paul Whiteman's "TV Teen Club."

Paul Whiteman was a famous bandleader, popular with my parents and older kids (he commissioned Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in 1924), but I never watched his weekly shows. All I remembered about television was Friday Night Fights and Westerns, which I did like.

My first black people

Early one April Saturday, the Maccabees boarded a nice, big bus for the one-hour ride to Philadelphia. Margie and I had to follow in the car with Mom and Dad, who had volunteered to serve as chaperones. I had never been to a big city before. We passed through leafy suburbs and began a long descent down Broad Street to the city center.

I couldn't believe my eyes. Three rows of cars and buses going in each direction, and narrow streets off to the right and left between close, tall buildings. Traffic lights and shops, people walking or standing at the corners, busy in every direction as far as I could see from the back seat.

Dad pointed out City Hall in the distance, topped with the statue of William Penn. He founded the city, Dad said, but he was too busy keeping up with the bus to explain what that meant.

Where brick row houses lined city blocks, we saw families sitting on their front steps, just watching us go by. Dad said the steps were white marble and that the people scrubbed them every Saturday morning. These people had black skin, and I had never seen black people before, except on the Friday Night Fights. But here were black-skinned women and little kids too, just like me.

Don't stare

Margie and I discussed this strange phenomenon and begged Dad to slow down so we could look more carefully, but he wouldn't.

"Don't stare and do not point at them," my mother hissed. "Just look straight ahead!" She didn't explain that, either.

I grumbled. What should I look at, then— the cloth pattern on the back of Dad's seat?

As soon as Mom faced front again, I did look out the side, and she glared at me the way she did when I watched her nursing my baby brother, Fred. How could I not watch?

As the traffic slowed and the car got hot, Dad kept that big air-conditioned bus in sight, worried at every stoplight that it would get away from us and he wouldn't know where to go. When we finally pulled up to a tall building with the huge letters WFIL on the front, the bus driver was already unloading accordion cases. Margie and I burst out of the car, grabbed our accordions from the trunk and hurried to catch up.

First elevator ride

At the front of the building, we shuffled through some odd, pie-shaped spaces inside a strange, moving glass door with our clunky accordion cases jammed between our knees. Inside, we seemed to be in a spacious bank lobby— there was even a guard. Mrs. Wrigley stood beside him, passing out identification badges so we could take the elevator up to the fourth floor. Only the fourth floor, she cautioned us, nowhere else.

My first ever elevator ride took us up to the TV studio, designed like a movie theater but with a stage in front. Big black metal lights hung from wires running across the ceiling, and men wore metal earmuffs with dangling wires. There were only six rows of seats, set on an arc so that each had a full view of the stage. Mrs. Wrigley told us to sit up front.

Behind the last row of seats hung a wide, tall black curtain, painted with silvery bubble shapes made to look like more audience heads in many more rows. We Maccabees were very interested in that strange curtain and kept turning around to look at it. We were whispering and giggling when suddenly a man's voice boomed out from somewhere.

"Keep the noise down and pay attention. Your dress rehearsal is about to begin."


The famous Paul Whiteman strode onto the stage, wearing a suit and holding a microphone. He was very large. He explained the rules of the contest that would be held at 8 that night. There would be three "acts" in the competition.

Then he explained how the three cameras worked: The one with the little red light on was "live." If that camera was aimed at you and the red light was on, that's what people saw on their TV sets. The Applause-O-Meter measured how hard the audience clapped, and the act with the loudest applause would be the winner. If we made a mistake in the afternoon rehearsal, he'd give us one chance to do it over. But for the 8 p.m. show, it was once-and-done.

In rehearsal, we played our song perfectly the first time. Mrs. Wrigley smiled. But the other contestants— three tap dancers and a singing brother-and-sister act— were pretty good, too. Most of my attention, though, was on the TV cameras, the Applause-O-Meter and those ghostly audience heads on the curtain at the back of the room.

Underground trains

We were free for the rest of the afternoon. One of the chaperones volunteered to shepherd us out of the studio to the famous automated Horn and Hardart cafeteria, where you could buy food from tiny boxes with glass doors that opened when you put the right coins in the slot next to them. I bought a hot dog and a piece of lemon meringue pie. Like magic, a black hand in the back replaced the piece of pie as soon as I extracted it.

Then the chaperone took us down long, wide stairs, right under the sidewalk, for a subway ride. When the train roared into the station and screeched to a stop, the doors slapped open and crowds of people poured out. Our chaperone hurried us into a car just before the doors closed and told us to hang on as we zoomed down Market Street. Here we got off, walked across the platform and boarded another train that zoomed us back again. When we walked up the stairs, we were right in front of the WFIL building at 46th and Market.

I couldn't believe it. Hundreds of people rode that subway in both directions, all the time, right there under the sidewalk.

Roman statues

Inside the building we found surprises, too. When we rode up and down on the elevators— which we knew we weren't supposed to do—numbers lit up over the doors. People got on and off.

Cousin Mike hadn't joined us for the subway ride. He'd stayed behind to explore the building, and when I got back he had something to show me, but only if I could keep a secret. Oh, I would.

The fifth floor elevator door opened onto a big room decorated something like a circus or a carnival. Several tall, wide, colorful curtains hung from the ceiling, like that curtain with the silvery audience heads. On one curtain a painted boat sailed a painted sea. On another, painted lights shone on a painted city street. On a third, painted cactus and rocks showed a painted desert scene, just like those in Western movies.

On the other side of the room, a life-sized stuffed horse on wheels, saddled and ready to ride, stood among Roman columns and statues. Boxes, ladders— all kinds of stuff, too much to take in— crowded the floor. It was very quiet and dark in the corners. I was sure we were not supposed to be there.

Mike grabbed my arm. "Over here. You gotta see this."

Fake breasts

Behind the horse, shoved into a dim corner, three life-sized, bare-breasted, golden mermaids offered clusters of grapes from a dry fountain. I stared. Fake mermaids with fake breasts— TV used a lot of stuff to fool people, the same way carnival magicians did. I would always prefer radio.

At exactly 8 p.m. we were up first and performed "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," an old Negro spiritual as well as a Philadelphia favorite. The other two acts went up; we could see the tap dancers were very good. The Applause-O-Meter agreed. They won and we came in second. The singing brother and sister finished last and burst into tears.

The Maccabees never performed on TV again, and I was glad when I could quit the accordion. The subway remains my favorite part of the adventure. And I still listen to the kitchen radio.♦

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