The sun is pouring down on The Upper West Side, Broadway. The Market is glistening with fresh produce. And life suddenly seems more livable and invigorating. I’m watching the trees blossom, some white, some pink, and it all seems a miracle happening all over again. Life, precious life, is here again. Yet over the rest of the world the same can’t be said. Life in the Ukraine is like a bad dream. Kiev is leaning against Eastern and Western Crimea and outbreaks of hostility are taking place and taking lives.
But Broadway wakes you from that nightmare. There are too many pretty girls to miss. The air is too bright and fresh to ignore. And a producer friend of mine has called to say that a film I did with him on old movie stars in commercials is finished. He’s got a copy for me.
It features the late George Gobel, Martha Raye, and Imogene Coca. I wrote the Martha campaign a long time ago and for a long time. The footage for Andrew Hunt’s piece was shot in my living room and it was mostly about managing the campaign. My scenes did not die on the cutting room floor, he said. He’ll be over to show me the first cut. He just came back from Australia where he finished it. It’s all coming back to me.
Film is gone from advertising. Everything is digital these days. The entire piece is on his Apple computer. Life is turning over one more time. And tomorrow I take my son to have his cast taken off his arm in a roller-blade accident. Then he can proceed back to his Navy recruiter to renew his contract for entry. It’s been a long journey like Andrew’s film. I can’t believe it’s over but it is.
And behind it, I can smell the summer coming. Even the lost on Broadway seem to be cheerier. Fund-raisers are calling every ten minutes for contributions. I’d be broke in no time if I gave them all money.
Yet how is it that spring hasn’t been swallowed by the arctic vortex? After all is said and done, the parkways around the city are beginning to green. The trees along the Saw Mill and Taconic are blooming. The air smells fresh. And I’m thinking of all those years I worked in advertising and we went away every weekend with friends of ours to Lake Buel outside of Great Barrington Mass. Soon it’ll be time to get a haircut and go somewhere new.
But I’m still thinking of Martha Raye and the good times we had with her. She called my partner and me “gombahs.” And that we were, her buddies. She had been married five times. And through it all came back to her beloved Nick Condos, from the Condos brothers dance team, a third time. He had broken a leg in a car crash when he was drunk and that was it for his dancing career. But Maggie, as we called her, hung in. She picked him up at the Bel Air Police Station when he was drunk while driving. The cops knew who he was and cut him some slack. It’s all coming back, the summer of my life. This day was a prelude for memory.
I looked in the mirror and smiled at myself. Even the dreadful Ukrainian war faded from my pale face. But Martha was kind of a war junky. She served as a field nurse on her own money every year for ten years in Vietnam. Her Bel-Air ranch-house was painted red, white and blue, with a sign on the fence “Servicemen welcome any time.” And they came and called her “Colonel Maggie,” treating her with the utmost respect.
She was old school vaudeville and went to work to support her parents and brother as a child. She was not educated on the road and relied on her various husbands to read scripts for her and to make deals for her. Some were straight-shooters, some were not. But she was always funny—and the first comedienne to have her own hour-long comedy show—thanks to Milton Berle (Uncle Milty) and Jimmy (the Schnoz) Durante, two stars who admired her zany comedy, her singing and long-legged dancing.
She relied on Nick to read all her scripts to her, whether it was a musical or a 30-second commercial. Patience (and love) was Nick’s virtue, which earned him an unexpected Mercedes to save him from the junk mobile he drove. Nick also won her undying love until he passed painfully, before she did. This came from the monies earned as a spokesperson for the Block Drug Company’s Polident Denture Cleanser.
So here I am, smiling in the sunlight of spring, thinking back decades to the 1950s and further to the ad agency business that brought me to Bel Air, Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, the Beverly Hills Hotel, the whole nine yards of great restaurants. I can’t wait to see Andrew’s film. I’m going to be one of those experts in this documentary; one of those people who are intercut to comment on the film’s subjects. After all, it was me who came up with the closing line, “So take it from the Bigmouth” as a sign-of for her Polident denture cleanser commercials.
This day has seemed to waken me like Rip Van Winkle from 20 years of sleep. So too the memories of my past craft, wake me to their ups and downs. It was a crazy but fun life. And it was not so far from the tragic war in Vietnam, “War All the Time,” as the poet Charles Bukowski titled one of his best books.
Maggie even had a “war room,” a kind of den with all of her souvenirs gathered in them. They ranged from signed pictures from three presidents and several generals; she had several retired rifles, and a big television set with kinescopes of all her old shows, plus a stuffed monkey she claimed had awakened her in her tent once right before a Cong attack and saved her life. She called him “numb nuts.”
She’d invite my partner and myself over, cook us a dinner and put a kinescope of an old show on. As the black and white “kinney” played, she’d tell us who was going to blow his or her line; who would crack up in laughter, and so on. Martha had always been my favorite comedienne as a kid, and I’d marvel to myself that here I was, a kid from Brooklyn sitting next to her, watching TV in her living room and part of the general laughter and mayhem.
Well it seems I’m running on here. As Maggie would say, “You got a finish for this.” Yes and no. I could just tell you how the drinking turned into diabetes for Maggie—and poor Nick contracted throat cancer from a lifetime of smoking those big Hollywood cigars. Poor Maggie ended up with a gay boyfriend decorator who took most of her money, and left the one daughter she had with Nick with very little of it. He happens to be the husband now of a famous male playwright. Go know.
So, I’m looking forward to seeing Andrew and his film. I think it’s going to be a great experience, along with all the memories, with Maggie singing her theme song, “Mr. Paganini.” Imagine, “This humble little girl, literally born in a trunk, who got to work with the great Charley Chaplin and practically steal the film, “Monsieur Verdoux.” As Hope would sing, “Thanks for the memories . . .” To life I say the same. Thanks for it all, and this beautiful spring day that woke me up to life again. And for all the good times, I left out, forgive me, Maggie. I’m running a little late myself, but always thinking of you.
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at email@example.com.