The man who was my father-n-law for forty years has been gone now for a couple of years. It’s funny how people who are gone still live with you in your mind. Every now and then something comes along, somebody will say something, or you’ll see something, maybe on the side of the road; or, you’ll be somewhere and hear a particular sound, or notice a certain object, maybe you’ll pick up a dinner plate with ham on it, and you’ll be reminded of him.
That happened to me recently. And since he’s right here, I might as well chat with him for a while. Sort of like an interview, so you can get to know him like I did. I called him Pop.
Me: Hey Pop. I saw a clip of a Groucho Marx movie the other day. I know we have an old black and white picture of you dressed up as Groucho. What was that all about?
Pop: That was back around 1949 when I worked for the Wilby Theater in Selma. I was 19. We did all of our own promotions for the movies back then. I was just a teenager at the time, but I loved the old theaters. “Go West” was up on the Marque. I dressed up as Groucho and got out on the sidewalk to promote the movie. If you can get involved with the crowd on the street, you can get them inside the theater.
Me: I’ve seen you smoke a lot of cigars over the years. I guess it all got started back then.
Pop: I do like a good cigar. Gloria never cared for them, much. I eventually gave it up, but I sure do miss a fine cigar.
Me: What was the movie business like back then?
Pop: What I really liked was the theater when it was an opera house before it got turned into a movie theater. Did you know I saw Mini Pearl on stage at the Wilby? Hank Williams, too.
Me: I heard that. What was old Hank like?
Pop: He was exactly like every story you ever heard about him. He was as nice as he could be, but he was on the sauce too much, ya know? I had to help him on stage the night he came to Selma. But the crowd loved him. Too bad about the way his career ended.
Me: Any crazy stories about theater life?
Pop: One time we had a famous magician come to town. He liked to do all his own promotions for the show. He would stand out on the street corner and do magic for the crowd that would gather. There was this one guy in the crowd that said it was all just a bunch of silly tricks. That there wasn’t any real magic.
Me: Bet that didn’t set too well with your magician.
Pop: No sir. He didn’t like being called a fake.
Me: What did he do?
Pop: He shocked us all. He said that he would show us what real magic was like. He said that he could show us all some real magic. He said that he would allow himself to be buried alive that afternoon and that with no help from anyone, he would make it to the 7:00 show that evening.
Me: Buried alive? Was he nuts?
Pop: Purt’near crazy, I guess. He picked a spot in a vacant lot a couple blocks from the Wilby. He had me and two other boys dig the hole. He got in the box and we piled dirt over the top. The whole crowd came to witness it. The last thing he said was for us to wait for him on the stage at Seven.
Me: Did he show up? What happened?
Pop: The house was packed. People standing in the aisles. The balcony was full. Word had got around town and everybody wanted to see if he could pull it off.
Me: Well, did he?
Pop: Don’t rush me son. This is theater.
Me: Pardon me.
Pop: Seven o’clock came and went and he hadn’t shown up. By a quarter after, the place was going nuts. Shouting. Whistling. I was afraid they might tear the place apart. Me and the two other guys that buried him snuck out the backstage door, grabbed our shovels and went to check on him.
Me: What’d you find?
Pop: Theater, son. Theater. Hold on to your britches, boy.
Me: Yes sir. But what’d you find?
Pop: We found him in the box passed out. He had been in there for at least two hours. We pulled him out. Got him woke up and gave him some water. It didn’t take long, and he was fine.
Me: It’s a wonder he didn’t die in there.
Pop: We thought he was dead. But once he got his head clear, he asked if he was late for the show. I told him the house was packed and everyone was waiting. We snuck him in backstage.
Me: I bet the crowd laughed him off the stage.
Pop: Are you nuts? They loved him. They thought he had pulled it off. While he was doing his magic, we went back to the hole, closed up the box and filled back over it. Everybody in town was talking about.
Me: Were you disappointed that his little stunt didn’t work?
Pop: What do you mean, it didn’t work?
Me: You had to dig him out and fool the crowd. His magic trick didn’t work.
Pop: Son, son, son. You’re not getting it. We were gonna go back and get him all along once it got dark.
Me: But he said . . .
Pop: Look, this was theater. Drama. Anticipation. He packed the house for three nights in a row. People buying tickets. Hanging from the balcony. Waiting for the curtain to open. That’s where the magic is. That’s theater.
Pop may have been an accountant for most of his working years, but he never lost his love of theater. Especially when a show was worth watching.
That was his magic.