Our family business was show business
Our family troupe was off to tour the Midwest. As I lay in bed, I listened to the sound of the train wheels and felt the slight rolling - back and forth - as the train roared through the night.
Every Saturday the hurdy-gurdy man played in front of our house on top of a hill in Roslindale, Mass. People would gather to wait for him. He had a little monkey with him that he'd let down on the ground. When the man turned the crank on the hurdy-gurdy and the music began to play, the monkey would jump up and down - so excited and happy, it seemed.
It was 1916, and I was 4 years old.
The music made me feel like hopping up and down, too. Soon I was dancing, kicking, and pirouetting - leaping and skipping to the music. When the show was over, the monkey would go around with a tin cup and accept money from onlookers.
One Saturday when I was dancing, my Aunt Selma (Pa's sister) was watching. She told my Ma that I should take lessons. My aunt said she would pay for them. And so I began to study in what was then the best dance school in Boston: the Lilla Viles Wyman School.
I had two older brothers, Henry and Eugene. My sister Eunice, age 10, was the oldest. My father was a well-known violinist and played in the Boston Pops Orchestra with conductor Arthur Fiedler.
Soon my father signed up Henry for piccolo and flute lessons with Joseph Gilbert. Eugene began to study the cello with Rudolf Nagel. Gilbert and Nagel were members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Eunice was enrolled in piano at the Faelton School, and I started to learn monologues. Eunice and I took our lessons in the S.S. Pierce building in Boston.
A few years later (I think I was 7), Pa decided we were good enough to form a troupe. We called ourselves "The Nettles."
Pa signed up with White's Entertainment Bureau in Boston. The show consisted of violin, cello, flute, piccolo, and piano performances. I performed monologues and danced. We also had "pianologues" and skits. The show lasted about two hours.
Mother was backstage. She took care of costumes and sent us onstage when it was our cue to perform. Bookings started coming in.
One summer when I was 9, White's wanted us to tour the Midwest with the Chautauqua Institution. It was founded on the Chautauqua Lake in New York in 1874 as an international center for arts, education, religion, and recreation.
We boarded the train at South Station in Boston. At night, I was assigned to an upper berth in the Pullman car. It was great fun to climb the ladder. As I lay in bed, I'd listen to the sounds of the wheels and feel the slight rolling - back and forth - as the train roared through the night.
The train was our only means of transportation between shows, which stretched from Ohio to Indiana to Illinois and back to Indiana.
The train windows had to be kept open for ventilation, so the ride was dirty and hot. Soot from the steam locomotive settled everywhere. The view out the train windows was mostly cornfields that stretched for miles. It was very flat country. We just kept going straight - on and on.
Sometimes we had to sleep in train stations. At times we stayed in private homes. Mother always carefully checked for bedbugs.
One time we were unpacking for a show and sirens blew. A tornado was heading toward us. We quickly packed up again and piled into a truck. It took us to safety across the Mississippi River, and we watched the tornado sweep through, taking the town with it.
On our travels, the food was greasy and the water was awful. At one restaurant, the chef baked us a blueberry pie as a special treat. But when Ma cut into it, she saw it was floating in grease. She could not eat any of it.
During that summer, we stopped in at least eight towns in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Sometimes we put on two shows a day.
We did not tour with Chautauqua again. Pa said it was too hard on us. But the memories of this wonderful childhood are still with me.
Of course, the reasons for our success were my parents' love of their family, the strict discipline of my father, along with his talents, and practice, practice, practice.