Alice: In Memoriam

Alice Zybura Kubitz_1AWe were together when I entered this world, and we were together when she left it forty-nine years later. In between, she, in loving partnership with my father, Alfred, gave me life and shaped my very being. Her name was Alice, Alice Helen Kubitz, to be exact, and this is my personal tribute to her.

Within this blog of mine, I have written extensively about my father, Alfred, and his influence on my life and attitudes. The aviation legacy he left behind is a special aspect of that influence. Now, I wish to speak to the life and the example of my mother, Alice.

The intention of this blog and its many posts is not only to share my thoughts and life-experiences with others, but to serve as my personal memoir, a collection to be passed along to our daughters, our grandchildren, and their offspring. These posts are my attempt to put my life and times on record for posterity regardless of who might care to read them.

The daughter of my Polish-immigrant grandparents, Albert and Bernice, was born in Chicago, Illinois, in the year 1920. Alice’s father was a short, stocky, no-nonsense young man who became a barber in “The Loop,” the political/business hub of downtown Chicago. During his decades-long tenure at the City Hall Barber Shop, many of Chicago’s prominent pols spent time in my grandfather’s chair. He had a robust repeat clientele and undoubtedly knew many of them well.

Bernice was a stay-at-home wife, the mother of Alice and her younger brother, Edwin. I do not recall that my grandmother ever went off to work, but the stories of Bernice’s addiction to alcohol were well known to me after we had moved to California in 1948. I was seven at the time. The reports involving my grandmother portrayed a lifelong alcoholic – a self-immersed, often vindictive drinker who made life quite miserable for her husband and two children.

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Happier moments: A warm evening in my grandparents’ Chicago backyard Left-to-right: Alice, Grandpa, sister Karen, Grandma, and me – ca. 1947                 

Often, my mother would come home from school to find my grandmother sick and passed-out on the floor, empty vodka bottles nearby. Alice knew from experience that, should Albert return home from work before she could sober-up her mother and clean up the mess around her, he could once again fly into a rage and slap his wife around. He had done that before, when, totally exasperated and unable to control his anger at his wife for lapsing into alcoholism yet again, he became physically abusive. This went on for years while the dark secret of the mother’s alcoholism was carefully kept from close friends and family. Bernice, for her part, often contacted friends to relate to them how cruel her husband could be to her, all the while hiding her addiction and irresponsible behavior while playing the innocent victim at her husband’s expense.

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Grandpa in the garden

My Uncle Edwin once described to me the reports he had heard that, as a young woman, my grandmother was a real beauty, a party girl. My grandparents stayed married to the end which came with Albert’s death in 1956 from a heart attack. That he never left his wife and abandoned his children is a tribute to my grandfather’s rigid sense of duty and responsibility. I can still picture him from my early boyhood days wagging his finger and saying in effect, “You have made your bed and now you must lie in it!” The specific version of his contention that was usually directed at me in my early Chicago boyhood when I was sometimes underfoot and misbehaving could best be paraphrased as, “I told you not to do that, and now look what has happened!”

Alice’s troubled childhood affected her deeply throughout her life. Although my mother was outwardly a gregariously social person with many friends in her adult life, deep down, she was a very private person, not given to personal revelation or sharing intimate feelings. I, later in life, learned through counseling that family members forced to deal with alcoholism in the family circle often live their lives behind a curtain with limited transparency, a curtain never fully drawn, even in later life. Both my parents guarded the privacy of their inner selves although alcoholism was never a factor in my father’s family to my knowledge. My parents were products of their time, a time when social convention and public opinion were far more important and influential than the rampant transparency and self-expression that prevail in today’s society.

Alice experienced two events early in life that literally opened the door for her to the possibilities of a rich and happy life despite the turmoil of her childhood. The second of the two major turning-points in my mother’s life occurred when she met my father on a blind double-date with another couple. Irma, her good friend, had arranged the evening and paired my parents together. Although Irma and her boyfriend broke-up soon afterward, the other half of the double-date clicked. Irma was in the wedding party at my parents’ Chicago wedding on July 8, 1939!

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Reception behind my grandparent’s new house: July 8, 1939

My father had already discovered my mother’s dark secret at home well before the marriage. I am certain Alice was terrified that her new beau might pack-it-in and leave once he realized the truth about his potential mother-in-law. Instead, my mother’s terrible situation at home dealing with her mother’s drinking only fortified my father’s love for and admiration of Alice, no doubt. My mother sensed from the very beginning what a wonderful man my father was. For one week short of fifty-years, their marriage thrived until we lost Alice to breast cancer in 1989 – her second time around with the disease. My sister Karen and I are the tangible results of that union; lucky we are to have had such parents.

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Left to right: Aunt Antoinette, Uncle Gil, Martha Kubitz, Mom and Dad, Cousin Nancy Belssner, Elmer Kubitz Uncle Elmer, Grandparents Bernice and Albert

 

Sr. Constance at 1629Meeting and marrying my father was, as mentioned, the second major turning-point in my mother’s life. The first came years earlier when Alice was sent to a nearby Catholic convent boarding school. Sister Constance was both my grandfather’s blood-sister and a nun in the Church. I believe she was affiliated with the convent boarding school at that time and was undoubtedly influential in convincing Albert to send his daughter to live for a few years in the care of the sisters. I believe that very act was the singular event which enabled Alice to ultimately realize her full life-potential. It literally saved her. My mother always looked back on her days at the convent school with the happiest of memories. They were the best years of her young life.

There, she was away from the ugly realities of her mother’s alcoholism. There, she was taken in by the sisters and exposed to the worlds of literature and academics. She relished the expansion of her intellectual horizons and rejoiced in the solitude and beauty of the convent grounds. I believe the seeds of her ultimate capabilities were already planted via the mysterious miracle of genetics, but her subsequent growth resulted from the disciplined and kindly nurturing of the sisters.

Alice’s younger brother Edwin found his solace by spending most of his time away from home, even to the extent of sleeping over at his friend’s homes for days at a time. His waking hours were spent mostly with his friends as he endeavored to push away the unpleasantness of life at home. He related to me that this pattern was established even before his teen-age years. I conducted an extensive audio interview with Ed some years before he passed away in order to document, first-hand, the childhood experiences of himself and his sister. I am thankful that I did that, for much of my family history on that side had been heavily veiled through the years.

A very poignant chapter for me, personally, in the Chicago story was brought to light when my grandmother passed away after living alone in that very same little brick house in the western suburbs of Chicago which my grandfather so proudly purchased (new) in 1938. My family of four had been living in California since 1948, my father having been transferred from Chicago by United Air Lines. Uncle Edwin followed us to California in 1951, fleeing Chicago and his own bad memories.

Upon the death of my grandmother, it befell my Uncle and my father to travel back to that little brick house in West Chicago to make final arrangements and to sell the house. Inside what was once my grandfather’s pride and joy and the source of many memories for me, they found filth and they found garbage. In the attic upstairs, they went through many dust-laden trunks containing numerous photographs and artifacts, most of which had not seen the light of day for decades. As I understood the scene, there were at least a few photographs of my grandfather with knife-cuts through his images, likely the retribution of a drunken and bitter wife giving vent to her rage at his reaction to her alcoholic helplessness.

Sadly, virtually none of the family history returned to California: sad for us descendants interested in that history, but necessary to protect the healing for both Alice and Edwin that moving to California had already enabled. There was one item (that I was aware of at the time) that came back with my father and Uncle Ed: the wonderful aviation scrapbook that my father collected and assembled while emerging from his teens in the early/mid nineteen thirties. When my father married my mother in 1939, he gave Edwin, his young brother-in-law, the scrapbook to keep. Dad had told me about his prized scrapbook years later when I was a boy, but it was presumed lost during all the intervening years. While in Chicago closing-up the house for sale, Dad and Ed found the scrapbook stashed in the attic, probably in one of the many trunks. When they returned home to California after finishing their business in Chicago, I could not believe that the one thing that survived the attic purge and came into my hands was the legendary scrapbook that I never expected to see.

Not only did I have the scrapbook, but, tucked inside the pages, were paper cutouts from aviation pulp magazine covers. Some of these were the very images that dad painted on the back of glass as a teenager depicting a World War I aerial dogfight. That painting has been one of my most prized possessions for as long as I can remember. Decades ago, Dad had explained to me that he garnered the painting’s images from old aviation pulp magazine covers. How often I wished I had those original images: then, suddenly, there they were!

The two airplanes featured on these Battle Aces covers from July and September, 1931 prominently appear in Dad’s painting. I now possess the actual panels Dad cut from covers that were used by him in his composition – a wonderful example of aviation folk-art!

BA_3109[1]   BA_3107[1]

 

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Painted on the back of glass (very difficult) using ordinary house-paints
by my teenage father, Alfred Kubitz, circa 1934/36. 

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I was told that everything else in that attic was destroyed, left behind in order to help erase the painful memories that still haunted the deep recesses of my mother’s mind – even decades later, even as far away as California!

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My grandparents’ little brick house in Chicago: happier times in 1944.
Back-to-front: my parents, grandparents, Uncle Edwin, and me.

 

When my Uncle Ed passed away, Bonnie, his wife, presented me with significant items relating to my Grandfather Albert. They included his U.S. naturalization papers from 1921, his Illinois Barber’s License, and a few other illuminating documents. I am certain that these items must have originally been brought back to California along with the aviation scrapbook.

In writing this memorial to my mother, Alice, I debated going into the details of her childhood experiences and my grandmother’s alcoholism in these opening pages. After careful thought, I felt it best to do it this way in order to fully illuminate the special person she became in adult life – against great odds. At the same time there are other important storylines in the overall account – such as discovering the aviation scrapbook, so I decided to include those as well even though I have covered them in other posts.

Here Is Alice Helen Kubitz… As I Knew Her!

My mother, like my father, was blessed with an innate notion of common sense, an attitude likely forged by their childhood experiences. In addition, Alice was somehow blessed with an exquisite sensitivity for the finer-things life can offer, and I do not mean the material things of this life. Yes, she could discern material quality, but more importantly, she had an instinctive feel for the beautiful and sublime, whether it be Swan Lake as performed by the legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn or the incomparable art depictions of Norman Rockwell. She was fortunate enough later in life to attend several of Ms. Fonteyn’s ballet performances, and I recall distinctly the inability to curb her excitement when describing to us what she had seen. My younger sister, Karen, took ballet lessons in her pre-teen years from Madame Olga Ziceva’s School of Ballet in San Mateo. Madame’s one-of-a-kind local dance studio back in the nineteen-fifties was a long-time fixture in San Mateo and nothing like the watered-down dance academies one readily sees around town these days. Madame was someone special: her emphasis was on disciplined conditioning, form, and precise execution – Russian style. Madame Ziceva was her own Exhibit-A, a perfectly groomed woman, eighty-some years of age with the grace and posture of a former dancer. She had danced with the Russian Kirov Ballet in her younger years, and she knew her art.

My mother was no expert in the dance, but she quickly learned from watching Karen’s lessons that there is no short-cut to ballet as taught by someone like Madame Ziceva. My mother also had the ability to understand that true talent in a discipline like ballet [or athletics, or music] is best expressed by precise and difficult performances made to look easy by the performer. Alice developed a critical eye for style no matter whether it be in ballet, art, literature, fashion, or décor. Her opinions had nothing to do with snobbery and everything to do with an appreciation for excellence. Alice had the ability to recognize quality, talent, and beauty when she saw it, and, always, she retained plenty of enthusiasm to express her appreciation of whatever passed the test for her. In that latter respect, she loved to share with others the things and the experiences that she deemed special. She was very warm in her enthusiasms and her desire to share – an endearing quality which attracted many woman friends.

Where did she acquire such a love of beauty and a reverence for excellence? I believe her world view was heavily influenced by the contrasts she experienced in her youth: the unpleasantness at home versus the higher plane of existence she experienced in those few critical years at the convent school. She always spoke so highly of the nuns: she had one or two favorites who really mentored her, perhaps quickly recognizing an empty vessel, at once so ready and able to be filled. I believe the convent school and the nuns nurtured the best Alice had to offer!

I had my own experiences with nuns during my brief sojourn at St. Williams Catholic School in Chicago where I attended first grade and half of second grade before coming to California in 1948. I can accurately recall and relate how discipline and order were paramount among the teaching nuns: many were the times I was out of place in the back-to-the-classroom line-up after recess because I was talking to one of my classmates. Suddenly, without a word, my earlobe was firmly-grabbed. and I was silently and steadily pulled back into line – and that ended that!

My second-grade classroom picture shows sixty-three students neatly dressed (me with tie and vest) all sitting and attentively facing the camera (unheard of today) with hands folded on the desk! The three schoolteachers in my family cannot believe how the nuns could deal with such a large class of students. The answer, of course, was discipline and perfect control of the class by the nuns. I believe that Alice benefitted much more from the benevolent, nurturing nature of the sisterhood in her convent setting than I did at St. Williams! Nevertheless, I always felt I came to the California school system in 1948 very well prepared by the nuns.

Alice and Common-Sense: She Had It and She Trusted In-It

I mentioned my mother’s inherent abundance of common sense: she had it, and she trusted in it. Trusting in one’s common sense is a virtue so long as experience has validated one’s judgement over time. I would also add that it is imperative to know that one cannot always be right or cognizant of mitigating factors that should be considered. My mother had a good track record when it came to the application of common sense, but she could be somewhat oblivious to the mitigations involved in a specific outlook, or contention of hers. Put simply, my mother could occasionally be stubborn and persistent once she formed an opinion!

For example: early in my teen years, our local Catholic Church had a youth group which met regularly and periodically held informal DJ dances for the local teen church members. My mother’s common sense told her that it would be good for teenage son, Alan, to get involved in the youth group and make new friends. Teenage son, Alan, being a quirky mix of both shyness with strangers and a yearning for attention ultimately decided that the effort needed for rewarding social interaction in such a group was not acceptable given the other demands on his time – activities such as building model airplanes, learning to the play the trumpet, playing sports, etc. Alan pushed back, usually stalling such conversations when they surfaced. My mother would not give it up easily and continued her persuasive ways. Ultimately, Alan won, leaving mother somewhat frustrated because her common sense told her that it would be good for teenage son, Alan, to join such a group…and she did trust her common sense! She eventually resigned herself to the possibility that teenage son, Alan, had his own good personal reasons (like shyness at that age) for not enjoying such group involvement!

Alice, thanks to her firm convictions, could be very persuasive and pugnacious in her determination to do what is “right.” Always, she was looking out for Karen’s and my best welfare in such matters, even though we were not so sure at the time.

My mother, Alice, was always my biggest fan and supporter. Her love for me was unconditional. The same was true with sister Karen. Is that not the ultimate hallmark of a fine mother?

Would that our own youthful mother could have been as fortunate as we were.

One Humorous Example of My Mother’s Indomitable Will

This involves my father; it happened in the mid-nineteen eighties when my parents were in their mid-to-late sixties. Linda and I were visiting them in their Burlingame home. At that time, Dad was in the garage working on one of his impeccably constructed radio-controlled model airplanes. We had spent a nice afternoon with my parents, but it was about time for us to gather our things and head home. Alice made the comment to my father that he badly needed a haircut and should head for the barber shop before it got too late. He argued that a haircut could wait for a few days; he did not want to go that afternoon. It soon became evident to my wife and I as we got ready to leave that the happy mood of the afternoon was deteriorating. We cornered Dad in his garage workshop and asked what was the matter? He confided that Alice was badgering him to get a haircut, and he did not want to. Finally, we were ready to leave when Dad headed out the door with car keys in hand. When asked where he was going, he replied, “To get a haircut!” End of story.

Beware the Laugh Machine!

Alice had a great sense of humor and a laugh which came naturally, but there was an extra “gear.” She also had a great sense of irony and a mind which could quickly lay-bare ridiculous situations for what they were. An event would come along periodically which would tickle Alice’s funny-bone and set her laughing hysterically – for long periods of time. She was typically the catalyst which had all four of us and anyone else nearby laughing helplessly until there were tears. Oh, how therapeutic some of those laughing seizures proved to be once the tears subsided and we all regained our composure enough to take a deep breath. Dad was a great laugh-assistant to Mom during most of these “exercises.” He could get going quite well, himself, once Mom ignited the initial spark.

The Warm, “Refined” Lady Who Was Mom

Alice, in her adult life, was a curious mix of sophisticated lady and vulnerable person. I use “sophisticated” not in the usual sense which invokes images of a tall, slender, well-dressed woman who moves about with inherent grace and confidence. In fact, Alice’s stature was on the short side, with narrow, slender shoulders but fairly heavy hips and legs (my father often affectionately called her “fattie;” she called him “Affie”). Nor was she notably graceful in her movements. Rather, her grace and warmth radiated from an informed intellect and a warm smile. Setting aside topics involving science, engineering, or mathematics, she was very aware of and knowledgeable about most everything else – especially the arts and literature.

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To reiterate: my mother and father both shared proven common sense and, closely related, a firm conviction in their judgements. They were both committed to that wise admonition expressing the key to a good life: Know what is right; do what is right. As a result of these inbred convictions, it was my observation through the years that Alice was, on a few occasions, unfairly mis-judged as an “elitist” by people who did not really know her well. Against many obstacles, my parents both embraced, and achieved, excellence in their lives while demonstrating a charitable attitude to those less fortunate in our society. Both Alice and Alfred inherently recognized the personal dignity inherent in every one of God’s human creations, and they made it a point to unfailingly respect that inherent dignity no matter what the other person’s “status” in life. I attribute that attitude to the influence of our Catholic faith. My parents did not easily relate to those who failed, in turn, to exercise personal charity toward others and did not exhibit a willingness to work hard to better themselves. My parents epitomized “the work ethic” and the notion of personal responsibility and accountability.

I will say that my parents set a very high bar for my sister and me. I wrote what is in the previous paragraph because I know what is in that paragraph – in my bones.

As stated earlier, despite her capabilities and seeming sophistication, my mother had a very vulnerable side which was visible to those who knew her well: she liked order in her married life and often became rattled when life got rocky. Here is a rare, first-hand, account written to my parents many years ago by my father’s sister, my Aunt Antoinette:

Dear Alice and Al,                                                                             May 29, 1979

Remember the time Al came to Grandpa’s [radio repair] store on Diversey Ave. in Chicago and asked if they had enough food for everyone for supper? (Antoinette was there that day). Alfred said it would be good for Alice to get away from the house for a while.
It seems that on that particular day she answered the phone and the iron burned through what she was ironing; also she had temporarily left a bucket of water on the kitchen floor when Alan came home and accidentally knocked it over, meanwhile the supper was burning and so was she. When Alfred came home from work and walked in the door, Alice burst into tears; the whole day had been a little too much!

                                                                                                     Antoinette

So much for my mother’s worldly sophistication! She was first, last and always, a sensitive and loving wife, mother, and homemaker.

Nylon Stockings: La-De-Da!

Alice’s sister-in-law, Antoinette, may well have been present during another Kubitz family incident which likely occurred in the early nineteen-forties. A Kubitz family gathering had assembled at the residence of my grandparents, Elmer and Martha Kubitz. According to the account I recall, Dad’s siblings and spouses were in attendance. My Grandfather, Elmer, had quite an earthy sense of humor by all accounts and, presumably, Alfred’s three brothers were not above razzing one another and having a little fun. Aunt Antoinette once told me on a phone call to Chicago many years ago that my dad was always “the peacemaker” in the family – the more serious of the brothers.

That evening, Alice showed up at the party wearing the very latest fashion statement: the original style nylon stockings with the seam down the back! Not able to resist the opportunity for some fun, the group proceeded to razz Alice saying things (presumably) like, “Well, look at Alice and her new stockings! La-de-da; How fancy is that?” As related to me years later, my mother was extremely embarrassed being singled out like that, even though the razzing was surely not mean-spirited. Although my parents came from different circumstances, they were happily married for all of their fifty years together. Alice’s unhappy youthful years at home followed by her enlightened stay at the convent school forged sensibilities which made her initially vulnerable to light-hearted fun and razzing, at first. Fortunately, Dad was “the peacemaker” in the Kubitz family and, perhaps, the most serious-minded of the four brothers. As for Alice, she was quickly recognized by all her in-laws as the fine person and wife to Alfred that she was.

Always, My Number One Fan!

My parents gave my sister and I the greatest gift possible on this earth, the gift of unconditional love. We both knew it, we always knew it, deep down, inside – within our bones! Not that we were not held to account throughout our youth: we were. We knew when our parents were displeased with us, but we knew that they would always be there for us. Believe me, there was a disciplined understanding implicit in the relationships within our family of four. Karen and I understood that, coupled with unconditional love, came the understanding that children were to be seen and not heard most of the time when adults were present. How unlike today, when the world and even adult conversation seemingly revolve around youngsters in this society.

My sister and I were “unspoiled” by today’s standards. We had few luxuries growing up, yet we were never wanting for necessities, and we were happy! Our parents lived paycheck-to-paycheck during many lean years in order to raise us. Mom and Dad were scrupulously honest and conscientious people: Karen and I could readily see that. We also sensed that the confidence they had in their convictions was firmly based on and reflective of their unwavering common-sense. Yet, they were generally wise enough to know what they did not know, and, therefore, watchful to maintain an open and inquiring mind.

My father, Alfred, was an amazing man and as fine a father as a son could ever have. My mother, Alice, was, always, my number one fan! That is, seemingly, what nature intended as the ideal bond between mother and child. She knew me pretty darn well – probably better than I cared to realize! When I was a young teenager, she loved to relate the latest adventures of her favorite son, Ol’ Alan, as she often referred to me with a smile.

We were together when I entered this world, and we were together when she left it forty-nine years later.

Rest in Peace, Mother: I Love You!

A Kix Cereal Box-top and Fifteen Cents for a Genuine Atomic Bomb Ring!

I recall as if it were yesterday: I had collected a Kix cereal box-top, enclosed fifteen cents, and sent away for an atomic bomb ring! Promotions involving cereal box-tops were common back in the mid to late nineteen-forties, but this one was special – this one really tweaked my boyish enthusiasms!

The ad beckoned: See Real Atoms Split to Smithereens Inside Ring!

This mail-order offer dates to approximately 1947/48 when I was a seven-year old living in Chicago, Illinois. That would have been approximately two years after the world first heard of the atomic bomb and its use on Japan.

Within a week after mailing in my money and box-top, I began badgering my mother every afternoon: Did my ring arrive in the mail, today? I distinctly recall my agony-of-waiting as the elapsed time went well beyond three weeks. Finally, a little brown box arrived at our Wrightwood Avenue address, and I was beside myself with happiness as I unpacked the jaunty little finger-bomb with its polished metal nose and snappy red-plastic tail assembly which could be removed to reveal a glass-covered “viewing chamber.”

A small sheet of directions told how to condition the “radioactive” material inside the viewing chamber by exposing the ring to a bright light and then retreating to a dark environment (my mother’s closed pantry) in order to view tiny scintillations of light in the viewing chamber – the result of atomic activity.

I recall that the scintillations were there, for sure, but that they were not brightly visible. It took a bit of “peering” to reveal them.

Nonetheless, at age seven, I was thrilled with the atomic bomb ring-thing even though the more sinister aspects it represented were lost on me and, I suspect, on most Americans who were busily forging a new future after the devastation of World War II. Atomic energy and nuclear weapons had only recently been revealed to the general public; this little ring represented the excitement and mystery of the “new” technology in the eyes of the public.

I fondly recall sending for many such cereal box-top/mail-order offers when I was a kid: the excitement of ordering the newest treasure, and the agony of waiting for it to arrive are still vivid in my mind’s-eye even as I approach eighty years of age…and I am glad to still have such vivid recollections! Of all the mail-order offers I recall sending for as a youngster, none of them can surpass my fond memories surrounding the Kix atomic bomb ring. Sometimes, in life, little things can mean a lot.

Talbot’s Toyland Closing: One Last Look After Sixty-Six Years

This post is an epilogue to my previous post on the closing of our local toy and hobby store, Talbot’s Toyland. Sadly, the store’s demise comes after sixty-six years as one of San Mateo’s finest establishments, located since its opening in 1953 at the downtown corner of B Street and Fifth Avenue. Read my post from January 18, 2020 for background to the story.

Last Sunday, Linda and I were visiting our daughter and her family in San Mateo, California, the town north of here where I spent my teen-age years. As described in my previous post, two downtown San Mateo stores were my go-to places for all things in the hobby/toy category: Hobby Haven and Talbot’s Toyland.

Hobby Haven is long gone, although the historic Wisnom Building, erected in 1907 by one of San Mateo’s founding fathers, remains virtually unchanged today. Hobby Haven resided there for close to a decade, dating from 1953. Today, after serving many varied occupants over its one-hundred and twelve years, the venerable old building houses a Sushi restaurant!

Last Sunday, after saying goodbye to our daughter and her family, we traveled to
San Mateo’s downtown with two purposes in mind: to browse at B Street Books and to take one last look at Talbot’s before its doors closed forever. Immediately upon entering the familiar front door of the store, I was confronted with the sad reality. This venerable toy store, which, for all of its sixty-six years was brimming with the finest toys available, was now a mere shell of its former self.

The many shelves and glass display cabinets that were part of the store’s long history were now either bare or gone entirely from the premises. There were a number of last-minute shoppers in the store looking for a closing sale bargain, and there were also folks with cameras there for just one last look at downtown San Mateo’s iconic toy store – folks just like me.

Formerly the “doll corridor,” lined with brightly-lit display cases

As far as I could discern, there was little left of value to the last shoppers except for some huge stuffed animals which would require buyers with fat wallets and large homes. Apparently, the huge dinosaur inside the front door was not for sale! Good luck to the tiger and the buffalo in finding a suitable home.

For those of us who are old enough and fortunate enough to have literally “grown up” since 1953 with fond memories of Talbot’s and the downtown of yester-year, the closing of this wonderful toy and hobby store is closely akin to losing a dear family member. Indeed, the life cycle of such stores reminds us that, no matter how noble the enterprise or the individual, we are all only booked, here, for a limited engagement

Talbot’s Toyland Closing After 66 Years in San Mateo: Another Victim of Internet Shopping

After sixty-six years in the same location, Talbot’s Toyland in downtown San Mateo, California is sadly closing its doors for good. But the closing is decidedly not good given that this is happening to what has long been the go-to toy and hobby store, here, in this high-tech mecca known as Silicon Valley.

When Talbot’s first opened its doors in 1953, I was a thirteen-year old lad in the eighth grade living within three miles of downtown San Mateo. Talbot’s Toyland quickly became my other go-to downtown location – a welcome addition to San Mateo’s long-time local hobby shop, Hobby Haven. Hobby Haven was owned and operated for many years by Howard Yonkers and his wife. Yonkers catered to all ages and ranks of model airplane builders and model rail enthusiasts. The Yonkers’ little shop was also located on B Street (and First Avenue), several blocks across the downtown from Talbot’s. Many were the occasions during those early years when I excitedly hopped on my bicycle with a few dollars in my pocket, cycled via the Third Avenue overpass over the 101 freeway (known then as the Bayshore Highway), and headed downtown. There were always plenty of desirable model airplane kits on the shelves at Talbot’s and Hobby Haven, models whose aura was literally “eating a hole in my young pocket.”

Talbot’s Closing, the Changing Nature of Downtowns,
and the Evolution of Our Shopping Habits

Talbot’s Toyland in the very early years

Downtown San Mateo in the nineteen-fifties was idyllic in so many ways. Even though my sister and I lived on the “wrong side” of the Bayshore Highway back then, our family of four realized we were fortunate to be so close to the downtown and the western foothills of San Mateo. Looking back in time from this new year of 2020 with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight, we could not have fully appreciated, then, just how wonderful life and living was in San Mateo in the nineteen-fifties – even for families like ours living on tight budgets with little extra money.

Today, I am constantly reminded of the stark contrast between present-day San Mateo and the downtown environs of my boyhood in the nineteen-fifties. One particular recollection surfaces every time we travel north to spend an afternoon, there with our daughter and her family. As was true back then, the two major streets leading to and through the downtown are Third and Fourth Avenues. At any time of the day, the traffic into town on Third and out of town on Fourth is continuous, fast, and heavy. Today, whenever we leave the downtown to drive home, we take Fourth Avenue for the short hop to the 101 freeway. I recall very well the days when I and a few of my friends played touch-football in the middle of Fourth Avenue with only an occasional passing car halting play! With so many more people living in and around San Mateo today, the days of motoring into downtown and casually swinging into a parking space in front of one’s destination are at once an amusing and troubling recollection.

Today, Talbot’s Toyland is closing after sixty-six years of exemplary retailing to the residents of San Mateo. Hobby Haven disappeared many, many years ago, and downtown San Mateo has, like so many now-older downtowns in the region, morphed into numerous hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants and food-bars. The images of the old, iconic downtown highlights remain only in photographs and the memories of those of us who were there back then: Stately old St. Matthews Catholic Church in the heart of downtown, Sherman Clay for pianos, music, and records, Foreman’s Camera on Fourth Ave. for everything photographic, elegant Blum’s Ice Cream/Creamery on Fourth Ave., home of the “banana-bonanza,” the venerable Benjamin Franklin Hotel on Third Ave., the San Mateo movie theatre right next to the Ben Franklin, Levy Bros. department store on Fourth Ave., the Baywood movie Theatre on B Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues, to name a few. These were but a handful of the landmarks whose presence truly defined the nature of such an ideal, young, and prospering downtown.

It is fascinating for me to still occasionally discover a small remaining storefront, or section thereof, which awakens long-held memories of downtown San Mateo in her glory days. Central Park, located on Fifth Avenue and El Camino Real, is still much as it was back then. The spacious baseball field with its green outfield and its bleachers, known then as “Fitzgerald Field,” is virtually unchanged as is the venerable, black wrought-iron fence that has long separated the ball field and the park itself from busy El Camino Real. El Camino is that storied artery which traverses the better part of the San Francisco Peninsula, north to south. The name translated from Spanish reads, “The Highway of Kings.”

I recall sitting in the bleachers of Fitzgerald Field and watching Dan Lacy’s varsity baseball team from nearby San Mateo High School play ball in Central Park. I myself roamed right field as a (very) occasional substitute outfielder on the San Mateo Lions summer league baseball team in 1955. I also recall seeing Howard Yonkers, the afore-mentioned owner of nearby Hobby Haven, fly his fantastic, U-control, dyna-jet powered, large-scale model of the De Havilland Vampire in the middle of the outfield, there. Yes, San Mateo still evokes many special memories!

Shopping Today in the Amazon Jungle

The changing nature of downtown in cities like San Mateo all-across the country can be directly attributed to the effects of internet technology. High-speed communications/inventory management made possible by computers along with the rapid delivery of goods made possible by high-speed, economical air travel have transformed the way we shop. The economy inherent in Amazon’s internet storefront has altered forever that quaint and comforting nature of the downtown “general store” and the personal touch to shopping which naturally devolves from a first-hand relationship with the proprietor and sales-people who own and operate the business. Big department store chains like Sears, J.C. Penny, Macys and the Emporium have fallen victim to the economy and the convenience that the internet offers shoppers. But everything in this world has its price, and for the shopper that means being largely on one’s own when it comes to finding the best product for the money or obtaining detailed information on a potential purchase. Unskilled, part-time, and generally uninvested labor now sparsely populates the cash registers of mall shopping sites. Good luck trying to locate anyone on the floor who really knows their merchandise. Often, there is no one in sight to even ring-up a sale!

Support Your Local Merchants!

My wife and I make it a point to do this on a regular basis. When browsing at our local bookstore, we often discover what looks like a must-read and, as often as not, we purchase the book there even though it might cost several dollars more than the same book on Amazon. No, we do not have money to throw around, and, yes, we often purchase from Amazon because, like most folks, we need to watch our spending. Buying from our local bookseller is our way of saying thanks: thanks for providing a cozy, downtown venue in which to browse, and thanks for putting before our eyes a book that we might otherwise never have discovered!

We patronized Talbot’s Toyland in recent years with the same attitude: trying to do our part to keep them viable in downtown San Mateo. Clearly, not enough folks had the same approach to buying. The last two years saw a distinct fall-off in “foot-traffic” in the store which was noticeable in a store as large and complete as Talbot’s. This past Christmas, we were in the store on a Thursday evening two weeks before Christmas buying a few gifts for our grandsons. We were virtually the only shoppers for the half-hour we were in the store. I knew, then, that the end was near for this iconic San Mateo landmark. The store’s closing was announced soon after the holidays. Seemingly, like a law of nature, all good things must end!

At play, along with the economics and shopping convenience associated with Talbot’s closing, there is also the undeniable fact that the favorite toys of today’s young set have changed drastically from the toys we seniors loved in our youth.

Above: a display case in Talbot’s hobby department taken several years ago. These exquisite die-cast World War II warbirds rather quickly disappeared from Talbot’s display cases as us old-timers who remembered them began to “die-off,” as explained to me by Talbot’s staff! These iconic propeller-driven airplanes were soon replaced on display by jet aircraft and star-wars type “galactic fighters!”


My World War II British Spitfire –
purchased at Talbot’s during the store’s transition to the jet-age!

The large World War I Fokker Triplane which hung there for years

Last, but not least, recent years found Talbot’s selection of Lionel electric trains to be a mere shadow of that in the earlier days – as pictured, here!

Sadly, the trend toward present-day realities convinced me long ago that Talbot’s ultimate demise was not a question of if, but a question of when.

Thank you, Talbot’s Toyland, for the great years and the fond memories!

Lionel Electric Trains: A Christmas Tradition

Looking back on my life with seventy-nine plus years of hindsight, I recall some very special times and experiences. Among the fondest of my boyhood memories are those connected with Christmas and electric trains.

I had my first electric train before I was two! It was a swell American Flyer set from the 1941 catalogue of the A.C. Gilbert Company. I believe there were two reasons why my financially strapped parents bought me a then-sophisticated train set at such an early age: my dad couldn’t wait for me to have one and World War II would not wait before steering many manufacturing companies like Lionel toward wartime production work. Toy train production ceased until 1945/46.

Although my American Flyer train set provided me with some of my most precious boyhood joys, Lionel trains controlled the lion’s share of seasonal sales. From its beginnings in 1906 as the brainchild of its founder, Joshua Lionel Cowen, the company maintained its leadership position by offering innovative and colorful toy trains and accessories – all supported by a brilliant staff of employees in sales and marketing. Lionel’s catalogues from the nineteen-thirties through the fifties are colorful collector’s items and persistent reminders of the glory-days of toy trains. A perfect example is the cover of the 1949 Lionel catalogue (pictured above) which thrilled the hearts of young boys while capturing the color and the joy of Lionel at Christmas-time.

A close look at that cover will reveal an all-white box car on the middle track unloading small milk cans onto a platform. The “milk car,” with its trainman who deposits a miniature milk can on the platform deck at the touch of a remote-control button, was a post-war introduction which became one of Lionel’s all-time best sellers.

After retirement nineteen years ago, I succumbed to the magic of Lionel and bought several trains, accessories, and a significant assortment of track and switches – enough to satisfy my lifelong yearning for things Lionel. I recently bought the present-day version of the milk car to expand my collection.

While on vacation in the town of McMinnville, Oregon last October, I happened upon a like-new postwar Lionel automatic gateman (ca. 1946 – 1950) displayed with other vintage trains in a downtown antique store. I bought it for the bargain price of $37 figuring it would be a steal…if it actually worked. It works just fine!

My boyhood American Flyer train set had its own Lionel gateman, fashioned in brightly colored tin-plate just like my new acquisition. For numerous Christmases since 1942, my original gateman never failed to burst from his “shack” with illuminated red lantern swinging at the approach of every train. I still have that original gateman in good condition with original box and instruction sheet. A price tag on the box reads $3.95: now that is a real bargain! The Lionel gateman is Lionel’s all-time best seller: it has enthralled kids and adults for generations with the colorful action it brings to any train layout.

Joshua Lionel Cowen was a brilliant marketer of his company’s wares. He hired the best writers and illustrators for his annual train catalogues. Those illustrations of sleek, powerful trains thundering down the track were like a siren-song to young boys like me. Although well aware that my family could not afford to buy me the trains I longed for, nothing provided more pleasure than to sit at the kitchen table having a cream-cheese and jelly sandwich for lunch, a Lionel catalogue spread out before me: pure joy, then, and wonderful nostalgia, now!

The milk car and cattle car, pictured in the 1947 catalogue, are prime examples of Lionel’s creative manufacturing and marketing prowess.
In 1937, Lionel released their famous 700E Hudson-class locomotive. That engine ushered into the toy train business a degree of detailed realism never-before imagined. Die-cast engines now replaced the fanciful tin-plate trains of prior decades and signaled the merger of serious model railroading with the whimsical toy trains of the past. The 700E was featured on the cover of the 1937 catalogue.

Today, the core of Lionel’s business stems from older adults like myself who finally made their boyhood dreams a reality later in life. The high-end of today’s Lionel offerings features remote-controlled trains that not only chug, smoke, and whistle, but can be individually controlled on large layouts featuring multiple trains. The push of a button will enable selected conversations between the engineer and the yard foreman controlling traffic on the rails. This railroad chatter all emanates from the engine, itself. Lionel has kept pace with the burgeoning tech industry while providing impressive realism in its trains. Today’s catalogue lists Lionel’s top engines at well over $2000.

In 1990, Lionel issued an improved version of their famous 700E Hudson locomotive from 1937. I purchased a fine example on E-bay; it is the crowning piece in my train collection and a very handsome steam engine, for sure.

Today, Lionel still caters to the fancies of youngsters by offering lower-priced theme trains such as “The Polar Express” and “Thomas the Tank Engine.” Serious model railroaders are the reason Lionel is still on the scene after one-hundred and thirteen years of existence, however. Although the company has survived changing times (in the extreme) and changing management, it continues forward.

How many corporations have lasted for more than one-hundred years? Not many, if any. I for one am glad that Lionel is still with us and that the magic of toy trains going clickety-clack down the rails still resonates.

Precious are the many family Christmases beginning in the early nineteen-forties when my electric train was busily running around its large oval of track underneath the tree. In the early days, my train did not appear until Christmas morning (kudos to my dad for his late-night efforts on Christmas eve). After three weeks or so, the tree came down, the train was boxed and stored away, and I did not see it until the next Christmas. In hindsight, it seems almost cruel that my enthusiasm for playing with my train should be curtailed for a whole year. Times were different, then.


Alan and friend, Judy: Christmas, Chicago 1946

I can only surmise that our crowded apartment precluded the possibility of having an electric train underfoot apart from the special festivity of Christmas. Indeed, that practical reality served to reinforce my association of toy trains with Christmas. In those early years, I often thought about my train during the year, fully anticipating the joy to come when Christmas (and my train) would finally materialize, once again.

War with Japan, Peace, and Reconciliation: The Obon Society

We arrived home several days ago from a wonderful nine-day vacation trip visiting the north coast of Oregon. Upon arriving in Portland via Southwest Airlines, we rented a car and headed for the coastal town of Astoria.

We had several goals while visiting Astoria: chief among them was the desire to visit the terminus of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. We were also aware of a fine maritime museum just inside the treacherous “Columbia Bar,” where the mighty Columbia River disgorges huge volumes of water into the Pacific Ocean. The “Bar” is justly known as “the graveyard of the Pacific” for the many ships lost in its treacherous waters. We were not disappointed in the quality of the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

During our nine days of travel and exploration which ended back in Portland, we experienced many interesting places and sights including the mammoth “Spruce Goose” seaplane built by Howard Hughes in the mid-nineteen forties. The “Goose” remains the largest airplane ever built…entirely of plywood! It flew but once in 1947 – for a whole fifteen seconds! It has been in drydock ever since and is now on permanent display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum near McMinnville, Oregon. Fascinating and breathtaking are applicable words to describe the experience of seeing the Spruce Goose in person!

And, yet, the most absorbing and poignant experience on our trip occurred in Astoria, our first stop along the way. An exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum documented the story of the Yosegaki Hinomaru and the Astoria-based Obon Society. The Yosegaki Hinomaru is a flag of Japan carried into battle by Japanese soldiers during World War II. It was tradition to have family and friends inscribe their well-wishes and prayers on the flag for the soldier carrying it off to war. Large numbers of these flags, like their owners, never made their way back to Japan. Many of these flags were captured by American troops and brought home as souvenirs of the war.

The Obon Society is a non-profit organization founded by a husband and wife team from Astoria. The society’s mission is to facilitate the return of captured flags to descendants of those who carried them off to war. This, to provide a final chapter in the decades-long reconciliation with Japan. The society has a moving exhibit in the maritime museum explaining their work and displaying many examples of the Yosegaki Hinomaru.

I found the display most moving and thought-provoking. Above, a young soldier is wearing a sash with his flag attached, surrounded by family and friends and about to leave home, possibly never to return.

Here, a very young soldier proudly displays his Yosegaki Hinomaru on his way to war.

Many are the yellowed photographs still lovingly preserved by descendants of American soldiers – images which depict these Yosegaki Hinomaru as spoils of war, taken from fallen Japanese warriors. For the most part, these unique and personal flags made their way back to the states and were tucked away in trunks stored in the attics of countless places like Akron, Ohio, Poughkeepsie, New York, and Indianapolis, Indiana. In many cases, they lay undisturbed and undiscovered in those locations for years until found by descendants curious about the contents of those old trunks in the attic.

Here, Iwo Jima marines display their captured flag. The sharp creases indicate the many folds necessary for its owner to carry it on his person into battle.

We found this exhibit by the Obon Society to be extremely interesting and moving – a totally unexpected experience as we worked our way through Astoria’s fine maritime museum. The images speak volumes to any discussion of war and the nature of humanity. After World War II, when tensions began to subside and travel/communications were greatly improved, many American fighter pilots who flew against the Germans wanted nothing to do with their Nazi counterparts at the various “reunions” of flying warriors from both sides which began to materialize. For some of these American pilots, it took a while for time to heal wounds and attitudes toward their former adversaries. Most of the Americans eventually acknowledged that their former Nazi enemies in the skies were fighting to protect the homeland, just as they were. Many of the flyers from both sides became fast friends while acknowledging their common humanity in the years that followed.

Most touching of all in the Obon Society’s exhibit was a short video presentation titled Yosegaki Hinomaru Tsukashima Return which chronicles the return of one warrior’s flag to the younger brother of its owner who never returned from the war. What a mind-bender it is to witness the emotional reaction of the flag’s new owner as he recognizes some of the signatures that were laid down so many decades ago. Tearfully, he says, “You have finally returned home!”

To the Obon Society: Well done! Your efforts and the work of other such organizations constitute the glue which can cement the future hopes of peace on this planet. Recognition that our common humanity is far more significant than our differences is the message sent and, hopefully, received by men and women of good will.

“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet” The Great Harry James on Trumpet

I have anticipated writing this post for a long time, and this is the time. I choose my blog topics using the same rationale that motivates the author, David McCullough. “I write the things I would like to read,” to paraphrase Mr. McCullough. The most pleasurable and rewarding post themes inevitably reflect both the writer’s knowledge of and an enthusiasm for the subject at hand. While my knowledge concerning the great trumpet player and jazz/swing pioneer Harry James may be less than complete, my appreciation of his musical talent and his ascent to the top of our popular music culture knows no bounds.

My great interest in and enthusiasm for the Harry James story stems from the fact that I have long been an amateur trumpet player who loves the instrument and who finally recognized, later in life, the unsurpassed talent of Harry James. I am always fascinated by greatness and its root-sources, no matter what the venue: science, music, whatever. And the life of Harry James has all the lure of a rags-to-riches story, including life-lessons on handling overwhelming fame and fortune.

The Greatest Trumpet Player of All Time?

The life of Louis Armstrong is another trumpet player’s rag-to-riches story, even more so. I attach a link to my earlier post on him at the end of this post. Louis appeared on the scene some ten years prior to Harry James. Armstrong, more than anyone else, pioneered the music and the style of playing that led to the popular groundswell called swing/jazz that swept depression era America in the early nineteen-thirties. Along with his uncanny innovation, Louis was a decidedly better player than the rest of the competition in his time, and that competition was heavily centered on black musicians who were hearing Armstrong’s musical message early-on. One white cornet player did come along closely riding Armstrong’s innovative coattails. His name: Bix Beiderbecke. He was the first white player whose style not only echoed the avante-garde movement of the best black players but added a unique flavor that was all his own. Armstrong watched with amusement as his peers attempted to copy Beiderbecke’s appealing style…and could not! It led to a famous comment by Armstrong: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet!”

The same is true of Harry James, even after all the years. Unlike Bix Beiderbecke whose short career ended at age 29 when he died alone in a Bronx apartment from rampant alcoholism, James set musical standards for swing and jazz playing for over forty years. And no one combined the technical proficiency and musicality that James possessed. He was not only the best soloist, he also formed and led bands and smaller ensembles for most all his active career – no small feat.

As for Harry James, I maintain that: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet!”

Louis Armstrong and Harry James knew each other well and held great respect for each other as musicians. I believe Louis would agree about Harry’s overall genius.

Fame and Life in the Fast Lane

As much as I am a fan of his trumpet talent and the musical legacy he forged as a pioneering musician in the era of swing and jazz, that regard is not based on any presumption that Mr. James led a thoroughly admirable life. Who does? On the contrary, Harry James seemed bent on squandering his remarkable talent via his penchant for alcohol and women. Even so, his love of vodka and the lure of willing women could not derail his dedication to music nor his remarkable talent for playing the trumpet. Doc Severenson, the well-known trumpet player and band leader for the late Johnny Carson, once remarked about his pal Harry that James was the only trumpet player he ever knew (and he knew a lot of them) whose playing on the bandstand actually got better as his alcohol intake increased over the course of an evening. Harry’s talent on the horn was so great that he neither feared the possible effects of alcohol on his playing nor needed any boost from it while on the bandstand.

As for beautiful women, “beautiful” seems an inadequate description of the many women Harry James bedded as bandleader of the nation’s premier swing/jazz band. A beautiful face and figure were not requirements for Harry, although they certainly helped. Some of his trysts were so plain of face, even homely, that his band joked that a paper bag would be an appropriate sex-aid for their leader. Harry basically loved the attention of women, and he was not always too particular.
At the peak of his popularity, James had his pick of the lovelies who made themselves clearly available in front of the bandstand.

While playing with the Art Hicks band early in his career, Harry fell in love with the band’s fine young vocalist, Louise Tobin. They were married in May of 1935 and experienced a few lean years, initially, as Harry’s career started to gain traction. The marriage ended in 1943.

In 1943, as Harry and his “Harry James Music Makers” were enjoying national attention, he wooed and won Betty Grable, the favorite pin-up girl of GI’s during World War II. Alas, even the union of the country’s most famous swing/jazz musician and Hollywood’s blond bombshell with the gorgeous legs could not consummate, for all time, what initially seemed a fairy-tale romance. Harry never lost his roving eye while on the road with the band traveling between musical gigs. Nonetheless, in 1943, Harry James found himself and his new wife directly in the celebrity spotlight – perhaps the most famous and envied couple in the country. He, the hot new trumpet player/bandleader with the swinging band and a recent million-seller recording of You Made Me Love You, and she, one of the most beautiful and glamorous young stars in Hollywood.

A Circus Background and an Eighth Grade Education

But let us go back in time to the unlikely beginnings and ultimate journey of this young man named Harry Haag James. Haag? What kind of middle name is Haag? James’ middle name was chosen in honor of Ernest Haag the personable owner/promoter of “The Mighty Haag Show,” essentially a traveling circus which toured the south and southeast in the early nineteen-hundreds. Traveling with the Haag Show meant elephants, performers, and circus wagons traveling in the dead of night to reach the next town by daybreak in order to erect the tents for the next night’s performance. There was rain and there was mud and inconvenience galore – a truly hard-scrabble existence with bright but fleeting spots of show-biz glamour at show-time. Prior to radio and the appearance of traveling bands, the circus provided the only excitement outlet for most of rural America, so business was good…until radio made its inroads in the mid-twenties.

Everette James first joined the Haag show in 1906 as circus bandleader. He had come to this position with a reputation as a pretty fair cornet player (the shorter, mellower kissing cousin to the trumpet) as well as a strong connection with music. He met soon-to-be wife, Maybelle, a featured aerialist in the show during those early years when they traveled in true circus fashion from town to town. In 1916, they welcomed a new little son to the family and named him Harry Haag James.

The Essence of the Harry James Musical Legend

In assessing the greatness of any unusually accomplished and successful individual, the source of that greatness is often posed in the form of the question: “nature or nurture?” I believe that Harry James turned out to be the musical icon that he was because he had both nature and nurture thoroughly covered. As for nature: his father was clearly talented musically, which included possessing great physical “chops” for playing the cornet/trumpet – a significant factor when talking about greatness on the instrument. Harry’s facial features were very much like those of his father and very well-suited to the trumpet mouthpiece. Vibration of the upper lip within the trumpet mouthpiece is the source of all sound produced on the instrument. Skill on the trumpet is, at the same time, that simple and that complicated. Even a decent level of proficiency is not easy to attain. I can vouch from first-hand experience that the level of ability attained and maintained by Harry James is almost incomprehensible to us mere mortals who “play.” Harry James’ overall musicality, considered apart from his technique on the trumpet, is even more difficult to describe and quantify. Musicality like his is a neurological amalgam of complex ear/brain connections, with excellent small muscle-memory thrown-in to enable fine technique on the instrument. Human experience suggests that these characteristics/capabilities can be inherited to one degree or another.

Benny Goodman on the Nature of Prodigies and Talent

The role that heredity, or “nature,” plays in overall musical talent was best summed up by the man who first propelled Harry James into the limelight – the great clarinetist/bandleader, Benny Goodman. I vividly recall watching a CBS television interview of Goodman conducted many years ago by a (then) very young Diane Sawyer who asked, “What does it take to be a truly great (swing/jazz) musician like yourself?” Benny Goodman barely hesitated before answering, “You have got to be born with it.” He might also have added that you must want it! Goodman knew because he lived it himself, and he was never given to any sense of false modesty when asked about it. Despite the arduous training and practicing on his own instrument when growing up, he knew from his decades of experience that “nature” ultimately dominates as the final factor in the equation of musical greatness – given that the necessary hard work and persistence are present.

As for “nurture,” the influence of outside experiences, guidance, and inspiration, young Harry had the run of the circus grounds, ultimately spending most of his time around and on his father’s circus bandstand. The musicians saw the young, precocious boy as a mascot of sorts for the band and readily took him in. By the age of ten, Harry was capably leading his father’s circus band through its entire repertoire.

Everette had begun giving young Harry formal cornet/trumpet lessons by the time the youngster was six years of age. The show-biz glitz of circus life as seen from the bandstand not only gave the youngster a taste of the bright lights of the entertainment world, it gave him a solid footing in the challenges and rewards of being a professional musician. The fleeting glamour spotlight of show-business offered by traveling “mud shows” like The Mighty Haag circus and, later, the Christy Brothers Circus were but a dim premonition of the piercing, bright-lights of the big-time that young Harry would experience in his early twenties as he burst upon the big-band swing craze that was then sweeping America in 1936.

Everette James: Trumpet Lessons Always Before Baseball

To summarize: the best of “nature and nurture” were possessed by Harry James given his father’s inherent musical talents (called genes) and the complete grounding in musicianship he absorbed by constantly being on and around the circus bandstand with Everette. But the primary factor that cemented Harry’s future greatness and set him far apart from the rest was the father’s recognition of his son’s musical potential and his determination not to let that underlying talent go to waste. Thus, began the regimen of disciplined trumpet lessons at the age of six. Everette James proved to be a talented and demanding cornet/trumpet teacher as well as a fine player. Wanting something better for his son than the musical position he himself held in a second-tier, hard-scrabble, mud-show circus band/orchestra, he began teaching his son the rudiments and the fine points of playing the cornet/trumpet. His instruction, the discipline and the thoroughness of his method, went far beyond the expected, comfortable father/son relationship. Everette informed Harry that he would settle for no less than an all-out effort from his son. Young Harry quickly advanced to the bible of all trumpet instruction: the Arban Method. Mastering the exercises in this thick manual is Mount Everest for even the most technically advanced classical trumpet players (think first-chair trumpet in the Chicago Symphony, for example). Very few if any famous jazz trumpeters ever mastered Arban let alone worked extensively from it. Harry did. On many a fine afternoon, when young Harry wanted to join his friends playing baseball, Everette told him he could not quit music practice that afternoon until he could play, perfectly for his father, the assigned pages in the Arban book of trumpet exercises. Once he demonstrated his mastery of the lesson by playing without error, he was free to go play his beloved game of baseball.

Young Harry reportedly often chafed at this paternal discipline, but he respected his father and the strict practice regimen Everette insisted upon. Harry recalled in one of his late-in-life television interviews that his dad would say to him, “Some day you will thank me for being this way.” The discipline surely took a toll on Harry’s psyche in one way or another, but his father’s tough love ultimately made Harry the star player he became – there is no doubt about it. His ability to play the most intricate and difficult classical trumpet pieces like “Carnival of Venice” or the most demanding, high-register improvised jazz riffs without sloughing or fluffing a single note along the way set him apart from most every other trumpet player on the planet. After many years of listening to both Harry James and Benny Goodman recordings, it dawned on me that I virtually never heard even a compromised note or passage in the many intricate and difficult pieces they performed, whether recorded or live. That is a most remarkable reflection on their artistry!

But Harry James offered much more than complete technical mastery as a player: many classically trained players in large symphony orchestras can demonstrate a similar ability. Harry James’ playing also displayed an inventive musicality which, along with his complete mastery of the instrument, allowed him to improvise and create marvelous music passages – on the spot. This ability gave rise to the distinctive style of James’ playing, a style which reflected the influence of Louis Armstrong and which, along with his technical excellence, set him still farther apart from the other fine players of the day. He could sight-read and play sheet music perfectly, note-for-note, as written, but he could also concoct and insert fabulous jazz riffs on the fly and make them shimmer. The ability to play like that is what made Harry James so unique. That degree of musical/jazz sensibility is not something that can be taught at Julliard: you must be born with it, as Benny Goodman well understood. A perfect example of the “James treatment” can be heard in his jazzed-up version of the classic Carnival of Venice which was another of his early big recording hits. That piece showcases both his technical prowess and the musical inventiveness so crucial to swing/jazz.

Harry James was a very accomplished trumpet player by his early teens. He was, in fact, the epitome of a child prodigy on the instrument. While at Dick Dowling Junior High School in Beaumont, Texas, Harry was already playing (on advance-loan) in the Beaumont high school band. In 1931, while still in junior high, he entered a prestigious, Texas-wide music competition sponsored by the Texas Band Teacher’s Association to be held in Temple, Texas. For his selection, he played Neptune’s Court, an extremely difficult cornet piece made famous by the great Herbert L. Clarke, pioneering cornet player and an idol to Everette James.

The Start of Something Big

The surviving eyewitness accounts of the Texas music competition finals shed light on just how good a trumpet player Harry James was. The reports speak of a performance that literally blew the socks off older competitors and judges alike. One competitor in the contest recalled James’ performance many years later: “I remember it like it was yesterday because it was so outstanding. To hear a kid that young play so excellently, so perfectly, was just earthshaking. There were a lot of good trumpet players in high school, but none of them like that – so completely above every other musician in that whole state concert. He astounded the judges so much that they wanted to give him 100 per cent but they said they never had been able to do that, so they gave him a 98. I knew Harry was really headed for big things.”

Following his graduation from Dick Dowling Junior High, young James began playing regularly with professional dance bands near his parents’ home in Beaumont, Texas. Graduation from Dowling Junior High marked the end of Harry James’ formal education. At best, even his attendance during those eight years of schooling was spotty, given the demands of circus travel schedules. After winning the Texas state championship so convincingly, word of this trumpet prodigy spread quickly. His first step up to a name band came in 1932 when he joined “The Phillips Flyers” band of Joe Gill. He then graduated to the group headed by Art Hicks and, soon, he received an offer from the well-regarded band of Ben Pollack.

In December of 1936, word reached Benny Goodman, via his brother, Irving Goodman, about this great young player named Harry James. Benny wasted no time in checking out the claim and, very quickly, young Harry James received a solid offer of $150 per week to join Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, forming one of the all-time great big-band trumpet sections in swing/jazz history. Soon, Harry James was lead trumpet in the Benny Goodman band – about as high-up on the music ladder as possible short of fronting one’s very own band.

“I Feel Like a Whore in Church”

The 1938 Benny Goodman band, was considered by Goodman himself, and just about everyone else, to be one of the all-time best bands ever assembled. The roster was packed with star musicians, and the driving force behind the band’s great output was the duo of drummer Gene Krupa and lead trumpet, Harry James. The date January 16, 1938 represents a significant milestone in not only classical music history, but in the evolution of swing/jazz as “America’s music.” For the first time in its storied history, staid Carnegie Hall would feature a musical program other than classical. Some classicists were aghast at the prospect. The Benny Goodman band would present a program of the latest swing/jazz music, then taking America by storm. Arranging the concert was difficult in the first place, and there was much anxiety over how the Hall’s black-tie/formal audience would receive the program.

Fifteen minutes before the program was scheduled to begin, Harry James nervously peeked around the stage curtain at the formally attired audience settling into their seats and uttered one of the great comments of the age: “I feel like a whore in church!” The Goodman Orchestra started off the program a bit tentatively. Drummer, Gene Krupa, sensing the situation and throwing caution to the wind began to let go on his drum set. The band’s tempo and the audience reaction responded immediately, and the rest of the program rocked the house. It was a smashing success, all told, establishing for swing/jazz a prominent and prestigious position in the national consciousness. Now the horses were truly out of the barn, and the era of swing had formally arrived in America.

Benny Goodman: Another Legendary Great

The Benny Goodman story and his rise to fame is similar to that of Harry James. Benny made his musical mark several years prior to James’ smash debut. Like Harry, Benny had a very long and very distinguished career in music – another truly legendary musician. In 1938, Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing” by music critics and adoring fans, alike. Benny, like so many of the great swing bandleaders, was one tough customer, but in a more subtle way than most. One thing for certain: Benny was not known for according accolades to other musicians, but when asked many years later about the early days when Harry James played lead trumpet for him, he stated fondly, but succinctly, “Harry could do it all on the trumpet.” That is about as good as it gets coming from Benny Goodman who could do it all on the clarinet, and his comment could not be more complimentary. He and Harry were very different personalities but alike in some key areas. Like Goodman, a master technician on his instrument and a lover of playing classical music (not on the bandstand), Harry also had a classical vein which ran through his musical tastes. Goodman acquired his classical leanings and his impeccable playing technique from his early boyhood German music teacher, Franz Schoepp, and James from his grounding on the fine points of classical training and playing which came from his father – the only music teacher Harry James ever had. Professor Schoepp reputedly had a tremendous aversion to “that jazz music” that young Benny had begun to discover.

The Irresistible Force of Great Talent and Future Fame

Everette James must have been a man of contradictions, perhaps unwillingly. While recognizing his young son’s unlimited musical potential – and encouraging it – he did not wish for Harry the life of a traveling musician, like his own. That, of course, is precisely the life Harry James lived, only at altitudes well above the mud and inconveniences of circus life. Surprisingly, Everette had visions of his son as a concert musician or even a lawyer or doctor, yet he presumably never encouraged Harry to continue his education beyond junior high! I believe that Everette James could not or would not ignore his son’s great musical talent and potential. After Harry won the Texas State music competition as a junior high-schooler and began playing professionally around the Beaumont area, he came to his father and insisted that it was time for the elderly man and Maybelle to let him take care of them through his earnings as a musician. Undoubtedly, his plan resonated with Everette after he and his wife had traveled for so many years with several circus shows cobbling together a somewhat meager existence. Everette James had also worked for years at non-music jobs in-between circus shows in order to keep food on the table. The inevitable was now happening for Harry James, and it was happening rapidly.

Harry James Discovers Frank Sinatra; Yes, That Is True!

1939 found Harry planning to break away from Benny Goodman and start his own band. Despite the fabulous experience gained playing for Goodman and the numerous musical contacts now available to him, James found the initial months on his own very daunting. When he left Benny, he and Louise had a total of $400 in the bank. Goodman stepped in to help finance Harry, but he did him no favor relative to terms of the financial agreement! Late one evening in June of 1939, while preparing for a train trip to Boston, Harry’s wife Louise was packing a suitcase while Harry napped. The radio was tuned to station WNEW’s Dance Parade, a remote broadcast scheduled from 11:30 pm until midnight. The live music was coming from a little North Jersey roadside steakhouse called the Rustic Cabin.

The Cabin’s small band was playing dance music, and there was an occasional male vocal. Something about the voice and the musical phrasing in those vocals caught Louise’s attention, and she decided to wake Harry for his opinion. “Honey, you might want to hear this kid on the radio!” Harry’s new band was looking for a male vocalist, so Louise took a chance and woke her husband from his nap.

Harry agreed that the vocals had merit, so the next night after his show at New York’s Paramount Theatre, he drove down to this inauspicious little roadside place in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey to check it out. The Rustic Cabin’s manager explained that they had no singer, just an emcee/waiter who occasionally sang with the little band. James sat back and listened. Afterward, Harry James was introduced to a skinny, young kid named Francis Albert Sinatra, currently employed at the Rustic Cabin, earning fully $15 per week and looking for a way out – a pathway to better things. James later related that, after hearing eight bars of Night and Day from the youngster that evening, he felt the hairs begin to stand up on the back of his neck; Harry was convinced that young Sinatra had a great future. A one-year contract for $75 per week ensued and turned Francis Albert Sinatra’s life around: it was not the money; it was the golden pathway to stardom laid at his feet by another legend-in-the-making, Harry James. Sinatra never, ever, forgot what Harry James did for him that night at the Rustic Cabin. After a sparkling year with the Harry James band, Sinatra was seduced away by Tommy Dorsey and his established and very popular band. It was the combined experiences in the James/Dorsey bands that refined Sinatra’s innate talents sufficiently to ultimately make him a superstar. After less than two years with Dorsey, Sinatra left to become his own main attraction in the great music venues of the day. He became arguably the finest male vocalist of all time. The Rustic Cabin is long gone, but the story that unfolded there one night in June, 1939, brims with magic.

The Harry James Trumpet Method: Everette and Harry Collaborate

As Harry’s fame began to skyrocket in 1941, the Robbins Music Company published a book on trumpet instruction and practice exercises that was a collaborative and substantial effort between father and son. That book provides insight into the disciplined approach to playing handed down from father to son. More accurately, perhaps, I should say “from grandfather to grandson” since the book reveals that Everette’s own father preceded him as a cornet player and circus bandleader! Harry James, indeed, had quite the lineage as a player. I just received my own copy of this very collectible trumpet publication. It has been out of print for many decades, now, so I am happy to have a nice copy.

Harry James and His New Band Hit the Big-Time!

By 1942, the Harry James band had arrived. He had rcorded an all-time hit on Columbia Records,You Made Me Love You, and his band was featured with the Andrews Sisters in the 1942 move release, Private Buckaroo. The recording remains an icon of the big-band era as do many others by James. The movie’s only virtue is as a showpiece for the performer’s talents – the only way for rural fans in America to witness these stars. Any sensible plot or movie screenplay is non-existent, here. There is some fine trumpet playing in the film, but the opening scene visible behind the rolling credits is what justified my outlay of several dollars for a DVD. The film’s opening credits roll down the screen in the forefront of images of an intimate nightclub dance floor with Harry James fronting his band and playing his evocative rendition of You Made Me Love You. After the band’s intro, vocalist Helen Forrest strides onstage to do her part, and she does it well. She does not have a vocal on the actual recording of that number, so it is wonderful to see her perform, with Harry and the band, perhaps his greatest hit of them all in this film.

Forging Legends in a Tumultuous Business (Music)

Helen Forrest was, in my opinion and that of many others, the finest of all the many female big-band singers. She recorded many hits with James (and others) – a dynamic instrumental/vocal duo with strong personal overtones. There was a long-term relationship between the two that was far more difficult for Ms. Forrest to deal with than it was for James. It has been written that she was crushed when she learned of Harry’s marriage to Betty Grable in 1943. Ms. Forrest wrote very candidly about her life with Harry and the music business, in general, in her up-front book, I Had the Craziest Dream. The book’s title derived from yet another smash hit she recorded with Harry and the band. When Ms. Forrest walks out on stage in the movie Private Buckaroo to sing You Made Me Love You, the visible body language between the two belies something more than just a music contract between them. Decades later, the two would, on rare occasions, perform together and reminisce for old-times sake. Watching the late-life reunions of iconic performers like these survivors of such an uncertain and impermanent game as the music business, one cannot help but think, “What a lot of water under the bridge, and they are still here and still cooking!”

America’s Music Scene: Constantly “Evolving”

By the late nineteen-forties, the big-band craze which swept the country for slightly over a decade was fast fading. There were three reasons why. First: the economics of traveling bands became untenable. It became increasingly difficult to engage fifteen top musicians for paltry wages like $100 per week given the numerous other opportunities suddenly available to them. Second: in a burgeoning recording market, the best musicians turned to careers as “studio musicians” who worked in and around recording studios. Demand was high and life on the road minimal compared to the traveling band days of extended engagements (if the bands were good enough to get bookings). Third: radio was bigger than ever, and television was just around the corner, so the public had growing entertainment options. The big ballrooms packed with young romantic couples and featuring fifteen-piece bands were headed for oblivion.

There was yet another major factor at play in the music industry: the growing popularity of pop music vocalists, backed by a small ensemble of studio musicians. Guess who started that trend in the early nineteen-forties after leaving Tommy Dorsey’s band to go it alone! None other than Francis Albert Sinatra. In the nineteen-fifties there were names like Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore: the list is too long to even attempt. Records were now the profitable game, and publicity venues like fan magazines, radio, and television were suddenly available to popularize individual vocalists and their latest recordings. Even popular hit recordings by vocalists were often woven around the most rudimentary of musical ditties and lyrics – tunes like: How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?. Looking back on the nineteen-fifties (my teen years) and the chart-toppers of those years makes me almost want to cringe when considering the great popular music that was written and performed in the prior two decades. By the late fifties and the decade that followed, rock-and-roll took the country by storm. In the sixties, the pop vocalist music industry was reeling and the trumpet, the iconic lead instrument of the big-band era, had been replaced by the electric guitar.

Harry James responded to these waves of change by spending much of his time in Las Vegas performing with his new band or, often, four or five other musicians playing top lounge dates in the high-priced hotels on the strip. His music was now louder, brassier, and jazzier than in the past, yet his technique on the trumpet still maintained the exacting standards he upheld as a young player. Harry and Betty Grable had divorced in 1963: she died of cancer in 1973. During the marriage, they lived in style, and, together, became heavily involved in horse racing, spending much time at Southern California tracks and much money on a stable of horses. In the end, money was a problem for Harry James, both handling it wisely and having enough of it. After the loss of his ex-wife, Betty, James pushed on, supporting himself primarily via his lounge shows in Vegas and other occasional commitments.

The many years, vodka, and life in the fast lane finally began to take their toll on Harry James in the late nineteen-seventies. He maintained his trumpet playing artistry for many years while fully immersed in the turbulent music business – quite a testimonial for any musician. But Harry was not just any musician. He fell into debt at the end despite his huge lifetime earnings in music and show business. He had been living life in a great big way for a long time, and now the piper had to be paid.

His last professional engagement was to provide trumpet background on an album featuring a young, relatively unknown female singer. Photos taken at the time reveal a man ravaged by a long, productive life in the fast lane, and the onset of the lymphatic cancer which killed him. His playing can be described as rudimentary, at best, with unsteady moments and only an occasional hint of the artistry that was his trademark for decades. I was very saddened when I first saw and heard the reality. Fortunately, he lingered not very long in that musical limbo unlike some who stay around too long performing after they have “lost it.” I always felt that Sinatra should have retired before he began to forget lyrics and sing off-key. Given his own great longevity as America’s finest male vocalist, I suppose he can be forgiven for staying with it too long at the end.

The Final Curtain and a Special Eulogy for Harry James

Harry James died on in Las Vegas on July 5, 1983, precisely forty years to the day of his marriage to Betty Grable in the very same town. The funeral was attended by two hundred people, and the eulogy was delivered by Frank Sinatra who was first in line to request the honor. Present were many long-time friends including Phil Harris who was very close to Harry and who also spoke at the service. Sinatra’s voice wavered at times during the eulogy as he began by saying, “I loved Harry James. I loved him for a long time. He was one of the finest musicians I have ever known. He was a dear friend and a great teacher.” He spoke of the night at the Rustic Cabin back in 1939 when Harry James magically appeared in the audience and ignited Sinatra’s meteoric career. He recalled that James asked him on the spot when he could leave his current employ, to which Sinatra replied, “Right now.” Sinatra also recalled the occasions on the road that year with Harry’s newly formed band when meeting payroll for the group was problematic at times for James. His year traveling with Harry and the band left warm memories which Sinatra never forgot. When he approached Harry to inform him of his significant offer to join Tommy Dorsey, Harry shook his hand and wished him well – no hard feelings and no contractual strings attached. Unlike other bandleaders, Harry was inherently that kind of person. Sinatra closed his eulogy with, “Thanks for everything. So long, ole buddy. Take care of yourself.”

Harry James wrote his own epitaph: “May it simply be said and written of me, ‘He’s gone on the road to do one-nighters with Gabriel.’”

Final Thoughts on Harry James and His Influence

Since this story has ended with Frank Sinatra’s eulogy to Harry James, I wish to add one more memorable anecdote relating to their relationship.

After accepting Tommy Dorsey’s offer to join his well-established and successful musical organization, Sinatra was ready to take a big step in his career. He had learned a lot from Harry in the year performing with his new band, and now he was about to learn still more from Tommy.

Sinatra’s last performance with the Harry James band occurred on a very dark, snowy evening in Buffalo, New York on January 26, 1940. After the performance the band boarded the bus which would take them on to their next engagement. Sinatra recalled: “The bus pulled out with the rest of the guys after midnight. I’d said goodbye to them all, and it was snowing. I remember there was nobody around, and I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights of the bus disappear. Then the tears started, and I tried to run after the bus. There was such spirit and enthusiasm in that band [that] I hated leaving it.”

Sinatra’s account is so personal, touching, and evocative that images form in my mind’s eye every time I read it.

Harry James was one of a kind. At once immature and insecure, yet supremely confident in his musical ability – and justly so; formally uneducated in every venue but music, yet very street-smart; an admitted loner, yet widely traveled and well connected and respected in the music business; a womanizer, yet remembered fondly by someone like Helen Forrest who knew him well. He once told his first wife, Louise, “I live in my own world. No one gets in.” So many contradictions and complications in one individual, but in the final analysis:

“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”

and that will likely remain his great legacy.

Here are direct links to a few previous posts of mine re: music and musicians; click on them to see the post:

From the Slums of New Orleans to the Palaces of Europe: Meet Louis Armstrong – Musician

From Bing to Bix: Beiderbecke, That Is!

Frank Sinatra After 100 Years: The Gold Standard