Baseball, Pop Music and Comic Books…
There was nothing I could do about my size. In March of 1957 I was the smallest child in Mrs. Blaugh’s fourth grade class at Homestead School. Though I had just turned ten, I looked about six.
The unrequited love of my life, Lily Burris, was taller than me and this was almost certainly why she never gave me the time of day. The only occasion she ever spoke to me was when my Coke bottle wound up pointed at her as we played ‘Spin the Bottle’ at a party. I don’t remember her words but her meaning was clear: ‘Go away.’
The playground at Homestead was always a whirl of different activities. During recess, a long jump rope was wielded by two girls while other kids stood in line to skip into it’s constant rotation. Whether their skipping was successful or not, they all sang a counting rhyme as the rope came around with the regularity of a metronome.
A group of boys with arms around each other would stalk the playground chanting: “We won’t stop!” There was hop scotch, marbles and, of course, sports.
One of my best friends was Alex Robertson who was big for his age, a keen athlete and had a passion for baseball. My other best friends, Glen Pritzker and Billy Bowen were competent enough athletes unlike myself who was not. Because I was so small it was expected that I wouldn’t be any good at sports and, sadly, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At home I would play touch football and softball with my brother’s friends but never at school. At school I had no confidence at sports.
At Homestead we played baseball and when I was up, I’d approach the home base, bat in hand. Someone would shout: “Myers is up!” At this point, all the outfielders would walk in past the base lines, chuckling to themselves. The humiliation of this would fill me with a rage which guaranteed that I struck out three times in a row.
The truth was that I had a terror of the ball. Had I used my time at the plate focusing on it and connecting with the bat, I might have knocked it over the fence but instead I surrendered to my rage. I didn’t approach the situation with any clarity or straightforwardness.
My time out in left field was worse. I spent it dreading that the ball might come in my direction and, again, my lack of focus made me a terrible player.
At home I wasn’t too bad. Our father Blackie had got us a pair of fielders’ mitts and brother Jim and I would regularly play catch with a hard ball up on Seymour just above our house.
So it was mostly other areas of interest which I shared with my friends. Whenever Alex Robertson or Billy Bowen visited our house they would invariably lose themselves reading my comic books or listening to my records.
I was, by now, a committed collector. The 45s and LPs were all kept in their original packaging and the comic books were stacked neatly in chronological order on a piece of furniture I had commandeered. I had Uncle Scrooge, Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, Superman, Classics Illustrated and MAD magazines. My one strict rule was that nobody was allowed to fold back the covers on the comics.
Glen Pritzker and I would always make our weekly pilgrimage to Village Music where we’d pick up a copy of that week’s Top 40 and listen to records in the sound proof booth. In those days it was in one of the shops which nestled within the Sequoia Theatre building.
Sara Wilcox was possibly the only adult shopkeeper in Mill Valley who didn’t treat kids like second class citizens. A wander into Bennett’s Variety store always invited the laser like surveillance of whichever bad tempered adult was on duty, whereas Sara was always friendly, funny and never tired of playing us whatever records we wanted to hear.
One record which came out at this time was Perry Como’s Round And Round. The simplicity of the song’s arrangement appealed to me. It began with a quiet rhythm provided by a drummer using brushes. Then Como’s voice came in, very gently.
It proceeded to build with the addition of male singers and soon after with female voices which intertwined through key changes and a middle eight. The whole thing built to a swirling crescendo then returned to the gentle brushes and Como’s quiet voice. I bought this record and played it over and over.
Perry Como recorded on the RCA Victor label which also had Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte. Glen and I would study the actual labels which, in this case had a full colour picture of a dog gazing into the horn of an old gramophone speaker against a black background. We came to know that the names inside the parenthesis under the song’s title were the composers and lyricists.
The pop music of this time was terrific. Glen and I followed the fortunes of a wide range of artists. Tab Hunter had gotten to number one with his version of Young Love which was really inferior to Sonny James’ recording but then Tab was a movie star despite being a totally unnatural singer.
Another movie star who put out a few singles was Tony Perkins. He had a minor hit with Moonlight Swim that same year. The big difference was that Perkins, unlike Tab Hunter, could actually sing.
I guess it was the success of Tab Hunter’s single which prompted the other Hollywood studios to put their juvenile leads into the recording studios as, before the year was out, a disk cut by Sal Mineo came into the charts and, presumably, sold quite a few copies. Keep Movin’ was its title and it was not very good. Like Tony Perkins, Sal Mineo had a good voice but the song was rubbish and I would never have bought it.
I had to really love a record to commit the six bits it cost for a single. That was the beauty of someone like Sara Wilcox because Glen and I would only have to ask to hear something like Party Doll by Buddy Knox and she’d play it for us. And the sound proof booth meant that she didn’t have to listen to it herself.
I was taken by the overstated southern accent of Buddy Knox whose pronunciations of words like ‘fair’ (fay-aire) and ‘hair’ (hay-aire) were very exaggerated but when Elvis Presley broke out of the south and became the phenomenon he was after 1956, it seemed there was a wave of southern white singers in the top 40.
Another single I had to have was Butterfly by Andy Williams as well as a peculiar one that I always felt uncertain about which was Teenage Crush by Tommy Sands. I could never make up my mind if it was good or not but I did buy it though I never purchased another Tommy Sands single.
This was also the time that Fats Domino released the terrific I’m Walkin’ and The Diamonds came out with Little Darlin’. The singing voices on this record were so eccentric. They wouldn’t have been out of place in a Warner Brothers cartoon. The opening created a visual picture of a waterfall in my mind with castanets clapping like clams as they fell.
I was, by this time, absolutely enthralled with every record made by Elvis Presley for this was at the beginning of his long career and he was still putting out terrific singles like the next one to come along which was All Shook Up.
There were always words I couldn’t fully fathom on an Elvis recording and All Shook Up was no exception. The line: “My friends say I’m acting as wild as a bug” filtered through to my ears as: “My friends say Mack you’re acting queer as a bug.”
The opening beguiled me immediately with its fluid boogie woogie rhythm. The individual notes seemed to melt into each other unlike the bass notes on Don’t Be Cruel which were distinct and separate.
Another disk on RCA Victor was by Harry Belafonte, one of my favourites. Banana Boat was a much played 45 in my collection and his next release was Mama Look At Boo Boo which introduced dialects and accents we’d never encountered before.
1957 was turning out to be rich for popular music as each week brought new delights to Sara’s sound proof booth. Chuck Berry was on the Chess label and, unlike Elvis, his diction was crystal clear. His latest release was School Days and the witty lyrics described the drudgery of the classroom giving way to the joys of dancing to rock and roll after school.
I had an LP called Here’s Little Richard which I loved to listen to over and over. Lucille began with his rhythm section sounding demonic and like it was off in the distance and getting closer. Like Elvis I didn’t always understand the words but the music was so infectious it didn’t matter.
Glen and I regularly discussed what we were going to do when we grew up. I was going to be a singer and he would be my manager. I did have a good singing voice and could produce fair imitations of all the records I listened to. I remember standing on a bench in the playground at Homestead singing Love Letters In The Sand to an audience of probably nobody.
Unlike me, Glen was a straight A student and by the end of 4th grade he skipped a year, going to Alto then Edna Maguire and ultimately to a prep school in the city so I didn’t see him again for many years.
As for Alex Robertson he was the main reason that I was able to be a loud mouthed little guy for he stepped in on many occasions to protect me from whatever rough justice my big mouth would invite.
Billy Bowen I spied leaving Village Music in the early 1960s with an entire album of Chuck Berry under his arm. When I asked why he bought a whole album, he told me he used them to practice his drums to at home.
We all went to Alto for sixth grade and for reasons I no longer recall, I drifted away from Alex and Billy. New friendships developed and the Top 40 evolved into something less exciting than the early Elvis and Little Richard.
My big talent was cartooning and while I was doing it in a classroom, I was surrounded by admirers. But once I went out onto the playground at recess a transformation took place. The admirers forgot their admiration and I became, once again, the little guy who just wasn’t any good at sports. Nobody ever wanted me on their team so by the time I got to Tam High I dreaded PE class.
I think this was the reason that Superman appealed to me so much. Weedy Clark Kent removes his glasses and comes out of the phone booth a super hero who saves the day. The trouble was that when I took my glasses off I was still weedy Clark Kent.