OrdmanNet Home
 Return to story index
e-mail author (edward@ordman.net)
Author Info

         The most memorable role

Edward Ordman 11/2000  (based on Evelyn Ordman's recollections)

        The year was 1937. My mother, Evelyn Sisson, had graduated the year before from Emerson College in Boston. She had a degree called a Bachelor of Literary Interpretation, which, she explained, meant that she could pass courses that had words in them, but wasn't so good at courses that had anything to do with numbers.  She'd had a job in telephone sales, at which she was miserable, and worked for awhile as a clerk in a dress shop, where she was fired for telling women that the dresses they were trying on made them look fat. But of course, she wanted a job in Theatre.
         The company that hired her had an unusual business plan. There was a traveling salesman who could have been the model for Professor Harold Hill, the male lead in The Music Man. His job was almost exactly like that of the fictional Professor Hill. He sold theatrical performances. He'd come to a town and find some organization - the school, the Kiwanis, the volunteer Fire Department - that would contract to have a fundraising theatrical performance.  He'd charge an initial deposit and send the contract back to the company.  The initial deposit charge was, in fact, whatever the traffic would bear, and that was the salesman's pay. If he could get a deposit of $25, he was paid $25. If all he could get was $15, he kept the $15. He just kept whatever he could charge and sent the contract to the company.   The company then sent the Producer/Director to the town to produce and direct the show. And that was the job my mother got.  She'd arrive in town two weeks before the announced show time, with a supply of scripts and sample programs. Her job was to recruit a volunteer cast, find a hall, sell ads for the program and get it printed, and produce and direct the show. Oh, and organize a parade Thursday to make sure everyone in town would come to the show which was done Friday and Saturday in most towns,  with an  added  matinee in the larger communities.  The sponsoring organization sold the tickets - usually 25 cents or maybe 50 cents for the best seats, and kept the proceeds; Evelyn divided with the sponsoring company the proceeds from sales of advertisements in the printed program, and that was her pay. The company sent out two wooden crates of props and costumes that were due to arrive by Railway Freight on the Wednesday before the show.
          Evelyn's father was skeptical, but he advanced the money for the purchase of a large traveling theatrical-style trunk in which Evelyn could carry her clothes, scripts, and sample programs. She says she thinks the trunk cost about $100, in the days when her earlier jobs had paid six dollars and fifty cents a week, and her father sent her out into the world with instructions not to come home from her grand theatrical career until she'd made at least enough money to pay for the trunk.
           Her first job was in a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland - somewhere south of Delaware, in a town called Willards.  She took the train to Philadelphia and somehow got the trunk transferred to a Greyhound Bus headed south.
         She didn't know where she was at 2 a.m. when the bus driver stopped the bus somewhere and awakened her. "You get off here."  "Are we there?"  "No, you change buses here." "Where are we? Don't you go to Willards?"  "No, this is as far that way as I go. You wait here for the next bus, it will be here at 6 a.m."
        So at 2 a.m. Evelyn was standing by the road, with her huge trunk, not knowing what town she was in. She was cold, lonely, far from home, and scared.  She waited awhile and looked around. No businesses were open.  But down the block and upstairs on the second floor was a small, barely illuminated sign. "Hotel".  She found the door, walked up the flight of narrow steps, and found herself in a dingy lobby with a half-asleep clerk.  "I think I'm supposed to wait for a bus, but I don't even know where I am, and I'm cold and tired".  The clerk found she wasn't with anyone but did have luggage, and even wrestled her trunk up the narrow stairs. Rooms were usually $10 a night, but after all, he couldn't expect to rent anymore tonight except for, well, he let that sentence trail off, he could let her have a room for $6.00.  He got the trunk into the room, and told her, "Now, whatever you hear, Don't you open that door for anybody, little lady, until you hear me knock on the door and I'll say ‘Abracadabra'."
       It was a tiny room with a disproportionately large and attractive bathroom, perhaps the result of some long-ago repartitioning. She washed up gratefully and fell so soundly asleep that if there were other noises, she heard nothing until the knock on the door. "Rise and Shine. Good Morning. The bus is coming. Abracadabra."  She never did find out the name of the town where she'd spent the night, but she got on the next leg of the bus ride, which eventually deposited her in the town of Salisbury, Maryland.  "I though you went to Willards", she told the driver. "No, " he said, "this is as far as the bus line goes. You are on your own from here."
       She went into a little diner, had breakfast, and went through her notes. She had a phone number in Willards, and a name of a contact from the Volunteer Fire Department that was going to sponsor the play -- Mr. Johnson.  She arranged the use of the phone in the little diner, and called the number in Willards.
       "Is Mr. Johnson there?"
       "Well, I don't think so, I think he's out of town, but I can find out. You give me your number and I'll call you back later when I find out."
       "Isn't this Mr. Johnson's house?"
       "No, this is Dr. Smith's house. He's the doctor here, and we have the only phone in town. The Johnsons live about two miles down the road, but I'll see Mrs. Johnson and ask her when her husband is supposed to get back."
       "Well, how do I get to Willards? Is there a bus.?"
       "No, and if Mr. Johnson is still away he'll have the car with him. But you give me your phone number and we'll call back later today, if she knows when he's coming back."
        Evelyn turned away from the phone thoroughly confused. But of course everyone in the diner had heard her end of the conversation, and a young man detached himself from the group at the other end of the counter.
       "I go to Willards sometimes," he said, "and I know Mr. Johnson. I'm pretty sure he is gone away for a few days. But I could give you a ride out there for eight dollars."
       Now Evelyn had hitchhiked all over New England, but always with a friend along. She knew you weren't supposed to take rides alone with strange men. She seriously wondered if she should turn around and go back to Boston, except for her father saying not to come back until she'd made enough money  to pay for that trunk.  And this had been an expensive trip already. As she stood there hesitating, the young man had another suggestion.
      "Well, come to think of it, if that's too much. If you could wait until late this afternoon and I could bring my wife along, I could do it for five dollars. My wife would like a ride in the country."
      With great relief, Evelyn accepted the offer. In fact she'd have been happy to pay a good deal extra to have his wife come along, and this way she saved a few of her few remaining dollars in addition to feeling safer.
       When they reached the small community of Willards, the young man driving did know exactly where the Johnson house was, which reassured her. But Mrs. Johnson was decidedly less enthusiastic. She didn't know anything about a play. Certainly Mr. Johnson hadn't said anything about a young woman coming to visit. Probably, Mrs. Johnson said, Miss Sisson should turn around and go right back to Boston.  But, eventually, after looking at the contract rather dubiously,  she allowed as how she could let Miss Sisson stay just for the one night, so that Miss Sisson could talk to some of the other volunteer firemen the next day and see if they knew anything about this.
          By now Evelyn was aching for a bathroom. She said, in the usual fashion, "Is there somewhere where I can wash my hands?"  "Sure there is. The pump is right out there just next to the back porch."  She washed her hands but that didn't exactly help with the real necessity.  But then Mrs. Johnson showed her the room she could stay in, for one night only, and pointed out the pot under the bed. Not sure what other arrangements there were, and despite being a city girl who had only read about such things,  Evelyn used the pot at the first opportunity.
          The next day went better. A number of the firemen and small businessmen in town were quite enthusiastic about putting on the play, and Evelyn even got to meet Dr. Smith. In addition to having the only telephone in town, he had a powered water pump for his well and the only indoor plumbing in town. The normal arrangement in town was outhouses, and for some reason many of the seats were just boards with cutouts rather than fully boxed-in seats. The local chickens liked to raise their chicks under parts of these boards, and Evelyn never could quite get used to having a chicken staring at her bottom and wondering if the chicken was going to peck at it.
         The play was called "The Circus". There was a rather minimal plot but enough midget costumes for any reasonable number of children, plenty of animal costumes and clown costumes, and a reasonable number of ringmaster, lion tamer, and similar costumes for the important men in town.  In fact part of the goal was to recruit as many important personages in town as possible, because this helped in selling advertising. If you could get the banker, the school principal, the fire chief, the police chief, and the local minister to put on costumes, you knew you'd have a big audience and the businesses not only in this town but nearby ones would come up with five dollars, ten dollars,  and if the merchant himself was in the play possibly even twenty dollars for a full-page ad in the show program.
       She got virtually all the children and a surprisingly good turnout of the important men in Willards, except for Dr. Smith. She tried to recruit him,  but he had other concerns for the interview.
      "Where are you from?"         "Boston."
      "Are your parents alive?"      "Yes"
      "Are they sick?"                     "No."
      "Are they in hospitals or anything?"         "No."
      "Any diseases in the family?"                   "One uncle has diabetes."
       "And they let you come here?"                "Yes"
       "Do you have any diseases?"                   "No"
      "Any venereal disease in your family?"    "No."
       "Do you have any venereal disease?"       "No".
 Evelyn wasn't at all sure what venereal disease was, except that she thought it was probably something you got from sitting on strange toilet seats, and she wasn't getting too close to any toilet seats in Willards anyway, because she was still afraid of the chickens.
        The doctor finally came around to his conclusion. Apparently, there was a lot of venereal disease in Willards.  "Miss Sisson, I'm not sure what made you decide to take up this kind of job, but it I were you, I'd turn right back around and go home to your parents in Boston. They sound like a very nice family, and I really don't think it's good for you to be in places like Willards.  If you really want to stay in Willards for two weeks, you be sure to go home  right after the end of the two weeks, and you be very,  very,  careful not to make any close friends in Willards."
          One of the firemen found her a place to stay. Willards didn't have anything like a hotel or boarding house, but there was Lulu Mae Wilson. Mizuz Wilson's husband had died, and her son had gone off somewhere no one ever was very clear about for reasons that weren't quite specified, so Lulu Mae had a spare room and could provide bed and meals to the occasional salesman who came to town.  The place was full of flies, and Evelyn still shivers at recalling the huge numbers of old and apparently no longer effective coils of flypaper that hung from every available point on the ceiling.
         Lulu Mae found having a young female paying guest a delightful change from the usual run of salesmen, and rapidly set out to protect the young woman's welfare.
    "You really all the way from Bahston?"  "Yes"
    "That's one of them really big cities, isn't it."  "Yes"
    "Its a lot like New Yawk, isn't it?"  "How do you mean?"
    "Well, I mean, in them cities up thar, don't they have an awful lot of Jews?"
     Evelyn admitted to being aware that there were some Jews up north, but decided it might be best not to mention that she was Jewish. But Lulu Mae campaigned regularly that Miz Evelyn should move down south and get away from those awful cities where there were all of those Jews. "Didn't you know", Lulu Mae asked, "that Jews have horns? They're right up here just about above the ears. Some of  ‘em even  wear special hats to cover the horns, so you won't see um. And sometimes the horns are real tiny, so you can hardly see um. But if you feel, right here, on a Jew, you'd be able to feel the horns. You ought to stay down here where you are safe from those Jews up in Bahston, Miz Evelyn."
       Lulu Mae's cooking was not the best even before that discussion, but afterwards Evelyn had real trouble with it.  Luckily one of firemen had a ‘par tree' and several times he brought Evelyn a sack of ‘pars' [pears] which provided her main source of food in Willards.
       She did, however, decide to attend church the Sunday midway in her stay in Willards, to see what it was like and publicize her play.  When the collection plate came around she wasn't at all sure of local practice, and, hoping not to offend, dropped in two dollars.  The total collection was later announced as three dollars and eight-six cents, so her visit had apparently substantially impacted the local economy already.
        By Wednesday of the second week her cast was lined up, the advertising sold, and it was time to organize the great Circus Parade for Thursday. One crate of costumes and props, with the animal costumes and the oilcloth for making banners, had arrived. But she had lined up a number of men to dress as clowns and the second crate, with the clown costumes, had disappeared en route. The railroad assured her it had been found and would arrive by  Friday morning, but what was she to do Thursday for the parade? She spoke with a group of the firemen. "Well," she said, "We do have a bunch of extra oilcloth we could use for hats and banners. Would the men be willing to come wearing their pajamas and we could decorate them to look like clown costumes?"  There was a bit of quiet talk and distraction and one of the men was delegated to break the news to Evelyn that the local men didn't wear pajamas, they wore nightshirts. Evelyn wasn't quite sure how to make circus-looking costumes from nightshirts. Then one of the men spoke up. "Look, we get the idea. You want a big, fancy, parade, with lots of costumes, and you want everyone in town to come watch the parade and have a good time, right?"  "Yes". "OK, you leave it to us. We know what to do, you don't worry, just come tomorrow and we'll give you a real nice parade."
         The parade the next day was, by later reports, the biggest in that part of the Eastern Shore for a long time.   It had all the circus costumes except the clowns, quite a few children dressed as midgets and animals, six fire engines constituting the entire fire departments of four nearby towns, and, in place of the clowns, what looked to Evelyn like fifty Ku Klux Klan members in full Klan regalia and carrying a large cross.
          The play itself was a booming success, and Evelyn was on her way to a career as theatrical impresario that did, in fact, eventually raise enough money to repay her father for his investment in her traveling trunk.  She organized performances in small towns from Massachusetts to southern Virginia, and as far west as Ohio. Her father had some concerns about her trips to Ohio: he had known people who had been to California and returned, but no one he knew personally had ever come back from Ohio. So he wasn't at all sure where Ohio was, except that he thought it must be a good deal further than California. Evelyn had to recruit one of her better-educated uncles to assure her father that it was OK for Evelyn to travel as far as Ohio.  She stayed with the job for two years, until her engagement to my father got serious enough that marriage seemed a real possibility -- that is, it began to look as if he might earn enough money to make it possible -- and then she decided it was time to stay nearer home.
           She didn't revisit Willards until much later in life -- thirty years or more later, when she discovered that her friend Polly liked to visit Ocean City, Maryland, in the summer, and liked driving around the countryside. She went with Polly to Ocean City, and one day Polly drove them out to Willards.
        Many of the people she had met were gone, and she had trouble remembering the ones she did see. A few elderly shopkeepers remembered having bought an ad in the program. But then she walked by the little old railroad freight depot, and of the several men sitting around, one jumped up.
      "Why, I know you," he beamed., "Miss...Miss Evelyn ... Evelyn Sisson. From the play we did. Years ago."
      She greeted him happily, but didn't remember his name.
     "I'm Johnnie Carling.  I was in the play. That was years and years ago, I was a kid, and it was the most exciting thing I remember about that time.  It was the first time my Daddy ever let me march with him in the Klan -- of course, those were different times. And of course, I was in the play."
       "What did you do in the play?", Evelyn asked.
       "Oh, don't you remember, Miss Sisson?  I had so much fun. I got to be the back half of the donkey."