For John Nowak, the Chicago world’s fair of 1933 was “a marvelous thing.” He was a boy then, from a poor Catholic family. Each Friday, admission to the fair was reduced to a nickel. Over the summer and sometimes during the school year, Nowak’s mother would pack him a couple of salmon salad sandwiches (Friday meant no meat, of course) and off he’d go by streetcar to enjoy the fair. His lunch was always those sandwiches and a Coke.
“In a way I never left the fair,” relates Nowak, now an ebullient man of 66. “For 30 years, whenever I tasted salmon I could taste Coke–and worse yet, whenever I tasted Coke I tasted salmon.”
A commonplace remembrance in some ways, but it always gets a laugh in the revue put together by the White Crane Senior Ensemble, an outgrowth of the White Crane Senior Health Center on West Belmont in Lakeview. The production consists of ten or so people, of varied backgrounds, sitting around a table, delivering their reminiscences and a couple dozen vintage songs.
It all sounds corny, and in large part it is. It’s also filled with enthusiasm, humor, and pathos; you’d be hard put to find a more stirring way to spend 50 minutes.
“On the surface, this show reminds me of what Studs Terkel does,” remarks Rob Skeist, director of the White Crane center. “But Studs goes out and locates ordinary people who are extraordinary. Our people are ordinary–what Barbara’s done is to locate the energy and touching feelings in each of them.”
Barbara Silverman, 38, a musician and modern dancer, embarked on the White Crane project a year ago. She had performed often at rest homes and had relished warbling old songs to the elderly: “There has always been something inspiring for me in singing old chestnuts to senior groups. When these people hear the songs they sang when they were in love, energy just lights up their faces.”
Silverman won a small grant from the Chicago Council on Fine Arts to stage a musical revue to be generated by its elderly players; she later sought the additional backing of Skeist at White Crane (which is a joint venture of neighborhood seniors and Illinois Masonic Hospital). Because the center promotes the concept of “wellness” for the elderly, offering t’ai chi classes and massage therapy, Silverman’s idea fit right in.
Last fall Silverman sat down with a core group of oldsters, tape-recording their memories. What were boats like when you were young? she’d ask. Do you remember coal chutes? What was World War II like for you? The participants, who ranged in age from their late 50s to their 80s, spoke openly over 16 sessions.
Those participants included Maxine Snyder, a spirited widow who worked for years as a waitress. Then there was Charlie Grunwald, a single gent who used to be a food handler on grocery trucks but now gets around with a walker. Marie Mead, 84, is a onetime secretary who loves nothing better than to sing. And Lucy Fairbank, the daughter of a bond salesman, attended the Francis Parker School and Bryn Mawr College before pursuing a career in teaching.
Nowak hailed from the working classes. His father, he relates, “had an erratic work record, a little man, a tough SOB who was all muscle. My mother was a sewing machine operator.” Nowak, who rose to become assistant to the general manager of the old Sheraton Hotel downtown, has battled cancer for years and has lately been down on his luck: he lives by himself without a phone in a CHA building at Clark and Irving.
Fumi Yamamoto, who once worked in Chicago as a play editor, got involved with the senior ensemble only because she went to the White Crane center to have a podiatrist examine her feet. Although joining the company appealed to Fumi from the first, she says “it took three or four weeks for me to work up the nerve to attend.”
Silverman sifted through the best offerings from these sessions to come up with dialogue and monologues covering the years 1905 to 1945 (in general, each person relates his or her own memories). These were lumped into categories, such as trains, first jobs, radio, and the Depression. Interspersed were portions of 28 songs, from “K-K-K-Katy” and George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to anthems of the Depression, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” “God Bless America” was chosen to cap off the show, which is called “Song and Story Sharing.”
The show recalls an era when a streetcar ride cost five cents and an attack of measles meant a quarantine sign on your house. The Depression hit Chicago hard, “but we were considerate of each other,” recollects Marie Mead in her star turn. “We didn’t have much, but whatever we had we shared. And there was another thing: we never locked our doors at night. We weren’t afraid, and our neighbors lived the same way.” John Nowak gives a lip-smacking ode to his salmon salad sandwich. Charlie Grunwald, leaning on his walker, and Maxine Snyder sing a wistful duet, “It’s Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet.”
Fumi Yamamoto’s monologue is devoted exclusively to her excruciating memories of the day, right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, when she reported as usual to a secretarial school in Spokane, Washington. Clearly her memories of World War II have been colored by her Japanese heritage, although she was never placed in an internment camp.
“Nobody knew what to say to me,” says Yamamoto, “not even my friends. I had typing class in the afternoon. We used to type to music, to get a nice, even rhythm in our typing. The music they played that day was ‘Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys.’ To this day, whenever I hear that song I can hear in my mind that tinny old phonograph and the click, click, click of the typewriters.” Fumi’s delivery is achingly soft.
“There was a lot of prejudice against us before the war,” Fumi says in conversation. “After the fighting started it just became more overt.”
The White Crane troupe, in old-fashioned clothing and hats, performed their show four times last fall. For the players the performances were “therapy,” Nowak concedes, but he also thinks they afforded a way for old and young alike to lay their hands “on the textures of the past.”
In one gig, the company appeared before 40 preadolescents at a settlement house. “I can tell you, it was quite a testimonial,” relates Silverman. “Of those 40 kids, only one had to get up and go to the bathroom during the show. That should tell you something.”
“I particularly enjoyed those children,” says Lucy Fairbank, who is 74. “It’s good for them to know that old people aren’t just dying, that funny and important things happened to them, even if it was long ago.”
The White Crane Senior Ensemble presents “Song and Story Sharing” on March 5 at 2 PM at Sheil Park, 3505 N. Southport, at a free event sponsored by the 44th Ward Senior Citizens Organization. You have another chance to see the ensemble at 2:30 PM on April 17, at the spring festival of the South Lakeview Neighbors held at Saint Alphonsus Church, 1433 W. Wellington. Admission is free; for more information, call 883-7151.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alex Galindo.