Having recently read an account of Puritan life in 17th-century Massachusetts, I have greater respect for my childhood. I tended to pout about life in the country, and felt I was missing out on a great deal. Not that an elementary school student could get into Manhattan night clubs or phone up a studio to get a film role, but I walked around with the ominous feeling that I was missing out on an interesting life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my anxiety was partly Madison Avenue’s fault.
Saturday morning advertisements had me convinced that I should be swinging from a rope into a creek while holding a can of Mountain Dew. Honeycomb cereal left me feeling that I needed my own clubhouse, but as the only child still at home and living miles from my closest friends, I can’t think who would’ve been in my club. Shasta commercials showed a group of cowboys sitting around a campfire and strumming guitars while drinking one of their many cola flavors. When I suggested such a trail ride, I was told I could do more work around the place or help one of our paunchy tobacco-chewing relatives with his cattle. I was appalled. Our people were the furthest thing from a Central Casting cowboy, and I’d not seen a single one of them strumming a guitar by a fire!
As I got older and left Saturday cartoons, I discovered variety shows and the occasional old movie on TV. The audacious characters on the screen were nothing like the adults in my life. The performers seemed so young, and when I found out later that they were anywhere from two to twenty years older than my parents, I couldn’t believe it! My dad had never once in his life tap-danced with my mother as she dressed in a sequin-trimmed tuxedo. They had never waltzed together or told jokes. Carol Burnett was older than my dad, and she was zany! I was even more convinced that life in Middle America somehow extracted any traces of what I considered to be glamour.
I’ve never been certain if there was an official campaign to dissuade me of the notion that a coastal existence was preferable to our way of life, but I sensed there was an ongoing promotion of wholesome values along with some mild character assassination regarding the people I watched on TV. Phyllis Diller kept us laughing, but someone would get around to mentioning her wild hairstyles. There was certainly unpredictability in that! Elizabeth Taylor would appear on one of the channels, and I’d be reminded of her marriages. Nope! No stability for her. When Laugh-In was on, I’d be told that Jo Anne Worley was too crazy to be believed. The show’s party segments were just too wild to be considered, and people didn’t go around throwing water on others even though I had a list of people I’d like to hose down.
I don’t recall on which variety special that I discovered Mae West, but it might have been a Dean Martin Roast. She was probably a bit too racy for Bob Hope’s audience, and I was never much of a fan of his. Give me Dean Martin’s cocktail-swilling crowd any old day. My first exposure to Mae West was when she was about 81. As Tammy Wynette sang, “…If you like ’em painted up, powdered up, then you’re gonna be glad…” Miss West was girded up, tightened up, and propped up for her appearance. In her familiar drawl, she spouted a few of her famous old punch-lines, but they were brand new to me. I was gobsmacked, and I wanted to see more!
For those who grew up before the Internet, we only had encyclopedias if we wanted to find out more about a particular subject. Even though Mae West had been around since the late 19th-century when Queen Victoria was at the end of her life, I instinctively knew that this was one American that didn’t make it into World Book or The American International Encyclopedia. Just to be sure, I confirmed that there were no interesting entries between Wesleyan Methodists and Westchester County where she would have appeared had the editors possessed a single ounce of appreciation for a vulgar old vaudevillian.
I couldn’t stop repeating those hilarious lines. When the straight man in her act said, “My goodness those are lovely furs” and Mae responded, “Honey, my goodness had nothing to do with it!” this twelve year-old was rolling in the floor. “It’s not the men in your life, but the life in your men” left me breathless. I don’t think they aired the one about one leg being Christmas and the other New Year’s as Mae issued a standing invitation to visit her between the holidays. But anything she said had me roaring while wondering why I hadn’t seen this bawdy beauty before.
My mother was on the sofa and my dad read the paper in his chair as I sprawled on the floor. This divine creature was made up like Ru Paul and saying the most shocking things. I have no doubt that my parents sensed trouble ahead. It wouldn’t be long before I forgot my Sunday School lessons and filled my head with racy one-liners written by a woman old enough to be their grandmother.
“Isn’t she hilarious?” I asked.
My mother didn’t miss a beat. “She’s nothing but an old prostitute!”
That shut me up. I recognized the tone, which indicated there was no point in arguing. I knew full well what a prostitute was. They showed up in Sunday School lessons occasionally and had some of the most interesting scenes in the Bible. Well, if that is what Mae West is, as far as I was concerned, it certainly didn’t dim her star. If anything, I was even more convinced that people in California and New York were having fun without me.
© 2020 by Patrick Brown
I eventually lived in Los Angeles, and drove daily past Mae West’s former apartment building in Hollywood. To learn more about me, check my bio page on this site. For my books, including the three crime thrillers featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1