FRESH YARN presents:
and A-Two-A Macadamia Nuts
Did you ever have the experience of seeing your mother go from being your average parent who makes you grilled cheese sandwiches and runs around the house in her girdle and dress-shields -- by the way, do you even know what dress shields are, I ask? Show of hands please... thank you -- to being something much more in your eyes?
A strange thing happened when I was nine, which catapulted my mother, Esther, from being the average nightmare parent, to dare I say it, almost heroic in my eyes. How could this have possibly happened? Did she tell off Mrs. Bergad, my heinous third grade math teacher, or rescue Farfel our kitty from a burning building -- or make my annoying sister Sally go live with some other less fortunate family?
Alas, no. For me, the life-altering change in how I saw my mother was getting an eyeful of her for the first time, as a woman. In a flash, she went from being a 1960s squeaky-clean Hadassah version of Laura Petrie to a voluptuous, Sophia Loren-esque sex goddess dripping with a sensuality that makes men weak.
What accounted for that immediate thunder bolt-like transformation? I can tell you in three simple words. Lawrence Welk, Live!
When I was a little tyke I said tyke my mother was an actress in Pittsburgh, doing plays and revues around our tri-state area. She, having delusions of grandeur and a shrewdness about the "public's curiosity for celebrity," never left home, even to gas the car, without being perfectly and stylishly coiffed, lest her public see her, and I don't know try for a photo op.
If Mary Tyler
Moore and Bea Arthur had a love child it would be big Es. Tall and shapely,
she always wore Mary's Capri pants, and a colorful Pucci patterned turtleneck.
It was 1970 -- she had the Mary flip behind one ear, and Bea's height,
striking salt and pepper tresses, and deadpan hysterical delivery when
she wanted to.
She opened for Henny Youngman, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, The Manhattan Transfer, Vic Damone and it was there one night, that some suit from WIIC-TV, channel 11, saw Esther and gave her a shot as the "entertainment reviewer" for the nightly 6 o'clock news. Her job was to spotlight whatever interesting show or act was in town that week.
My Dad was Willy Loman at this point, a salesman schlepping cases on the road. He'd leave town Monday mornings with his men's shirt and belt lines, then return each Friday for supper, traffic permitting. My sister was away at college so during the week it was just Es and me.
After trudging home from Colfax elementary and fortifying myself with a hearty snack of Tab and Pretzel Rods, most days I'd accompany Esther on her trek to Channel 11, listen to her "copy" on the drive out, rewrite and punch her up, consult on wardrobe, then sit behind the cameras making sure they lit her flatteringly and shot from above. I may have been ten, but I was reading Daily Variety and preparing my own career as a network executive. I'd watch each broadcast, and beam proudly as Es filmed her "Entertainment Corner with Esther Lapiduss" segments.
The big perk was that she got free tickets to see EVERY SHOW that came through town and since my Dad wasn't around, and a sitter was expensive, I got to be her date.
Once she had to interview Three Dog Night at Three Rivers Stadium. It was a Saturday afternoon concert, and we were walking through all the tie-dye and afros and anti-war posters to get to our seats. The air was thick with an odd burning rope smell I had not known before. We took a seat in a long row. Every unkempt, bell-bottomed college kid took a puff off a funny cigarette then passed it down the line, followed by what looked like a sheet of tiny candy dots on paper. As I reached for the dots, Es politely intercepted them from my grasp then passed the Window Pane LSD and the joint to the teenager on her right, dragging me off in search of more appropriate seatmates. After the show, I recall hearing one of Three Dog Night -- I don't know if it was Three, Dog, or Night, saying how square my mom looked in her MTM pantsuit. But the following week, boy did Es ever look cutting edge in the same outfit as took me to the Civic Arena to see America's most beloved bandleader and TV superstar, Lawrence Welk.
Now, we all know how sappy the Welk Champagne Music Show was. But, that didn't stop me from watching every Sunday night at 7 p.m. I'd like to say that it was the kitsch factor, but as a ten-year-old with my own aspirations for the great white way, I was entranced.
Not in the same way I was watching The Flip Wilson Show or The Smothers Brothers, but The Welk Show beat watching Studio Wrestling, which was the only thing on opposite it.
Whenever Arthur Duncan, the tap dancer, would do a number, or Nancy-Jimmy-Sissy and Bobby would sing one of their rousing quartet renditions of "The Good Old Summertime," I was mesmerized. They were so white. And now they were in my hometown. Off we headed for the Civic Arena, I, sporting my blue Nehru dress with the white stitching around the buttons.
Instead of dope, the Arena reeked of Kielbasa and Aqua Net, and was packed with old Polish couples who had given up their bowling night to attend.
We had great seats -- third row center -- and believe me when I tell you that Larry and the kids put on a hell of a show. For two hours the acts kept coming. Mr. Welk, the dancers, the often-overlooked virtuoso of the ivories, JoAnne Castle, and "Ladies and gentlemanummum, da one ant only-um Myron Florenum on de accordionumm."
Finally the tornado of talent ended, my mother nudged me and we headed backstage to meet Mr. Welk. Not exactly like an all-areas pass to meet David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman, but I was pretty excited.
We made our way through the narrow hall down the cement tunnel then back up to the dressing rooms. We passed Sandy Griffith and Mary Lou Metzger who always wore matching outfits and hairdos and sang "Glow Worm" and "Hello Dolly."
We knocked on the door with the big silver star, and then like magic, Mr. Welk appeared.
He was easily over 75 at the time, but appeared fit and distinguished in a green linen blazer that looked like he had just won the Masters. Esther put her hand out for the perfunctory nice-to-meet-you shake, but instead, Mr. Welk took her hand in his and kissed it. Classy. Then he took my hand and kissed it, too, as my mother introduced me. The gallant Mr. Welk asked, "Oh, Maxime, did jewum, enjoyum, da showumnum?"
"Why, yes, Mr. Welk, I sure did." He looked exactly like he did on TV except up close I could see the giant liver-spots on his hands and the vat of gunk in his couf, which made it look like a plastic helmet. One wrong step and he could fall and break his hair -- it would shatter into pieces like Bonomo Turkish Taffy.
My mom gushed, "I just wanted to stop by and tell you how much we enjoyed the show. I'm really looking forward to interviewing you tomorrow morning for Channel 11."
Mr. Welk, charmed, looked Esther up and down in her fetching pantsuit, took her hand in his again and asked, "Well, why don't you lovely ladies join me back at my hotel suite in a little while-umm-umm and I'll be happy to discuss-um any questions you may have in preparation for the interview-um "
Esther, a little star-struck said that would be fun, and I having never been to the penthouse suite at the de-luxe Chatam Hotel before, thought, "Heck yeah."
A short time later, we were riding the elevator up to the top floor, high above downtown Pittsburgh, as Esther nervously retied her neck scarf and checked her makeup. We knocked on Lawrence's hotel room door, and there he was again. Wow, the room was huge. With a view of all of downtown Pittsburgh. Honestly, seeing it in my mind's eye today, it was like a crappy Ramada Inn, but what did I have to compare it to then?
There was a sitting room, then a little kitchenette area, and way over there, by the big picture window, the balcony and couch and then a whole other room where the bed was. Mr. Welk sauntered over to the mini-fridge and pulled out a can of Mona Loa Macadamia nuts. He grabbed a wooden bowl that lay on the nearby counter, popped the top to the nuts and poured them in to the wooden candy dish. "Here, my dearum," he said to me, "have-a-you effer had-um da macademia nuts-um?"
"No, sir, I replied.
he said, they're a delicious-um, delicacy-um so-you-a- helpum yourself-umum-mum."
And with that, he took Esther's arm and led her toward the dimly lit couch
with a bottle of champagne.
sat in the corner of the kitchenette and stared at the nuts, fascinated.
I'd never seen anything like them. I'd had Planter's cocktail mix but
there wasn't anything like these in there. These guys were big and pasty
lookin'. I picked one up. Oddly smooth.
He poured them each a glass of the bubbly, then sat down pretty close to my mother on the couch. My attention turned back to the bowl. I grabbed a handful of macadamias. They felt funny -- like cold marbles. I popped one in my mouth -- hmmm, salty. I pushed it back and forth from cheek to cheek like a jawbreaker, watching from afar as my mother retrieved her notebook from her purse and began asking Mr. Welk about his tour experience.
I worked the salt off the nut with my tongue and finally bit into it. Now it was oddly sweet. Interesting. It flaked apart in my mouth and I thought of Mr. Welk at home. If I were his kid, I'd be lying by our pool in Hollywood eating these things like popcorn. I casually tossed another into my mouth. Mr. Welk was speaking very softly to my mother. I couldn't hear what he was saying. He moved closer to her on the couch and I placed two more nuts in my cheek like a squirrel.
I tried to imagine how many nuts were in the bowl. I could definitely eat all of them without any problem, but then, that was bad manners and my mom would get mad at me. But Mr. Welk did say to help myself. I didn't think he'd mind. All it looked like he was interested in was kissing my mother's hand. He was doing it again.
I lined all the nuts up on the dinette table and counted them. There were twenty-seven left. Twenty-six. Twenty-five. They were way better than cashews and those were expensive so these must be really expensive. Mr. Welk had his arm around the back of the couch, around my mother. Boy he was touchy-feely. Was that the German custom? I thought all Germans were Nazis. That's what everyone at Temple Sinai always said.
Mr. Welk leaned into my mother to whisper something in her ear.
My mother jumped up off the sofa with a surprised look on her face.
She headed toward me -- flushed and shaken.
I quickly shoveled the nuts back in the bowl. "Come on Maxine, time to go! Say 'thank you' to Mr. Welk."
"Thanks for the macadamia nuts. Nice meeting you," I blurted. Before I could wipe the salt off my hands she yanked one and we flew into the hallway and into the elevator. The doors closed and she crumpled against them.
She was pale and her upper lip was sweating. She seemed mad at me. Or, maybe it was just one of her hot flashes. My mother was quiet for a long moment. "Just don't tell your father what happened, tonight, Maxine, please, he'll just get upset."
I couldn't understand why my mother wouldn't want my father to know that I'd tried macadamia nuts. Oh, yeah. We couldn't afford them and she didn't want to make him feel bad.
day, I heard my mom talking on the phone, telling her friend Vi Soffer
that Lawrence Welk had tried to slip his tongue into her ear then into
her mouth. What??? That's gross! America's wholesome liver-spotted bandleader
was a filthy old letch who had totally come on to my mother! Even more
disturbing was the fact that he probably did that in every town he played.
What, did he think my mother would sleep with him?! With me in the adjacent
kitchenette? Did he think that wasn't totally skeevy and strange? Did
he come on to Nancy and Sissy? The Lennon Sisters? Or just anonymous women
he'd meet on his one-nighters?
God knows Es is insane and a handful, but she did pass along a big gift to me to look at life's oddities as wonderment, to savor the salt and the sweet, and not get too strung out by the flakey.
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