Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Thoughts of Yesteryear
The following story was part of a Volunteer Profile of the Month for January 2004 for "The Mighty Oak", a monthly newsletter of the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center. The newsletter wrote, "Mary and her husband Art moved here in 1998. Art saw a newspaper ad for needed home delivered meal drivers and wanted to volunteer. Mary decided to be his navigator, so off they went to see the person in charge. They have been delivering meals ever since. She's been teaching tap dance at the Center since '99. Here is her story:"
In retrospect, I had the most interesting and exciting childhood because of my parents, although at the time, they were just Mom and Dad.
My father was an accomplished classical musician who had studied in Mexico City and decided to find his fortune in New York City in a time we now know as the Roaring Twenties -- the Jazz era. He quickly had to adjust from playing Bach, Liszt, and Chopin and replaced it with the 12th Street Rag, Sheik of Araby, Charleston, etc. No jobs were available, so he joined the U.S. Army, was placed in Special Services (even played at the White House), and was offered a career if he became an American citizen. He declined the offer, wanted to see the world (Australia in particular), spent some time in Cicero, IL after his stint in the military, and headed for California.
My mother was reared in Tucson, studied music at the University of Arizona, and decided to come to Los Angeles where a brother was already here, to become a piano teacher.
Inevitably the two met in L.A. which in the early 20's was a mecca of the theater. Vaudeville was big in those days -- the only difference was that Spanish was the language. It was the counterpart of American vaudeville with only the best of the musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, and even recitations by the best actors. Work was plentiful and exciting, and the two musicians were married in 1922.
Then, I came along the next year, followed by six more siblings in the next nine years. Mother always loved the theater, and soon I was being taught to sing and dance. There were three theaters on Main Street where Spanish language movies were shown and vaudeville also flourished. I was six years old when I first performed onstage, but I had no fear because my father played in the orchestra pit and Mother was in the wings. I can still see that huge spotlight and the blackness of the audience that I knew was there because of the laughter if I did a comedic number, or the sniffles if I did a heart wrenching tango. Mother even taught me some off-color songs. I had no idea what I was singing as long as the audience liked it. If there were contests for non-pros, I usually won 1st place!
Then came the stock market crash of 1929. I still remember the crowds gathered around the bank in our neighborhood. The Depression hit hard, especially for those in show business. Somehow, Mother managed from the few jobs Dad was able to get. Vaudeville lived for awhile, but started to die during the early 30s. Remember, we now had talking movies. During the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Mother entered my sister and me in a talent contest sponsored by the May Company. I don't remember any money prize, but we were both entitled to a complete physical exam. We won 1st place, and received an engraved silver cup. Once during one of these "contests", I remember getting a disappointing 2nd place with a prize of $5.00, which probably fed the family for a week. First place went to a young violin virtuoso! We had no carfare for the trip back home.
Mother, sister, and I trouped around Southern California putting on shows with circus people -- just any group of folks in order to make a few bucks. In a desperate move to earn more money, Dad accepted a job offer in the International Section of Shanghai, China for a year or so. In the meantime, Mom did what she knew best. In the days before the invention of CDs, cassettes, or portable phonographs, dance teachers needed piano players to conduct classes. Since there was always a piano in our home, one ballet/Spanish teacher had students come to our home for lessons. I just watched them, and soon picked up what the students paid for. A tap dance teacher needed a pianist, and the trade-off was free tap lessons for me. By the time I was thirteen, I was tired of the constant traveling on old cars, always working on weekends just to make a couple of extra dollars. I longed to be like all the other teens I knew.
Dad finally came home on the last ship in 1936, a few days before Shanghai was bombed by the Japanese. Things finally got better as he always had gigs at fine hotels such as the Coconut Grove. Eventually, he landed steady work at the two nightclubs on Olvera Street in Los Angeles: La Golondrina and the Paseo Cafe, where he worked until his retirement.
I finished high school, met and married Arthur (now 62 years of matrimony and going strong) during the days of high anticipation of better times for the Depression kids. We started our family, and then came December 7, 1941! We had two sons when Arthur was drafted into the Navy. Fortunately for us, he was sent to so many schools that by the time he was to be sent overseas as a radioman/gunner on a torpedo bomber, Japan had surrendered after having sustained large casualty numbers. So, we began the struggle to start anew after the war. We somehow managed without complaining since everybody else was adjusting to the hopeful prosperity that lay ahead. We had three more sons, I eventually had to find work for additional income, and was lucky enough to land a job (swingshift, ugh, with kids ranging from 1 to 10 years). I started at the bottom rung, eventually became an executive secretary to the regional manager of a large trucking firm, and stayed employed at that company for 32 years. I continued working until I was 65, retired, and joined a tap class at my local Community Center. Here I was again, performing in recitals that I had done so long ago.
As a young girl, I fell in love with American music. I recall walking past a house that had a radio -- we didn't have one in those days -- and remembered hearing Bing Crosby sing, "Did you ever see a dream walking?" And of course, during my teen years, didn't we have the most wonderful music? It was the Swing Era!!! Once all her kids were grown and gone from home, Mother (always the resourceful person she was) studied hard, passed the tests, and became a successful real estate broker. During the trying times when Dad was in China, we almost lost our home. Some friendly, anonymous person reported our situation to the local welfare agency. We received welfare -- money, food, clothes -- until Dad came home and it wasn't needed anymore. When she was able to (after starting her new career), she checked the family account and repaid IN FULL every cent that L.A. County had given us when it was needed. I'm always proud to mention that!
How many of us have ever wondered, "what if" something different had occurred on our lives? Me too! When I was 9 or 10, Mother entered me in yet ANOTHER contest. The prize was a scholarship to a dance studio in Hollywood. Could it have been the Meglin Studios, from which so many child move actors trained? I recall a large upstairs studio, somewhere on Broadway. There were about twenty other kids competing, with only a pianist, a drummer, and a judge in the room. All we had to do was walk, skip, or hop in a circle, but had to be quick to adjust to a change in tempo. Well, guess who won the scholarship? The dance studio was in Hollywood, we lived in East L.A., and I couldn't go to the dance studio alone. Mom and I always used street car transportation. I remember the red street cars that were open in the center, and how glamorous and new everything looked in Hollywood back then. When we came home, I was told that we could not afford the fare, so I had to drop out. Sometimes I think about that, but not too often.
At this time in my life, I would not change anything, except for the tragedies of wars we've had to endure, but over which we have no control. My generation made so many sacrifices during WW2, and our country is still in another war??? I am proud of our sons, they are all college grads, and the combined five have given us 10 grandchildren and 2 greats. In these last years, Arthur and I are so lucky to be in comparatively good health, enjoy golf, and are so happy to live in the Santa Clarity Valley since 1998. We live in Friendly Valley which offers so much to its residents, and enjoy their Little Theater where we both participate in productions. I am especially grateful to the Senior Center for allowing me to teach tap dance and pass on to others what little I know. I'll continue to do it until I'm not physically able.
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for those great genes you passed on to me.
Mary M. Alvidrez