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My father was a very difficult laugh. Adults found him very funny. But his children had a tough time cracking him up. One of my strongest childhood impressions is falling off of my chair at the dinner table while doing a Jimmy Cagney impression. I hit my head very hard on the metal foot of the table leg, and it hurt terribly. But when I saw my father laughing, I laughed while crying at the same time. I guess that was some kind of beginning.
My father, Edward, had nine kids: Edward; one year later, Brian; two years later, Nancy; two years after that, Peggy; one year later, Billy; two years later, Laura; four years later, Andrew; two years later, John; four years later, Joel. In those gaps were three children lost in pregnancy, including a set of twins. Rest in peace, little Murrays.
My mother, Lucille, bore the nine children, had those eleven pregnancies, and outlived my father by twenty-one years. Late in her life she told me that having babies into her middle age had kept her young.
As a young man, I thought that my father had been responsible for any sense of humor that I inherited and that it passed through him from my grandfather, who owned a bow tie that lit up, which he used very tastefully.
My siblings pointed out to me later, "You're just doing Mom."
This was so shocking all I could think was . . . "You mean my father was not my mother?"
Unless their father was a drunk or a brute, boys often don't think to take after their mother. Until it's too late. Anyway, all of the kids ended up "doing Mom." There are four of us who've tried show business. Five, if you insist on counting my sister the nun, who does liturgical dance. To date, she's the only one insisting that she's in the business. I will include a liturgical dancer in show business the day that one of them gets an encore . . . the day that I hear . . .
"More! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, more! We are not getting off of our knees until you come on back out of the sacristy and give us just one more!"
The proof is, you could not be doing my Mom and be doing liturgical dance. It's one or the other.
The moment of actual mother and child comic union came only after Brian and I had made it in show business to the tune of buying a new furnace for the house. This somehow made us legitand then some. She clutched the entertainment industry to her success-breeding breast as time warped, and life now jumped off the pages of Photoplay magazine. She was an insider, a major Hollywood player, and an authority on all things entertainment. And like a player, very, very vulnerable.
The show business windfall had made possible a summer lake cottage rental, just over the Wisconsin state line. I'd called her from New York.
"Sounds nice. Oh, nuts, that's probably too far to drive."
"What's too far to drive, Billy?"
"Well, it's up above Rhinelander. It's a place called the Showboat. It's a bit of a hump, but it is an incredible show to see. An amazing show. I guess you would probably call it a variety show? And they're all people who live up there, and they do the show up in the north woods. It's the only place I've ever seen them. I mean, this a show you would never see in New York. Ever. You have to go there to see it."
Well, Lucille bit like a spring muskie. I felt something on the line, and I thought it might be big. But it was a week before I reeled the whole story into the boat. Let me tell you about the show at the Showboat.
A beautiful horseshoe-shaped room, windows framing a gorgeous lake. Photos of the great Milwaukee Braves. An offstage voice introduces our emcee, who turns out to be the offstage voice. He bounces on, almost into your lap. The tables are that close to the stage. Unlike most of the men in the north woods, he wears high zippered patent leather boots, a green lamé jump suit, and a blond wig.
And we're off. He sings. He talks about how much he loves the fresh air up here, and about the Liberace memorial museum in his parents' home near Madison. Then . . . he brings on the other acts.
Joe and Rita Buck. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Joe and Rita Buck." Most of the audience orders another draft. They are out for a long evening of entertainment. Joe sits and plays electric accordion. Rita stands, with the string bass. When they do a very slow and dramatic "Scarlet Ribbons," you could hear a tray drop.
Next there is a lady with a dog act, who cannot control the dogsfour of them. And you sit about six feet away from her as she struggles, using a stick and a whistle, to catch her dogs up to the recorded music.
A grandfather and son come up and play spoons. A fanfare brings up a bartender showing off the catch of the day. The largest fish pulled out of the lake today. A girl dressed in a sari dances to "Song of India." She exits to scant applause, and you see how tough it is for a liturgical dancer to make it.
Eventually, our emcee returns and thanks and pays tribute to an incredible man who had believed in him, shored him up against the monsters, taught him what love is. And given him someone to emulate. That man is here tonight, and would he stand, please?
Reverend James Something-or-other looked like guys who've been shot by a sniperhe looked alive, but you knew he was dead. There wasn't a walleye in the place as he jerked to full height and melted back into his chair.
No act could follow that, but the owner, Carl Marty, could. Checks were being settled as he took the stage with his Saint Bernard, Bernice. Carl may have been completely bombed, I couldn't say for sure. (I didn't know what "drunk" was until later on in life, the night my friend John Thompson made me his Tom Collins and we drove around Reno in a convertible VW bug.)
Uncertain as I was, Carl Marty did speak at length while cigarette after cigarette ashed down his turtleneck. He told the stories of Bernice's bravery in rescuing injured woodland creaturesbirds, squirrels, rabbits, deer, and chipmunk. At his feet, unmoving, lay Bernice, looking exhausted from her many sallies, or perhaps dead. Nonetheless, incapable of getting Carl off the stage. Finally, voices from the room began chiming in.
"You got that right, Carl."
"No, Carl, there aren't many animals unafraid of the badger."
"God bless you, and may God bless Bernice."
"There'll never be another like her."
"Can we all go home now?"
It was Laura who finally told me what happened. She was the only one Mom could get to go with her. They had driven like madmen to get there.
"Billy said it was going to be a hump."
I love this vision of those two little women barreling down roads simply called Highway X or Highway GG. When night falls, guided only by the aurora borealis, driving deeper and deeper into the woods like Ahmet Ertegun looking for Robert Johnson.
They arrived just as it started. It took them about five minutes.
"Billy, we had to drop our silverware on the floor so we could hide our heads underneath the table."
"Oh, good, you found it. I wasn't sure you would."
At legal speed, it was a long ride back to the lake cottage. Plenty of time to absorb the show. Reflect. Fathom the depth of family. And after, dispense a serving so that all may be satisfied.
"How was the show?"
"Was it good? Describe."
"Astonishing. He didn't, it was . . . he really didn't do it justice."
"He didn't. We really wished you had come. We wanted to call, but there was a man who wouldn't get off the pay phone."
"It was that good?"
"And tomorrow night is their last show."
"I would certainly want to go again."
"Is it sold out?"
No, as a matter of fact, it wouldn't be sold out. All of those who failed to make last night's show would be able to get seats close to the stage but not until after an incredible hump. Once again, at speeds over ninety miles an hour, to arrive just in time for a breathless offstage voice to introduce our breathless emcee.
I'm not much of a practical joker. I'm afraid to be. Because although I can dish it out, I'm not sure I can take it. But it felt good to truly harpoon my mother. And she made me proud when she pulled the others under with her. There were more. And it was merrier. I had never seen her do that before, and it had to mean something. I think it meant now that I was finally an adult, she could finally act like a child.