Read an Excerpt
Sidney Bechet and His Jazz Band
Meet Franz Kafka
It was the summer of 1942, I was twenty years old, World War II was raging, and in four months I would be a member of the U.S. armed forces. I spent that last, hot summer at Allaben Acres, an adult summer camp somewhere in the Berkshires. For ten dollars a week, as a member of a resident troupe of performers, I was required to and eagerly did the following:
Tuesday Night Games
I emceed such popular audience-participation games as pass the orange and a half dozen others that I have blotted from memory. I do remember being told that I was "very good at it."
Wednesday Night Campfire
I did a dramatic reading from Richard Wright's play, Native Son. My rendition of the defense attorney's impassioned summation to the jury never failed to garner me a sitting ovation.
Thursday Night Classic Musicales
Accompanied by a full chorus, I sang the baritone solo in George Kleinsinger's and Earl Robinson's "Ballad for Americans" (Paul Robeson's version was far superior). Later that season, I soloed again in Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." The pianist-conductor, Vivian Rifkin, complimented my voice and my ability to sing on-key and in rhythm for many of my solos.
I acted as host for the extraordinary jazz concerts.
I performed in the weekly musical revue, doing comedy sketches and acting as straight man to comedian Bernie Hern. One year later, Bernie acted as best man at my one and only wedding.
The Friday night concerts and the Saturday musical revues were extraordinary for many reasons, the foremost being that they featured the legendary Sidney Bechet and his band. It was unusual for a jazz artist of Sidney Bechet's renown to be performing at a resort as unrenowned as Allaben Acres. Sidney Bechet had just returned from Europe, where he had been widely admired and lauded. A street had been named after him in Paris, and in Antibes a bronze statue was erected in his honor. So why would such an esteemed artist accept so lowly a gig? Well, it was 1943, and Sidney Bechet and his great sidemen were "Negroes," and Negroes were still waiting for their slice of the American pie. The integration of the armed forces and all professional sports, including baseball, football, basketball, tennis, and golf, was still a dream. The management at Allaben Acres, being a progressive lot, offered the jazz icon Sidney Bechet the opportunity to "break the color line" by signing on as band leader and bringing his sidemen to live amongst and perform with white folk, for much less money than they deserved, I'm sure.
All of the cast members, especially jazz aficionados Bernie Hern, scenic designer Paul Petroff, and his assistant, Estelle Lebost, were thrilled to have Sidney Bechet in their midst. Even though I knew little about jazz, their enthusiasm was so contagious that I was thrilled to be among people who seemed to know what to be thrilled about. It was their appreciation of the Arts that led to my involvement in introducing Franz Kafka to Sidney Bechet and his jazz band. Here now is how it came to pass:
It was a dark, humid, Thursday-the cast was onstage in the casino rehearsing for our Saturday night revue. We had just finished staging the song "Oh, You Can't Make Love in a Bunk for Eight," a comedy number written by Lewis Allan (a.k.a. Abel Meeropol, the composer of "Strange Fruit"), when the black, roiling clouds that had been threatening to explode all morning exploded. Lightning and thunder heralded the torrent of water that fell from the sky and crashed onto our casino roof, the dining room, and the dozens of roofs that housed the two hundred guests.
Herewith is an exchange that led to this fond remembrance.
"What's for lunch today?" someone asked.
"Meat loaf!" someone else shouted above a thunderclap.
"I love meat loaf," I think I said, "but not enough to risk getting my ass singed by a lightning bolt."
"Summer storms usually don't last too long," the amateur weatherman among us suggested. "It'll let up."
"Yeah," an optimist concurred, "it's one of them cloudbursts that unbursts itself fast."
We soon learned that it was not "one of them cloudbursts" but a cloudburst of biblical proportions.
r"Any of you cats know how to build an ark?" one of the musicians quipped.
After fifteen minutes of steady downpour, it was apparent that the heavy rain was not only not letting up but coming down harder and harder.
"Hey, I got an idea," I distinctly remember Paul Petroff saying, "I got this great book, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka."
"It's sensational," Bernie concurred.
"Did you read it?" Paul asked.
"I gave it to you!"
"Oh, that's right, you said it was a classic! I just started it," Paul continued excitedly, "and it's a gas! Bernie, while we're waiting for the storm to pass, why don't you read it to us?"
"Good idea, but Carl's the actor, let him read it," Bernie suggested, "he's got better diction."
"Right! Carl, you're on!" Paul announced, "C'mon, we'll go to my room!"
Spurred by Paul's enthusiasm and lacking anything better to do, like lemmings, Bernie, Estelle, Sidney Bechet, trumpet player Bill Goodwin, trombonist Sandy Williams, two other members of the esteemed Bechet band, and I followed Paul and shoehorned ourselves into his bedroom. Think stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' movie A Night at the Opera and you'll have a picture of how cramped the quarters were.
Paul Petroff, a most creative artist, lived backstage in a reclaimed storage room. To relieve the claustrophobia he must have felt sleeping in a dollhouse-sized bedroom, Paul had painted a blue-skied mural on the wails and, with phosphorescent paint, had created a star-studded ceiling. A single bed, an end table, a ratty club chair, and a jerry-built drawing board took up four-fifths of the floor space. Paul deferentially offered Sidney Bechet the stuffed club chair and bade his other guests to "plop down anywhere!" which they did-on the bed, on the floor, and on the wooden folding chairs our host dragged into the room. Paul then placed a stool at the foot of the bed and said, "Sit!"
"Here," he said, handing me a slim book, "you're on!"
"Remember, Kafka is a genius," Bernie warned, "so read with expression."
Paul and Bernie were respectively seven and eight years older than I. I so admired their sophistication, knowledge, and intellect that I would do anything to please them. Hungry for their approval, I was not sure that my sight-reading Kafka's classic was the way to get it, mindful that my reading the book badly could reflect negatively on Bernie and Paul's literary judgment and my reputation as an actor. I scanned the first few sentences and then looked at the faces of my querulous audience. They seemed to have as little faith in me as I should have had in myself. So, unarmed, unprepared, and for some reason, undaunted, I summoned up my best stage diction and began to read.
"'The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, and transferred into a monstrous vermin.'"
"Into a what?" Sandy Williams interrupted, wincing.
"A monstrous vermin," Bechet explained, "that's a big rat!"
"I know what vermin is, but how did this Samsa guy turn into a monstrous rat?"
"Or a big cockroach-roaches are also vermin," Bernie Hern volunteered.
"Is that what the guy turned into?"
"If you let the man read," suggested the quiet-mannered trumpet player Bill Goodwin, "maybe we'll find out."
That opening sentence hooked everyone, including me. From the first few pages we learned that Gregor Samsa was a fabric salesman who one morning found that he was unable to turn over and get out of bed. He would be late for work, because his back had become "a hard shell of armor" and his two legs had been replaced by "many wretchedly thin legs" that "danced helplessly before his eyes." Subsequently, we learned of his painful attempts to roll off the bed and onto the floor, and of his unsuccessful tries at manipulating his many skinny legs in climbing up the side of a wooden wardrobe. At this point we all agreed that Gregor had metamorphosed into a cockroach who was trying to convince his parents and boss through his locked bedroom door that he was fine, even though he was late for work and his voice sounded strange, like "an animal voice."
As the bizarre tale of a man turning into a giant cockroach unfolded, the rapt attention of my captive audience was often disturbed by someone needing clarification.
"Hold on, hold on," I recall Sandy Williams, calling out, "read that part again-where he climbed up the wall to that picture of a lady-and squeezed himself against the glass...."
I read it again, and he shook his head.
"What's he got on those weird little legs," he asked, "some kind of stickum, or little suction cups?"
"Let the man read!" Bechet said gently.
Sandy allowed me to read a bit but jumped when I got to the part where Mr. Samsa tried to get his son out of the room by throwing little red apples at him.
"Whoa, did you just say," he asked in disgust, "that one of them apples lodged in roachman's back?"
"How the hell," he asked, disbelievingly, "could an apple get stuck in his back? What kind of back does that cockroach have?"
"Maybe he got quills like a porcupine," Sidney Bechet suggested.
"Sidney, did you hear Carl read anything about quills?" Sandy argued. "I didn't."
I suggested that if I read on we might get some useful information about his back. In Chapter Three, we did-we learned that the imbedded apple was, "a serious injury from which he suffered for over a month" and "since no one had the nerve to remove the apple, it stayed lodged in his flesh."
"Lodged in his flesh!" Sandy shouted, "Not on his quills!"
"Rotting there for a month!" Bechet added, "pretty damned disgusting!"
A lively discussion ensued, and all contributed.
"Howd'ya like to have a rotten apple festering in your back?"
"I wouldn't want a rotten apple festering anywhere in my body."
"How about a festering peach on your butt?"
"Hey, you're all making me nauseous!"
Not wanting to spoil anybody's appetite for lunch, I suggested that I stop reading.
"Over my dead body," Sandy Williams threatened, "I gotta know what happens to the cockroach-man."
"Carl, you just keep reading!" Bechet ordered.
"There are more than forty pages to go," I said, "and the rain seems to be letting up."
"Let it let up!" Sandy argued, "You ain't goin' nowhere till you finish this muthuh!"
"We may miss lunch," I warned.
"If you don't start readin'," Bechet warned, "we'll miss dinner, too."
I had never had a more attentive or appreciative audience in my young career. I read the last half of the book with a feeling of pride and empowerment. Until that afternoon, I had no idea that I could sight-read a whole novel without making any major gaffes. From the applause and the continuing discussion, I felt that I had done very well-but maybe not. That was sixty years ago and until recently, when the president of New Millenium Audio asked me if I would like to record A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, no one had asked me to read another book. Unlike Paul Petroff, who only asked me to read that one book, New Millenium Audio has since contracted with me to do a half dozen of Mr. Twain's great works. To be honest, though, Paul Petroff has done more to make my life richer and fuller than any audio company ever could. Besides suggesting I read The Metamorphosis aloud, Paul had earlier, at one fateful Saturday night dance, told me about his new, late-arriving, shapely brunette assistant, Estelle Lebost. His exact words were, "Be nice to her, ask her to dance!" I did as I was told-I asked her to dance, and I was nice to her all that summer. That was fifty-nine years ago, and I am still being nice to her, as she is to me.
The Phar-Reaching Phart
I have had many heightened moments in my life, some pleasant, some painful. This is one of the painful ones. I am aware that the spelling of the word phart is not the commonly accepted one. I chose it to avoid offending the more gentle of my gentle readers.
I was born in apartment number 27 of a Bronx apartment building on the corner of Belmont Avenue and 179th Street. In 1922, my mother, like most immigrant women, chose to give birth at home where she could be sure that the child she breast-fed and smothered with love would be of her and her husband's blood and not some total stranger's. Horror stories of babies being switched at birth by careless nurses in overcrowded wards were too rampant to ignore. Home delivery, of course, posed some dangers, but my parents were comforted by the knowledge that three years earlier my mother had successfully delivered my brother, Charlie, by the same Dr. Neuschatz in that same apartment and in that same bed. Charlie, in effect, was my stalking horse, and in the years to come, he continued to be that for me.
I spent my kindergarten and first-grade years attending the ancient, overcrowded Public School 57, which was located two blocks away between Belmont and Crotona Avenues. By the time I was ready to enter the third grade, the construction of a new school, just a scant three hundred yards from my home, was completed, and I became one of the first pupils to attend RS. 92.
Before I entered kindergarten, I was considered a bright child simply because my father, whom my mother called Irving and I called Papa, took the time to teach me how to print my full name, recite the alphabet, and fill a page with numbers from one to a hundred. For appearing to be gifted, I was invited to skip half of first grade and go right to second grade. My parents proudly accepted the invitation. This decision and a later one that sent me to rapid-advance classes at Junior High School 45, by which I gained a full year, had a profound effect on me.
I graduated from Evander Childs High School in June of '38 at the age of sixteen. Being a year and a half younger and light-years less mature than my sexually adventurous peers made me feel like an outsider, a feeling that still dogs me. But hey, who's complaining! Being an "outsider" has given me the quiet time to ponder ways to behave like an "insider," which I think I have mastered.
My first day at P.S. 92 was a tramatic one. That morning, I awoke with a slight nausea and no appetite.
Copyright © 2003 by Carl Reiner