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RETRO: Middle School Awakenings ~~ August 1971

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with host Dick Cavett on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW, 1971.

It’s before midnight and business is slow at the New Corsica Restaurant, so Kev’s off work early and he’s surprised we’re all up and sitting there, gathered around the tube. He works really hard as a busboy on weekend nights. I’m glad he’s home early. When my big brother’s around, I always feel safer somehow.

But no­body’s really watching TV ’cause we’ve been talking with Sister Bernadette about what happened at Kent State back in May of 1970. That was 15 months earlier, when I was finishing Fifth Grade, yet I don’t recall hearing about the “Four Dead in Ohio” that Colleen says she knows about from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Ohio” and Sister Bernadette (she’s Laura’s favorite teacher at St. Denis and she’s a really young nun and not only does she enjoy her drinks with the Mom and Dad, but, she’s wearing a typical skirt and blouse like a secretary or some office worker; and it’s not a nun-like black-and-white combo; no headwear and a pretty-colored skirt and top and the truth is she’s a beautiful woman)  . . . well, Sister Bernadette says that she’s reading novelist James Michener’s big new book about the killing of the Kent State students by National Guardsmen in 1970, and Dad says he’d like to read that book too. Now that I’m starting Seventh Grade, I’ve noticed how much Dad and the Mom like to read.

James Michener’s KENT STATE: WHAT HAPPENED AND WHY

I tried to figure how it’s possible that I didn’t hear about Kent State when it happened, but before I can ask any questions Kev returns and says there’s a Marx Brothers movie starting at midnight. We start to watch and twenty minutes into The Big Store, everyone is laughing like crazy. And I’m falling in love with Harpo Marx.

It’s all so different from Laurel and Hardy, and though I still love to see Stan and Ollie later on Sunday afternoons, I also notice right away how the Marx Brothers do everything faster and funnier. Their talking is very speedy and Dad gets the biggest kick out of Groucho’s one-liners and his frantic eyebrows and constant flirting. Colleen and Sister

Bernadette thinks Chico is a riot with his accent and his wacky way of twisting words all around, and then there’s his piano-playing and Kev says he really could play and Dad says that’s right ’cause way back in the Forties, whenever the Marx Brothers weren’t making movies, Chico had a band that played on the radio and even came to some theaters in Chicago and I ask if Dad can actually remember all that and he says: “ . . . I was your age by then.” And I get a real charge out of his quick remark about how Big Bands used to perform “Live!” shows before the films were shown at the Hi-Way Theater on Western Avenue. Dad was at the Hi-Way when the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced.

What I see right away by my careful watching is that total nuttiness is what they’re all about; even though The Big Store also features this Tony Martin singer-guy. Now my Mom and Dad grin and shake their heads, saying “Remember Tony Martin?!” Yet it’s obvious this guy isn’t any Sinatra-style heavyweight, and from Dad’s tone I get that Tony Martin was what Dad calls a flash-in-the-pan or what Kev calls a one-hit wonder. For me, the film is dull when this guy sings. Still, I don’t care ’cause soon enough Harpo is running wild again, and for sure I’m crazy in love with him.

I figure it’s because Harpo is mute that he can say anything by using his body, his horn, his face and all its expressions, plus his whistles and smiles and eyes and all. This gets me way down deep ’cause I’ve never before seen a funnyman like this, and then there’s Harpo’s costume, which really drives me into hysterics: those wild curls for hair and his smashed top-hat and the polka-dot tie with the sloppy old shirt and its bold, corny pattern; the oversized trench-coat and the Chaplin-like shoes, plus a belt hanging off all over the place.

Just seeing him is funny; watching him wreak havoc in a department store is like every fantasy come to life: he runs free, he gets chased, he makes faces, fakes this, does that. Now all around me everyone’s laughter is harder and more frequent when Harpo is the red-hot center of attention.

The Marx Brothers – Harpo, Groucho, and Chico (left to right) – in a still from THE BIG STORE.

Then it’s after 1:30 in the morning when the movie starts to wind down and you can tell ’cause the love-story stuff with Tony Martin and his old songs gives it away . . . and it’s probably the latest I’ve ever stayed up with the Mom and Dad and Kev and Colleen all there, and even Sister Bernadette is still laughing it up, with one last drink to finish, and I’ve counted four drinks for her but I don’t think she’s drunk. I wonder what the older nuns at St. Denis might think of her staying out so late at some­body’s house on a Friday night with drinks and all. But first off she was Laura’s homeroom teacher, and second, she and the Mom have been great friends since the last round of Parent-Teacher Conferences, and third, it’s the weekend.

They’re always exchanging books. They share. Once in a while I see what they’re trading and it’s nothing lightweight. Sister Bernadette gave the Mom a paperback titled The Bad Popes, and the Mom lent Sister Bernadette her new hardcover copy of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. (I don’t get that title yet.)

I think I’m in love with Sister Bernadette. Already I can pour her a perfect drink. I know I’m in love with Harpo and his frantic-antics; it’s great when Kev says that Ch. 9 is gonna run a Marx Brothers movie once-per-weekend and usually late on a Friday night and he says that this is for sure ’cause there was something about it in the latest TV Guide.

THE BIG STORE (1941) poster

Even better is one month later, when after teasing me for a while about having some good news to share, Colleen Marie says no way-no way now can I just go nuts and yell “All RIGHT!!!” the way I always do.

And then she says that her friend Eileen Manion told her John and Yoko are gonna be on The Dick Cavett Show and they’ll be interviewed for two whole nights. I just about leap out the kitchen window. It’s a TV first, and later in the month, sure enough there’s some article in the paper about it and I worry that Dad won’t allow me to watch the interview because it’s on so late and also ’cause it’s John and he’s more controversial than ever. The Beatles have split, but John’s protesting everything.

All that matters is that I get to stay up and watch both nights of The Dick Cavett Show and it all works out, ’cause even though Dad’s in town when it broadcasts and all, I’m in front of the tube along with Colleen Marie and Kev and the Mom and even Dad: he says he wants to listen and learn, and I know that he knows that John has become more and more a new leader in the anti-war Movement and while some think that “Give Peace a Chance” was his best anthem, the new one called “Power to the People” is getting so much radio airplay you’d think it was as good as “Come Together.” I know it’s not, and actually I’m disappointed after buying the 45-single of “Power to the People” at the Motorola shop, ’cause first of all it’s not John at his best and also because he let Yoko freak out on the B-side with one of her howlings.

The two nights of interviews with Lennon and Cavett are fascinating to me: John talks about everything from the Shea Stadium concerts (I didn’t know there’d been more than one) to the Beatles’ break-up, but you can see he’s trying all the time to get out of the past into time present, and Cavett keeps asking questions in the past tense and Lennon keeps pulling the discussion up to the present and in between lengthy dialogues there are some songs performed. I decide that maybe we should also adopt Dick Cavett, along with Sister Bernadette. Pretty soon, staying up later on school nights is so cool. Kev starts a new thing where, at the dinner table each evening, he recites the TV Guide’s list about who will appear that night on The Dick Cavett Show.

Thanks to this new routine, I see everyone from Benny Goodman to Sly and the Family Stone, and then on one crazy night there’s a wildfire argument between the writers Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer – it’s like a boxing match with Dick Cavett as the referee. The craziest thing is that an elderly lady guest wearing white gloves (she’s also a writer, much older than Mailer, Vidal, and Cavett) delivers the knockout punch.

Watch Vidal and Mailer feud while in conversation with writer Janet Flanner and Dick Cavett:

(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. This piece is adapted from his memoir-in-progress: It Don’t Come Easy ~ A Chicago Boyhood in the Shadow of the Sixties. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. In April 2019, Heliotrope Books will publish his new book – the first-ever biography of author Mario Puzo. It’s called Ace of Hearts ~ The Writer’s Quest of Mario Puzo.)

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