8 acts 8.
George Savalas. The Drifters. Donna Jean Young. The Marvelettes. Tiny Tim. Loretta Long. The Ink Spots. The Serendipity Singers. For 16 nights the order of appearance of the Vaudeville '80 tour never varied. Neither did the act. Nor the duration. "One hour, 50 minutes, 47 seconds -- counting applause," the tour boss said coldly.
Quick hits. From city to city, high school gyms and small theaters, climbing on the bronco of nostalgia and holding on, hoping against hope that someone important will notice and rescue you from this obilivion. Every day's an endless stream of cigarettes and magazines/And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories.
The 16th and last city on the tour was Washington. The 16th and last hall was McKinley High School in Northeast. The bus, the same bus that started in New York and went to Ohio and then through Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, pulled to a stop about 30 minutes before showtime on Sunday and the company climbed down into a cool, clear night for the 16th and last time, and into a high school auditorium where maybe 50 people were gathered. Looking out at the road rushing under the wheels/I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels.
All of them had known better. Tiny Tim had knwon the highest heights, the headline life, how many holes it takes to fill The Albert Hall, but the higher you climb on the ladder, he says, the more your bottom shows. nowhere on the dressing rooms had they hung a star. Dressing rooms? The women changed in the nurse's office, and the men shared classrooms. Tiny Tim shared one with Savalas, the tour's emcee, whose major talent is that he has a famous brother. On the door, Tim's first name was spelled "Tiney." From McKinley High you don't go to Casear's Palace.From McKinley High you go to the bus station.
Charlie Thomas is thoroughly aware of the irony when he says, "I'm a Drifter." He joined the group in the early '50s when the original lead singer, Clyde McPhatter, left for the Army, and he was there, with Ben E. King through "This Magic Moment," "There Goes My Baby" and Save the Last Dance for Me" and after King himself left for "On Broadway," "Up on the Roof" and "Under the Boardwalk." Twenty million singles. Think of it.
Charlie Thomas was 16 when he became a Drifter.
"I made the big money," he says.
Of course, the big money then was $100 a week. But to a teen-ager who started out singing at the Howard Theatre on 7th and T and then went north to follow the dream on the streets of what he proudly calls "Harlem . . . Uptown, U.s.a. . . . The Jungle," $100 a week was the ultimate, fatback and pan gravy.
"A lot of money. Pretty girls. And a convertible. A con-ver-ti-ble," he says, rolling his head as if he were some young colt romping through a pasture of clover. "Man, you couldn't tell me NOTHING."
Charle Thomas is 43 now.
Still on the road.
"Let's say it's more fun than an eight-hour job," he says. And then the smile goes cold and he lowers his eyes. "This is all I know how to do best. I been dong this since I'm 16. Look, I don't like sitting in no welfare office. I'm a drifter. That stands for something."
The last hit was 14 years ago.
"It's been a while," he says. "Been a while. We keep putting 'em out there, but they haven't been biting. We're gonna get back on top. And we're gonna make it together." He sweeps his arms out to encompass the three other members of the group who are changing now into the pink sports-jackets and purple pants and shirts for the stage. "When The Beatles came over people figured that The Drifters would change, cause we were really hot then. But we didn't. We never changed. We shouldn't now."
No apoligies. No regrets. Not even now. Not even here.
"Like this tour, man it's beatiful," he says. "You get together with The Marvelettes, with stars like George Savalas and Tiny Tim. Fabulous. Just like they say, man, there's no business like show business. I'm working every day, man; every day."
There is a knock on the door, and someone yells, "Ten minutes."
The Drifters are going to open the show with their standard medley. The last acts of the countdown begin. Applying theatrical makeup. Dousing their faces with cologne.
Just before they leave the classroom two women come in to get their picture taken with Charlie Thomas. He puts an arm around each and brings them close. He is beaming.
"Make a sandwich out of me."
"Forgive my rudeness," Tiny Tim explains as he remains seated. "Varicose veins."
There is no way to be sure of his age, but he looks well into his 50s now. His head is enoromous, the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, and he has blimped up to far more than 200 pounds. He is wearing a strange, cartoon suit, and for some inexplicable reason only the front portion of his hair is reddened -- the color of iodine -- with hanna rinse. As always, he is already in his makeup, carrying his shopping bag, and he is lightly strumming his ukelele as The Drifters go into "On Broadway."
He has been perceived as a geek for so many years that you no longer even pay attention to the weirdness that attaches itself to him like moss.
"Can't complain," he says, cheerily. "As long as I can pay the rent."
His voice is deeper than you might imagine. So are his thoughts.
"John Lennon," he says shaking his head in sadness. "Oh, I didn't know him, but I saw him about a month ago in New York. We passed on the street. hWe looked at each other. He didn't say anything . . . oh, I've put on quite a bit of weight -- maybe he didn't recognize me."
You let it be.
"Yes, well, I've been down, been up, now I'm down again," he says, offering a capsule of his life as if it were a dime. "As long as I'm living I praise the Lord every day. But yes, at the top it was fantastic, Superb. iBeyond words. The things people offer you. Let me tell you, when I was playing in Los Angeles there was this restaruant, a fine rstaurant, Tana's in Hollywood. You spell it T-A-N-A, and every night they sent food to me. iMy, my, maybe $50 worth a night. Meals to my room. Never charged me. Yes, I went to parties with Warren Beatty and Tuesday Weld; I met Groucho Marx and Edward G. Robinson. I worked on 'Laugh-In' with Goldie Hawn when she first started, and now she's bigger than me. Oh, it was fantastic. I don't know. I don't know. I sometimes ask myself whether it's better to have made it and slid down or never to have made it at all? It's horrible when you slide. I thank Jesus Christ for all his blessings. I could have gone into the pits."
He stops for a moment, to think. He tugs at his hair.
This is serious.
"I think it depends on if you're spiritually adjusted," he says. "For me, I think it was better to have made it once."
He hasn't been big for 10 years now, not since Miss Vicki left him. Not even semi-big. But someone like Tiny Tim, an enduring curiosity, will always find work. He's spent the last nine years on tours like these, which may be exactly where he belongs. He has a philiosphical view of his situation. "It's like when a baseball player has to go down to the minors," he says. "But it's all part of life."
There is a dream.
There's always a dream.
In Tiny Tim's case it has three parts. Win an Academy Award. Get a No. 1 record. Discover the next Elvis Presley.
"Or the next John Lennon."
His path, as always, will be the old songs, the dog-whine falsetto he uses on "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." He'll never bail out on his tademark. "You never bite the hand that feeds you," he says. "As long as people want to hear it, I'll never get tired of singing it."
It is almost his turn to perform now. Time for one last question.
Can he make it again?
There isn't the slightest hesitation in his voice. "Oh yes. Absolutely," he says. Then, turning back as he heads for the stage again, he says, "And if I never make it again, I praise the Lord it happened once."
The Ink Spots had already been together for 10 years when Joe Boatner joined the group in 1952; they had already established their sound with songs like "Java Jive" and "If I Didn't Care"; they had already come to call the road their home. "I'm the closest you get to an original," Boatner says, his bass voice so deep and rich it seems to start in a gold mine. "All the ones who started it are dead."
Boatner is 64 now. There is gray in his hair, and as Jerry Jeff Walker would say, "He looks to be the eyes of age." But as he steps into his white performing suit for what surely must be the millionth time, he wears a stately dignity that doesn't simply separate him from those meager surroundings, but elevates him far above it. Boatner didn't intend to become an Ink Spot. Far from it, he is a university graduate who wanted to become a doctor. "I sought admission to two black medical schools, but both were filled," he says. "Due to segregated practices back then, I couldn't get into the white schools."
He spreads his arms out and becomes a great eagle, laughing as he says, "So here I am -- a buffoon."
The Ink Spots are sharing a classroom with The Drifters, a grouping that spans 25 years of seminal black music, a match made in soul heaven. And now both are reduced to the bush leagues of busing the interstates. "It's just a means of living. We must eat," Boatner says with detached sagacity. There is no sorrow in him. No bitterness at the current state. He has chosen the road, and he goes where it takes him. "I haven't known one entertainer yet who ever hung it up and said -- 'I've had it.' You go to the end, to the last breath."
The room has become suddenly still. Everyone here is listening to Boatner. This is a great truth he has spoken, and they look to him for more. b
Sensing it, he speaks with great charity.
"Oh yes, it can get discouraging. But you bounce back. You're always trying to get that next hit. You see, most entertainers are highly resilient. tThey say to themselves, 'Oh, I've got it in me -- I can do it.'"
He closes his eyes and his face is a mask of highways.
"When I'm not traveling," he says, "I get itchy."
The Marvelettes hit the stage and saw no more than 130 people looking back at them. Though the house was sold out, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the performers. Almost all the dates on the tour were sold out because the packager, Roy Radin, gets a flat fee and sells the date to a group like a police department, which in turn sells the tickets; most people buy tickets as a favor and then don't show up.
"It's all right," says Denise Edwards, a Marvelette since 1976, long after the original group disbanded. "We've played to 10 people. You give your all no matter what."
The three women in the current Marvelettes, one of the classic girl groups of the early '60s that gave the world such songs as "Too Many Fish in the Sea," "Beechwood 4-5789," "Don't Mess With Bill" and Playboy," are all in their 30s. Denise Edwards was in the eighth grade when the group released its first monster, "Please Mr. Postman" -- the one that, she tells the audience, "started it all off for us way back in 1961."
The original Marvelettes were five women from New York City. Then, the five dwindled to three. In 1971, the group gave up and disbanded. All that remains now is the name, borrowed again for this kind of tour as if it were a pair of shoes. One of the founders was named Wanda, and Denise Edwards was on stage one night when someone in the audience called out, "Where's Wanda?"
"It was weird," Denise Edwards says. "We found out that the yeller was Wanda's cousin. You'd think she'd know where Wanda was better than us." w
These Marvelettes have no big plans. They aren't thinking about recording. They aren't even thinking too much about staying together. They know that no matter what, as long as this kind of tour exists, something like The Marvelettes will be on it. Sitting on a chair in the McKinley High nurse's office, under a sign that says "Facts About VD," Denise Edwards smiles radiantly and says, "I want to do commericals.
John Ross is 28 and a member of The Serendipity Singers, one of those clean-teen acts that surfaced in the folkie madness of the early '60s.
"There are no originals left. One by one they left," he says.
If ever there was a white act in the business, The Serendipity Singers are it. If they hadn't existed, they'd have had to be invented. Though McKinley High, in a benefit performance for the Washington Afro-American Police Association, is hardly the normal setting for The Serendipity Singers, here they are, just where the bus dropped them off, and they're raring to go. They are always raring to go. They are so clean, they squeak. rYou ever hear a laid-back banjo song?
"We do 200,000 miles a year," Ross says. "Just back from France. Yeah we know we'll be performing all over the world. But we like this tour. This tour is unique -- it's a step back into the past. A lot of the theaters we've played were actually old vaudeville theaters. It's neat traveling back in time. And the response has been so great so far."
His smile says he KNOWS the check is in the mail.
"I think TV would be a likely avenue for us to take off on," he says. "We're on for White Castle hamburgers -- you guys have them here?"
You couldn't discourage John Ross if you hit him with a stick.
Loretta Long's fame comes from "Sesame Street," where she plays "Susan," one of the regular human hosts. She doesn't need this tour. She has a guaranteed 26-week run every year on an award-winning show and her doctorate in education. She's here because she loves it. Even with the boredom of the road. Even with having to take all her meals in her room, "because as a black woman in a restaurant alone, you either wear a uniform or they think you're in another business."
She sings. Rather, she belts. It doesn't matter how many people are out there watching her. Ethel Merman's got nothing on Loretta Long.
"You know," she says, "I once heard a musician address himself to this. He said it far more eloquently than I could. He said, 'When I plug in my guitar, I got a full house.'"
She has just come from her 10 minutes and she is winding down.
She is asked why people like this, people who were once stars, still cling to the dream.
"What would they do if they weren't performing? I don't blame them for staying in the business. You make your peace with bus tours. The sad thing is being out of the business -- pumping gas somewhere . . . You see, performers always think they're only one phone call away from the top."
She smiles like a teacher.
"And you know, it's true."