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The Big Shot and the big shot

April 2, 2010

The recent success of our hometown Olympians is a perfect example of local greatness going global.

But this has also worked the other way around - international greatness being spotlighted here, and the example I witnessed was when the Arthur Godfrey Show came to Lake Placid.

In his day, was one of media's big kahunas, with three different shows each week - on both TV and radio. He'd been dubbed The King of Television.

Today his show would be considered corny. It was a low-key combination variety/talk show, with singers, dancers, famous guests, with Godfrey as the host (and sometimes the sole talker).

His trademark greeting was, "How ah ya, how ah ya, how ah yah." It was as hokey as it got - it was also as memorable and easy to imitate as Ed Sullivan's, "Really big shoo."

"Uncle Arthur" was his persona - a kindly, down-to-earth, just-plain-folks kind of guy, who sang, played the ukulele and referred to himself as The Old Redhead. He was, in short, the very picture of warmth and kindness.

In reality, there were other sides to his personality, which got revealed in the famous Julius La Rosa Incident.

La Rosa was the show's singer, a bright-eyed, eager, sincere 20-something who was enormously popular with the audience.

The Incident? Well, at the end of one show, good old Uncle Arthur had Julius sing Manhattan, then when he finished, Godfrey announced that was Julius's swan song and he'd now be leaving the show for greener pastures.

Not only was that the first time La Rosa heard of it, the poor sod didn't even know what a swan song was. When after the show someone explained to it him, he still couldn't believe it. And the next day when he spoke to Godfrey and asked him why he'd gotten the boot, and asked for his job back, he got all kinds of evasionsand no job.

It raised all kinds of Cain among the denizens of TV-Land. Most people sided with La Rosa and began to think The Old Redhead's blindsiding the kid on the air made him more than a wee bit of a stinker.


The first act

But all that was ancient history to me and the other rubes who crowded the Olympic arena that fateful spring night in 1956. I say it was spring, but in name only, since it was brutally cold. Of course that was par for the course back in them days, Bunkie, when winter started in late November and never lost its grip till mid-April, if not mid-May.

Anyhow, I went with my mother, brother and a neighbor named Midge. Like spring being called spring, Midge was a Midge in name only: She was as big as a barn, though, according to my mother, "light on her feet" (which was how she referred to every woman, and most men, who were big as barns). Using similar language, you could say she had a volatile disposition. Or to put it in plain English, she was mean as a snake.

That night's show was magnificent, what with Uncle Arthur being ever glib and gracious as he introduced the acts or simply bantered with the audience, making us feel as if we were all one big happy family. And of course he had us laughing hysterically at bits that'd been dead long before Vaudeville had even been born.

I still remember two of the acts.

One was the beautiful Carmel Quinn. She was a frequent Godfrey guest, a singer, as Irish as Patty's pig, and to little Dopey me, a vision of heaven, with the reddest hair, greenest eyes and whitest skin I'd ever seen.

The other act was Godfrey and his horse Goldie. Godfrey was a skilled rider and trainer and I remember being very impressed with the pair -though more impressed with Goldie than Godfrey.


The final act

The show over, we filed out one of the side exits with a bunch of the crowd. And if I'd thought the show was the high point of the evening, I was about to find out otherwise.

The landing outside the door was obviously icy, because as soon as Midge stepped on it, she slipped and fell. And it was the weirdest fall I've ever seen. She seemed to float to the ground in slow motion, as if lowered by angels, and when she landed, there was no noticeable impact. All she said was, "Oh," seemingly more surprised than hurt.

Everyone just stood there for a moment, waiting for her to get upwhich didn't happen. Instead, she grimaced, cursed under her breath, and then said, "I just broke my leg."

Now, Midge may have been a bit on the testy side, if not downright vicious, but she was not stupid. She was also a nurse. So when she said she'd just broken her leg, she knew exactly what was going on. Which was more than the rest of us, who were just standing there, mouths agape.

Finally someone sprang into action and went to call the ambulance, while someone else came back with a bunch of blankets. My mother was being supportive, talking to her, but it was all in vain, since by then Midge was pretty shocky, staring blank-eyed into the middle distance.

I, meanwhile, had come to the obvious conclusion I was serving no purpose whatsoever. So, while I wanted to lend my moral support, I also wanted to go inside and warm up. It wasn't much of a conflict - after standing out there in the Antarctic-cold, my milk of human kindness had frozen solid.

So I went inside and was hugging a radiator when who should come out of an office but The Old Redhead himself.

His hair was indeed a deep copper red and he had a full head of it, combed back and slathered down with about a cup of the greasy kid's stuff. He also had freckles and a button nose (though a big button), all of which made him look like a huge, aged Howdy Doody.

He looked at me as he approached and I smiled, hoping he'd grace me with a, "How ah ya, how ah ya, how ah ya," but he didn't. Instead, he nodded and said hi.

I nodded back and said hi as well.

Then he walked by me, on down the hall and out of sight.

It was a disappointment that he didn't lay his "How ah ya" shtick on me, but not as big as the one I had when I went back out to the exit.

My mother and brother were there, but no one else.

"Hey, where's Midge?" I asked.

"The ambulance came and they took her away," said my brother. "Plus you missed all the excitement."

"Excitement?" I asked."What excitement?"

"Well, before they put her on the stretcher, they hadda give her a shotright in the tuchis."

"You're kidding," I said.

"No, I'm not," he said.

"So," I asked, my morbid curiosity piqued, "was the needle big?"

"You kidding?" he said, rolling his eyes. "With Midge, what else could it have been?"



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