artist - musician - craftsman
and furniture maker
[March 28, 2021]
simply revland: "Party Line" (1962)
Spring was in the air in 1962. I was perfectly aware that there were only a couple months left before summer vacation, and that 2nd grade was soon to be an afterthought.
It was a rare occasion that I was ever allowed to leave class early at Jefferson Grade School, considering my expertise was actually failing to show up. I had been watching the clock all day, knowing I had permission to leave at 1:30.
Why? Because I was heading downtown.
In the early 60s, downtown was the heartbeat of Fargo. It was where the action was. All of it. Especially since, at the time, it was geographically centered in the city. Fargo had grown somewhat equally, north and south of Main Avenue, and the term “mall” hadn’t invaded our vocabulary quite yet. No strip malls, no West Acres, no Northport. Downtown was home to JC Penney, Sears, Woolworths, Kresges, Straus Clothiers, Leeby’s Deli, numerous movie theaters, along with pubs and restaurants. The economy was good, and the hustle and bustle was everything one desired to be sure. Another downtown landmark was at 207 Fifth Street North: the home of WDAY-TV, which just happened to be my mid-afternoon destination. I had an engagement to perform on “Party Line” with my 19-year-old sister, Claudia, who a few months earlier had been crowned Miss Fargo. Oh my.
I remember getting my first guitar from Claudia when I was about 6. It was quite large for my body, as my tiny frame was probably more suited for a ukulele. But I made it work. Learning just a few basic cords meant adding a number of songs to my repertoire. G, C, D7, were an easy learn, but the necessary F chord was a difficult, but necessary, finger stretch to make a song complete. She and I had been rehearsing for weeks for this television appearance, perfecting a Norwegian folk song, Andy Williams' “Moon River” and “There’s a Hole in Your Bucket (dear Henry, dear Henry)." I recall being asked by Claudia to smear Hollywood cold cream on my face, so the stage lighting could make us look better. Not so sure if it did, but I needed to follow instructions, as I was a fish out of water.
Verna Newell, a local celebrity, hosted “Party Line,” a long-running afternoon variety show on WDAY, from 1957 to 1979, and secured guests like Gregory Peck, Lawrence Welk, Dustin Hoffman, and even Tiny Tim in the early 70s. Today, the concept of performing on TV a decade before Tiny Tim is pretty hard to fathom, but a badge I'm happy to wear. Verna had a number of guest host sidekicks, like the legendary Bill Weaver and Boyd Christianson, all doing their best Ed McMahon renditions.
Now let’s get this straight. My dear sister was extremely talented, and quite capable of pulling this off without me. To this day, I can’t understand why she thought this duet thing was a good idea, as I was quite capable of really screwing things up. Thank God we pulled it off . . . harmonies and all. Not only that, after Claudia became miss North Dakota in 1963, and appeared in the 1964 Miss America Pageant, Verna kept asking me to come back as a solo act throughout the 60s, which only increased my hat size with each appearance and forced my parents to install sliding doors on the house so I could get my head through the door. Ironically, however, self-esteem was a necessary daily dietary supplement.
The morals of this story?
Understanding that this handshake thing at WDAY that adults performed with each other appeared to be a ritual, perhaps cult-like, and that those in charge will actually reach their hand out to a 9-year-old child as well, as long as you freely accommodate them. I soon learned that a good solid squeeze was what these adults at WDAY yearned for, so I eventually obliged them, which oddly seemed to be fodder for a good belly laugh.
Secondly, the way to work around symptoms of Tourette Syndrome was to sing and play the guitar on TV. If only I could have done it every day. And last ― but not least ― avoid the concept of lathering your face with cold cream before you head out to school. Not a good idea.
See you next Sunday!