ALEXANDER’S – THE STORE AND THE RAGTIME BAND
by Shaun Costello
I am now pretty old, and have had certain dreams that have repeated themselves, sometimes identically, and sometimes in varying forms, throughout my life. Though my memory is nowhere near perfect, I can recollect events in detail going back to early childhood. My earliest memory is of being bathed by my mother in what seemed like a large kitchen sink,
probably at the age of one, give or take. I have several visual recollections from that time, but one is quite puzzling, and I thought I would share it with you, along with a startling discovery about that memory, and the possibilities of cognitive recollections from a sensory amalgam of sources, as my brain developed. The first dream, that I remember, was at approximately the age of between eight and ten. (1952 – 1954) The visual images and music would repeat, in varying forms, on a regular basis, until a discovery in the winter of 2001. I can only be vague about the frequency and number of repetitions, but it seemed often, and in the hundreds. Over the years, I have tried to discern the reasons behind the repeated recollection, but could come to no conclusion that made sense – until 2001.
It seems like winter. I am bundled. I am low to the ground. I am not walking. I am being propelled somehow. Above me are two faces. They are women, wearing hats. The top half of their faces are covered by nets, the kind that were attached to women’s hats in the 1930’s and 1940’s. They are talking to each other, and sometimes to me, although I can not hear their voices. But I do hear music. I hear the song Alexander’s Ragtime Band, with lyrics clear and loud.
That’s it. Over the years I came to some obvious conclusions:
That the two women were my mother and her best friend.
That I was being pushed along, low to the ground, in a child’s stroller.
That I was less than a year old. (I began walking at the age of ten months)
The mystery was the music. It was always recognizable as Alexander’s Ragtime Band. At some point along the way I simply stopped attempting to discover why this combination of images and music repeated itself so often, and accepted it as a fated event, and a pleasant one at that.
For a reason I can’t possibly explain, in the winter of 2001, I decided to take a look, and I returned to the physical location that I had concluded must have been where this took place.
I was born in the Bronx NY, in 1944. We lived not far from Fordham University. My father was in the Army, serving in the Pacific. The main shopping thoroughfare in our neighborhood was a boulevard called the Grand Concourse. To reach this venue from where we lived, you would have to walk up Fordham Road, about ten blocks or so up a gradual incline. My guess was, that my mother probably spent more time pushing me in a stroller along Fordham Road than any other street. I must have had some time on my hands that day in 2001, so off I went, searching for my early childhood.
Oddly enough, other than demographically, the neighborhood had not changed that much. The buildings that stood, back in the 1940’s, were still there, but of course housed different tenants and businesses. I walked East past Fordham University, and began the slight climb, up toward the Concourse, which was ten blocks away, at the top of the hill. The physicality of the street seemed correct, in terms of possibly being the location of my recollections. After walking about three blocks, I stopped to get my bearings, and see the bigger picture. It was here that I saw it.
At the very top of the hill, some six or seven blocks away, was a large brick building, distinguished from the surrounding architecture only by its larger size. Along the top of the building were five letters, ALEXA, very faded, probably painted many years ago. As I got closer, I realized that these letters were not a word, but part of a word. After the second A, the building had been painted another color, covering the last letters in the name. Then suddenly, I understood. The building at the top of the hill had been the original ALEXANDERS DEPARTMENT STORE, a popular neighborhood shopping venue in 1945, but only the first five letters of the name were still there, albeit just barely.
I guess you can see where this is headed, and it’s a fascinating possibility. Could the curious eyes of a child, less that a year old, have absorbed everything around him, storing different bits of data in separate parts of the brain, and have recollections of that data appear as memory, as the brain was able to decipher the information according to that brain’s cognitive evolution? That day, in that stroller, pushed along by those two women, could I have seen the ALEXANDERS sign as an image that could not possibly have any meaning until I learned to read? The sign would have been background to the closer, more vivid images of the two women, so the meaning of the letters would have no significance, until the brain was able to process the data and make the connection. The song Alexander’s Ragtime Band was popular at the time the images were imprinted. Could my brain have connected the song with stored image of the sign after I learned to spell, and scored the reoccurring dream with the song? The dreams began just after I learned to read. This was a genuine moment of discovery for me, and after that afternoon in 2001, I never had the dream again. A delicious conundrum.
© 2012 Shaun Costello
A BRONX TALE
A couple of kids from the Bronx dance their way through the depression.
by Shaun Costello
My mother and Uncle Tommy were born in the Jewish/Irish Tremont section of the Bronx – Tommy in 1917, and his younger sister Catherine, two years later. Their parents, Nan, and Black Jack Dowling made a living of sorts on the Vaudeville stage as a dance act. But New York was where you played once you had made a name for yourself, and the Dancing Dowlings were far from being headliners. So, once my mother was old enough to walk, they picked up stakes and headed for Norfolk Virginia, a hub in the Southern Vaudeville circuit, where, shamelessly billing themselves as New York’s dancing sensations, it would be easier to get bookings. Norfolk was the venue of choice for another reason as well – it was home port to one of the United States Navy’s largest installations, employing over seventy five thousand Naval personnel, many of whom, when pay day rolled around, wasted no time losing
their hard-earned pay in the myriad of floating crap games and poker sessions that so often seemed to find men in uniform, whenever they had money in their pockets. My grandfather, Black Jack Dowling, when not booked to entertain Vaudeville audiences with his dancing feet, was more than happy to swindle recently paid sailors out of their cash with his practiced slight of hand. Wearing a stolen sailor suit, my grandfather, a predator with portfolio, armed with marked cards and loaded dice, rode the trains into and out of Norfolk, systematically separating the sailors from their pay, often just one step ahead of the local Sherriff, and occasionally that Sherriff’s guest in the local jail house.
Trained by their parents in the art of stage craft, Tom and Sis, now incorporated into The Dancing Dowlings, dazzled all who saw them with their high stepping and showmanship – they were naturals. With the kids carrying the show, the family act seemed to stay booked, and performed throughout the Southern Vaudeville Circuit on playbills with Fanny Brice, Buck and Bubbles, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and just about everyone who toured back then. But success couldn’t keep a card sharp like my grandfather out of regular incarceration for his nefarious railroad hijinks, and his absences became more frequent, until finally, he disappeared altogether. The act, unbookable without its patriarch, made the journey back to the Bronx, in search of employment for my grandmother, and education for her kids.
While still in High School, Tom and Sis continued to do what they did best, and they danced and danced, until people began to take notice. They starred in school productions, and spent all their spare time at a famous Bronx jazz club called the Club Fordham, where they entertained the musicians by improvising dance routines to any kind of music. Though not employed by The Club Fordham, they were encouraged by the
club’s owner Maurice Reidy, and performed their dance routines until they became crowd favorites. There was a buzz about them now – who were these kids? Reporters began to make the trek up to the Bronx, to watch, and to write about those kids at the Club Fordham. Photo shoots for magazines followed – ‘how to’
spreads with Tom and Sis demonstrating the latest dance craze for a dance-crazy generation of readers. Using the photographs from one of these sessions, the editorial staff at Ladies Home Journal hired an illustrator to create a likeness of ‘the kids’ for the cover of the August 1938 edition. So there they were, Tom and Sis Dowling, a couple of depression era Bronx kids, right there on the cover of a national magazine, doing their thing.
Within a year they had made the seamless transition from The Club Fordham, to Manhattan’s Stork Club, where they became favorites
of the owner, Walter Winchell, who both promoted and protected them. Now, this was the era of the ‘Big Bands’, and band leaders often hired dancers to demonstrate the latest dance trends to their music, for an ever-eager public. Winchell had mentioned Tom and Sis to his friend Horace Heidt, one of the era’s biggest band leaders, and, after seeing them dance up a storm at the Stork Club, Heidt offered them a contract to perform with his band, “Horace Heidt’s Musical Knights”, one of the
biggest bands of that decade. The gig with Heidt was followed by
gainful employment, dancing with Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra, and Benny Goodman, as well. So now ‘the kids’ were getting paid to do what, until then, they had done for free.
In between performances with big bands, they would return to the Stork Club, where they had become audience favorites, until that fateful night in 1939, when Darryl Zanuck and Bill Goetz happened to see them dance, and
offered Tom and Sis an invitation to come to Hollywood as contract players for Twentieth Century Fox. Their Bronx days behind them, ‘the kids’, cheered on by the gang from the Club Fordham, boarded the train for Hollywood, and the next chapter of their lives.
© 2011 Shaun Costello