I've always looked upon life as as an adventure book, with each new chapter marking another step towards another positive moment in the sun.
From the charge of being a magical thinker, I do not run and, indeed, unabashedly embrace this proclivity as a virtue, not a frailty. I suppose that, in this sense, I shall always resemble a boy with wannabe aspirations, and the never-ending feeling that the best is still yet to come. Kill me, shoot me, I'm a card carrying romanticist. So it was, in the fall of 1950.
I was a freshman at Harvard, a commuter, hanging with the Jamaica Plain Townies who rode the rails with me each day as we were deposited at the kiosk Harvard Square "T" station. The grand-daddy of all culture shocks. Our command post was the Commuter's Center which adjoined the now defunct but then legendary "Cronins", the watering hole of the entire college. Ten cent beers--"dimeys"--need I say more?
One of the many historical traditions embraced by all was the Harvard Freshman Smoker, an annual event attended by, and limited to, the new freshman class. There were no definitive ground rules other than its reputation for duplicating the atmosphere of a bachelor party. A hell-raiser. I began panting as soon as I learned of it.
Somehow, someway, (I feel like breaking into song) I met with and swiftly seduced the Faculty Professor in charge of the program, resulting in his proclaiming me producer, director, star and casting director of the whole damned show. I quickly set to work.
I blocked out a few skits and personally, and with great selectivity, wrote a closing scene which called for me to passionately embrace and bend-back kiss six beautiful women. The largest Boston model agency was, at that time, the Ford Agency to whom I made an in-person pitch, equating Harvard's Sanders Theatre with Hollywood's M.G.M. studios. Presto! I had recruited six gorgeous ladies who were willing not only to participate, but to arduously rehearse as well---many, many times. Nothing like preparation to quell opening night jitters. Heh, heh, heh.
But, I still needed a boffo something to bring out the Hellmann's and bring out the best. I was an ardent Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis fan and, lo-and-behold, they were playing, in person, at the Metropolitan Movie Theatre, which became the Wang Center, and then something else. My adrenaline surge was unstoppable and my ambition for the project was boundless. Another mountain top to conquer, enjoy and use as a buffer against the valleys which all-too- patiently await their turn in one's journey through
Dean Martin was a charter member of Sinatra's Rat Pack which secured my support for his election to anything. His records outsold Sinatra's and his national tour with Jerry Lewis was the hottest ticket in any town. Appearing on the same bill with them was a lovely and talented songstress named Helen O'Connell. A lesser star but definitely more accessible. I put in a call to her at the Met, leaving a titled call back of "Chairman of the Harvard Freshman Smoker." Her manager returned the call and I raved about his client and how proud Harvard would be to feature her as the star of the Smoker. The planets must have been properly aligned, for he invited me backstage, the next day to speak with Ms. O'Connell, personally. Hold on world! Here I come!
At the appointed hour, there I was, in the wings of the stage, as Martin and Lewis were finishing their act. Off they came, trailed by thunderous applause, and walked past me, just inches away. Their bow ties were undone, hanging down their tuxedo lapels. I could not take my eyes off Martin. He was the handsomest man I had ever seen. Black tan, black curly hair, cuffs shot and showing a good two inches of collar accentuating his 6'3'' frame. I am secure enough in my masculinity to proclaim that he was gorgeous. There were several Boston philanthropists waiting to greet the duo but Martin literally barged through them without saying a word. They flocked to Lewis with quizzical eyes, who tried to alleviate the situation with an explanation of how tired Martin was, and the damage seemed to be curtailed. On Lewis' dressing room door was a sign reading "The Jolly Jew." Martin's said "The Gorgeous Guinea." His manager told me that Dean was truly the guy who didn't give a damn about anything, against whom Bing Crosby was a nervous wreck. In any event, he was Apollo. Helen O'Connell said yes so the show was set, except I wanted still more.
One of the most famous burlesque dancers in the country was Ms. Sally Rand. She was playing at the the Old Howard burlesque house in the legendary Scollay Square district. I went after her with the same tenacity employed with the others. She was a stripper with class, far removed from the pole dancers of today. She was a charming lady. I explained why I was seeking her out and she immediately said, "I'm in!" The show was now ready for prime time.
Sanders Theatre was packed with howling, beer-soaked wolves. They didn't applaud, they just screamed, non-stop. Word had gotten around The Yard as to the show's content and what had been a ritual of rowdy behavior was now a coliseum screaming for blood as the gladiators fought to the death. Gasoline waiting for the drop of an errant match. A riot ready to happen. The ultimate tumult. The Frankenstein monster and I was its creator.
Sally Rand was the opening act and it was like tempting Hannibal Lecter with blood. She was scantily dressed in see-through fans. I had written a few lines but it was useless trying to follow them. At one point, the fresh-animals began throwing pennies onto the stage. Bellowing beasts. Rand, ever the classy pro, picked one up, looked straight into the dark void and said, with a sneer somehow managing to be heard,"I only know of one animal that throws a scent." In that one instance, the crowd was hers. In her profession, hecklers were routine, reducing the taunts of college freshman to EZ putty. The veteran stood tall and conquered all. A masterpiece of tone limit-setting. She saved the show. At least for Helen O'Connell's appearance.
Another polished performer, she was demure and enchanting. She answered my questions with grace and aplomb. She was lovely. She even sang, a cappella, a few lines from her all-time hit,"Green Eyes." An epiphany was experienced by all: the mature sound of applause. Her years of band-singing with the likes of Jimmy Dorsey had the quality of experience that schools can never teach. She wow'ed 'em.
And then, the return of the animal kingdom. My self-authored skit with the Ford models. The scripted lines, such as they were, served only as a build to me embracing and kissing them all. In some situations a kiss is a ritual, a formal or symbolic gesture indicating devotion, respect or greeting. In this instance, it served as a call to the wild. The dormancy created by Ms. O'Connell was overcome by the primal instincts of drunken zoo-residents. The degree of ferocity increased with each model joining the congo line l'amour. At one point, these fine Harvardians began tearing out the seat cushions of the benches and hurling them onstage. All hell broke out. As difficult as it may be to believe, I was experiencing no carnality whatsoever. I just wanted to end the thing and avoid a riot. You never in your life saw such hurried kisses of beautiful women. Finally, it was over. But not without repercussions.
From that night on, and because, in part, of that night, Harvard Freshman Smokers have drastically changed. "Sex, beer and a riot" used to be a comfortable definition of this revered tradition, but no longer. If they are held at all, they are much more subdued and frequently held in a House dining room. That's cool. But, oh, what it used to be.
For my then freshman peers, it was a night to remember. For me, it was an indelible episode of life.
To put it succinctly, we all had a ball.
The ambition, the drive of youth. All challenges gingerly accepted with confidence.
If not then, when?