Random Thoughts

Irish Night

... 1950's style, as I remember it

by Ann Robbins Talbot

Coming from a Swedish background, I had little experience with St. Patrick’s Day. At school lots of green clothing was seen on March 17th. People were greeting one another with “Erin Go Bragh” and a saying went around stating, “There are two kinds of people: those who are Irish and those who wish they were.”

Then my boyfriend invited me to Irish Night, held annually at Memorial Hall. My experience with Memorial Hall was also quite limited. I had been to a concert of “Tubby the Tuba” because I had won honorable mention in a poster contest. I had also attended an exposition downstairs connected to Melrose-on-Display. So I was ready for a new adventure right in town.

Three parts of the Irish Night program stand out in my memory.

The first was the music. Many of the songs were sad like "Danny Boy", "Mother Macree" and "An Irish Lullaby". It sounded as if everyone was homesick, and in fact, many were. The audience joined in whole-heartedly to "It’s a Great Day for the Irish", a real toe-tapper. Of course, the show stopper was "When Irish Eyes are Smiling". It occurred in every act and in the theme between acts.

The second stand-out was the dancing. I had never seen Irish dancing in my life – pre-television. I was a tap dancer, but there was no similarity between what I could do and what these amazing girls did. Their upper body positioning, so that every eye would be focused on their feet, seemed strange at first, but soon became familiar. I realized that the dancing was competitive as each dancer wore medals on the simple costumes. Some literally covered their shirts with gold medals and ribbons which bounced and moved with the rhythm of their feet. In addition to the individual dancing, the floor patterns were intricate as dancers wove in and out, back and forth. I was excited about the Irish dancing.

And then there was the stage show. In those days we were not entertained by comedians on television. So on Irish Night I was introduced to a local comedian named Frankie Fontaine.  He came out and talked about his wife Alma and his eleven children.  Then he launched into a series of characters to tell his jokes, my favorite being John L. C. Silvoney.  This persona brought down the house by reciting a series of numbers that just went on and on.  From that night the boys of Melrose High School tried to perfect Frankie’s interpretation of John. If my memory serves me correctly, the best imitator was Jack Driscoll.

Imagine my delight years later as I am watching the Jackie Gleason Show. Jackie, like Red Skelton and several others at that time, had a repertoire of characters that were spot-on funny. Jackie was doing 'Joe the Bartender' wiping the bar and singing, "My Gal Sal". He called out a character named Crazy Guggenheim and Frankie Fontaine walked onto the screen with a turned-up fedora and a silly grin. I shouted, “I know him.” The skit goes on with repartee between the two characters. Joe asks Craze a question that requires an answer in numbers and Frankie (a la John L. C. Silvoney) starts reciting so many numbers that Jackie finally tells him to shut up and sing. With his wonderful voice, Frankie starts to sing "Daddy’s Little Girl".

I was immediately transported to Memorial Hall, holding hands with my high school sweetheart, listening to "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" sung by a fellow who had us rolling in the aisles a moment before. It was time travel at its best. On St. Patrick’s Day, my memory will be there again.

March 5, 2010

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