... Memorial Hall was only forty years old
Coming from a Swedish background, I had no experience with St. Patrick’s Day. At
school lots of green clothing appeared on March 17th. People were greeting one
another with “Kiss me, I’m Irish” 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, annually held at Memorial Hall in
Melrose. Just going to Memorial Hall was a big deal. Built to honor the soldiers and
sailors of the Civil War, the hall had 800 seats and a huge stage. I had been there
only once. I had won honorable mention in a poster contest for a performance of
“Tubby the Tuba” and the prize was a pair of tickets to the concert. So I was
anxious for a new adventure in my own home 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" and "Mother
Macree". It sounded as if everyone was homesick, and in fact, many were. The
audience joined in whole-heartedly with "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 was the theme between acts. The audience joined in every
time it was played.
The second standout was the dancing. I had never seen Irish dancing in my life –
before television. I was a tap dancer, but there was no similarity between what I
could do and what these amazing girls did. Their stiff upper body positioning,
seemed strange at first - important so that every eye would be focused on their
feet. 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 steps. The floor patterns were
intricate as dancers wove in and out, back and forth. I was excited about the Irish
The third standout was the entertainer. In those days we did not see comedians on
television. Comedians were stage performers especially in nightclubs. 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
character brought down the house by reciting a series of numbers that just went on
and on and on. All the boys at Melrose High tried to imitate this routine. I recall
Jack Driscoll being the best.
Imagine my delight ten years later as I am watching the Jackie Gleason Show. Jackie,
like Red Skelton, Danny Kaye 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 Melrose, holding hands with my high school
sweetheart, listening to "An Irish Lullaby" sung by a fellow who had us rolling in
the aisles a moment before. It was time travel at its best. Every St. Patrick’s Day,
I have been in Memorial Hall again in my memory.
April 6, 2012