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December 1960

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The Other Abe Lincoln



Speaking of auditorium sessions, I was this kid, see. I'm playing in the high school band, sitting down there in the pit. And we're playing Pomp and Circumstance, followed by the Beatrice and Benedict Overture, which was very difficult for the bass section. We're struggling our way through, and our principal is sitting up there on one of those greenish-grayish steel chairs that they use in high schools. And he was a greenish-grayish principal. Sheer flint. Looked like Andy Hardy's old man. So he's sitting up there, and the kids are all filing in, and the purple curtain is down. (Have you ever seen a purple curtain after moths and time have had at it? Purple doesn't stay regal long.) And the gothic angels are looking down over the chandeliers, down on us kids. And Mr. Spohn is sitting up there. And I'm playing in the bass section, right up against the stage, my head rubbing the apron, and Spohn's shoes sort of bracketing my ears. And finally everyone's in, and Mr. Derks, the conductor, an Oliver Hardy gone straight, he's up there, directing the old band. Spohn gives him the signal, the kids are in. We're into the second coda of Beatrice andBenedict by now, and you just don't get rid of Beatrice andBenedict that easily, you know. This is Peter Ilich at his worst. And we were charging down hill, and Derks is giving us the signal, and you just can't stop on a dime with those arpeggios. Especially when you're playing a B-flat bass that's made out of aluminum. Have you ever played an aluminum bass? You don't stop it. Then Spohn reaches out, taps me on the head and says: "Stop." I stopped. The voice of authority has never been misunderstood by me: I'm a born p.f.c. in a world of corporals. The band slowly came to a halt, one section after the other. The last of all were the peck horns, which all had full heads of steam. So we sat there and, Spohn got up and said: "Students, today we have a special treat for you. We have Mr. Orville Wattanabe, famous New York stage-actor, who is here today to give you his impressions of Abraham Lincoln." You know the professional entertainers who tour the high school auditorium circuit? These guys haven't even made it in vaudeville. They have no agents. None. They always take a serious subject, because it's the only thing they can get away with. And so they do impressions of Abe Lincoln or impressions of Daniel Webster wrestling with the Devil. And so the curtain goes up and here is this sad actor. I mean, he was the kind of actor you see letting his hair grow long and who has a worn volume of Ibsen plays he always tells people he is reading. This old guy is wearing an ancient, threadbare Abe Lincoln costume, with pasted-on whiskers and beard. And he gets up and, in a cracked voice, says: "Four score and seven years ago..." He has a distinct Oklahoma accent. And there are shades of W. C. Fields. He is no more like Abraham Lincoln than my father. Who was not at all like Abe Lincoln. More like Disraeli, actually. And the guy goes on and on and on. Somehow the sadness of it all began to permeate everyone, all the kids, and even Mr. Spohn. And after this guy had gone on for about 45 minutes, he finally finishes with a segment from one of the Stephen Douglas debates: "And I tell you, Mr. Douglas, that the question of the proposition of slavery will, in the end, be decided by the hand of God...." And so, as he finished, we had the cue, the cue to bring the old purple curtain down, just as Orville Wattanabe, declining actor, rose to this great height. And Mr. Spohn broke out: "All right now, all out, file out, and don't shuffle your feet, because the next auditorium session begins at once. Step lively." And the bell went bong! bong! bong! And old Mr. Derks stood up and said: "We're going to play, now, number ten." This was the National Emblem March. And we started to play, and I could hear this old guy Wattanabe behind the curtain, coughing and hacking away. He was clearing his throat. I heard a bottle clink: Wattanabe was taking a slug of some corn likker hidden deep in the pocket of that long Abraham Lincoln coat. Spohn didn't move a muscle. He just sat back with his ears quietly tuned to the sound of those shuffling feet. Finally Spohn says: "Now, pupils, we have a special treat for you today, but before I go into the introduction of our speaker, I would like to point out that there will be a fire drill this afternoon at three o'clock. I expect absolutely no roughhousing. You will file in and file out, and go back into the building quietly, in five minutes. Now, Miss Fife also would like to point out that there will be a meeting of the 8th grade dramatic club this afternoon in room 202, at 4:85, ten minutes after the last class. Now, today we have Mr. Orville Wattanabe, famous New York stage-actor who is here to give you his impressions of Abraham Lincoln." And the curtain went up and the old Wattanabe started again: "Four score and seven years ago" And I could smell it this time. I could smell that old corn likker. And the old actor is standing there, sweating, working away. And I knew. I knew I was in touch somehow, someplace, with one of the great muses, one of the really great muses, one who was watching over this other Abe Lincoln.


Copyright: 1960 Metronome Magazine