A senior center reclaims the flapper past

Memories: Reminiscences were all they needed to put on a show at the John Booth Senior Center.

January 14, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

The flappers, fringed, beaded and crowned, with hose rolled to their knees, cluster in one corner. The crooners, in fedoras and dark suits, hover in the other. "Hello, Jazz Baby," says a crooner to a flapper.

Unflappable Billie Mitchell, playwright, director and hand-holder, instructs Ethel Erdossy and Bea Deale: "If you miss a line, keep going."

"I'll improvise," Erdossy assures her.

In a few minutes, the John Booth Senior Center's annual Americana celebration begins. The theme is "Memories of Yesterday." (Admission is $2 or the equivalent in staples for a local food pantry.) Last year, it was Native Americans, and in 1998, the Highlandtown senior center held a "Hobo Party," based on memories of John Booth men who had done their share of hard-time tramping.

It wasn't hard finding material for the one-time-only performance. Get the John Booth seniors looking back, and they quickly fall into a word association game: Ice tongs to ice box to spring house to Berg's Dairy homemade ice cream to farm work, to truck farming to naps in the asparagus patch to quitting school early to work. Before you know it, you have the oral history of people who attended a one-room schoolhouse and now e-mail grand- and great-grandchildren around the world.

This year's theme surfaced naturally, as regulars at the Department of Recreation and Parks center reminisced one day about the war years, life on the farm, hawking newspapers, toiling at Sparrows Point, raising families on pennies. How to pull it off was unclear until Mitchell had a vision in her kitchen one midnight: "It just came to me."

The piece would revolve around two widowed sisters, Maisey and Tessie, played by Erdossy and Deale, who move back into the house they grew up in. In the attic, they discover their mother's "memory box."

Out of the box come records, a World War II officer's uniform, a flapper's sheath, a poodle skirt and more.

"I myself keep everything in a box in the attic," says Mitchell, who at 62 is one of John Booth's younger members. She wears a snug purple velvet dress, and her luxuriant snowy hair is caught in a cascading ponytail.

The script would include real memories. Mitchell remembers soldiers returning from World War II marching down an East Baltimore street. When a soldier saw his family members, he'd break from the ranks and rush to their embrace. "That stood out in my memory," Mitchell says.

She has worked with kids before at church, but this production is a first. "I'd never have done this in my 30s. I never had the nerve. I got my nerve in my 50s."

Showtime. Sam Canelli strikes up the keyboard, and the two sisters walk on stage holding hands, sit down and open the memory box. Out comes an egg cup, a glass orange juice squeezer and a recollection of Mama, who loved to dance and didn't scold her daughters when they broke into the memory box as children and dressed up in her old clothes.

A Frank Sinatra LP is unearthed, prompting smooth-as-silk Howard Baker to enter as emcee of a Saturday night radio broadcast from "the beautiful ballroom of the Lord Baltimore Hotel in downtown Baltimore."

He introduces Frankie, aka Joe Coccia, who wears his fedora at a rakish tilt and tenderly warbles "All the Way" with suave Sinatra aplomb as his wife Geraldine gazes fondly at him. Coccia used to sell papers at Lombard and Haven, an intersection affectionately known by locals as Highlandtown Plaza. In 1939, during the furor over the notorious "torso murder," Coccia, 18, sold so many "extrees," he made $95. The bonanza helped pay for a tonsillectomy.

Coccia, who worked Sparrows Point for 42 years, blows kisses to all, then hands the microphone to Bing Crosby -- David Scarcella, that is, who sings "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That's an Irish Lullaby.)"

"Thank you, Bing," Baker says. Next up: Sophie Tucker. Enter 79-year-old Ida Kotrla, mother of eight, who hip-switches her way through a Tucker classic. "You're gonna miss you big fat mama one of these days," she sings with oomph, even though she's not big and fat.

Kotrla and her second husband, who recently died, loved to dance. They used to go everywhere to dance, the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, bull roasts.

At 16, Kotrla won a jitterbug contest at Dundalk High School.

When she was a kid in the St. Helena section of Dundalk, her musician father would lead a band around the neighborhood at midnight on Christmas. "Then my mother would feed everybody."

After Kotrla comes Dot Rock, glorious in powder-blue gown and tiara. She has Ethel Merman down cold: "There's no business like show business!"

Then Baker introduces the one and only "Mr. Banjo Eyes," Eddie Cantor -- that is, 91-year-old John Coburn, a firecracker of a man, who sashays his way through "If You Knew Susie."

"He's a good specimen," says Mary Canelli, Sam's wife, later over a Depression era-lunch of baked beans, pasta e fagioli, sauerkraut, potatoes and baked polenta with sausage and tomato sauce.

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