At which point you decide to write your memoirs, hoping to clear space for the future, however long that is.
Maybe you've seen our movies. A chubby guy in a striped shirt whose head is a magnet for coconuts, shot puts, thrown horseshoes, upside-down urns, buckets of water. A thin man in a graduation cap and tweeds who is afraid of everything but his partner. Carter and Sharp, briefly the number-one box office draw in the country, now an answer to back-of-the-magazine quizzes. I don't think we even show up on late-night television these days. In the 1940s, you couldn't avoid us. We made twenty-eight movies in thirteen years, every one a love story, no matter what anybody says. We were two guys who so obviously belonged together you never had to wonder whether we'd end up arm-in-arm by the final frame: of course we would, we always did. Even with Astaire and Rogers, you had to wonder. Not with us.
Here's What You Do
His regular straight man turned up drunk, is how it started. I was a young man backstage of the Minneapolis Pantages Theater in the second year of the country's Great Depression and the third of my own. It was 1931, and I was a vaudevillian, though vaudeville was dying. I hardly noticed. Everything was dying: it was hard to figure out what would rise from the ashes, and what was sputtering out for good.
I'd been summoned to Minneapolis to sub for a Dutch comic with a bum appendix. When I arrived, the stage manager handed me a bright red wig that smelled like the tail of a golden retriever. I painted freckles on my face and went on in a borrowed checkered jacket. I looked demented, not Dutch, and told jokes in my usual mournful way.
Some audiences liked the deadpan delivery. Not this one. I could hear several hundred programs opening, several hundred fingers sliding down the bill to see who was next; I could feel the damp leavings of several hundred sighs of boredom, puffed up from the house one at a time to pop like bubbles on my cheek. So it wasn't a surprise when I stepped off the stage and the manager handed me my publicity photos, which was how you got fired in vaudeville.
He was a parsnippy-looking guy, scraped and pale, but he wasn't heartless. He saw the look on my face. "Listen, kid," he said. "God never closes a door without opening a window."
Good news if you're a bird. I was twenty years old and out of work; I believed that if God opened a window, He meant me to jump. A flash act had taken over the stage, a bunch of pretty girls dancing as they warbled some song about the weather: they predicted rain, and wore cellophane slickers and carried mustard-colored umbrellas, which, of course, they twirled.
I rolled up my pictures and stuffed them in my jacket pocket. Then I felt a finger tapping my shoulder.
My first impression was of an overwhelming plaidness. The guy's suit looked like a worked-over full-color crossword puzzle, smudged and guaranteed to give you a headache. His face was worse: he'd applied his makeup in the dark, apparently, pancake layered on so thick you could've stuck candles in it, rouge smeared in the neighborhood of his cheeks. I couldn't tell what he really looked like. Heavy. Snub nosed. Agitated. Still tapping me with one hand, rubbing his stomach with the other. Behind him, a sharp-faced man was vomiting into a lady's purse.
"You a straight man?" the tapping guy asked.
"Sure," I said. Of course I was. I was whatever he needed. If he'd been short a poodle for his trained-dog act, I would have dropped to the ground and wagged my tail.
"You know the Swiss Cheese Bit?"
He continued to tap my shoulder. Suddenly I reached up and snagged the offending finger with one fist. I was an Iowa boy. I knew how to catch pests. I could feel his finger wiggle in my hand, trying to tickle my lifeline.
Excerpted from Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken Copyright 2001 by Elizabeth McCracken. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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