Saddle Shoes, Florida, & Rosalie Sorrels

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I never imagined a living legend would grace my home.

The weather had finally turned at the cabin; brief, chilly showers shifting into warm sunny intervals–golden debris blowing across the deck. I had given up clearing away leaves and pine needles, settling instead for mopping rainwater off of plastic chairs. In our cabin for less than a year, my husband and I had volunteered our small place to host a fund raiser for two local candidates running for county offices.

Guests began arriving in late afternoon, carting in plates of finger food and bags of chips. Visitors commandeered my little kitchen, quickly producing cheese & meat trays, while toasting garlic bread in the oven. Shuffling knives and serving spoons, I glanced up to an opening door to greet one of the arriving candidates. Her husband followed her bearing a big smile and carrying an old fashioned squeeze box—a melodeon. I sensed a forthcoming singalong.

I vaguely recognized the third visitor passing through the threshold. After introductions were made, the mystery cleared; the lady was legendary folk singer, Rosalie Sorrels. She had driven over with the candidate and her husband, as they were friends from the other side of the county. I had seen Sorrels before in concert, and honestly grew tongue-tied meeting her in person.

The room filled and the evening warmed–mellowed by good wine and friendly camaraderie. Ms Sorrels drifted around the room, chatting here and there, while perusing our limited artwork. She admired, in particular, a panel of over-sized Florida scenes, soon sharing tales of chauffeuring her children through the Sunshine State many years earlier. At one point, she and I shared a moment out on that leaf-strewn deck, agreeing that cutting down a tree, even as a safety measure, was still a shame. But the big conversation that memorable night centered on my footwear, a pair of vintage saddle shoes.

One woman told us that at her California high school everyone called these shoes Oxfords, and were acceptable only in white. Ms. Sorrels happily joined in with a story of her trusty black and white pair. Mine were coffee and cream, the same as I wore when I attended grade school. Odd, but in that moment we all seemed to channel our long ago girlhoods; guarded adult caution melting away in the banter. Animated with a gentle, expressive smile, Rosalie, too, swapped memories, chuckling along with the rest of us.

As dusk fell, and lamp light filled the house, our company began to depart. There were long drives ahead, and people needed to get going. My husband and I waved goodbye, pleased we had opened up our home for the event. And in the following days we shared with anyone who would listen that Rosalie Sorrels visited our cabin. If they didn’t recognize the name, they did after we were through singing her praises.

That was nearly ten years ago.

When it came across the news last week that Sorrels had passed away in Reno, my mind traveled back to that singular Fall evening. I recognized then, and I still believe, that the cosmos handed us a mighty gift in that visit, of a luminary who had once driven to Florida with her kids and, like the rest of us wore saddle shoes.

Gail Chumbley is a nationally recognized history instructor, and the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.

We All Do

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Sitting in on a writing seminar a while back, the keynote speaker, finishing his remarks on the business of publishing, opened the floor for questions. A young lady, seated at the end of my row grew visibly nervous and asked, “But, I don’t want to have to market my books, I just want to write them.”

In a gentle voice, the guest speaker replied, “We all do, but that’s no longer how the book business works.”

And, readers, that no longer is how the book business works.

Agents and publishers today are far more concerned with a writers social media platform, then any content wedged between a book’s jacket. Even traditionally published authors must carry the heaviest burden of getting their works into the public arena. For example, I’ve been watching a news commentator on one of the cable networks handling the publication of his new book. He still does his broadcast every night, but goes on air from the various venues where he is presenting–like the parking lot of Barnes & Noble the other night. At the end of each program, this correspondent plugs his title and where his next appearance is scheduled. He has quite the platform, and his publisher loves it.

Now some everyday folks are pretty savvy at this platform game, too. Utilizing electronic media, many writers successfully finesse Facebook analytics, embed advertisements on search engines, as well as on Nook Press, Kobo, Amazon, and a multitude of other outlets.  And I must add that I am in awe of this style of enterprise and business outreach. Many of these electronic resources are way out of my skill set–cultivating an online following one of my most daunting challenges.

Plainly history education and story telling is my forte; Selling–shilling my name and image about, leaves me a bit overwhelmed and self conscious. Like the young lady at the seminar, I just want to write my books, too.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have written anything, knowing what I know now about the media game. But then I remember some particular episode, his heart-pounding night flight in 1933, or her dance tour of Europe during the rise of Hitler, and I realize writing River of January, and Figure Eight was never a choice: life handed the task to me, and I am responsible.

So I switched on my laptop and wrote this blog.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight

Also available on Amazon. River of January is on sale this weekend on Kindle.

 

Reading Aloud

There were a lot of short stories that worked well for my history students. “The Fog on Pemble Green,” by Shirley Barker “Sowing the Wind,” by Bruce Catton, and “A Spy for Washington,” by Leonard Falkner are just three that quickly come to mind when I think about reading to my classes. Students appeared to like listening, too. Their usual frenetic teenage energy melted away, and the kids seemed to remember their first grade sense of wonder.

Over thirty years I read those pieces, changing the dramatic rise and fall of each story; a girl falsely accused of witchcraft to hide a real murder plot, bitter ante-bellum violence foreshadowing  the Civil War, and a brave nondescript man who made General Washington’s attack on Trenton possible with his secrecy.

And reading aloud worked, providing literary backdrops to historical events. Evidently, despite one’s age, everybody loves a good story.

Tomorrow I have the opportunity to record my first book, River of January, at the Commission for the Blind. I earnestly hope to revive that voice that once held kids still, captivated and comforted. However, an extended reading session is both exciting and a bit terrifying–I’m not sure the old pipes are still as flexible. But, hopefully the flow of the story will compensate for any vocal deficiencies I’ve acquired.

 

 

Perhaps you might enjoy a preview of tomorrow’s narrative

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight.

For the remainder of March, 2017, all purchases of book two, Figure Eight includes a complimentary ebook of book one, River of January.

 

“River” Nabs A Nod

Rediscovered Bookshop has named “River of January” a winner in it’s recent book trailer contest.

Click the link, and enjoy the clips.

 

Rediscovered Bookshop

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the River of January series. Both books are available at Rediscovered Books, Amazon.com and on our website.

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You Know You Should Be Glad

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It was the night of February 9, 1964, a Sunday, when my older brother and I had to make a crucial decision.  We were both over stimulated, frantic, not one of our four feet remaining long on the floor. The house vibrated with our excitement and the weight of our impossible dilemma. For starters our birthday was the following day–the 10th, (though we’re not twins–he’s a year older). Still, that pre-birthday fuse had already ignited and by the 9th the two of us were banking off the walls.

The quandary we faced that Sunday night was whether to watch “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” starring Fess Parker on Disney (The Alamo!), or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. This was that first historic Beatles broadcast, live on American television, and we agonized between the two choices.

In 1964 there were no video players, no DVD players, no home computers, or dvr’s, in fact televisions were the size of Volkswagen’s and transmitted in glorious, flickering black and white. This difficult decision counted because there was no rewind, there were no do-overs. One gain meant one loss.

We liked Davy Crockett an awful lot.  We had watched all the previous episodes, and Davy biting the dust in San Antonio was the much anticipated grand finale. But, oh, the Beatles! And the adoration was real, palpable, an injection of adrenaline without the needle. We worshiped at the warmth of our bedroom radios, perpetually tuned in to our local AM radio station. Reverent silence accompanied replays of “She Loves You,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

What could two grade schoolers, sick with anticipation do with such a weighty conundrum?  It was 1964 and we had to choose.

Before the proliferation of electronic media, this little girl of the 1960’s viewed momentous events as they beamed across the screen. MLK’s elocution at the Lincoln Memorial, President Kennedy’s inaugural address, his assassination, and the escalating war in Southeast Asia–all experienced as reported at that moment.

In an earlier era, when Chum flew in his air race, and Helen danced in Rio at the Copacabana, there were no camcorders or Iphones. His signature landing and Helen’s near disastrous opening night grew silent as the applause subsided, then faded in time. Much like my brother and myself in 1964, they lived life forward, one opportunity at a time.

Silent photos and written records are all that remain verifying Chum’s aerial dash through darkened skies, and Helen’s energetic dance routines. They lived life forward, embracing events as they unfolded–experienced once, then gone. I would love to see footage of Chum’s Waco airplane lifting off at dusk, or watch Helen spring across the stage. But those wishes are pipe dreams, never to happen. No vintage film or recording, (except one I found by accident) exist in the historic record. The best I can do for myself, and for readers, is try to recreate the magic of the first time around in the pages of my River of January.

Oh, by the way, I’ve never seen “Davy Crockett at the Alamo.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available at www.river-of-january.com.

From The Top Balcony

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A gentleman called the house last week asking to speak to me. Since I was out, my husband began chatting with the caller, and once again, as has so many times before, something magic happened related to my books.

This man had discovered “River of January: Figure Eight,” through a series of clicks on social media, and found enough information to phone our home. He had hoped to gather more about the professional Ice Shows at Center Theater during the war in New York. The reason he asked was that his aunt had skated in the productions, (created by Sonja Henie, and choreographed by ballet mistress, Catherine Littlefield) and that his aunt was still living!

On Sunday night, following my own conversation with the nephew, I had the honor of speaking to Gertrude, “Trudy” Schneider, now a young 93 years old. This grand lady, residing in Canada, apologized that she had only known Helen Thompson, my central character in the memoir, from the theater dressing room. Though Trudy skated evenings with Helen, she attended school during the day, as she was only sixteen years old. That made sense since Helen was close to thirty when she began the show, and a mother by that time.

Trudy further detailed her life story, adding that she and her family, with relatives already in America, came to the country from Vienna in 1939. Under Nazi occupation, Austria was not a safe place for Jews any longer, and so she, her parents, and one brother made their way to the US. A skater since childhood, she had been ‘discovered’ skating at Madison Square Garden, and promptly signed by the Center Theater front office. Her parents weren’t thrilled about their daughter working, but according to her nephew, Trudy earned $45.00 a week, making her income vital.

I also found out that one of my favorite character’s in “Figure Eight,” Vera Hruba, a Czech skater,  advised Trudy to always remember her false eyelashes. According to Hruba that was all a girl needed.

As our conversation progressed she seemed to recall more details about her experience at the theater, including how a typical rehearsal transpired. Catherine Littlefield, the  choreographer mentioned above, would climb to the top tier of the fourth balcony and critique the final run-through from her lofty perch. Trudy implied an aura of imperial omnipotence in Miss Littlefield’s seating choice, judging the performance from on high.

Conversing with Trudy felt like time travel; that I had reached back and touched 1943 New York. When I find this book business overwhelming–when I wonder why I bothered to take on the project, a “Trudy” moment presents itself.

Then I remember.

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Helen Thompson (Chumbley) first girl on right, Trudy Schneider, second girl from right.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a memoir in two volumes.

 

 

 

Dancers and the Lady Pilot

Their names were Carmen Morales, Maria Gambarelli, Mistinguett, and Frances Harrell Marsalis. These four women carved out professional careers, achieving various levels of fame, in an early 20th century largely dominated by men. All four figures also weave into my first book, River of January, as friends and employers of my main characters. It has been an interesting journey, filled with pleasant surprises, not to forget an honor to revive their names, and present these women to 21st Century readers.

All four women lived life on their own terms.

Frances Harrell Marsalis, a Texas-born girl, left a husband and children, relocating to New York’s Roosevelt Field. Obsessed with flight, Frances patiently put in her time, learning the specialized, mechanical skills of aviation until she, too, finally buckled into the cockpit. Allying with other women pilots at the famed field, Frances founded The Ninety Nines, a sorority of women flyers, electing Amelia Earhart their first president. Together these women formed a tight-knit association, attracting endorsements from advertisers, (usually for products like cosmetics) to earn enough money stay in the air.

In a 1934 Dayton, Ohio air race, Frances met her demise while rounding a pylon, trapped in wing-to-wing congestion. Another plane bumped hers, and flying low Frances launched into a fiery cartwheel. She survived in the wreckage, but died shortly after.

Frances Harrell Marsalis entered the pages of River of January as Mont Chumbley’s first serious love.

Rich in Old World sensibilities, Carmen Morales and Maria Gambarelli embodied the excellence of the performing arts.

Gambarelli, American-born, of Italian descent, rose to fame as a celebrated New York ballerina. Renowned for her devotion to dance, Gambarelli promoted American ballet with a missionary’s zeal. In 1932 the prima ballerina agreed to headline a European tour featuring talented American ballerinas. Twenty-year-old Helen auditioned, and made the cut, joining this company of ingenue dancers, soon crossing the Atlantic aboard the SS Ille de France. Once in Paris, an unexpected dispute erupted between Gambarelli and the tour producers over her creative authority. The prima ballerina either quit or was fired—Helen’s letters indicate the girls weren’t told. Gambarelli returned to America embroiled in a lawsuit with the promoters.

Born in Spain’s Canary Islands, lovely Carmen Morales, found her way to New York City. Along with Helen, Carmen also earned a spot in Gambarelli’s 1932 ballet company. An accomplished dancer, she and Helen developed a warm, life-long friendship during their months of extended travel. With daily rehearsals, nightly performances, and endless hours on rail cars, bonds formed between the two that lasted forever.

In Monte Carlo, Carmen met and fell in love with an American hoofer, Earl Leslie. The couple quickly married in Marseilles, and Carmen, with her new husband, left the show in 1933. The couple had accepted a position managing a string of German nightclubs from a central office in Berlin. However, menacing visits from Hitler’s Brownshirts quickly convinced Carmen and her worried husband, to resign and escape the country. The marriage with Leslie didn’t last much longer either, and Carmen left Earl while performing in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Making her way to Los Angeles in the late 1930’s, Carmen settled in Sherman Oaks, and pursued a career in motion pictures. Director John Ford signed Morales to star in Warner Brothers, The Long Journey Home with John Wayne in 1940. Following that release, Carmen appeared in other features, and later took roles on television. She died in Sherman Oaks in 2000.

The most famous of the four was French entertainer, Mistinguett. Though not well known in America, this music hall icon is still revered by generations of French devotees of the stage. By the time Helen became acquainted with “Miss,” as she referred to the celebrity, the songstress was well into middle age; her beauty beginning to fade. Nonetheless, when Miss signed the American ballerinas to her variety show, following the Gambarelli fiasco, Helen and her fellow dancers were fascinated by their new boss.

Rumors abounded in the dressing room regarding the grand lady’s legendary love affairs, especially with French heart-throb, Maurice Chevalier. Though significantly older than Chevalier, Mistinguett had engaged in a torrid affair years earlier, when Chevalier had been a mere chorus boy.

But all gossip fell silent when the grand lady took the stage—no one spoke, nor laughed. They instead watched and listened in rapt awe and admiration. “Miss’s” signature song, Mon Homme, reliably brought the house down, with teary-eyed audiences clamoring for more. By the way, Mon Homme translates to My Man, first made popular in America by Ziegfeld girl, Fanny Brice, then again by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

River of January, for me, lived up to Huck Finn-esque title. This journey of discovery led back to an adventurous era, where women dared alongside their male counter parts.

For more about these fascinating ladies read River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, by Gail Chumbley. Visit www.river-of-january.com.