Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Family Heirloom Ukulele: The Showgirl and the Stockbroker

When my mother's cousin Michael wrote and asked me for my address while I was raising money for the spring Sweet Soubrette tour, I thought he was going to send me a check. We aren't especially close, but he has a history of unpredictable philanthropic gestures (for instance, sponsoring three urinals, complete with commemorative plaques, in a library men's room at the University of Pennsylvania, an institution he did not attend). Instead, a few days later I found a large box with my name on it in the lobby of my building. Inside, swathed like a mummy in layers of bubble wrap, was a small object: a very old ukulele, somewhat the worse for wear. Stamped on the headstock it said "C. F. Martin & Co., Nazareth, PA." The enclosed note read: This was my father's, and I seem to remember my mother saying it was a good instrument. Alas, the case is cracked, but I would think it is fixable. Enjoy, M.

Michael's mother, my grandmother's oldest sister, was a Ziegfeld girl, a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies in the early 1920s. She performed in spangles and feathers under the name Lucile Layton (originally Lucille Zuckerman, but Zuckerman sounded too Jewish, and then she had to drop one L to avoid the bad luck of 13 letters in her stage name). Some photographs of Lucile Layton—scantily clad, half hidden behind a screen, lounging on top of a piano—are archived in the Library of Congress and shared on a vintage photo blog. My mother says that according to my grandmother, my great-grandmother would walk around the house at night during those years, lamenting, "Where is my daughter tonight, what has become of her?"

I never knew Michael's father, who died before I was born. Great-uncle Whitey (more formally M. Boyd) was a stockbroker who had made enough money by the age of 25 to buy a seat on the Stock Exchange. At one point he was suspended from trading because, according to Time magazine, he had "made money as the result of a confidential conversation he happened to overhear on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange," an episode that seems to have been only a minor blemish on his career. He was largely spared by the crash of 1929, but by 1932 he saw no future in the Stock Exchange and sold his seat. Not long afterward he heard a theremin being played in a nightclub and decided it would make a good investment. Along with a partner and the Russian inventor Leon Theremin himself, Whitey formed a company--mainly for the purpose of using Theremin's technology to make burgar alarms, but they manufactured some of his musical instruments as well. (Six years later Theremin, laid low by personal and financial troubles, returned to Russia and the company went under; more about this in the book Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky.) I had never heard it mentioned that Whitey played the ukulele, but at a time when the uke was so popular I suppose it would have been strange for someone like him not to have one.

After her Ziegfeld career ended, Lucile went to the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school, had three children with Whitey, and became an interior decorator. By all accounts she was a force to be reckoned with; a 1968 New York Post article about police riots describes her as a Yonkers matron butting in on four cops beating a guy with nightsticks at Grand Central Station and asking, "Does it take four your size to beat one kid?" She was a fierce and tiny woman by the time I knew her, a tyrannical matriarch with a taste for dirty jokes and calling the shots at all family gatherings. Here's some video of her at a Follies reunion event when she was 94 years old (she's introduced at 0:47). She was 102 when she died.

After a little research, I decided to bring the ukulele to Retrofret Vintage Guitars to see whether it could be restored. Retrofret is a lovingly run vintage instrument repair shop and showroom located on the roof of a former ASPCA building near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. You have to walk out across the building roof and then through a homespun screen door to enter the shop, and then you're surrounded on all sides by honey-colored wood instruments, guitars and mandolins and ukuleles from many different decades. The singer and guitarist Mamie Minch, best known in Brooklyn as one of the Roulette Sisters, was my luthier. She and Peter, one of the shop's owners, looked over the uke and told me it likely dated to 1921, because its knob tuners had been patented in 1924 but the holes in the headstock showed it had originally had peg tuners. It was made out of koa wood, slightly more upscale than the standard mahogany model—maybe a $25 instrument back when it was made, when Martin manufactured the best ukuleles there were. The instrument was very dry and there was a big crack across the back that had been badly repaired sometime in the past, but Mamie promised it would be playable by the time she was finished with it. I left it in her hands.

Over the next two and a half months I received progress reports from Mamie. The uke lived in a humidifier closet for a while to get "nice and juicy." Then meat tenderizer was applied to the crack, which had previously been filled in with carpenter's wood putty, so that the proteins in the putty would break down and then the crack could be repaired properly. Mamie found a piece of koa wood dating from the same era as my uke and used it to splice the crack, using old methods appropriate to the age of the instrument: French polishing, applying layers and layers of shellac and sanding in between each one. It rained all spring and the humidity slowed down this process, because each layer of shellac took that much longer to dry.
When I finally went to pick up the uke, Mamie showed me the repair on the back and explained that each piece of wood refracts light slightly differently. So depending on how you hold the uke, from certain angles you can see a darker line where the splice was inserted. There is also a very slight depression you can feel with your fingers. It recalls a scar long after an injury has healed, or maybe a tattoo. The front shows its age, etched with scratches, marked by an interesting life almost as long as Lucile's.

I didn't get to know Lucile well, but I had glimpses of what she was like. When I was eighteen I got a large tattoo across my shoulders, and that summer Lucile's grandson, my cousin Peter, got married. In the middle of July it seemed impossible to find something suitable to wear that would cover it; I ended up giving up and choosing a skimpy dress with spaghetti straps, but I was nervous about exposing the tattoo to my older relatives' disapproval. Sure enough, at the wedding, Aunt Lucile came up to me and peered sharply at my shoulders, which were at about her eye level. "What's that?" she demanded. "It's a tattoo, Aunt Lucile," I said, bracing myself. "Does that mean it's permanent?" she asked. I admitted that it was. She considered for a moment, then smiled broadly. "Why, that's marvelous!"

When the uke arrived, the strings were too loose to strum, so it wasn't until after it had been repaired that I got to hear what it sounded like. It has a sweet tone, its voice not as strident as the new-model uke I perform and rehearse with, and it feels more like a living thing too, temperamental and unique. So far it won't stay in tune for more than a few bars, but I'm hoping that playing it will stretch the new strings out so that they will hold. It will be a thrill to bring this instrument back to life after so many years.

I sent Michael a picture of the restored ukulele and he wrote back: It's lovely, but ukes, like women, are meant to be played, not looked at. Hopefully, this one will give you a lot of enjoyment.


Josh said...

Marvelous indeed! Michael's so funny--that's such a dirty comment!

robinhoffman said...

What a great story! Hope I get to see the uke onstage with you sometime.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it! I know Mamie as a performer. I had no idea she was a craftswoman, too. Fascinating stuff. I hope to hear you play the Martin one day, after you've aged it like a fine wine.
All the best,
Phil Stern
The Sidney Bechet Society

The Bassist said...

What a great uke revival story. I hope she lasts you a while now!

Zeroboy said...

Thanks! What a wonderful story. May the Uke bring history into everything you do.

Adam said...

Love the story. Am interested to hear that she lived in Yonkers (where I live now) I have been getting the feeling that Yonkers is where a lot of former showpeople ended up moving to back in the day. Close enough to be in the city if you have to, but enough out of it that you feel a bit suburban at times. (And not too pricey/toney/WASPY, like Connecticut.)

Things that interest Ed said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Things that interest Ed said...

A great story. I met Lucile in a Yonkers thrift show (Etc.) when I was 20, and we became friends. It didn't matter that I was 56 years her junior. I remember visiting her and her sister Esther at her West Palm Beach apartment, and when sister Zippy came to live with her in Yonkers. She always had great stories and pulled out her pictures to show me. In fact, I have a framed photo of a very elegant Lucile hanging in my living room, and an autographed piece of Ziegfeld Follies sheet music hanging up to - it was from the day she invited me to a lunch of her Ziegfeld and Midnight Frolic friends.