My father came up hard through the depression earning money from the age of eight by tap dancing in his family’s act. They were on the bottom rung of vaudeville—barn dances, Elks Clubs, smokers, anything to turn a buck and keep going. The family wandered through the upper Midwest—Fargo, Duluth, Grand Rapids—doing their act and picking up odd jobs in slaughterhouses and canning factories. If they had money, they’d get a two-room apartment and rent out the extra room to another act. Or they lived in tent towns . . . or in bus stations.
My father had a hardcore show business ethic that was both sad and beautiful to me. His family was in terrible financial straits but the shows were never about money. He used to tell a story about a bird act that he followed in Fargo. The birds were nuts about performing. They loved it. They were so excited before their number that they would squawk and screech and pry at the bars of their cages, trying to get onstage. The act began with the six white cockatoos standing perfectly still on their trainer’s outstretched arms, poised and focused in the glistening spotlight. The birds would do songs. They sang, “Oh yes, we have no bananas.” They did dialogue, jokes and a scene. The audience loved the birds. They would applaud and laugh and whistle. In the grand finale the birds would fly into the air in precise, overlapping patterns. They fluttered out over hopeful upturned faces like a heavenly visitation. For that moment, whatever scrabble-assed depression-era hall they were playing was transformed into a place of beauty and promise.
At the end of the story my father would take a dramatic beat and ask rhetorically, “Who pays the birds?” Then shaking his head slowly from side to side he would say, “No one pays the birds. They perform for love.”
At the time this photo was taken my father was still alive. There was a great deal of pain and estrangement in our relationship then. Still . . . I am wearing the tuxedo he gave to me and I am performing many of the steps that he taught me. On the surface, my tap dancing was nothing like his. He was an entertainer. I was thunderously transgressive, “post modern” and mostly improvising, but our ethics were the same. We performed for love.
Photo: Paul B Goode