Ushering in some culture

Third in a series of posts about special buildings in my life that are no more:

As Joy and I were growing up, we had fairly normal lives - maybe spent more time at church than the average kid - but on the whole, for those of our financial status and environment, we were like everybody else.  That changed the minute we became ushers.

Memphis had a grand auditorium, Ellis Auditorium, a downtown facility which hosted countless shows, visiting artists, everything from opera to Bobby Sherman, plays and symphonies.  Our school chorus teacher, Miss Gillespie, had a good friend named Rosemary Hammond (who, it turns out, was a family friend of our parents as well), and Rosemary was in charge of staffing a volunteer usher group of junior high/high school students to make sure all those audience members could find their seats.  So that's how it started.  Yes, the job was strictly volunteer, but the benefits - ah, that's what made us the culturally rich women we are today!  After standing and walking non-stop for an hour or so, taking tickets and trudging up and down stairs, gently urging folks to move to the correct seat in some cases, we ushers got our rewards - we found some empty seats, or in the case of a sold-out performance, stood somewhere, and got to see all the shows for free.

Of course, we were dependent on our dad to drive us there and pick us up.  Many times he had to get up early the next morning and go to work as a bank teller; nevertheless, at midnight he could be seen driving downtown, parking, riding the escalator up to the second floor, and gathering his two girls for the ride home.  Occasionally he was early enough to catch a little of the show's ending himself, which he relished.  Years later, I asked him what on earth led him to sacrifice so much of his time and sleep to make sure we could see those shows.  He replied that, being financially unable to buy us tickets for such performances himself, he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to widen our cultural horizons and would do anything to see that dream realized.  What a dad!

So there we were, living the lives of the "theater."  Note:  The plays and musicals were for the most part tours from Broadway - real Broadway casts and real Broadway stars.  Here are some programs - just a small sample - of some of the shows we attended.  (Excuse the tape and other signs of age - these are old pieces of paper that I unfortunately stuck in those self-adherence scrapbooks that I can never remove!)

(That couple above: Robert Preston and Mary Martin - the only actors in the whole musical - to this day I can sing almost every song from memory.)
(Backstage, I spoke to Duke in French, and he wrote me a charmingly complimentary few sentences in French in my autograph book)

As a budding pianist, I got to see the incredible Van Cliburn and he even autographed my copy of Moonlight Sonata (which has sadly disappeared in the ensuing years), but I remember gushing around his tall frame with a bunch of other piano students backstage and saying to him, "Do you realize you are 1/2 inch taller than Abraham Lincoln?" (He didn't.)
I was never into dance, but I knew ballet superstars when I saw them, and so was enchanted with the incomparable Nureyev and Fonteyn:
Elvis even made an appearance - not as a performer, but as a participant in the Jaycees Prayer breakfast, which was held in the Auditorium (I believe he was winning an award).

The Metropolitan Opera came to town every year, and that was one of the highlights of the well-to-do and society leaders in Memphis.  I remember the first time I ushered for the Met.  Rosemary had asked the usherettes to wear "tea length dresses," something I, of course, did not own and had to borrow from a  teenager at church.  The whole thing was very formal, and very exciting.  My dad took home movies of my friend Audrey and me all gussied up on our way to usher for the Met performance.

Here is a program from the Orchestra of Paris concert.  I had found an empty seat directly beside a member of that symphony (I can't remember why he was in the audience at the time).  He autographed my program and taught me the word "ouvreuse" was the French word for "usherette."

The shows and concerts were endless - many more than I could talk about here.  The Memphis Symphony had monthly concerts, and often had a guest soloist - one time it was Pablo Casals, the great cellist.  I was interested in pianists, but cellists?  Not so much. My dad made me usher and stay for that one - he said I would always regret the opportunity to hear Pablo Casals in person.  Funny, but to this day, I am proud to say I did indeed see Mr. Casals in person, the cello intrigues me and I would love to learn how to play one.

Some of the shows, like "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," Joy and I watched so many performances that we knew all the lines by heart ourselves.  It was always fun to see the various audiences and their different reactions to the same lines.

Of course, I wasn't always in the audience.  I was in the chorus of the operas Aida and Faust:
I vividly remember the opening night of Aida.  We had to look like Egyptians, so they had this horrible dark mud-like pancake makeup they were going to smear all over our faces.  Now, I have always had an aversion to caked mud and dirt anywhere on my body.  It just makes me want to scream.  I remember going into the makeup room, where the makeup attendant got a big handful of gross mud-like putty and as it came near my face, I had the fleeting thought of "It's not too late; I can just walk out of here and be done with it."  But I flinched and allowed it to be smeared on.  So yucky!  But it was a lot of fun to be on stage for a change.  My second opera was Faust, I was a year older, and I absolutely adored the music, so I had a ball.  Who wouldn't want to be dressed as a peasant, sitting around a table with a tankard of "beer" in your hand, lustily singing lyrics like, if I remember correctly:  "Wine or beer, beer or wine, for we drink any kind...when the wine glass goes around, we can always be found...only water we disdain, drinking keeps us sound and sane!"?

Then finally:
My high school graduation was held in the Auditorium.

Joy and I got to haunt the halls of the Auditorium back in the days before security was a big issue.  The security guards actually got used to seeing us; rarely were we forbidden from entering an area or questioned.  (Even so, we tried to avoid calling attention to ourselves just in case.) I spent countless performances just sitting backstage, right in the wings, drinking in the excitement of seeing the performances.  I was so close I could have walked on stage before anyone could have stopped me.  I was very quiet and unobtrusive, but it was never anything like it would be today.  I can't believe we got away with it so many times like we did.

Alas, all those memories were left without a tangible presence, as in 1997 Ellis Auditorium underwent demolition.  When I think of all the music, laughter, and excitement that filled that building for years and years, I tear up.  But I also smile a little, remembering Daddy's great wish to give us something he could never have afforded to give us - an appreciation of music, drama, and culture that is with us to this day.  I laud the greats like Van Cliburn, Duke Ellington, Pablo Casals and the rest - but the real hero was our dad, every sacrificing, ever dreaming, ever trying to give his little girls two wonder-filled magical lives.

RIP, Ellis Auditorium, Memphis.