In my family searching, I have already found plenty of roots of my own life in art. My brother plays orchestral tuba. My dad and mom both had music as a strong part of their lives. My sister is a quilting artist of great repute. But where does my theatre life come from? It’s a long reach, but there’s evidently a strong connection.
A young woman born in 1915, a year before my mother (Elizabeth Day), is a clear link. Her mother and my grandmother were cousins. I look at their high school yearbook pictures, and the resemblance is uncanny; even though the blood link isn’t close, the kinship is there, and it’s her father whose spirit runs in my veins.
His own father was a grocer in Luzerne, Pennsylvania, and he had five brothers and sisters. Two brothers became farmers in Montana, two brothers migrated to Chicago, as did his parents and his sister. None of them had anything to do with the arts. But he wanted to, and he did.
He moved to St. Louis, rejoined his parents when they moved to Chicago, then returned to St. Louis until the time came when he took up a wager to get himself professional training for the musical stage. The conditions were that he should make the journey to New York within 65 days, that he should not beg, and the entire journey should be on foot. He did it, 1200 miles, 51 days, starting with five cents in his pocket for the bridge toll. And he exhibited superb talents as a promoter, because newspapers all across the country printed stories of his challenge.
I have no idea whether the “wager” was fact or fiction, but the media bought the story and it became real enough to get him the scholarship he wanted. He earned it with shoe-leather, hardship, and media savvy, and he used it to get himself work on the musical stage. The best part for me is that he sang his way across half the country, walking along the rail lines through the towns along the way—Pieron, Smithboro, Vandalia, Altamont, Montrose, Casey, then Carnegie, Pittsburgh, Blairsville, Altoona, Petersburg, McVeytown, Patterson, Newport, Harrisburg, Elizabethtown, Lancaster, Coatesville, Wayne, Philadelphia, and finally Jersey City, giving an impromptu concert at every stop. It sounds like my old tour journals.
Looking at the family tree, there isn’t any direct connection with this theatrical entrepreneur and me, just a link through his wife. But their antecedents are my antecedents, and I believe that somewhere in the mix we share something. We had an itch and did what we needed to do to scratch it. Thanks, Karl Becca!