It’s four o’clock on a weekday afternoon circa 1951, and there I am on the living room floor, short pants and chubby legs, singing “The Tennessee Waltz” with Kate Smith. My only audience, but none more devoted, is my mom who is busy in the kitchen preparing today’s supper so that we can eat at 5:30 when Nippy comes home. I think I was good today, so no worries about bad reports to my dad like last week when I tried decorating a bedroom wall with assorted crayons and all Hell broke loose. My main interest on this breezy April day has been to drive my kiddie car and tricycle back and forth on the sidewalk between the front stoop of our brick bungalow and Coronado Drive.
I can’t figure out why they insist on eating supper at 5:30 when Howdy Doody comes on. It’s a form of punishment to pull a kid away from Buffalo Bob and the Peanut Gallery, even for spaghetti and meatballs. While spaghetti is a favorite of most people, Nippy is not a fan of my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs. You’d think he might side with me and push for a later supper time. I try a few delay tactics, but within ten minutes I surrender to their crescendo of calls to the kitchen table. Now the game is to eat as fast as possible so I don’t miss too much of the antics of Mr. Bluster, Clarabelle, and Howdy.
In those early 1950’s I have foggy recollections of Saturday evenings at Grandma and Grand pap Knoepfle’s on May Street, watching Dusty and the Wilkins EZ Credit Ranch Girls strum their guitars and sing dreamy country tunes. More than the music they played, the image of their costumes is more clear—ankle-length skirts with drape-like pleats and western blouses with leathery fringe across the bust lines and shoulders. Through the haze of too many decades I can glimpse long wavy curls cascading from their cowgirl hats . . .
While our houses and neighborhoods changed frequently in those early years, my attachment to the magic of television was a constant. In the Bailey Avenue years of first and second grade we lived in an apartment upstairs of my mother’s brother, Uncle Bill Pearson and his wife, Jean, whom my mother referred to, not so affectionately, as Madam Queen. My younger cousins, Ricky and Billy, were onsite playmates for me.
In those days Patty Page was making that “doggy in the window” famous as we watched Liberace and sang with Perry Como on Tuesday nights. Earlier on a weekday evening I could travel to distant constellations with Captain Video and his crew. Often on Friday nights I recall hanging out with cousins, Ricky and Billy, as we watched the Gillette Friday night fights with Uncle Bill.
The biggest event in my mind, during our two years on Bailey Avenue in the mid ‘50’s, was the arrival of the first color TV in the neighborhood—not in our house, but over at Lofstrom’s, “the Corner” as it was normally referred to by Daisy Jean and Nippy. It had been rumored for weeks that a color TV was on its way to Lofstrom’s Beer Garden at the corner of Bailey and Flagler, and one March night was the unveiling. While Daisy Jean was not a fan of Lofstrom’s, as she thought Nippy spent too much time there, she declared a cease-fire on that night, and the three of us joined the curious crowd of the fortunate who would get to see this marvel of American ingenuity! I have no idea what the patrons and onlookers were viewing on that 20” color tube TV that night, but just seeing that rainbow streaked screen trumped whatever programming was on it.
After the big fight between my mother and Madam Queen one Monday wash day, our days were numbered at the Bailey Avenue location. Eddie Johnson, another Bailey Avenue neighbor, had been renovating an old Victorian frame house in the uppermost block of Willow Street, and he was shopping for good tenants. Timing is everything. Our family of three became the downstairs tenants of the Willow Street house with Barbara and Harry Francis claiming the upstairs apartment.
Both tenants shared laundry privileges and storage in the expansive basement. Soon after we moved in, Eddie demolished the rickety, one-car detached garage and built a new cinder block, two-car garage for Harry’s Pontiac and Nippy’s Plymouth. The new garage encroached on our backyard space, but there was still a plot of grass to mow, along with the grassy side yard bordering Grant Street. I was old enough then to relieve Nippy of the grass mowing job. Nippy and I gave tender loving care to the large scarlet rose bush and the smaller pink one. We kept the yellow boxwood hedges trimmed along the backyard fence. When I was about 11 years of age in sixth grade, the year we hatched peeps in Miss Keller’s classroom, I ordered some gladiola bulbs from a TV infomercial and planted them in the side yard to border the stone foundation of the house. The power of television sparked my initial foray into gardening.
In those Willow Street years spanning intermediate grades and junior high, my favorite show was The Untouchables, a weekly docu-drama chronicling the battles of Eliot Ness and his cadre of FBI agents with Chicago mobsters. The brassy theme song, accompanied by black and white stills of gangster days, cast a spell over me at 9PM on Thursday nights. I couldn’t get enough of those boxy, black 1930’s cars careening around Chicago streets, machine gun massacres, hatchets ravaging beer barrels in speakeasy busts, and clandestine meetings of gangster bosses—all of that punctuated by Walter Winchell’s narration in his high-pitched, yet husky yammer of a slaughterhouse foreman . . .
Speaking of gangsters, I am tickled by a family photo from a typical Easter Sunday a few years before, in which three pint-sized “gangsters”—Cousins Ricky and Billy Pearson and I—are posing on the front sidewalk on Bailey Avenue with Easter baskets half as big as we are. Erase the baskets from that photo and you might imagine a tense meeting over territorial disputes between Dutch Schultz and the Italians . . .
L to R, Ricky Pearson, Dave K., and Billy Pearson
Through the Willow Street years I was becoming a Pirate baseball fan for life. Nippy talked of his own boyhood baseball experiences growing up in Queens, NY, during the Depression and later in Coulterville, PA. He and I spent sultry summer evenings, sitting on the side porch steps, following the gospel of Bob Prince, beloved “voice of the Pirates”. At that time Prince had a sidekick just as colorful as he—Jim Woods, affectionately known as “The Possum” to Prince’s “Gunner.” In those days only Pirate away-games were televised and usually only one out of a three-game series, so Prince and the Possum painted their own kaleidoscopic picture of the game for the radio audience and unabashedly rooted for the Bucs. A “tweener,” followed by a “bloop and a blast” often secured a Pirate come-from-behind victory, especially in the ’59 and ’60 seasons. Prince and Woods could almost will it to happen.
It wasn’t always easy to love the Pirates with a long string of last-place finishes in the 1950’s, but the tide began to turn in 1959 with the blockbuster off-season trade that brought Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix, and Smokey Burgess from the Cincinnati Reds to the Pirates just as Roberto Clemente was beginning to mature into the legendary player he would become. The heartbreak of Haddix’s 12-inning perfect-game pitching masterpiece in 1959, which he ended up losing, 1-0, may have been the spark that ignited the transformation of the Pirates from losers to a first-place finish in the 1960 season and a wild World Series victory over the indomitable New York Yankees.
School was in session that golden October 13th day of game 7. I recall hearing updates from the school custodian on the progress of the see-sawing game as the lead changed hands several times until finally tied, 9-9, by the Yankees in the top of the ninth inning. Fortunately for me, I had raced my seventh grade sneakers home the five blocks from Centennial School in time to turn on our black and white Admiral TV to witness high drama in the bottom of the ninth. The crack of the bat on the 1-0 pitch to Maz from Yankee bullpen ace, Ralph Terry, the arc of that ball through the air over the ivy-covered brick wall into Schenley Park, and the eruption of the crowd in the stands seemed to lift a whole city into championship frenzy. And there I was in the downstairs living room of Eddie Johnson’s remodeled Victorian, witness to sports history through the miracle of television. Greater than Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon that would occur nine years and one house later—the “immaculate reception” of Pittsburgh baseball history—television brought that to me.
© Dave Knoepfle