Here’s a sample chapter from my novel “Half Moon.” The scene is a World War II bond rally. The setting is Yonkers, New York, an industrial city located just north of New York City along the Hudson River.
1945: Buy Bonds!
The mayor of Yonkers was named honorary chairman of a special committee to organize the bond rally, which was scheduled for April 1, 1945, to be held at Larkin Plaza in the downtown area a few blocks from the Getty Square business district, right near the post office, the ferry slip, the historic Phillipse Manor house and the Yonkers Herald building.
The day after the location and time of the event were announced in February of that year, the Herald ran a front-page article about it:
“Entertainers Gene Krupa, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Carney and Sid Caesar will appear at a bond rally to be held April 1 at Larkin Plaza, city officials and USO representatives announced yesterday.
“The goal for the event will be to sell $20,000 in war bonds, organizers said. Each of the entertainers, who are all city residents, will appear free-of-charge.”
My young mother, still in high school, read the next paragraph to her best friends, Lorraine and Charlotte: “And it says, `USO officials issued a special invitation to Yonkers residents to demonstrate their singing talents while helping the war effort. Tryouts will be held this Saturday for amateur performers, with one individual or ensemble selected to appear in the show.’’
“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me,” my mother began to sing.
“Anyone else but me, anyone else but me,” the other girls sang.
“Pardon me, sir, is this the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?” my mother sang, and the other girls made whoo-whoo sounds like a train.
“Do you really think we can do it, Ginny?” Lorraine asked. “Get up in front of all those people?”
“Sure we can!” my mother replied.
So they decided to give it a try. All three were in the 11th grade at Yonkers Business High School, all three taking the secretarial course. Charlotte worked on Saturdays at Mimi’s, the fancy department store in Getty Square, Lorraine worked after school at Frost’s Bakery on North Broadway, and my mother worked Saturday afternoons as an usherette at the downtown RKO movie theater, where she would meet my father a year later, when they were both 17, when he would get a job there as an usher, and her would let her borrow his little flashlight when her own little flashlight went dead.
My mother and her friends were big fans of the Andrews Sisters, and most of their repertoire consisted of Andrews Sisters songs: “Rum and Coca-Cola” and “Accentuate the Positive” and “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” were their best numbers. My mother and her friends also liked the softer ballads done by the three singing sisters: “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and “I Wanna Be Loved” sometimes struck a chord, when the mood was right. But their favorite Andrews Sisters songs were the ones with the wild harmonies and the jive rhythms and clever wordplay, like “Pistol-Packing Mama” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby?).”
They had started out by singing along with the songs on the radio; then my mother had gotten the idea of performing at the high school’s talent show. They had recruited a drummer and a trumpet player from the high school band; and Charlotte’s cousin, Al, who played the piano, had joined the group because he had a really bad crush on Lorraine, who reminded him of Betty Grable.
Ella Fitzgerald herself showed up at the USO show auditions held that Saturday. There were three sets of Mills Brothers impersonators, all of whom sang “Glow Worm.” There were Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra imitators. And there was a group of high school boys who wore cowboy outfits and performed a slightly off-key rendition of “Cool, Cool Water” by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.
My mother and her friends didn’t have a name for their group, which hadn’t even occurred to them until Ella Fitzgerald, who was standing at a microphone set up in a corner of the stage, asked them their name.
“We’re the Baxter Sisters,” my mother replied. “And we’d like all of you to help us help our boys overseas defeat Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini by buying War Bonds. We’re going to do a song by our favorite singer…Miss Ella Fitzgerald.”
The drummer hit the skins, the trumpet player started to blow, the piano player pounded the eighty-eights, and my mother began to sing “A Tisket, A Tasket,” Ella Fitzgerald’s biggest hit:
… A-tisket, a-tasket
A green-and-yellow basket
I bought a basket for my mommie
On the way I dropped it
The small gathering of amateur entertainers and city officials and USO representatives cheered wildly when Ella herself glided across the stage, head swaying and fingers snapping, and joined the Baxter Sisters in the final refrain:
Was it red?
No, no, no, no.
Was it brown?
No, no, no, no.
Was it blue?
No, no, no, no.
Ella and Baxter Sisters together as the audience roared:
Just a little yellow basket.
A Yonkers Herald reporter had this to say in the next day’s paper:
“A singing group called the Baxter Sisters stole the show at yesterday’s talent tryouts for the upcoming war-bonds rally at Larkin Plaza. The three girls, all students at Yonkers Business High School, wowed the crowd – and Miss Ella Fitzgerald – with a finger-snapping, foot-tapping rendition of Miss Fitzgerald’s hit record, “A Tisket, A Tasket.”
April 1 arrived, and a crowd estimated by the Yonkers Police Department to be about 5,000 people gathered at Larkin Plaza for the big USO bond rally. Many had taken the train to Yonkers from New York. Several hundred had come over from New Jersey on the ferry Daisy from Alpine Dock to Peene’s Dock in Yonkers. And three people had walked down to Larkin Plaza from Park Hill: my father, who was there with his father, who had brought along his friend, Sam Berkowitz, who would someday become the grandfather of a little boy with dark curly hair and an oval face named Davy.
The Yonkers High School All-Star Band, made up of the most talented musicians from the city’s five high schools, opened the festivities with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by the singing of the official Yonkers song, “which was technically named “By the Banks of the Beautiful Hudson” but was known to most people by the first few words of the song’s chorus:
“We love our lovely river, where e’er we chance to be…’’
After the band played, Mayor Chester Nodine, gave a lengthy speech in which he praised Yonkers residents for their contributions to the Allied war effort, predicted that one day Hitler’s face would crumble from the cliffs of the Palisades “on the day that our boys march into Berlin,” and thanked Ella Fitzgerald, Art Carney, Gene Krupa and Sid Caesar “for taking time from their busy schedules on Broadway and in Hollywood to help their home town help our boys win the war.
“And now, ladies and gentleman,” the mayor of Yonkers said, “it gives me great pleasure and it is a great honor for me to introduce Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Krupa – with two strangers they met this morning on a street corner in Getty Square!”
Krupa hit the snare drum and the cymbals and the bass drum simultaneously and, right on the downbeat, Ella began to sing:
I dropped it, I dropped it
Yes, on the way I dropped it
A little girlie picked it up
And took it to the market.
She took my yellow basket
And if she doesn’t bring it back
I think that I shall die.
Krupa’s band – Sam Elridge on sax and Roy Donahue on trumpet – sailed off on a bebop riff, and two rubber-legged characters wearing funny wide-brimmed hats and baggy clothes, two crazy hipsters, jitterbugged out onto the stage. The crowd roared with laughter as Sid Caesar and Art Carney snapped their fingers and swung their hips and made believe they were playing the saxophone and trumpet, as Carney playfully pushed Krupa away from the drum set and imitated the drummer’s frenetic style, with dark hair flying over his forehead and arms moving so fast they blurred, and Caesar stepped to the microphone and did an affectionate parody of Ella’s scat style.
Then Ella, Carney and Caesar left the stage, and Krupa’s band played a couple of their big hits, “Wire Brush Stomp” and “Blue Rhythm Fantasy,” then Ella sashayed back on stage, right in the middle of “Blue Rhythm,” and Krupa and his band switched effortlessly into Ella’s sultry version of “Making Believe It’s You.”
When she finished the song, the crowd roared for more, but Ella stepped to the mike and shouted, “And now, my favorite girls, from right here in Yonkers, the Baxter Sisters!”
My mother stepped forward and sang in a low, bluesy voice:
If you wanna hear my story
Then settle back and just sit tight
While I start reviewin’
The attitude of doing right.
Charlotte and Lorraine jumped in and the three Baxter Sisters sang the Andrews Sisters’ smash hit, “Accentuate the Positive,” with my mother singing the lead:
To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said, “We’d better accentuate the positive”
“Eliminate the negative”
“And latch on to the affirmative”
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between — no!
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
The Baxter Sisters were scheduled to do only one song, but the crowd was calling for an encore. My mother looked to the side of the stage and saw Ella and Krupa nodding their heads at her. My mother hesitated – but then Krupa and his band scooted back on stage, Ella ran out and stood beside the Baxter Sisters, making them a four-girl group, Krupa shouted, “Rum and Coca-Cola!” and my mother smiled and shimmied and belted out:
If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time
Ella, Lorraine and Charlotte chimed in:
Drinking rum and Coca-Cola!
Strangers danced with each other all around Larkin Plaza, swinging and jittering, and those who didn’t dance shouted out the chorus, “Rum and Coca-Cola!”
The crowd was still in a frenzy, cheering for the Baxter Sisters, when the song stopped and Ella called out to the crowd: “This young lady can really swing! We’re going to do one last song together!”
Ella whispered to my mother, “Do you know `Ferry Boat Serenade?” That was another big hit by the Andrew Sisters. Of course my mother knew “Ferry Boat Serenade.”
They took turns singing verses, singing without the band – except for Krupa, who gently brushed the snare as Ella and my mother sang a capella.
I have never been aboard a steamer
I am just content to be a dreamer
Even if I could afford a steamer
I will take the ferry boat every time
I love to ride the ferry
Where music is so merry
While boys and girls are dancing
While sweethearts are romancing
Ella and my mother together, with their arms around each others’ shoulders:
Happy, we cling together
Happy, we sing together
Happy, with the ferry boat serenade
My mother beamed as Ella hugged her. The other Baxter Sisters ran up to the front of the stage to take their bow. Krupa twirled his sticks, caught them in midair, rapped on his bass, and took his bow. Carney and Caesar stumbled out onto the stage and drew cheers and laughs as they leaned forward to take their bows – and tumbled forward and off the low stage.