Lord, those damned trunks were heavy. It should’ve been a short walk from the Wellsville Depot to the Babcock Theatre, but it took five times forever. The stupid trunks had straps on either end; Nell and Kit carried one while Winnie and I hauled the other. We kept stopping to switch our aching red hands.
“You’re going too fast!” Winnie whined.
“Your legs are too short,” I snapped. “You need a pair of stilts so you can keep up.”
“Wouldn’t stilts slow her down?” Kit asked.
Honestly, if my hands hadn’t been full, I would’ve pinched them both good and hard.
The Babcock was a brick-front building cheek by jowl with the stores on either side. The stage door was to the left of the theatre doors, which had huge circular windows. It was dark in the long hallway that led backstage, and I was startled nearly to death when a deep voice said, “Can I give a hand with that trunk?”
“What in the world . . . ?” Mother said.
As our eyes adjusted, a figure loomed. White collar and cuffs, white spats over his shoes, even the white of his teeth when he spoke. But the rest of him still hadn’t come quite clear.
“No disrespect, ma’am,” he said quickly. “Just trying to be helpful.” “Well . . . all right,” I said.
“You can let it down. I can carry the whole load.” Suddenly, the trunk and the man were gone.
“Who was that?” demanded Mother. “Must be a stagehand,” I said.
We made our way down the hall toward the backstage. The man had set the first trunk down and returned for the other. His skin was the color of maple syrup, and almost as shiny-smooth. His hair was short and slicked down with a touch of pomade, but it had little ripples and you could tell it would be tightly curled if he grew it out. He was tall and muscular, with long legs built for speed, and shoulders as broad as a bookshelf.
“Tippety Tap Jones,” he said, flicking his gaze down after making contact with mine. He didn’t hold out his hand to shake.
He lifted the other trunk away from Nell and Kit, his arms wrapping easily around the girth of it. But it was clear he was no stagehand. His smart black double-breasted suit was neatly pressed, though it had seen some wear. The Negroes I’d seen around Johnson City were poor and wore workers’ clothing, and you didn’t often see a Negro performer unless you went to one of the all-colored shows. For a moment, we didn’t know what to make of it.
Mother went off to find the stage manager, and Kit went with her. Nell took the baby and sat down on one of the trunks to unwrap him from all his coverings.
“Where are you on the bill?” I asked the colored man, trying not to sound too interested. Because I was interested. There was something about his quietness that made me want to make him talk so I could figure him out a little better. It doesn’t usually take me more than five minutes of conversation to accomplish that with any man.
“Oh, I can fit in anywhere, wherever they like to put me.”
That was no kind of answer. “Well, your agent must have told you something,” I pressed.
For the first time his gaze held mine. I saw his wariness, as if he was wondering what kind of trouble I’d be. But there was toughness, too. A sense that he’d faced worse than the likes of me.
His gazed flicked away again. “Agents,” he said mildly. “They like to give the good news. Doesn’t always turn out like that. I’d rather just wait and see.”
“We’re the Turners,” Winnie said in that bright, goody-goody way she has that goes right up my spine. “We usually open, but like you said, there’s no guarantee.”
“Is that right?” He smiled kindly at her, thinking she was young, of course. “And what kind of act do you do?”
“We’re acrobats,” I said quickly to take control of things so I could complete my mission. “My three sisters and me.”
“You don’t say. Well, I’m sure you’re mighty entertaining.” He nodded and moved away. There was a huge trunk in the farthest, darkest corner of the backstage area. It lay lengthwise and had four wheels sticking out on one side. He sat down on it, opened a copy of the entertainment magazine Variety, and, despite the dimness, began to read.
Mr. Kress, the theatre manager, was a little man with a tightly curled mustache and a pocket watch that he clutched like a loaded gun. “I run an orderly house,” he said, stalking around, an angry rooster in a disappointing henhouse. “There must not be more than ten seconds between acts. An act that begins after eleven seconds is tardy. Audiences get bored, and a boring show will not sell.”
The act with the pigeons that pecked out songs on a set of bells couldn’t get the birds back into their cage fast enough, which made it hard for the xylophone quartet to get all their instruments onstage in under ten seconds. Mr. Kress stamped his silly heel against the floorboards and screamed out, “Too much time, too much time!”
Tippety Tap Jones was the last to rehearse. When the curtain opened, he was standing beside a small wooden table with sturdy legs. I wondered where on earth he’d dragged it from. Nearby was a mysterious low contraption: a rectangular board that lay flat on the floor, and another board attached on one end that tipped upward, so the whole thing made a sideways V. He had one hand on the table, and he leaned into this arm as he stood, one foot crossed jauntily in front of the other. The band struck up a fun ragtime tune, and he sprang into action.
I’d never seen anything like it before. His feet moved so fast they seemed to blur, but the tapping was sharp as firecrackers. He flew around the table, fingertips touching then pushing off, spinning, tapping, then he’d lean on the table, legs swinging high into the air, heels clicking. It was wild looking and tightly controlled, all at the same time.
This was only the warm-up, though, because after a few minutes he tapped backward from the table then sprinted toward it, springing off the contraption on the floor and leaping onto the table. It was so amazing I almost clapped!
He tapped complicated patterns around the tabletop. A few times he looked like he might fall right off it, but he never did. He just kept smiling, white teeth gleaming out from his full brown lips. He finished by leaping off the table and sliding down into a split on the floor.
During any show, the backstage area hums with performers getting their props ready or chatting quietly with one another. The rapt silence after Mr. Jones’s performance was so loud it might as well have been applause.
Since he was last to rehearse, it generally meant he’d close, unless the manager changed his mind about the lineup. Every person in that theatre, from the lowliest stagehand to the headliner—a female impersonator who did Annie Oakley and Sarah Bernhardt—must have seen that Tippety Tap Jones was no closer.
Kress called out to him. “Jones! Jones, come out here this instant!”
He emerged from behind the curtain. “Yes, sir?”
“Your timing is excellent. Even with the table and springboard to set up, very impressive.”
“Thank you, sir!”
“But next time, don’t forget your cork.”
He meant the burnt end of a cork that performers use to blacken their faces. A white performer pretending to be colored would also whiten around his mouth to make his lips more obvious. Then he’d sing coon songs like “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground,” or have some sort of silly slapstick routine with another player. Colored performers black up, too, especially if they have light skin.
“Uh, well sir, I don’t generally wear the cork,” Mr. Jones said. Kress scowled at him. “Why not? All the Negro acts black up.”
“I figure the audience is looking at my feet. They don’t pay no nevermind to my face.”
“Be that as it may, you’ll wear cork here.”
Mr. Jones eyed the tips of his toes and said quietly, “I prefer not to, sir.”
“I said”—Mr. Jones looked up—“I prefer not to. Sir.”
Good Lord, I thought. He’s bold.
The small man narrowed his eyes. “Well I suppose I can’t make you do it. I’m not going to go backstage and cork you myself.” He snapped his watch shut and tucked it into his vest pocket. “Besides, you’re closing. No one’s going to see you anyway.”
Mr. Jones walked offstage toward us, face calm, but his shoulders were stiff as a cross. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, wondering how he’d learned to act so humble and still get his way.
Nell was beside me, holding the baby as he gnawed on his fist. “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced,” she said. “I’m Nell Herkimer, one of the Tumbling Turner Sisters.”
“Tippety Tap Jones. How do you do, Mizz Herkimer.”
“Please call me Nell.” She gave a little smile. “It’s vaudeville, after all.”
“It sure is, isn’t it?” His shoulders seemed to relax a bit. “I’m Tip.” “This is my mother, Mrs. Turner, and my sisters, Kit, Gert, and Winnie.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, ladies.” He nodded and smiled. “Well, I suppose I’d better round up my props before I end up with eleven seconds.” And he strode off.
“What was all that about?” Mother demanded.
“He’s the best performer of all of us,” said Nell. “And his face is just fine the way it is.”
“Why, Nell!” Mother was taken aback. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised myself. We weren’t used to strong opinions from our sweetest sister. But before Mother could interrogate her, little Harry began to whine, probably hungry, tired, or both, and we knew we’d better hurry to get some food before the show went up.
“Has this crowd been drinking?” the female impersonator asked. He was a sight, all made up with rouge, lipstick, and eyeliner, wig resting on his skirt-clad lap as he smoked a pipe.
It was a good question. The daytime Wellsville audiences had been terrific, but at night they acted like we were the latest Ziegfeld Follies show. A stagehand answered, “It’s the Sinclair Oil Refinery workers, ma’am . . . uh, sir. They’re generally just happy not to be working.”
They went absolutely wild for Tip. We saw it each performance: the headliner would finish singing in his falsetto, pull off his wig to show the crowd he was a man, and then take his bows. People would start to get up and leave, but then the curtain would pull back to reveal Tip and his lightning feet, and they’d sit back down. It was the only act I bothered to watch after I’d seen them all once or twice.
During the other acts we’d sit around backstage, talking softly or even dozing on each other’s shoulders. Tip kept to himself, off in the corner on his huge trunk, reading Variety. He didn’t nap. In fact, I had the strange sense that even behind that magazine, he knew exactly what was going on in the room.
Mother had brought a sheet to use as a screen so Nell could nurse the baby or we could adjust our costumes. It was my turn to hold it, and Winnie sat next to Nell on the trunk as she cradled little Harry for his evening meal.
But something had been niggling at me since the dustup between Tip and Mr. Kress. “What’s your point about the cork, Nell?” I whispered. “Why do you care?”
She sat the baby up for a burp, then tucked him over her shoulder and patted his back. “I got a letter from Harry once,” she said softly. “His unit fought alongside a regiment called the Harlem Hellfi They were from New York, like us, one of the only colored regiments allowed to actually fi He said they were some of the bravest men he ever saw.”
We glanced over at Tip. He didn’t look like much of a fighter, with his spats, pressed suit, and slicked hair. Still, I somehow got the feeling he could be fierce if he needed to be.
“What’s that got to do with blacking up?” I said.
“Oh, Gert, think about it,” Nell whispered wearily. “What if someone started telling you that you had to wear a certain makeup, or live in a particular place . . . or just be scared all the time even though you’re one of the bravest girls I know?”
I’d never even considered such a thing.
Nell sighed. “All I know is, if Harry were here . . .” She set her mouth to steady herself against the forbidden fantasy of Harry’s existence. “If Harry were here, he’d be kind.”