It’s been a (very) sweet trip

I came by my love of recorded media – movies, television, music – honestly. My great-grandfather, whose stage name was Colonel Stoopnagle, was something of a radio star back in the 1930s. He considered himself a wordsmith, and often did bits (and wrote books) showcasing the cleverness of the English language.

stoopnagle
He also did print ads, like this (copy of) one that hangs in our bathroom. I’d like to think he would have gotten a kick out of looking over us on the loo. I imagine he also got a kick out of the apostrophe erroneously place in the word PROs; oh, the irony.

Stoopnagle’s son – my grandfather – spent his working career with a local Rochester television affiliate. A tinkerer who couldn’t stand to sit idle, he built a television set for the family (including my mom) in the days before you could easily go out and buy one. As I understand it, there wasn’t much to watch on said television, but hey – they were ready when things changed.

My mother, a theater major in college, loved all recorded media, and she shared that love with my brother and me. Her record collection was (is?) extensive, and although I know we had a car that played eight-tracks, the memory is distant, because we always ventured into new media technology as soon as it became available. When I was in the third grade, my mom picked up a friend and me from school (I was having the friend over – back then, there was no such thing as a “play date;” friends just “came over”), and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was playing from the stereo. Impressed (rock on, Mom!), I told her that I loved that song… and POP! she ejected the brand new “Thriller” cassette from the player on the dashboard. How funky and strong is my fight now?!

Similarly, while I imagine that we must have had Beta tapes, I don’t have specific memories of them because as soon as VHS became available, we were in. Not just for playing, either – for recording, too… except that independent hand-held VHS video cameras hadn’t come into play yet (although, the moment they did, you can bet we had them) – you had to tether the video camera to the VCR in order to record. For movies taken, say, in the living room where the television was, this wasn’t so bad. The recordings were live-streamed to the TV, which meant that our home movies feature the profiles of all of the video participants (i.e. me, my brother, our unwitting friends who’d come over for a birthday celebration) because we were enthralled with seeing ourselves on the TV screen – looking toward the camera was so not fun – but they were relatively easy to do, technically speaking. For anything more than, like, twenty feet from the TV, however, my dad would strap the VCR to his shoulder – yes, really, the entire VCR machine – and follow us around, video camera in-hand, tethered to the recorder.

Those were the days.

Having just one VCR was lovely – and I think, for a little while, that’s what we did – but it was limiting; all you could do was record from a single source and put it right on the tape. It didn’t take long, then, for us to acquire two VCRs, and for my mom to put them to good use. Sure, you could record things from two different televisions at the same time (which my mom continued to do right up until DVDs became the rage; more than once, I remember calling her from college – frantic – and asking her to please tape a crucial episode of Friends for me). But, more importantly, you could record from one VHS tape to another.

This was handy for creating home movies. No longer did we have to save entire school plays when all that my parents really wanted were the thirty seconds that my brother and I were visible from behind the towering third-graders; instead, the play was recorded onto one VHS tape and then – through the magic of more tethering – the crucial thirty seconds were recorded onto a second VHS tape. In this way, we were able to winnow down entire years’ worth of footage into bite-sized clips.

What I really remember, though, are the collections of show tunes that my mom culled together. I grew up in the era of mix tapes, but I think my mother may have invented the mix VHS. She would record a favorite movie musical off of the TV – The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, or Singin’ in the Rain – and then transfer just a snippet, maybe “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Make ‘Em Laugh”, onto another VHS tape, so that it contained clip after clip after clip of her most beloved songs and dances.

It wasn’t just movies, either. Any time there was music on the TV that was worthy of watching again, from songs performed at the Tony Awards to orchestral selections from Fourth of July celebrations (complete with fireworks) to bits and pieces from talk shows or even commercials, it went on the mix VHS collections. And this is how I so vividly remember Shirley Temple being a part of our lives.

I was introduced to Shirley so long ago that I don’t remember life without her; she came into our living room, beaming her dimpled smile at us and boing-ing her perfect curls, and dancing – oh, the dancing! – up a storm. She was adorable and sweet, sure, but it was really the dancing that had me hooked. How was it possible for someone that tiny to tap dance like that? I was in awe.

We watched her movies (which my mom had recorded from the TV onto VHS tapes) – The Little Colonel, Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Littlest Rebel, Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, The Blue Bird – and I loved them… but I was more interested in seeing the musical numbers – which was convenient, because my mom had them cued up on her VHS mixes.

Shirley Temple was just so stinkin’ fabulous, wasn’t she? Admonishing the kids in “Animal Crackers in my Soup” or bopping along the train in “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. She was charming and cute, an exuberantly dynamite little powerhouse who held her own against her adult co-stars. They held their own against her, too, simultaneously talking to her like a child (because, um, she was one) and treating her as their equal, undoubtedly fully aware that this ringleted moppet was the real reason so many people would flock to the theater.

I could have watched for hours (and probably did) as Shirley swished alongside Buddy Ebson in “At the Codfish Ball”, nimbly hopping on and off wooden crates while, you know, tap dancing – but not cutesy kid tap dancing, where you go Awwww, she’s pretty good for her age! but real tap dancing, where you go, DAMN! She holds her own against other hoofers! My very favorite, though, was whenever she would dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a man for whom a special place is reserved in the tap dancing pantheon. Here was this little – and I mean little, like seven year-old – girl, dancing brilliantly alongside a seasoned veteran… who happened to be Black. Yes, he played stereotypical roles for a Black man in the 1930s (in this case, most often a butler for white folks), but Shirley and Bojangles broke that color barrier (as the first white female and black male to dance onscreen together, fo’ real) and it was awesome.

Just try to watch the two of them dance up the stairs and not smile. No, really. Try it.

shirley and bojangles
I found this at this site and, even though it’s not from a movie set, I love it. Actually, I think I love it more because it’s not from a movie set – they’re just buds.

As soon as my girls were old enough (by which I mean as soon as they could sit still and watch a television screen for ten minutes at a clip… which, for Annie, was around 4 months old; that’s what having an older sister will do for you), I began introducing them to Shirley Temple’s songs and dances – only this time, we used the modern-day version of my mom’s old VHS mixes: YouTube. I’d plug in the song that was in my head and up would pop a clip, instantly available, for the girls and me to enjoy and laugh and gasp about, just as I did sitting beside my mom on the living room couch while the VCR whirred away.

True to my mother and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, we have embraced technology, especially when it comes to recorded media. While I am far from a fan of all modern technology, and while Nick and I impose pretty strict screen time limits, I will forever be grateful to the likes of YouTube for enabling me to share those bits of my childhood, of my own story, with Ella and Annie. Heck, I can even show them clips of Colonel Stoopnagle on Youtube – which is pretty damn incredible, if you ask me.

Which you didn’t. But I’m telling you anyway.

I was really bummed to learn of Shirley Temple’s passing today… but her legacy will live on. For one thing, my children (and my cousins – howdy, Andrew and Brian!) are unlikely to stop ordering ginger ale and grenadine any time soon, so Shirley is here to stay. For another, Annie’s perpetual washing-of-her-face using only her forefingers a la the song “Early Bird” from Captain January makes me wring my hands each time I see it.

shirley
USE ALL OF YOUR FINGERS! YOUR FACE ISN’T CLEAN!!
(Seriously, this part of the song has bugged me since I was a kid. STILL DIRTY!)

And, of course, we have Shirley’s body of work to entertain, enthrall, and enlighten us from now until, well, forever. I plan to purchase some of her movies on DVD to show the girls (in addition to the couple that I already own, courtesy of my mom, naturally), but in the meantime, YouTube clips will happily tide us over. She is a part of our lives, ingrained, woven in, and I can’t imagine it any other way.

As the girls came home from school, I was in the middle of writing this and had the various YouTube clips playing so that I could link to them properly. Without even being in the room, Ella heard three bars of “At the Codfish Ball” and said, “Is that Shirley Temple?” Yes, honey. It is. She made our lives richer and more colorful, and I’m sad that she’s gone – but I can’t wait to watch her with you tonight.

Nor can I wait to see how you share her with your own children; it’s in your genes – I know you will. And they will laugh and roll their eyes at the thought of us using something as antiquated as YouTube to watch her – but I’m good with that, because I know that I’ll have embraced that kind of media, too. Right after my mom does.

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