Rosie just wandered about through the racks of clothing as though she were in her own closet trying to decide which dress to wear. As she made her way from clothes hanger to clothes hanger, she commenced to wave her hand about as though conducting. She then began to contradict Will, our real conductor, who had reminded us to play with more of a crescendo in this measure and to punctuate the marcato notes with more dynamic emphasis in another measure. Rosie said with authority and in a gravelly tone, “No, no, it all sounds good!” And then she started to sing …”Now we don our gay apparel…”
As the twelve of us were seated in a crowded corner trying to follow Will’s direction, Groucho and his merry pranksters were about to slip into our pit and commandeer our horns, drums, keyboard and woodwinds.
We have the privilege of practicing in a beautiful church that has been most welcoming to our small band of older folk who have been together now just short of a decade. Will, professor of music at James Madison University, introduced the New Horizons program at the school and brought us all out of the shadows and back into the challenging and rewarding joy of making music. His program focuses on getting adults either learning or relearning to play music. A few of us were active musicians but most had their music buried deep in their memories from high school or college days. Some were little more than beginners. A few people had their own instruments while others had to fumble around in their attics and dust off the horns that had been stashed away for too many years. After some retrofitting and finding our embouchures again, we were off and tooting.
This last week, though, introduced a piece of discordance as our gathering had to meet on a different day than normal and in constricted conditions. Our normally spacious room had been redone into a distribution point where donated clothing of all sorts was hung on racks to be distributed to the needy shortly after our rehearsal was finished, or so went the plan. We were now pressed into the tight confines of a corner where the lighting was poor and the seating cramped. As a portent of how the evening was to bump along, this part of the room would soon evolve into a crossroads of characters coming and going to the beat of the music.
Before we had finished our first selection, Rosie had definitely become part of the evening. She was prematurely early and had arrived before the official opening, since she said she couldn’t drive all that well in the dark. Taking our eyes off the music as she collided with various clothes racks we began to wonder whether she should be driving at all.
To me, she turned out to resemble a time traveler from the world of Robert Benchley, the legendary New Yorker writer of an earlier era. At the least, she could easily have been a sister to the Marx Brothers. Before long, she was also sharing the stage with a church functionary named Ralph who had clambered into the scene by pushing open what we thought was a closet door and stumbling his way in. Violet, who plays keyboard, was first to wonder what was happening as she exclaimed, “He’s coming out of the closet!” While climbing over and joggling my fellow musicians, Ralph was mumbling all the way that we were not supposed to be there in the first place and were interfering with “his” evening gala which was soon to start. Our flutist Marcia graciously and politely told him that she had arranged with the events coordinator for us to practice there as usual so long as we were finished and out by 5:30, well ahead of the 6:30 grand start of the clothes distribution. The exchange was brief and civil, but with a tone of annoyance on Ralph’s part.
What struck me from my vantage point was that Ralph bore a strong resemblance to Frank, our erstwhile fellow band member and nearly deaf octogenarian trombonist who a few years back left us abruptly one evening in a fit of frustration and pique never to return. Ralph wore a wide brimmed hat similar to Frank’s and was also of a certain age and build that my first thought was that, my gawd, Frank’s back and has somehow managed to barge in via a storage room with a door to the outside.
As events started swirling in many directions, I was reminded of an amusing short essay by Benchley involving teeth and describing the various characters he encountered while waiting in the lobby for his dental appointment. None really wanted to be there and all were in less than good moods. With only the slightest effort, I imagined myself sitting aside Benchley watching the antics of Rosie and Ralph. About this time, the nearly toothless Rosie asked if someone could escort her to her car since she had finished selecting what she wanted. She said she needed a man more than her cane to lean on since she felt a bit shaky on her pins. Bob, our most gentlemanly and gracious trombone player, immediately stood up and, along with Marcia, took her hand and led her to the parking lot. The short escort was not without its own trials, though, since Bob and Marcia had to navigate the unstable Rosie through a noisy family who had gathered in the foyer to get first dibs at the clothes. Last we saw of Rosie was of her hanging on tightly to Bob while waving good-bye and wishing us well for our upcoming Christmas recital. Much to our relief, Bob and his bodyguard Marcia made it back from the parking lot intact. Meanwhile, Ralph had swooshed himself through some more doors to prepare for the opening of the night’s big show.
Again, we gathered our attention and once more tried to follow Will’s direction while rolling our eyes over the various distractions. Then the children milling about in the foyer began to roughhouse. Before long, Will had to leave his makeshift podium to walk over with finger to his lips to ask them to be a little quieter. They and the gaggle of women gathered there were all smiling as though they were just part of the general noise and entertainment of the night. We resumed playing but soon called it a night, since everyone kept giggling as we anticipated another one of the Marx brothers or sisters showing up at any time.
As amusing as he was, I don’t think Benchley had as much fun with his dental waiting-room cast of characters as we did with our musical accompanists. Unlike our motley crowd, he described his as “all alike … a sullen group … each trying to look unconcerned and cordially disliking everyone else in the room.” In contrast, our pranksters were merry, even Ralph who begrudgingly acknowledged our right to be there. Our cast had played their roles and then left our tight and poorly lit corner stage with varying degrees of dramatic flourish. They had all come and gone with a certain lightness of spirit that was fitting for the moment as they breathed new life into Shakespeare’s lines that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exists and their entrances …”
As the band played on, we only hoped they had enjoyed the antic interludes as much as we had.