The word prompt for the 6th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival is Funny Bone: Show us that picture that never fails to bring a smile to your face! An amusing incident, a funny face, an unusual situation. Well, I’d say that this photo combines an amusing incident, some funny faces, and a rather unusual situation…
No, they are not really ugly women. And they’re not transvestites either! They are the two guys who tickled my funny bone throughout my childhood: my dad and his buddy, Frank.
Jim and Frank were not only comedians (or should I say comediennes?), but also dancers. They got their start in “show business” because of their wives, Anita and Lillian. Both women were active in the “Mother’s Association” of Archbishop Ryan High School for Boys1. Every year, the moms would “put on a show”, and many of the dads joined in. While my mom and her friend stuck to dancing, my dad and Frank were funny guys, so they became the principal comedy directors of the shows.
The guys’ comedy routines didn’t always involve dressing up as women, but some did. This kept me, as a child, alternating between laughing hysterically and embarrassed to death. For example, one of their first cross-dressing comedic stunts involved them playing the “Tinettes” – back-up singer/dancers in an Ike and Tina Turner number, “Proud Mary”. Since the costumes were designed and purchased by the performers, there was much discussion concerning what they would wear. I remember tagging along with the two couples to the local K-Mart. Both men grew quite excited to find a display of inexpensive silver sandals that would go perfect with their shiny silver dresses. You’ve never truly been embarrassed until your dad (or your husband, looking at things from my mom’s point of view now), takes off his shoes in the middle of the aisle at K-Mart to try on ladies’ shoes.
Their performances were anything but embarrassing though – they were really good! The pair made a terrific Elton John and Kiki Dee (with Frank showing some leg as Kiki), as well as the Tin Man and Scarecrow in a funny Wizard of Oz skit. Once, the two performed a great tap-jazz routine (as men, not women!) with the show’s choreographer, who – many years later – would become my eldest niece’s maternal grandmother. Neither man knew how to dance before these shows – at least not the “performing on stage” kind of dancing. The choreographer was an excellent dance teacher, and the ladies performed all sorts of amazing dances from tap to jazz and even a routine on roller skates! As I look back now, I realize that 31 years ago my parents were the age I am now, and I am amazed by the wonderful shows they put together!
Back to the funny guys as shown above…their final performance in these shows was their pièce de résistance. I don’t remember how it came about, but the plan was for them to perform a ballet. It could have been a slapstick routine full of pratfalls, but unless you’re as talented as Ray Bolger, there’s a chance that it wouldn’t “work”. Instead, the men decided to dress in women’s costumes – tutu included – and perform a straight ballet (no pun intended). That is, an actual ballet that two women would perform, with all of the technically correct dance steps, without cracking so much as a smile. They practiced for what seemed like forever; they were determined to get it right. I still have my father’s typewritten instructions to himself to help him memorize the steps. The music? Why, a serious ballet with a comic twist requires one piece of music: The Nutcracker Suite.
The night was November 19, 1977 and the show was called “Musical Moments” that year. After intermission, it was the third number. The auditorium was dark; the crowd restless. Anticipation was in the air, at least from where I sat with my aunt and my mother, who was not performing that year. The curtains opened, and the music began…the audience became quiet, subdued by the classical music. Then, the dancers appeared on stage, each starting from opposite ends of the stage. We held our breath…there were some seconds of polite silence – did the audience think they were unattractive women? Suddenly someone in the audience yelled, “Oh my gosh, they’re men!” The entire auditorium erupted into laughter…and the men continued their dance, straight-faced, hitting all of their marks and dancing a saut de chat that would make any female ballet dancer envious. They tickled some funny bones that night! And some of us are still laughing about it.
 I would later go to Archbishop Ryan High School for Girls. The two schools shared the library, the chapel, and the auditorium. We were separated by gates, shark-infested waters, and some don’t mess with me nuns and friars. We used to joke that they’d have to rename the school Archbishop Ryan High School for People if it ever went co-ed. It did become co-ed (shortening the name after the words High School) three years after I left; it is one of the largest Catholic high schools in the country although the student population isn’t nearly as high as the combined population when I was there. My graduating class of just girls totaled 525; the boys’ school had a similar number that year. The school’s auditorium holds around 2,000 people. On my first day of high school I was nervous, but we all had to report to the auditorium first. Since I had spent so much time there while I was still in grade school and my parents were practicing for the shows, it put me at ease.
[Written for the 6th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival: Funny Bone.]