October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.
by Dick Miller
When I was young, my family had a summer cottage near a lake in the Pocono mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Evening social activities centered around the Pavilion, an old barn of a wooden multi-purpose building. The basement housed admission to the beach, changing rooms and lockers, a repair shop, and, in the winter, rental boat storage. The first floor, where most of the daily activity occurred, had pinball machines, ping pong tables, a pool table, a jukebox with a small dance floor, a snack bar, a souvenir stand, a tiny grocery store, restrooms, and a porch with benches that overlooked the beach and the small lake. The upstairs was a wide-open space with a stage that held events as varied as Bingo games and one-night stands by some of the last of the big-band era names like Les Brown and the Andrews Sisters.
It was in this Pavilion that I met Wayne, a local resident and self-styled ladies’ man, whose main purpose was to check out the cute girls who were at the lake on vacation. The fact that he could scout them in their swim suits from the porch of the Pavilion in the afternoon and dance with them in the evening to the strains of the juke-box worked very much to his advantage.
Wayne and I became friendly because he liked to sing, and I played the guitar. We managed to get ourselves invited to a lot of parties for that reason (more girls for Wayne to flirt with!), and we took advantage of the invitations. In addition, Wayne’s uncle was the bartender at a local tavern, and we would show up on an off night, such as a Tuesday, and would sing and play as long as the customers would keep buying the beers (although we were both under age).
The time came when Wayne moved to Philadelphia, and I lost my summer connection with him. After a couple of years I got a surprise phone call from him at my home in New York City. He said, “Why don't you come and visit? I've got a friend here who plays guitar while I sing, and we play USO shows together. You can bring your guitar and we'll do a trio.”
Since I hadn't seen Wayne in a while, and I had a break from school, I jumped at the chance. I packed my bag and my guitar and got on the train. Wayne met me at the station and soon introduced me to his friend. We rehearsed a couple of tunes including the 1959 Santo and Johnny hit, “Sleepwalk.” This song involves a lot of vibrato on the part of the lead guitar player, and I had a new vibrato tailpiece on my guitar that I was only too willing to show off.
The night of the USO performance arrived dark, windy, and rainy. The troupe loaded onto an old rattletrap school bus for the trip to the performance venue. After what seemed like hours, we arrived at a military base. We wound our way to a stairway that led up to the second-floor door of a hangar-like building. The space behind the door was tiny. We all jammed in, most of us already in costume.
Since there was so little room, we all waited in the wings while the preceding acts performed. Each one seemed to be met with polite applause. I was surprised when some very attractive young ladies in fairly scanty costumes danced their hearts out and received only a lukewarm reception.
Since our act required some time to set up our amplifiers before we played, they scheduled a comedian to perform in front of the curtain immediately before our act. The first number we were to do was “Sleepwalk” with its vibrato. The comedian finished his act to the usual polite applause. The curtains opened, and I was greeted by a sea of thousands of morose faces attached to bodies sitting on hands belonging to Air Force basic trainees. These men would much rather have been almost anywhere but here, and their lack of enthusiasm was palpable. I was so nervous that the vibrato I needed was not at all difficult to perform.
At the conclusion of the song we received the customary polite applause and I thought to myself, “How about that! I didn't die!” I decided that, if I survived that performance, I could play the next number and survive that one, too. I did, followed by the usual polite applause.
After we got off the stage and stood in the wings listening to the other acts, we were surprised to hear a round of thunderous applause. We couldn't believe our ears! We peered through the curtains to see who caused such a reaction from the crowd. It was an older, stout woman, singing in the style of Sophie Tucker. I guess she reminded the boys of mom and home.
From that day onward, I have never had a fear of standing up in front of a group, whether it be ten or a thousand. I have learned that if I am myself and share what I have to offer in a genuine way, there is nothing to fear.
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Dick's Story List and Biography
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