A Tribute to Sheldon the Great
Forty years ago, in the fall of 1961, I saw the last performance of Sheldon the Great. I know because a week later I heard Tony, the Director of our local boys club, tell Phil, the gym guy.
"Shelly died yesterday," Tony said.
"You know, Sheldon the Great. He performed at the Halloween party."
At the Halloween party, there had been about thirty, maybe thirty-five of us boys, sitting Indian style on the gym floor. The gym smelled of dirty, sweaty feet because the boys who came to the party wearing shoes had to take them off before they came into the gym. "NO Shoes Allowed on the Gym Floor!!!" the sign proclaimed.
Most of the boys had costumes on. It was a Halloween party and there would be a best costume contest later. I didn't expect to win because I had on my regular street clothes and a cheap, black, paper mask with a thin, elastic loop. I'd pulled the mask up to the top of my head, like a hat. I couldn't wear that thing too long because after awhile the fraying around the holes felt as though someone was rubbing sandpaper on my eyeballs.
The gym was dark, and we were focused on a portable movie screen, watching black-and-white cartoons from an 8mm projector. The characters looked and sounded differently from what we normally saw at the Saturday matinee, but it was better than nothing, at least until the screen went dark and a repeating "flap, flap, flap" indicated that the film had broken and the cartoon show was over.
"Hey! Come on! Boo!" yelled the audience, along with other remarks and sounds. The lights came on and some boys stood up to stretch their legs and arms, while accidentally-on-purpose hitting smaller boys in the head. "Hey! Cut it out!"
"Ok, Ok settle down," said Tony. "Is Shelly ready?"
"Yeah," said a voice from the back.
One of the volunteers took away the portable screen, and the lights dimmed again. A spotlight projected a bright circle at the front of the gym where the screen had been and where Tony stood now.
"Coming on next is a man who has been making people around the world laugh for over fifty years: Sheldon the Great!" Tony left the stage with his hand extended. Some of us clapped.
"…And his assistant, David," said Sheldon the Great, who came from the back carrying a ventriloquist dummy in one hand and a wooden, folding chair in the other. He flipped the chair open, facing us, and sat the dummy David carefully in place. David's eyes were closed, and his mouth gaped open. He had on a pair of faded, brown pants with red suspenders that had one strap held in place with a safety pin. Tucked into his pants, under the suspenders, was a brown and green plaid shirt. The paint on the right side of his face, including his ear, and the left side of his face above the eyebrow, was chipped. No teeth were in the gaping mouth. There he sat while Sheldon went backstage again.
The aged performer returned, this time with an old, scratched, black, traveling case covered with decals from his travels over the years; many of the decals were torn and faded. He placed the case on the floor near David, and when he opened the front of the case, we could see the letters…Sheldo t e Gr t.
Sheldon the Great walked center stage, ready to perform. He was tall but stooped-shouldered, gawky looking. He had a long, wrinkled face and big ears. We could see only one ear, because the hair that he combed from the other side covered the other.
His hair was thin and dyed, you could just tell, because the color was reddish brown in patches dominated by an onslaught of gray. He had a veined, bulbous, nose and tired, sad eyes. Even so, he had a professional smile, and he worked his jaws as though grinding his teeth. He wore a plaid, sport jacket, too short in the sleeves, a blue, button-down shirt with one button missing, a pair of maroon, high-watered pants, dark socks, and patterned-leather, brown shoes that were cracked and down at the heels.
"I've performed in palaces, theaters, auditoriums, and some dives all over the world," he said, "and I have never heard a more feeble greeting." He stood center stage with his arms up like a conductor. "Now, when I signal, I want you to clap, whistle, yell, stomp, whatever you want to do, because I know you guys can do better. Ok, one, two, three."
He waved his arms to begin. Well, you would not believe the noise that we made, whistling, clapping, yelling, tropical birdcalls, and all the other sounds that boys can imagine. The two mothers who were volunteering put their hands over their ears.
Sheldon stood up front with both arms raised up, and his hands beckoning, "louder," "louder," "louder," and "more," "more," more," until we reached a crescendo to his liking, and for a few seconds he soaked it all in with the biggest smile on his face.
He looked ten years younger when he dropped his arms, signaling us to stop. I was glad to stop too, because I had started to cough; my throat had dried up and was itchy from yelling.
"Thank you, thank you," he said, and reached into his back pocket, removed a crumpled handkerchief, dabbed his eyes, and blew his nose. Returning the handkerchief to his pocket, he did a little shuffle step with his feet, clapped his hands in a downward motion, and turned to David the dummy.
"David, my friend, why are firemen like communists?"
We turned our attention to David. The dummy sat silent, as originally positioned, with eyes closed and mouth agape.
"Give up?" asked Sheldon. "Because they wear red and are always rushin'." He positioned his arms as though he were dancing with an imaginary partner, and waltzed around the stage. "Da, da, de, da…" he sang, providing his own accompaniment, and when he finished, he bowed to his partner and said, "Thank you, my dear."
He straightened the lapels of his jacket, spread his legs, flexed his arms, and enthusiastically faced David again. "David, my friend, what is black and white and ‘read' all over?"
"A newspaper," yelled a voice in the audience.
"A newspaper," said Sheldon. "That's not fair, David, getting help from the audience." He whirled away, taking a big circular route around the stage, dancing again with his imaginary partner, "Da, da, de, da" and "Thank you, my dear."
"You suck!" shouted a voice from the darkness.
Sheldon was either oblivious to the remark or he didn't care because he continued to smile and do his shuffle step towards David.
"Now, David, if you don't get this one, you won't get paid," said Sheldon, pointing a long, bony finger at the dummy. David sat stoically. We hardly looked at him anymore. "Why did the chicken cross the street?"
"To get away from yo' mama," said one of the older boys in the audience. Laughter.
Sheldon's eyes continued to twinkle, as he repeated his question. "David, why did the chicken cross the street?"
"David's yo' daddy," said the same voice. More laughter.
"Because he forgot his wallet," said Sheldon the Great, and whirled away with his dancing partner, again, circling the stage. "Thank you, my dear."
"Boo! Eat it! Hiss! You suck!" A cacophony of noisy rejection spewed from the young throats seated in the dark. Sheldon repelled the derision with a dismissive wave of his hands, a broad smile, and a little tango dance.
"All right, settle down, guys!" warned Tony.
"Where did you find this guy?" one of the volunteers asked Tony, who was standing near me.
"He's my uncle's friend," said Tony.
A rumble of stomping feet started in the audience.
"Do you want to see a magic trick?" said Sheldon to the audience.
"No!" blared the boys. Sheldon, with shoulders bouncing up and down, did an exaggerated, silent chuckle, with his hands on his stomach, simulating a belly laugh. He was tough.
"David, do you want to see me make flowers appear?" Sheldon took off his plaid jacket and placed it into the traveling case and, while bending over…
"Brrrrrp." Someone in the audience made a disgusting sound by blowing onto his arm. Laughter. Even Sheldon had to laugh at that one, and he waved his arm behind, as though clearing the air. Riotous laughter.
As the noise died down, he put on an old, battered magician's hat and a long, bulky, magician's coat from his case. He danced with his partner, whirling into the darkness of the stage, away from the spotlight following him. "David, sit down!" yelled Sheldon dramatically.
We, and the spotlight, turned to David who sat, as usual, with eyes closed and mouth gaped. By the time our attention shifted back to Sheldon, he stood with a bouquet of paper flowers in his hand, and a professional smile on his face. He waved his bony finger at us mockingly as he broke into his silent belly laugh again; he made a low bow, crossing his legs like a horse, stood, turned to his left, and bowed gracefully to his imaginary partner saying, "Thank you, my dear."
A rubber band sailed over him, just missing his backside, during his second bow.
"Oooh," "Wow," "Almost," rang out voices from the shooter's allies in the audience. This was a battle.
"Who did that?" yelled Tony. All of the lights came on.
"I got him," said Phil, holding a boy by the upper arm. The boy's toes barely skimmed the floor as Phil hustled him from the gym. Through the open door we heard, "Ow! Ow! Ow!"
"Now, it's time for the costume contest," said Tony. "Thanks, Shelly."
"But, I have a song…." said Sheldon, ready and eager to draw from his fifty year arsenal. He stood near David, still wearing the magician's hat and coat, facing Tony. His arms were slightly out from his sides; one hand held the paper bouquet, the other was open-palmed with fingers spread and shaking. His facial expression and eyes pleaded for a chance to continue, as though he were in a critical audition at the crossroads of his career.
"Sorry, Shelly, but we have to press on with our program," explained Tony.
When Sheldon realized that Tony was adamant, he became crestfallen and old again. Volunteers were already moving through the audience, choosing the boys who were going to be in the costume contest.
As I said earlier, I knew that I wasn't going to get picked for the contest, so I watched Shelly. He put the flowers into the case along with the top hat and the coat. When he bent to retrieve his plaid jacket, his pants rose higher, and I could see that he had on one blue sock and one black sock, and the back of his maroon pants were two shades lighter at the seat.
He picked up the case, took it backstage, and returned for the chair and David. Sheldon flopped David backwards over one arm, causing his mouth to slam shut and his eyes to pop open; they were bright, happy eyes. He grabbed the chair with his free hand. As Sheldon the Great exited the stage, for the last time, David's bright eyes got an upside down view of the costume contest selections, and with his thin, dangling arms swaying, he waved a silent farewell.
Copyright © 2001 Glenn D. Hayes