Saturday, November 14, 2020

Texas notes: Twinkies

Nancy Peppin was a Reno artist who painted Twinkies (Nevada Museum of Art)

     My usual role in the presentation of Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey's much-anticipated Saturday report consists entirely of providing the medium by which is it conveyed to you. But this entry is different since, in our friendly email communications during the week, I mentioned that I had spent the day ... wait for it .. researching Bozo's Circus, the beloved children's show. And thus a seed was planted...

     I have been thinking of my grandmother a lot. She lived on 95th near Commercial in an industrial part of Chicago, under the shadow of the skyway to Indiana. Acrid steel mill odors filled the air and choked us as we arrived. After an hour or two we’d acclimated and no longer detected the smell. We played in fields of overgrown prairie grasses and hid in the jungle of green bean vines in her backyard. We snapped bean pods off the vine and chomped on their sweet crispy shells and tiny green seeds inside. 
     Her house was simple with brown vinyl siding and a concrete staircase with a black metal railing leading to the front door. She’d be standing on the porch waiting when we arrived. My sister and I scrambled out of the wood paneled station wagon and into Grandma’s warm embrace, racing to see who could get there first. She’d have freshly baked bread on a cutting board in the kitchen, and toasted as many pieces as we wanted, each drenched in butter.
     If we were lucky we’d be spending the whole weekend there, along with our black standard poodle Felix. We’d wave at my folks as they drove off and then we were instantly lured back into Grandma’s cozy house. She spoke to us in a baby voice and used the same voice with Felix, who she also fed hot buttered toast. The love in her voice was tangible; she adored us to pieces.
     Grandma Marie spent most of her time in the kitchen, sitting at the oblong dark wooden table on a sturdy wooden chair with a rounded back and arm rests. She chain smoked and always had WBBM Newsradio 780 AM on a little black transistor with the antenna extended as high as it could go. When my sister and I were otherwise occupied, Grandma would play solitaire and sometimes pray with her rosary. She cried sometimes. A wooden plaque with an inlay of Jesus and his disciples at The Last Supper hung on the kitchen wall that she faced at all times, yellowed from years of cigarette smoke. I remember them looking sad and longing, as though they wanted things to be different.
     Grandma Marie was an ardent church goer and we’d join her for Latin masses— we’d genuflect, sit, stand, and kneel along with the rest of the congregation, a silent dance of sorts. The nave was drenched in Frankincense that wafted out of an ornate vessel attached to a chain that the priest waved hypnotically up and down and side to side. I had no idea what the priest was saying, but I simply loved being at my grandmother’s side. The smell of her Walgreen’s perfume, Emeraude, enveloped me. If I reached up to touch her arm it was crepe-like and as soft as a baby bunny.
     One day Grandma told us something that was such big news for little girls that we are lucky our little hearts did not palpitate straight out of our chests. She was taking us to Bozo’s Circus. As my mother recalls it, Grandma had requested tickets for us when we were babies, and maybe that’s true. What I remember is that we’d be leaving from the elementary school she worked at as a kitchen manager and taking a yellow school bus with the students to WGN studios. I was 8 or 9.
     That day I meticulously picked out my flared jeans with the roller skates on the back pockets that I had gotten at Wee Modern on Devon. I put my giant tube of Bonnie Bell Lipsmackers into my back pocket and I was set. My sister and I met my Grandmother at the school and piled on the bus with children we did not know. I felt at ease since all that mattered was Bozo. I remember being on the expressway and as we got closer I felt that I was about to achieve something great.
     We lined up in the hallway cordoned off by velvet ropes waiting to be allowed in. All of a sudden a man was talking to me, urgently. What was he saying? They needed girls in pants (most were wearing skirts) to play a game on the show and if I wanted to play I’d have to go with him right away. I got the clearance from my Grandmother and off I went.
     A dozen or so other kids and I were given a quick set of instructions. We divided into two teams and sat next to our teammates, across from the other team, our legs in V-shapes and our feet touching to create a human chain. We were tossed a balloon and used it to play volleyball, our only job to keep it afloat when it reached our side. The whole thing happened so quickly that I barely remember it, or the show at all. All I knew is that I was sitting on the stage of the Bozo show, cameras all around and felt very special. We lost the game so each won a box of Twinkies.
     As we rode the yellow bus back to the south side school I held my Twinkie box and fell asleep. It had been a long day.


  1. The South Chicago (95th and Commercial) reference captured me. I am always interested in any story having to do with the old steel mill neighborhood of my adolescence.

  2. I liked it there. It was so vibrant! Kids outside, families grilling, corner stores and churches. We'd drive to get White Castle in Indiana since there were none in IL near there.

  3. "Grandma had requested tickets for us when we were babies, and maybe that’s true."

    It probably was, because I remember reading news stories about parents of newborns who put in their requests for tickets, and who waited for seven or eight years until they finally received them, if they even got any tickets at all. The demand was overwhelming, and getting tickets for the show was like winning the lottery. Maybe it WAS a lottery. I'm sure only a small percentage of hopefuls got them.

    Bozo's Circus didn't begin its 34-year run until 1961, so I was far too old for that show. But I clearly remember the famous mid-Sixties Bozo story, probably just an urban legend, about "The Grand Prize Game." Children in the audience were chosen to play by camera arrows. They would try to throw ping-pong balls into buckets. The grand prize was a Schwinn bicycle.

    Supposedly, some snarky street kid who lost the game began cursing, live and on-camera. When told to stop, he allegedly gave Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke) the finger. Or maybe it was even Bozo himself (played by Bob Bell) who got the bird.

    The earliest shows were done live and were not it could have happened. But everyone who told the story would always claim to have actually witnessed it, while they were sick and staying home from school. Which is why I never believed it. Just like I never believed the classmates who told me that Ringo was Jewish, and that his last name was really Schwartz.

  4. What a great Chicago childhood story. I hope my grandchildren remember me with the same feeling (if not all the same details!).

  5. Great story. Good work by the Austin bureau.

  6. A box of Twinkies is first prize as far as I'm concerned. How do you top that?
    How you didn't eat them on the way home is beyond me.

  7. I too was chosen to play the second tier game. We sat away from our families in the bleachers on the very end next to the railing . We won our game which involved walking slash running with a spoon full of water. We held the spoon in our mouths and and had to fill a small cup . Our prize was a miniature bowling game where you knocked down the pins with a spinning top. The losers got a revell model airplane I would have much preferred .1964 I remember it like it was yesterday. Bozo scared the crap out of me. I wished I'd got to play the GRAND PRIZE GAME! Hadn't thought about this in a long time. Thanks for jogging a great memory Caren

    1. Sweet! I wonder if I’ve blocked poor Bozo?

  8. In the tri-state area of WV, KY, and OH, the children's show was Mr. Cartoon, and I didn't remember until reading this our Girl Scout troop got to be on it once. I couldn't have been more than seven. Thanks for the memory!!!


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