Usually once or twice a month there was a Saturday night routine for the kids in the Tidball household. There was a rushed atmosphere about the house with a noticeable buzz in the kitchen area and our parent’s downstairs bedroom as they dressed in their finest for an evening out. But they weren’t preparing to go to a show to be entertained – they were the show!
Mom would pause from doing her hair and make-up to come to the kitchen to press out dough made from the Chef Boyardee pizza kit. She could do it in her sleep. Mix up the dough – quickly stretch it to the edge of a larger than recommended cookie sheet – add the tomato sauce – sprinkle a few ingredients to season – and place it in the oven – then return to the make-up.
It was good pizza – the only pizza we ever knew. I learned later you could actually have someone make the pizza for you and they would serve it to you in a restaurant. Mom’s pizza was a cross between thin crust and hand tossed. Occasionally you would come across a hole in the pizza where it had been stretched a little too far. She would add toppings which was a challenge when serving six children with differing tastes. My older brother’s black olives were to one end of the pizza and my green ones occupied a corner section. There would be mushrooms on a sliver or two and a section for the onion lovers. A few bits of hamburger were placed evenly across the surface of the pizza in what was largely a ceremonial gesture. The finished sheet looked like a Democrat gerrymandering map. Occasionally, two pieces of hamburger would occupy the same four-inch square section of the pizza – this was known as the “deep dish” section.
Dad dressed in his dark suit with his one-of-a-kind white dress shirt. He was always struggling to get that top button closed and was careful not to get anything on the same show shirt that served him for years. The shirt was special as it was a part of one of his gags in the song and joke show. He would tell the audience of his nice white shirt and about this fantastic salesman in a downtown clothing store in Toronto (his home town) who had sold it to him. The salesman knew dad’s budget was tight and he was only shopping for a simple dress shirt but the amazing salesman kept wanting to show dad his finest line. Dad finally relented and let the salesman do his presentation about the finest in imported Egyptian cotton dress shirts for men with discriminating taste. “Just look at the cuffs! Just look at the collars made of this fine Egyptian cotton!” the salesman opined. Dad was convinced this was the way to go and now is showing the Saturday night crowd at the Coffeen Baptist Church Adult Sunday School Class Annual Valentine Banquet just what a great purchase he had made. He walked among the audience pointing to the immaculate cuffs until he came to a woman who didn’t appear convinced. Dad would then say “here, let me give you have a better look at the collar” and he would take off his jacket and lean down for her to have a good look and then the crowd behind him would erupt in laughter. While he may have bought the finest in Egyptian Cotton collar and cuffs – the rest of the shirt was in shreds and hanging by a thread. It was a signature schtick of the act. Late at night when they returned from the gig I would often meet them at the bathroom sink where dad would remove his show make-up and there was that limp, tattered shirt, clinging to him yet ready for next week’s show.
It was a song and joke show. Mom would accompany Dad’s solos as she is an amazing talent at the piano and can play anything by ear in the key of C, which coincidentally, happens to be a key Dad would frequently pass through. They had an Al Jolson/Jimmy Durante songbook plus a little black three-ring binder book of jokes that has changed little in fifty years of entertaining: “He’s a nice dresser but his front draw sticks out too far.”
I was introduced to the art of story telling watching Dad do his schtick before a college group in the old snack bar on the small college campus. I was in the very back of the soda shop. A simple spotlight was on Dad up front. With a mic in one hand and his other hand free for gesturing he told them about going home to find his oldest son in the back yard yelling at a pet rabbit. I almost raised my hand to correct him – we don’t have any pet rabbits at home. I knew my dad never lied so what’s going on here? He kept up with his story as those around me listened intently to the man who controlled the audience. Dad told them, “I saw my son holding this rabbit and being very stern with it. My son was saying ‘One plus one’ and ‘two plus two’.” So Dad tells the college crowd, “I said to Curtis, why are you being so cross with the little rabbit?” To which Curt replied, “My teacher today said rabbits could multiply fast . . . this guy can’t even add!” When the audience burst in to laughter I knew I was on to something good.
But why couldn’t the story be about me? If you’re making it up and we don’t have any rabbits – why not say you found me in the backyard with the rabbits? Then one night, in a different venue, Dad spotted me in the audience out of the corner of his eye. When he got to the joke about the rabbit – now the story had me in the mix. I wanted to stand and grab a bit of the spotlight and when the audience finally laughed – boom – I’m in! I’m in showbiz!
Dad always implied the act was a way to make an extra $25 for the family but we all knew – he loved the spotlight. One of the most amazing aspects of their showbiz career was that Mom could listen to the same jokes over and over and over again and still respond with an approving nod or grin to let the audience know she still gets tickled every time she hears them. Did I mention she has an acting background?
Here’s a clip of the two of them repeating a bit of the act for a family gathering. The camera is on Dad but be sure to listen for her amazing work at the piano. Notice how she can follow his phrasing perfectly and how he is so un-rushed as he works the crowd. You’ll also notice my brother, Curt, who used to work with rabbits.
Here’s a second clip of one of his favorite numbers – Shortnin’ Bread. We requested it at the last second so he didn’t have a chance to recall all the words but put on a show anyway. (It starts out with no sound – so just wait a moment or two.)