Bongos for Allen
Long before becoming acquainted with Robert Frost’s Poem, “The Road Not Taken,” I seemed destined to take roads “less traveled by.”
Perhaps it was my sense of adventure that beckoned me, that urged me to not follow well- worn paths but to strike out into the unknown. I suppose that’s why I, as a young boy, preferred to read adventure stories. I wanted to savor the trip, to walk with the author to the final destination.
It was also a wonderful tool to teach me patience. The urge to flip to the final pages was oftentimes so strong, but I knew that in doing so I would not have the joy of traveling and experiencing the author’s adventures along the way.
As I look back over my life’s journey, I now see more clearly, in many instances, other roads I could have and perhaps should have taken; but I didn’t. Yet, even in the missteps, there were moments not just of regrets but also moments of learning and growing and even moments of indescribable joy.
One of those “roads less traveled” was the invitation to become music director for the Lowell Showboat. It would have been easy to say, “No, I’ll pass,” but somehow I knew that it presented opportunities that few musicians ever have.
I had never attended any of the showboat productions and had no idea what the work entailed, but I was willing to give it a try. I assumed that the folks who had offered me the job must have had confidence in my ability.
The job consisted of putting music together, writing arrangements for the stage band and chorus, rehearsing, conducting and performing with the Showboat Chorus, a group made up of local and area volunteer musicians.
I accepted the job; and many choir members from Creston High School, where I was teaching, immediately volunteered for the chorus. Consequently, we usually had well over 100 singers in the ensemble.
The showboat schedule consisted of one (long) rehearsal, followed by six evening performances. Each night the “boat” would start upriver from the grandstand, and come around the river bend, with the boat’s stage band playing. When the Boat pulled up in front of the grandstand, the chorus was lined up on the boat’s decks, singing a medley of “Showboat songs” such as “Here comes the showboat,” etc.
Upon docking, they would do a choreographed procession onto the stage, and then make their way to their seats on both sides of the stage, facing the grandstand of about 4,000 spectators. The “Interlocutor” (the announcer) would take over and introduce the various acts leading up to the “Headliner”; the Hollywood performer.
Each year the Showboat Chorus and Stage Band were featured in one “big” musical number. Some years it was a Broadway medley. Other years it might be show tunes or a patriotic medley. That choice was up to the music director.
The “chorus number” was always appreciated by the crowd. The singers and stage band were all “locals” and the community took pride in expressing their appreciation.
In my tenure with the showboat, we had “big names” such as Steve Allen, Dinah Shore, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Bob Newhart, Louis Armstrong, and Milton Berle. My brief tenure with most of them was pleasant and in some cases, even memorable. One such tenure was with Steve Allen.
Steve was a celebrated comedian, television personality, writer, musician, actor and composer. He was best known as host for the Tonight Show. Throughout his career he hosted numerous television shows such as: “The Steve Allen Show and I’ve Got a Secret.”
He was a prolific writer of children’s books, as well as books that featured his personal philosophies. His wit sometimes had “a bite” to it writing; things like “If the Old Testament is a reliable guide in the matter of capital punishment, half the people in the United States would have to be killed tomorrow.”
Commenting on crooked politicians he wrote,” Ours is a government of checks and balances. The mafia and crooked businessmen make out checks, and the politicians and other compromised officials improve their bank balances.”
He was also a prolific composer being credited with writing thousands of songs. Only a couple, such as “The Theme from Picnic” and “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” ever gained wide popularity. Considering everything, he truly was a “Renaissance Man.”
Prior to the first show, one of the Stage Band members brought me a message. He informed me that Steve had requested a bongo Player for one of his skits. Unfortunately, the Bongo player had called in “sick” so I had to tell Steve, “Sorry, no bongo player.”
Steve said, “You can fill in for him, right?”
I explained to him that I was really an organist/music director, and that I had just one semester of Percussion Class in my college music training, and that just consisted of snare drums and tympani. I really was not ready to play bongos in front of thousands of people, or in front of anyone for that matter. Being a back-up musician for Steve Allen was totally impossible.
Steve would not take “no” for an answer. He went into his travel trailer, (there for his use during the show boat week), and came back with a set of bongos, put them between his knees and beat out a simple beat pattern; he said “There you are, I am sure you’ll do fine!” He then described the skit that needed bongos. It was for his “big finale.” I almost threw up, but there was no time to be sick! It was “show time” and I had to get back to the chorus and ride the boat around the river bend to where it pulled up in front of the grandstand. Several thousand people were waiting to see the various minor acts and, of course, the headliner Steve Allen (and I thought “and me, on bongos!”).
I kept thinking, “Lamain, you’re crazy! You’re in way over your head! You should get in your car, and ride off into the sunset!” I could see tomorrow’s headlines, “Steve Allen’s act was wonderful. Too bad the bongo player almost ruined it for him!” During the entire show I practiced the little riff that Steve had played for me. I kept thinking, “Playing Bongos in front of thousands of people, and being a musical back-up for Steve Allen, the world renowned entertainer; this is truly crazy!”
The first part of the show seemed to fly by and then it was our time! The M.C. introduced Steve and there was thunderous applause. I took the bongos and sat down on the stage next to Steve, where he could see me. He went through his monologue. It was very funny and the audience loved it. He reached the finale of his act, looked over to me, nodded, and I started playing.
I have no idea what I was doing, or what I was playing but Steve, being the consummate performer that he was, carried on. Applause followed the bit, and then a standing ovation (not for me, of course, but for a real showman)! He even acknowledged me and I took a little bow. I could now truly put in my resume that “I played Bongos for Steve Allen!” Much later, I began to realize that Steve knew that I would do a horrible job, but to the audience it seemed like it was “schtick” (a practiced bit) and I did the part of the “bad bongo player” beautifully.” And that’s show biz”
Fortunately for me, and for Steve, the real bongo player showed up the next night, and played the remaining shows.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.