I’ve played musical instruments since I was a little kid in New York. First piano, then mandolin. One day when I was 15, I got off the bus from school and spotted a ukulele in the window of Mr. Basso’s antique store. He had seen me get on and off that bus for ten years by then, so when I started haunting his shop to salivate over the uke, he told me to get the thing out of there and pay him a little every week. It wasn’t just any uke, either. It was an honest-to-god 50-year-old Martin. It’s nearly 100 now. I still have it. I have never changed the strings.
The only thing I knew about ukuleles was the name of a legendary ukulele virtuoso: Roy Smeck. In his vaudeville days he went by The Wizard of the Strings. You name it, he played it - Hawaiian guitar, banjo, harmonica, ocarinas, Jew’s harps. I figured that if he was still alive he would be living in New York, and when I looked him up in the phone book, there he was. Right under Smeck.
When the door to his Upper West Side apartment opened, I must have been standing there wide-eyed. He looked up at me from his height of about five-four. He was wearing light grey trousers with a perfect crease and two-inch cuffs, spit-polished two-tones, a baby-blue shirt with gold cufflinks and a grey silk tie pinned with a gem. He was in his 70s and spoke with an accent I expected to be Yiddish (but wasn't, really) which nonetheless, along with the nebbishy face he became a star in spite of, kept him out of the talkies. He didn’t bother to hide his disappointment, in me at first - the talkies would come later.
“You come here without a tie on? You look like a beggar boy! When you come here for a ukulele lesson, you wear a tie!” He pointed one of his legendary fingers at me. “Today, we make an exception. But next time?” - the finger rose a fret - “A tie!”
“Yes sir, Mr. Smeck!”
He opened the door the rest of the way. Mrs. Smeck, who clocked in a couple of inches under Mr. Smeck, smiled and said, “Such a fuddy-duddy.” She had the apartment done in lovely florals and a lifetime of chachkas. Vases were filled with silk flowers. Mementos from Mr. Smeck’s career were everywhere. Magazine covers. Autographed black and whites of fellow stars - hoofers holding their skirts up so you could see their buttoned-up heels, songbirds, bandleaders, wise guys in grease paint, their eyebrows arched high enough to touch the brims of their derbies - the stringed instruments of which he was The Wizard, music stands, sheet music, lobby cards with Roy Smeck at the top of the bill in the biggest and blackest of letters, a Victrola with its crank dangling, a grand piano. The living room furniture was upholstered in white silk under clear plastic slip covers stretched so taut they squeaked when you sat. Mrs. Smeck patted her husband on the arm and said, “Such a nice boy,” and went into her kitchen, leaving me, for the first time in my life, on my own in the company of a legend. A man I had only heard scratching through the grooves of old 78s and seen in blue-toned velox on the covers of sheet music in antique stores. He told me to take a seat and he sat right next to me, because that is the way to make sure a pupil sees how his master frets. When I sat I squeaked. He, of course, did not.
It was no mystery to this great showman that, as an audience, he had me sewn up before I walked in the door. Mr. Smeck warmed up by playing a few songs for me. He worked up to some elaborate strumming techniques, looking up from the fretboard once in a while to make sure I appreciated the details. He exchanged ukes with me during the lessons - his was a Martin, too, a koa wood model, possibly the most famous and valuable ukulele in existence. This was to provide me with the opportunity to experience the feel of the perfect uke. But the greatest gift was a song I still remember: Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue. Just like Mrs. Smeck.
One day, a couple of lessons in, Mr. Smeck’s expression clouded over. Something suddenly exasperated him to the point where he had to stop playing and put the ukulele down. For a minute I thought I was in for it for botching his trademark figure-8 double-time brush-strum or something, but it wasn’t that at all.
WIth pain he croaked the word, "J O L S O N." He glowered at me. "Jazz Singer, Jazz Singer, Jazz Singer - that’s all anybody talks about! ‘Al Jolson this, Al Jolson that. Al Jolson made the first talkie.’ Vell, I got some news for you - Al Jolson nothing! It was me! That’s who made the first talkie! Roy Smeck. Now - you remember that. Am I the only one who’s so tired of this Jolson? Jazz Singer? 1927. 1926, Roy Smeck already made the talkie.”
Of course, there was never any ‘Roy’ business. It would have been unthinkable for some kid off the street to call him anything but Mr. Smeck. Even when I finally got to see that 1926 Vitaphone talkie - the very same picture that had Al Jolson popped out of the ether and landed squeaking on the slipcovers he would have smacked him over the head with - when I finally got to see that, just the other night, what I found myself smiling a deep, old smile about was Mister Smeck. That’s how it was in those days, and these days could do with a little more of it.
All of that by way of saying that a couple of weeks ago, the Kahoo and I were strolling down the street one day when I spotted a cheapo Chinese uke in the window of a store in a strip mall here in Sierra Vista. The guy was glad to get out from under it and when I told him how much I had on me he said fine. I imagined it would be nice to have something to play as Rooki and I drift across this desert and God only knows what others to come.
Back in the room, though, as soon as I started tuning it up, Roo was frightened by the sound it made. I tried to break it to her gently but she didn’t see the point. She scampered off and hid her head under the bed. That let all the air out of it for me. I put the uke down and left it alone.
I decided to get rid of it on Craigslist. That thing is worth a box and a half of Greenies, after all. One click led to another and suddenly, there was the name of Roy Smeck onscreen. He would have liked that. The link took me to his Wikipedia entry and from there to a YouTube video. After the flickering handmade title, which erroneously billed him as The Wizard of the String, instead of the Strings, there he was, a Jewish kid in a bow tie on a bench in front of a camera, centered in the square frame of the first talkies, so long ago that veterans of the Civil War could have been sitting right there on apple crates, nursing their stumps and smoking cigars. The movie is one continuous take the length of a roll of film. The young Roy Smeck might be playing the same famous ukulele I was allowed to play under his tutelage. I knew it was going to annoy Roo, who was sleeping out of sight, but I turned the volume on the laptop all the way up.
When it was over and it faded to black, I sighed and closed the laptop. For a moment I thought of how lucky I was to have met him - and all my other teachers, for I have had some of the best and the luck to have known it at the time. I got off the bed and went into the other room and took the uke out of its cardboard box. I tuned it by heart - the tuning song of course is, “My Dog Has Fleas” - and I strummed a few of the chords Mr. Smeck taught me, as lightly as I could with the ball of my thumb, thinking that, ah, well, what difference does it make, not playing music any more was hardly worth worrying about. Not if it jangled my little puppy’s sensitive nerves.
Just as I was thinking that, who poked her nose around the corner to see what was going on but Bearface, Jr. A little twinkle of light reflected from those dark eyes. She was smiling. Her head was moving side-to-side enough to tell that at the other end of her she was doing a slow curiosity-wag.
I said, “What do you think, Junior?”
She came about halfway out of the room, but hesitated when I let one string sound. She did not, however, tuck her tail. I put the uke on the floor and pushed it closer to her. She stretched her neck out as far as it would go so she could get a whiff of it. I reached down to touch a string and she tightened up and looked at me, just in case, and then resumed wagging. It had to have been hearing Mr. Smeck that put Roo in that playful mood.
“Everything’s fine, little bear. Go ahead. You can pick it up.” She’s so gentle with anything she carries, and I wanted to give her the idea that this was pack property that she didn’t have to worry about. She liked being asked, but after she poked it with her nose she decided that was good enough.
I picked the uke up and started serenading her with the song from nearly a hundred years ago that Roy Smeck had taught me. Now, wait a minute - that’s really something, isn’t it? That out there, not lost to the passing of time, is a vaudevillian who was famous in the Roaring 20s who taught me a uke solo that I can play for Roo (I wouldn’t dare play it for anyone else unless I thought they had it coming), on some night in a desert a long way from vaudeville, and write to you about on a shiny little box Mr. Smeck never got to see…. All in all, the message might not be much, but the bottle that it floated to another age in is pretty cool.
The Kahoo stretched her front paws way out and bowed her chest to the floor. She yawned expansively with a little, “whiiaeyew” at the end of it. She looked this way and that and licked her chops and finally she plopped down, just like she did in the water after she double-dared to go right up to a genuine UFO and put her nose to it. She shined with satisfaction. It is one of any dog’s best looks.
For me, Eyes of Blue will always follow Five Foot Two, Roy Smeck will always be Mr. Smeck and I’ll never dare to think of him as anything else (and because of what he told me I never flew a biplane without an oily black tie on and it’s bad enough not vearing one now as I write this), but when it comes to a ukulele - one of the most beautiful of all words - well, that’s where Roo comes in. Right up where she belongs, in the biggest letters and at the top of the bill, or up, anyway, at the top of this post.
I can't get the rhythm of this last paragraph right, so I better quit.
Roo just turned two.