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To the best of my recollection...
Chapter 6: Meetings with Remarkable Musicians
Of all the questions I am asked, and there are many, the most frequent one is, "How did you meet Helen Baldassare?" I am also asked how I met Gregory Toroian, but that question is number 32, right after "What did you have for breakfast?"
It began, as so many things do, in Pocatello, Idaho. The year was 1971. I had been travelling in the heartland of America as production stage manager for a bus and truck tour of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney. Reviews of this near-forgotten endeavor may be found in Appendix K, but for the purposes of this chapter, let's just say that no one, at any time, believed that there really was a baby.
To escape the relentless artistry of the play's two stellar personages, I had developed the habit of searching out the lounges in a given town before I even checked into my hotel. If there were no lounges to be found, I would check out the bars or stake out the liquor stores. To my great relief, I discovered that Pocatello had two such watering holes. One was called (wouldn't you know it?) "The Watering Hole." The other, "Earl's Place."
A flashing sign above the door showed a smiling potato in a white T-shirt emblazoned with the name "Earl," sitting at a piano, four of its many eyes winking a welcome to the patrons who passed beneath its warming glow.
And it welcomed me a few nights later, after we had just completed our opening night performance. I arrived alone, having long ago discovered that Mickey and Ann were not the best drinking companions, particularly after an evening as George and Martha. One tequila shooter and the wig would go flying, those aging legs would attempt high kicks off the bar, and a metallic grate of a voice would try to recreate a magical, musical MGM moment. Things got even worse when Ms. Miller tagged along.
So I grabbed a solitary stool at the bar and ordered a dry martini with lime, which arrived in a canning jar with a whole lime lying on the bottom like a green tennis ball, barely visible through the murky liquid. I closed my eyes and sipped, as I had done in so many piano bars in so many towns (see chapter 4, and chapters 11 through 27). After I had determined the relatively minor level of toxicity, I chugged the rest. This practice invariably led to a more complete enjoyment of the night's musical offering.
The lights dimmed and I turned to the corner where the yellow and purple striped upright piano was located. Near it was a mic stand and a stool. On the stool was a feather boa and a bottle of vodka. These accoutrement led me to believe that I might be in for a slightly higher caliber of entertainment than that to which I had become sadly accustomed.
A voice that could only belong to the offspring of Truman Capote and Elaine Stritch boomed out of the darkness: "Okay, people... put your hands together for tonight's special guests. You know them. You love them. They've been special guests for the last 13 months... here they are... Trixie and Earl!"
As you may have already surmised, Trixie and Earl were none other than Helen Baldassare and Gregory Toroian.
Both of them sat at the piano as the roaring of the crowd subsided, and I leaned forward in surprised interest. A brilliantly realized four-hand arrangement of Buckle Down, Woonsockie followed. By the time it ended, twenty minutes later, I had become a die-hard fan of this dazzling duo.
Rather than go into detail about the rest of the set, except perhaps to mention the stunning medley of Over The Rainbow and Cow Cow Boogie and, of course, Trixie's deeply moving Battle Hymn of the Republic in swing time, let me backtrack and fill in the details of how the universe conspired to capture the three of us at that particular time and place.
Helen had been bitten by the show-biz bug once she had seen Zasu Pitts perform her legendary one-woman show in Boston in 1962. When she completed college, armed with a degree in theater (and really, what more does a performer need to make it in the world?), she set out cross-country to become a musical legend in her own right. One of her first paying jobs was a six-month gig at the self-same "Watering Hole" I mentioned earlier. Sometime into her fourth week, the management at "Earl's" realized that in order to compete with her astounding success they had to find an equally electrifying entertainer.
You see, their beloved Earl of the blinking neon outside had passed away some years earlier, and the only entertainment offered in the bar was a dusty accordion on a fake marble pedestal in the corner that any customer talented (or drunk) enough was welcome to play.
The owner contacted a booking agent in Boise who knew a talent scout in Birmingham whose brother-in-law was the bouncer at a boite in Boca Raton. As word of the plight of the poor folks in Pocatello passed back and forth along this somewhat circuitous grapevine, the bouncer let it be known that one Gregory Toroian, the piano player at his club, had just been fired because, ignoring countless warnings, he refused to stop telling jokes between songs -- jokes that only he understood. Apparently the sound of his lone laugh echoing through the swanky night spot had been too depressing for the patrons to bear.
Never one to pass up a paying gig, the hapless musician made the long journey to Idaho -- ironically enough, a state of which he had not been aware until this fortuitous chain of events.
After much discussion and debate it was decided that Gregory would change his name to "Earl" for the duration of his stay. This was for the sense of continuity and history it allowed... and it was cheaper than having a new sign made.
Soon the crowds began returning to "Earl's." The town folk quickly became enamored of his unique talent. And for Gregory/Earl's part, he had learned his lesson and not one joke passed his lips.
Curious to see just who this interloper was, Helen snuck into "Earl's" one night between sets. And as fate would have it, on that very same night, a tourist -- having a sombrero while waiting for the 11 p.m. Greyhound to arrive -- shouted out a request for Slow Boat to China. Earl, looking seriously pained, explained that he only had a duet arrangement so he could not fulfill the request. The tourist was grief stricken, as was the entire crowd. The sadness quickly began to turn to anger. A bottle flew past Earl and he crouched over the keys, hoping the multicolored piano would offer at least some protection as the usually adoring crowd began to lose control.
After a vase shattered on the wall above Earl's head, showering both player and piano with dandelions and gladioli, a commanding voice rang out from the back of the bar: "Enough... what's wrong with you people?"
It was Helen, of course, taming the unruly mob with her withering rebuke. As if a biblical sea, the people parted to let her pass. She moved quickly to the stage, went to the piano and, in an excited whisper, conferred with Earl as he wiped away the floral debris from the keyboard with a tablecloth he had ripped from a ringside table.
When the keys were once again pristine and the crowd had quieted to a silent anticipation, Helen said, in a loud yet somehow musical voice, "Kick it, Earl!" Suffice it to say that the slow boat to China had never been a more enjoyable ride than it was that night.
The chemistry between the two was immediately apparent to even the most inebriated of patrons, and equally evident to the performers themselves. They knew that they must work together, in the great tradition of Nelson & Jeannette, Steve & Eydie, Paul & Paula.
While it is hard to imagine now that Helen was ever a blushing neophyte to the world of show business, that is the sad truth. Somehow the contract she had signed with "The Watering Hole" gave the bar the rights to the name "Helen Baldassare" within the city limits. To this day, when she performs in Pocatello she uses the name "Joan Crowe."
So when she gave her notice, intending to move across the street and work with Earl, she had to choose a new name. The cosmic coincidence of such a name change occurring to both members of this terrific twosome was lost on no one, except perhaps the bartender. Gregory/Earl suggested the name Trixie (after a beloved childhood pet) and it struck a chord with Helen. Thus, "Trixie and Earl" were born.
When I heard them that night so long ago, I knew that they were just too good for Pocatello. I had to get them to New York. I talked the bartender into taking over the remaining dates with Mickey and Ann, and arranged for the three of us to grab the next Greyhound to the city that never sleeps. With stars in their eyes and a song in their hearts they prepared to take the Big Apple by storm, but this was just not meant to be.
As you will find out in chapter seven:
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