By Annie Lampman
“Sing, Baby, sing. That’s right darlin’, you can do it… Sing!” Her mother was this way—brown hair bouncing off her shoulders, stage smile outlined in “glamour-girl red,” fingers tapping against the folds of her dress creating little undulations of fabric as she exaggerated the movements of her mouth, lip-synching to Baby’s song as if she were bequeathing the pitch and notes to her.
Baby looked to the small crowd and timed her voice with her sisters, her vibrato near quivering with sorrow she, at four, could already understand. Her solo, the crescendo, new to the performance tonight. People wanted her, her mother said. Give ‘em what they want.
They circled deep bows, Baby making a game out of it in her head, reach the curtain and pull the lights, sweep the floor and sing goodnight. They curtsied and line-marched back to their mother, her hands loosed to straighten the flounce of Baby’s sleeve, smooth her ringlets, redraw her straight-line part. Baby had learned to hold still, the comb-end and whiskey bottle weapons her mother wielded well. Mary Jane and Virginia slouched their way to the greenroom before their mother could smack them upright, lecture them on the ways of comportment. Only when her mother turned to see what the audience was doing—the sounds of shifting always dangerous—could Baby ease away.
The greenroom’s dark gloom was her mother’s choice, cave-like as it was. Their theater would not be one of the dumps she’d always had to perform in, she said—it would be first class, top notch for the stub-holders of Grand Rapids. She’d bumped the girls from 2nd to 8th billing tonight even though their act was still in break-in, not just because they were good and getting better, but because they hadn’t been able to secure the big timer she wanted.
They had to share the room with the chaser—a tall unicyclist and his small dog. The dog paced and panted spots of drool onto the Persian rug Baby’s mother so treasured as the man pulled his earlobe, a red blot spreading across his cheek until it looked as if he had been side-toasted over open flames. “He’s nothing but a fish,” Mary Jane stage-whispered, but Baby liked him—the way his hair curled damply around his forehead, the way he patted his little dog.
The fly gallery let out a series of screeches and squalls as the next set was lowered—a background of flames to further excite the audience and keep their attention for the closing act. Their mother’s stage-call echoed with the drum roll: “Behold the Flaming Hoops of Doom!”
The unicyclist, haloed in an aura of smoke, rode out on stage with his hoops of fire twirling through the air, the little dog jumping through each as it neared the ground, the audience gasping, open-mouthed. The act still delighted Baby on its third run of the day, but the man in the audience her mother wanted to impress fidgeted in his seat, his tight-panted legs spilling over the sides like sausage meat straining against its casing. He yawned and her mother cursed, taking a quick nip from the mini flask she hid in her skirts.
The theater windows spilled light as they pulled away the last time, her mother grinding the Grey Dort into gear, singing in her uneven contralto, “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” their trunks heaped in the back obscuring the soft-top’s windows, the night dark around them. Her sisters huddled in the front seat, leaving Baby in the small space next to her mother. “You’ve got to work hard if you want to be a star like me,” she said, sniffing, a quiver running along her jaw.
The California heat wetted the circle of hair beneath Baby’s top hat. They stood in order, small to tallest, Baby on the right. They were to smile, Smile! her mother said, gesturing with her own strange grimace to demonstrate. Underneath the hat—toes turned in, knocked-kneed, arms arced to her side, fingers held tight—Baby smiled. She smiled to the flash of bulbs, smiled to the whistles and claps, smiled as the orchestra soared into full force.
The movie cameras caught the black and white shimmer of their outfits, the lights glinting off the checkerboard floor as they began their toe-in, toe-out dance, their shoes blinking high polish. The music bubbled out of Baby’s throat, “That’s the Good Old Sunny South,” while her sisters linked arms and twirled her ring-around-the-rosy style, one hand holding their hats as they tilted their heads back and smiled at the camera.
“Oh, Baby, you’re a star,” her mother said when they came off stage. She bent down and swooned, grasping Baby by the shoulders, shaking her as she repeated, “A star, a star,” as though she were the voice and the echo both. She weaved in her heels, cigarette holder held unsteadily aloft, pointing upward in glowing proclamation.
The stage’s night sounds provided comfort: the clank and bump of prop moving and dressing-room doors, the offkey squawk of a horn being cleaned. In the mirror, Baby’s face looked small next to the fresh-printed Big Revue card: “Ethel Meglin’s Hollywood Wonder Kiddies,” her own smile frozen next to her sisters’. The stagehands had whistled as they walked by despite the frilly anklets and little-sister in tow, Mary Jane and Virginia swaying their hips and giggling before slipping into their own rooms, leaving Baby to their mother.
The director wanted her to bring more pizzazz to the boards. He ended every statement with, “Alrighty little girl?” His pinched nasal loud enough to bounce the end into a vibrating gggurrrll, which Baby repeated to herself as she went back on. From stage-side, her mother arched her eyebrows and rolled her finger, signaling for Baby to pick up the pace, sing louder, move her feet, smile wider. So she did, singing until her own voice was all she could hear, flowing from her throat until it ached and opened for more.