click here for previous episode, here to begin at the beginning
"she can't dance, she's going to have to learn to sing."
those were the first words shirley remembered hearing, in a dressing room in alberta or maybe it was a hotel room in manitoba. shirley's parents were vaudevillians of the old school and had performed the exact same song and dance act up to eight times a day for three hundred days a year for ten years by the time shirley was born and fourteen years after that
before her father ran off with a "bad woman", strangled her, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in washington state.
"we'll ask adele, see what she thinks." adele was her mother's best friend and her father's severest critic.
she too had an act that she performed exactly the same way eight times a day etc and was usually booked at the same time and place as shirley's mother and father. adele's act was "goldilocks and the three blind mice". adele, in a blonde marie antoinette wig, would belt out old standards while three trained mice - one white, one pink, and one black - crawled and capered over the blonde wig, and her bare shoulders and large bosom.
adele out of costume was not so fearsome. she looked at little shirley not unkindly on a cold gray day in missoula - calgary? pocatello?. "o k, kid, you've heard enough songs in your young life. want to sing us a song? what's a song you like?" "i don't know." "i wouldn't ask you to do this," shirley's mother interrupted. "but she can't dance. she just doesn't have the toes." "oh? peggy murphy always used to say it was the arch of the foot that counted. or maybe it was the ball of the foot." "toes, balls of the feet - what's the difference, she can't dance. her sister can dance, she can't dance." adele smiled at shirley again. "come on kiddo, there must be a song you like. one of your mom's songs?'"
"i don't know." "sing adele a song, shirley." "she's got good enunciation - she doesn't lisp. that's a good sign, at her age. come on, shirley, how about bill bailey won't you please come home? you must know that." "no," said shirley's mother. "no? what do you mean, no?" "no child of mine is going to sing bill bailey. she can sing anything else. she can sing ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall. she can sing opera in russian. but she's not singing bill bailey won't you please come home." "but it's the sine qua non of vaudeville. it's one of my signature songs." "no offense, adele, but i've heard it enough. listen, times are changing. kids coming up are going to need a real repertoire. the days when you just did the same act over and over - they're coming to an end." "true, so true," adele agreed. "you wonder how they're going to develop their timing." "that's going to be their problem. i read it in variety - audiences are getting ever more sophisticated and demanding." "yes indeed. well, here we are in the great state of montana in the year of our lord 1931 and shirley is going to sing us a song.
come on honey, what's a song you like?" "i like mammy." "mammy! that's a good song! it's one of my favorites too. it shows you've got good taste." shirley sang a couple of choruses of mammy. "that's great, kiddo, really great!" "great? she sounds like a truck trying to put its brakes on when it goes over a cliff." "no, no, she's got good projection - you can hear the words - that's the important thing. we'll work on it, won't we, honey?" "i really appreciate this, adele. i'm not asking you to work with her every day, you know, maybe once in a while, that's all." "not a problem, tess. i'm happy to do it."
later shirley discussed her future prospects with her big sister belinda, who was two years older and pretty and knew everything.
"you better learn to sing." "adele is going to teach me." "you know what's going to happen if you can't dance or sing?" "i know." "do you? what's going to happen?" "i know." "you'll have to tell jokes. that's a tough way to go." "so?" "and if you can't even tell jokes, you know what?" shirley thought she knew the answer to that . "you have to let them hit you in the face with pies and stuff." "no, stupid. that's not what i meant at all." "what?" "you'll be a scrubwoman, that's what. you'll be on your hands and knees all days and your legs will look watermelons." shirley was getting tired of the conversation. she wanted to play with her doll.
"and then you know what? if you can't even do that?" shirley got up and went to get her doll. "i'm talking to you, missy! you know what will happen?" "what?" "you'll have to go live in the jungles with the hobos and eat beans out of a can!"
shirley got her doll out of her little suitcase stuck behind the family trunk. "all right, i'm through with you. if you'll excuse me, i'm going to read my book." belinda had a few little illustrated books which she read over and over. shirley couldn't read or write. neither of them would ever spend a day in school in their lives, and shirley never did learn to read very well. but she had a great memory which served her well. she could also learn songs in other languages like french and german and italian. this ability impressed even her mother. eventually she got her own act and was billed as "the little girl with the big voice" and "sing anything shirley". nothing changed that much when she grew up.
"jack, i'll level with you, she's got her pluses and minuses. she can belt it out -" "well , you know, with the mikes they got these days - if the room's not that big - " "i know, i know. but repertoire - like you wouldn't believe. i mean, the kid knows every song that's ever been sung."
"so she must be pretty good with requests, huh?" "the greatest - absolutely the greatest you ever saw." "eh - if you got a certain venue, a certain kind of crowd -" "that's what i'm trying to tell you. but i'll tell you straight out, so there won't be any misunderstanding between us - like i say, she can shout it out, she's got the repertoire, but the actual singing - you could say she's still developing. she's still developing."