My first flirtation with showbiz should have taught me something: 45 years ago this spring, I wanted to be ringmaster of the first-grade circus, but I didn’t get the part.
At the end of March in 1967, our whole class had gone to see the circus in Madison, at what was then the shiny new Dane County Coliseum. I remember climbing up up up to our seats, horrified to find that they were in the very top row of the arena. I remember gripping the arms of my chair as I sat there, presumably to keep from flying off into space.
When we got home, we started the process of putting together our own circus, which was to be presented for parents and friends toward the end of the school year. I don’t know how it was that I ended up auditioning for the ringmaster part, what it involved, or anything about it—only that they chose somebody else. I had to settle for the part of a ringmaster in a skit about a clown who couldn’t find his smile. I had one line, and I still remember it: “Why don’t you look in your paintbox?”
(There are no small parts, only small actors—and I suppose that if it wasn’t for me, the clown would still be looking for the damn thing.)
I looked up the newspapers from the week we went to the circus, and I was reminded of a terrible hometown tragedy that occurred on March 30, 1967: an airplane crashed into a motel in suburban New Orleans, killing 18 people. Nine of the dead were high school seniors from little Juda, Wisconsin, a few miles east of my hometown. They were on their class trip—and the nine, all girls, represented over a quarter of their class. Most had familiar Green County surnames, and I’m certain that my parents must have known some of the families, at least casually.
In the wider world that week, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists went on strike. Network TV news anchors David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, and Peter Jennings were off the job and replaced by supervisory personnel. Cronkite’s replacement was somebody named Arnold Zenker, who became a bit of a sensation during his two weeks on the air; when Cronkite returned, he introduced himself by saying, “This is Walter Cronkite, sitting in for Arnold Zenker.” On the very day of the plane crash, over in England, the Beatles shot the cover photos for their forthcoming album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
We remember 1967 now as a year in which musical giants roamed the Earth, and the top of the WLS survey dated March 31, 1967, is positively stunning. “Happy Together,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” and “For What It’s Worth” are not merely the hot rotation of a single week, but of an entire generation. Further down the chart, a number of Chicago and Midwestern acts are represented: the Cryan Shames, 2 of Clubs, the Buckinghams, the New Colony Six, the Riddles, the Messengers. There’s a fair amount of housewife flavor, too. Those are the records I would have heard in the spring of first grade, because the hometown station my parents liked would have been playing them. So I remember Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Something Stupid,” “This Is My Song” by Petula Clark, and “My Cup Runneth Over” by Ed Ames.
But most of what happened that week in the rest of the world did not happen in mine. That world was still circumscribed by my family and the farm we lived on and by Mrs. Rodger’s first-grade class at Lincoln School, where I was about to learn, probably for the first time, that we do not always get the things we want.