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JOSEPH N. BELL

Controversy Can't Compete With Life's Daily Drama in Drawing Reader Responses

June 15, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Funny, the columns that draw mail. I always expect reaction from columns that deal with controversial subjects, but I get much more from columns that deal with mundane matters, the stuff of coping with the minutiae of everyday life and feeding our souls. Two recent cases in point: a column about a box of theater playbills I've collected over the years and one about our dachshund puppy.

I received in the mail last week a red, dog-eared notebook with "Plays and Players" embossed on the cover. Inside was a marvelous collection of theater programs dating from 1911 and including such jewels as Lillian Russell in "The First Night"; Lew Fields, Vernon Castle and Blossom Seeley in a musical called "The Hen-Pecks" ("Rhymes by E. Ray Goetz and Notes by A. Baldwin Sloane"); George Arliss in "Disraeli"; Ethel Barrymore in J.M. Barrie's "Alice Sit-by-the-Fire"; "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1911" with Leon Errol, Fanny Brice and Bert Williams; and Eddie Foy in "Over the River."

Wedged in the back of this remarkable collection were several programs featuring the woman who sent me this notebook: Aloha Baker of Newport Beach, the first woman to drive a car around the world. She did it in 1923--when there were no roads to speak of--accompanied by a Polish adventurer who adopted the name of Capt. Walter Wanderwell. When he died, Aloha married an American named Walter Baker and continued her adventures, filming them and spending about half her time on the lecture circuit where she was billed as "The World's Most Traveled Girl and Famous Hollywood Personality." She is at present polishing an autobiography with the help of former Times staffers Vi and Don Smith.

From Nancy Ebsen of Balboa Island came a set of playbills that date to 1924 and include the Marx Brothers in a confection called "I'll Say She Is," Leslie Howard in "The Werewolf," and Ruth Chatterton in a musical called "The Magnolia Lady."

Writes Ebsen: "I, too, have all my playbills going back to the '30s and '40s, and I saw most of the same musicals you did--plus sitting with Oscar Hammerstein while he directed a performance of 'Showboat' as a tribute to Larry Hart after he dropped dead on the streets of New York. And I saw the first out-of-town tryout of 'South Pacific' in New Haven, when Mary Martin cartwheeled into the bass drum after singing 'I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy.' "

Another playbill response came from Cynthia Schein, who took exception to my comment that no one ever revives "Fiorello." Said Schein proudly, a group of seventh- through 12th-graders, under professional direction, will present "Fiorello" on behalf of the Long Beach Jewish Community Center July 27 through 30. "Tickets," notes Schein, "are reasonably priced."

Most of the mail about our dachshund chided me gently for expecting too much of her in her puppy phase and wishing I had a more imposing dog to show off. Shirley McFall of Huntington Beach, who has two miniature dachshunds, assured me that "it's not the size of the dog that counts. There is a very large, muscular, body-builder type of man in Newport Beach whom I see frequently on my way to work walking a Chihuahua. You tell him he's not masculine!" Then she added: "One of the nicest things about dachshunds is that they bond very intensely to their humans; more so, in general, than the good ol' dogs."

And Mary Lagerquist of Dana Point also assured me that Coco--except for her name, of which, incidentally, I disapproved from the beginning--"is quite normal and very typical, as any dachshund fancier will attest. Our dachshund chewed through two redwood gates, and when my husband put a metal plate across the bottom, he chewed through that, too. . . . We got up one Halloween morning and found that he had gotten into the trick-or-treat candy I had put by the front door ready for action and consumed 23 of the 36 Snickers bars, wrappers and all, resulting in one very sick dog."

I suspect it was the candy and not the wrappers that made him sick. Coco eats wrappers of all kinds with considerable relish--and with no apparent damage to her health. I was hoping she would grow out of that habit, but it appears a considerable strain of billy goat has been bred into these creatures.

Not all the mail relates to puppies and playbills. Francis Raymond Line--a Capistrano Beach octogenarian who celebrates his wedding anniversary each year by hiking down into the Grand Canyon with his wife, Helen--picked up on a column I wrote about an Irvine man celebrating his 100th birthday.

"Mature men and women," wrote Line, "are of special interest to me right now because of a new book I'm working on that I hope will be out by autumn." The book is entitled "Super Seniors: Their Stories and Secrets"--and if the contents are as inspiring as Francis Line's own story, it should make for good reading.

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