Hail, Hail Fredonia!
Fredonia, New York
Not all tales come from huge trips, or from getting what we want.
Dean and I left Boston just before 9pm on Wednesday, September 6, 2000, in a 10-foot Penske truck packed with boxes of his papers, books, and other odd effects. The night before, we were at his parents’ home, maps out, discussing possible routes to Chicago, and it boiled down to two of them.
That’s when I noticed that the northern route passed through the town of Fredonia, NY, and the matter was settled in my mind. Because of its location on the railway line between Buffalo and Philadelphia, Fredonia had a lively series of acts passing through and performing in the days of vaudeville, back in the early 1900s. When I saw the town on the map, my mind was instantly filled with visions of the Marx Brothers pelting the operatic Margaret Dumont with fruit as she tried to sing “Hail, Hail Fredonia! Land of the Braveï¿½”
We stopped for a couple hours of light sleep in a highway truckstop between first light and dawn, and pulled into Fredonia around 7:30, Thursday morning. We walked around town for a bit and found the old opera house. Since this is where the Marx Brothers would have performed (and bombed, giving them the idea of mocking Fredonia as the country they take over in Duck Soup), we were sure there would be mention of them there. Unfortunately, it was too early and no one was around to give us a tour, or answer questions. The building is used for municipal offices as well as housing the recently renovated theatre, and we wandered around the unlocked halls until we found a display case on the renovation and history of the place: No mention of the Marx Brothers.
I went up to the top floor and found a small courtroom, complete with a group of flags in the corner. I don’t recall if there was a Stars and Stripes, but there were flags for the state of New York, and the county of Chautauqua. There was also the very colorful flag of Fredonia: the sun in the upper-outside corner casting its yellow rays on a huge bunch of purple grapes in the center. I felt certain that we would find some mention of the Marx Brothers once the theatre was opened, but meanwhile, here was a fine souvenir! I could probably have carried it off, but stealing from a courthouse seemed a rather low thing to do – irony was never my strongest suit – and I knew that Dean would have furrowed his brow up in knots, so I left it there in the belief that I would find some town souvenir with “Fredonia” on it.
Most everything in town was still closed, so we walked to the White Inn Hotel for a much-needed breakfast after the long night of driving. After ordering, I asked the waitress if people in the town made much of the town’s Marx Brothers connection, or if they were pretty much sick of the topic. Well, she didn’t know the Marx Brothers connection.
After breakfast Dean had some calls to make to various places in Chicago, so I set out to find either a Marx Brothers fan or a town flag – of any size – for sale. I stopped in at the local sewing and quilting shop and had no luck, although they were very kind, and gave me directions to a store managed by a woman who is also in the Chamber of Commerce. On my way to that store, I stopped in at a newsstand, where I got the same reception and kind advice from 3 people. My path was taking me near the opera house again, so I stopped in and asked several people there about town flags and the Marx Brothers, all to no avail.
What was possibly the strangest part of all these conversations was that the very existence of a town flag came as a complete surprise to everyone. They were all very friendly, smiled warmly, and listened to my questions – some even offered jokes and advice on keeping happy – but none of them recognized my description of sunlit grapes as a town symbol. I suppose now, that this town symbol appears only on the town flag, and that this flag appears in one place: the third-floor courtroom in the Opera House building. If this is the case, then everything is easily explained by the fact that all of the people I spoke to that morning were too friendly ever to be arrested, and if never arrested, they would never see that happy, sunny flag.
Later that morning, the theatre opened up, but guided tours were only available for groups over 20 that requested them in advance. Fortunately, they didn’t see anything wrong in our going inside to look around for ourselves. Having seen the end of one of the tours, I think I know why. It was composed of approximately 30 seniors sitting in the theater’s seats and listening to their leader tell them where they were headed next. My guess is that the people in the box office thought Dean and I would also look at the stage from the audience’s perspective. We spent all of a minute doing this before heading backstage. The day was sunny and very bright, so our eyes had trouble adjusting to the dim light of the theatre and the blackness of backstage. Fortunately there was a flashlight by the stage manager’s chair.
The old-fashioned brick theatre is very interesting, and has a large, vintage-looking backstage area, rounded at the rear corners where spiral wooden staircases once ran up to the catwalk. On the back wall, stage left, was posted a collection of large advertisements for products and stores that probably went out of business 50 years ago, ascending on the wall 1 ad wide, and about 10 ads high. It seemed strange to place advertisements where only actors and stagehands would ever see them, and we moved along in our explorations, heading down to the green, dressing, and storage rooms.
Once we were satisfied that there were no vaudeville references anywhere there, we went back up to stage level for some of our own. I jumped down into the orchestra pit and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and hawked imaginary bags of peanuts to an imaginary audience, while Dean did a Groucho-style dance on stage. Finally, I wrote a Marx Brothers message on a piece of masking tape and stuck it on the backstage wall near the returned flashlight. Had anyone from the town seen us, they would have had no idea that we were stealing from A Night at the Opera, and would probably have thought we were troublemakers. Of course then we would have gotten another look at the Fredonian flag two floors up!
Back out in the sunshine, we stopped into a used book and antique store, where we again met some very nice people who didn’t realize that their town had a Marx Brothers connection (vaudeville is dead). We told them all about this history and got into quite a long conversation with them and a very interesting man who happened to be in, asking about a few of their items. His last name is Fisk, and when not hunting big game in Siberia he operates a building restoration company that his father started. He had some interesting stories about restoring the Basilica in Cleveland (including how shocked the church officials there were to find out that that one building, neglected for decades and unrestored, still out-valued the rest of the diocese’s buildings put together), a church tower in Fredonia, and the tall ship Niagara.
I still had the name of the woman on the Chamber of Commerce, so while Dean went back to the truck and more phone calls, I found her shop. She was the only person I spoke to from that town who knew what I was talking about! Unfortunately, she had no flag or Marx Brothers souvenir to sell me. She did say that the town had cloisonné pins boxed and stored somewhere (she said she’ll send me one, once she finds them), but couldn’t recall what picture they included above the town’s name. Several local Chambers of Commerce in Chautauqua merged in 2000, and the Fredonia Chamber is now considering how to use the time and manpower this saves them to promote their town. I gave her a few suggestions that will seem obvious to anyone reading this account, and added that if their search through the town photo archives (one of the projects she mentioned wanting to undertake) yielded any good vaudeville materials, I would like to know.
With my faith in the town that much restored, I returned to the truck, and we picked up our journey west, to Chicago.