In 1957, I went to a Cab Calloway concert at Yakima, Washington’s Eisenhower High Auditorium, and a basketball game broke out!
Everyone knows who basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters are. The renowned ambassadors of good will are so much bigger than basketball. However, I’m sure at least several readers are wondering, or are straining to remember, who Cab Calloway is, or was (was — he passed in 1994). Well, who hasn’t seen the “Blues Brothers” movie? Cab was one of the featured performers in that flick; he was the jazzy African-American cat who sang “Minnie The Moocher”. – But more about that later….
Yes, in 1957, the Harlem Globetrotters traveled to Yakima to play a fantastic game at Eisenhower High School. This was not their first appearance here, just one of their best. Not only did some of the most sensational, well-known Globetrotters play, but so did one of the planet’s greatest jazzmen: The Hi-De-Ho Man, Mr. Cab Calloway. To this day, I don’t know if Daddy (Al “Cowboy Pinkeye” Bowles) took us to see the Crowned Clowns of Round Ball, or the masterful maestro. But I know who I liked the best: the maestro!
I can tell you that Cab Calloway came strutting out onto the floor of Ike Auditorium at half-time of the Globetrotter’s spectacular, where he proceeded to entertain the h-e-double-toothpicks out of the capacity crowd. And when I say capacity crowd, I mean it. Dad neglected to buy advance tickets to the big event. We showed up about an hour before tip-off, and were told that there were NO tickets available. Dad was not dumb, though. He figured if we waited around a little while by the ticket booth, maybe a seat or three would become available, and we could snatch them up. Well, he was half-right. About fifteen minutes before game-time, a man came out and announced that there was “standing room only in the auditorium”. I had never heard the term. I asked Daddy what “standing remone” meant. He said, “It’s standing room only, and it means that if you boys don’t mind standing, we can see the show! Well, heck yeah. He had built this event up in our minds, as only he could (I’ve mentioned elsewhere that when Daddy liked something, he *liked* something!) We were not about to give up our opportunity to see the show, even if we did have to stand. So, he paid his money, he got his ticket. And ours.
The coolest thing happened as soon as we got inside. Apparently, this show was a benefit for, or presented by, the Yakima YMCA. Because, we soon ran into our friend, Secretary and “Physical Director” of the Yakima YMCA, the great Gus Shinn. He was a very kind, well-loved, older man. My brother Al III and I had been members of the “Y” for about a year. Gus recognized us, and, right away, said hello. He and Daddy knew each other from the local Rotary or Kiwanis club. Dad told Gus that we were really lucky to get into the auditorium, because it was “standing room only”. Well, with a twinkle in his eye, Gus led us over to the special YMCA section, where he immediately found three great seats! Making sure we were comfy in them, he bid us a wonderful evening, and left to see what other random acts of kindness he could perform.
We got settled into our seats, and immediately, the Globetrotters’ players were announced amid much fanfare. (No, not a bunch of smoke and cannons, strobes and lasers such as you’d see now. It was late-50’s-style fanfare and folderol.)
To the very best of my memory, the one-and-only “Meadowlark” Lemon was introduced to the cheering crowd, along with Hubert “Geese” Ausbie, Willie Gardner, Reese “Goose” Tatum and Bob “Showboat” Hall. Typically, those fellows would have played in 1957. I admit to not remembering every player’s name. Heck, I can’t remember the complete World Champion Seattle Sonics lineup from 1979, either. The Trotters’ bench, and their “opponents” were also introduced. Do I know who the opponents were? No. No one cared. (Sometimes it would be the Washington Generals, sometimes it would be college players.) Whoever they were, they were about to be made fools of, about to be defeated! I will say this: In 1948 and 1949, The Trotters actually beat the Lakers, who at the time were known as the Minneapolis Lakers.
Once the game got under way, the men from Harlem trotted out all of their patented moves, tricks and routines, which we rewarded with loud cheering and hearty applause. They made fun of and disobeyed the refs, double-dribbled; they pretended to throw a bucket of water on the crowd; they did all the things we’ve come to know and love them for. For an eight-year-old boy, it was pure joy, seeing these extremely talented ballplayers show how equally skilled they were at making us laugh ourselves silly. This was back when there was one, maybe two television stations in Yakima. We didn’t see major league sports, or big-time entertainment 24/7, and we rarely saw anything so amazing in person.
When the first-half clock expired, Dad said to get ready for the “main event”. It was truly Showtime!
Cab Calloway, the legendary jazzman and consummate entertainer, suddenly appeared, and he went on to play a long half-time show that I still consider incredible. He included several of his classic songs: “Hi-De-Ho”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from “Porgy And Bess”) and “Minnie the Moocher”. With a gleam in his eye, a huge smile on his face, and a song in his heart, he entertained us with a set that was taken right from the book of the history of jazz.
Mr. Calloway sang with and/or led bands all the way back in the 1920’s, so he had been a star for years. He was known for his crazy, hipster style and tongue-twisting “scat” lyrics. But for younger folks, he was forever immortalized in 1980’s “Blues Brothers” movie. According to Wikipedia’s account, Cab’s character, “Curtis”, a church janitor and the Blues Brothers’ mentor, magically transformed the band into a 1930’s swing band, and the mustachioed zoot-suiter sang “Minnie the Moocher”, while dressed to the nines in his patented “tails”.
Now then: according to the long-running PBS Television series, “American Masters”, Mr. Calloway was known to perform for these Globetrotter half-time shows with just a pianist. But I remember seeing a great swing band with him. Am I the victim of a faulty memory? I can’t be sure. One reason I write this is to ask if anyone else remembers this event. Do you? — The thing is, he was bigger than life. Maybe he was as big as a band, all by himself. I’m thinking back 57 years!
Finally, after expending seemingly every bit of energy he had, and wearing us out in the process, Cab bid us adieu. The Globetrotters came back out onto the floor and proceeded to thoroughly kick the tail of their “opponents”. I’m certain they won by a large margin; but I hardly remember watching that second half. My mind was on the Cab Calloway show. While Dad may have ventured out that night, more for Cab Calloway than for the Harlem Globetrotters, I must say, he made a true believer out of me.
In one of those weird coincidences which has happened to me throughout my life, in 1967, I provided the half-time entertainment at Eisenhower High School auditorium for another great basketball team, the Harlem Clowns. — Exactly ten years after I attended that amazing show in the very same venue. I was singer/guitarist in the Peppermint Tea, when we (former members of Yakima’s Velvet Illusions) played a set of our favorite tunes in the packed auditorium. Years later, I found stories on various internet websites stating that we provided the halftime entertainment for the Harlem Globetrotters. — What a world.
In 1954, The Harlem Globetrotters appeared in a movie entitled “Go Man Go”, with Sidney Portier, which was screened in more than 11,000 U.S. theaters. Decades later, in 1982, they were the first (and only?) sports team honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. Throughout the years, the lineup has included female players, as well as Caucasian players.
Cab Calloway: The Hi-De-Ho Man That’s Me:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDL-gJmAniM
In 1952, the Trotters’ designated “Sweet Georgia Brown” as their theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zq79iVVwJ1A