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“CHILD ELOCUTIONIST”

Collected and annotated in memory of my mother.

Berenice Lowe

1972

My mother was a very busy woman, running a household, feeding a family and hired men and being in charge of floral arrangements for Jones and Ebelink, Florists.  Besides, she was crippled from arthritis – I never saw my very peppy mother run.  How she managed to train me as an elocutionist and then accompany me for evening performances as she did, seems now superhuman.  She was an excellent tailoress and made my clothes.  Somehow she managed to save a few programs and newspaper reviews of my work.  Theses are mounted in this book.  One additional review was found on microfilm.

Inasmuch as this was to be an autobiography, my background which culminated in local history enthusiasm is hereby delineated along with a few statistics.

Berenice Louise Jones, born October 26, 1896, Flint, Michigan.

            Moved to Central Park, three miles west of Holland, Michigan at age three.  Here my father, Ralston S. Jones, a telegrapher for the Pere Marquette railroad, started a florist business on an attractive ten acres, one-fourth mile from Lake Macatawa, three miles east of Lake Michigan.

            An Interurban line ran next to our property so that I attended Holland schools except for two years at country school, about one and one-half miles from our house.  Until sixth grade I was escorted by my only brother, six years older than I.

            My mother, Jennie Pierce Jones, (we sometimes called her Jennie-ma-Jones for fun), was a talented entertainer with a good speaking voice and clear enunciation, but with no audience except us children.  Winter evenings we sat beside the isinglass-windowed stove while by the light from the glowing coals – or from memory – she read Longfellow, Whittier, Tennyson, Wordsworth and Shakespeare.  Among the poems and plays I recall The Wreck of the Hesperus, Maud Muller, The Trumpet Song, Daffodils and The Merchant of Venice.  On the wall of our living room hung a print of photographs of “American Authors.”  They were Bryant, Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell and Whittier.  I remember the day she received this in the mail – how thrilled she was! – And she had it framed immediately.  This same print hung in other homes I visited as a child.  It may even have been a popular soap premium.  Perhaps it was a symbol of literacy.

            Mother’s aunt, Nell Pierce, was just mother’s age and her childhood playmate.  About 1890 Aunt Nell attended the Ella Chaffee Noble School of Elocution in Detroit.  / Note.  Ella Chaffee Noble was a frequent visitor and sometimes entertainer in Battle Creek, being a relative of Alonzo Noble.  In the 1930s I heard Richard B. Harrison, who played De Lawd in Green Pastures; say he attended the Noble School.  He later told me that the training was superb.  “I never worry about making a good gesture,” he said, “because with that training I can’t make a bad one.”  / Mother had copied some of the lessons from Aunt Nell’s Noble School notebook and my brother and I were subsequently given lessons by our mother in what was then called “elocution.”  (That popular word gave way to “expression” and it, in turn, to “interpretive reading” or “dramatic reading.”)  Elocution books – heavy tomes – were numerous in those days and our library boasted two or three.  My mother’s favorite source was an anthology, “Perfect Jewels,” from which some of my earliest memorized poems were chosen.

            My first public appearance was in the Methodist Church in Holland at age six.  I gave a cut version of a poem from “Perfect Jewels” that began,

Little Nan Gordon with the red hair

Down by the post office, you know where

Sold big red apples, two for a cent,

Gum drops, lozenges and rose peppermint.

            A friend to who I told this story about my childhood training has urged me to include it in this account.

            Shortly after I began appearing in public and before I was speaking professionally at eight years of age, our Methodist minister came to call.  He asked me to recite something for him.  I felt too shy to do so and refused.  After he left, my mother took me to task.  She twitted me of acting “coy” and declared I was never to do that again and “embarrass” her.  She also hauled out the Bible and read to me the parable of the talents.  She did not tell me that talents in Biblical times were coins.  She let me interpret the word literally; I already knew from compliments that I had “talent.”  She practically made me feel that my “hiding my talent under a bushel” was a sin against the Lord.  “You have been given a talent by God,” she said.  “And it it is your responsibility to use it wisely and to His glory.”

            Needless to say I never did that again, although there came a time when I expected (and deserved) payment for my work.  However, I also gave freely of my “talent.”  I do feel that practice is very important, so by my fragment use of my original talent, it has been multiplied.

            Mother had a real flair for what was pertinent for an audience and often cut a verse or story to make it suitable for “a piece,” as a speaker’s memorized material was called.  Just as a journalist learns to write briefly and to the point, I learned from my mother the importance of brevity, sticking to one subject and being constantly aware of an audience.  It was a great training for both speaking and writing.

            She also stressed the importance of always being prepared.  An introduction to the story or poem was to be composed and memorized, even if it were not used.  If someone gave a good introduction, I might skip mine; I had to decide at the moment if all or part of the prepared introduction was necessary.  It used to annoy me to have some woman say in a squeaky voice, “Now there’ll be a recitation by li’l Berns Jones,” not only because she mispronounced my name (Ber-nees was correct) but because I had to decide on my way to the platform what was necessary as an introduction.  But again it was good training.  Impromptu statements became easier and easier.  Later I learned to use appropriate stories for oft-repeated occasions, for example, when I was called on unexpectedly to entertain and wanted to slide out of it gracefully.  To be professional, one must be prepared for emergencies.

            Soon I was being paid for my work.  I generally received fifty cents for entertaining at a lodge or club affairs with one “piece” and one encore.  Fifteen cents for this went for interurban car fare for my mother; I (while under twelve years) rode with her without charge.

            By saving this money in the piggy bank, we acquired enough of my earnings to pay for a gray coat of a deep-pile fabric, and a felt hat, something that might not have been afforded for me otherwise.  My mother was an excellent seamstress and made my clothes.  The plush coat and felt hat, purchased when I was eight years old, may have been my first “store bought” outfit.

            My first recital (at age eleven) was scheduled for an April evening which produced a cold rain – everyone who commented on it said it was a “miserable night.”  In that era entertainers who mustered a whole evening’s program were said to give a recital, whether violinist, pianist, vocalist or elocutionist.  Each one hauled in someone in another field to “assist.”  My program included a fine pianist and a whistler, the latter a very fat friend of Mother’s who had considerable ability.  Today whistlers are completely out of fashion.  I cannot remember hearing one of high caliber on television or radio.

            The pianist and whistler had to be paid, also the rental of the Methodist church.  The audience was not large but financially we “broke even.”  People in those days were eager for entertainment and attended any program that was offered.  In good weather even an eleven-year-old elocutionist would have attracted a good crowd.

            There are two bonuses from that occasion.  First, we had to have publicity which necessitated having informal and formal photographs taken, an expenditure which would not otherwise have been made.  These were framed together and placed in the window of the local music store.  (Meyer’s Music Store was centrally located and near the interurban waiting room.  Fortunately for me and natural schoolgirl embarrassment, I caught the streetcar a mile or so distant from this public exposure.)  The photographer, after having made the publicity photos, used me for some publicity photos of his own.  These latter pictures appear preposterous and artificial today with an adult-style hair-do, chiffon draperies and many flowers.  My reward for modeling was one copy each of the four sittings.  These were shared with doting relatives.

            The second bonus was having my father stopped on the street one day by a banker who said that the day after my recital a stranger came to him to talk about the program he had attended.  The stranger asked to be assured that the child elocutionist would surely be given educational opportunities.  If not, he wanted to help.  The banker didn’t think much of the offer and was warning Dad in case the man ever made a nuisance of himself.  If the man had been a promoter, he might have been a nuisance before talking to a banker.  However, it was my first training in not being too gullible.  I was warned that I must be wary if

I were going to be “before the public.”  Newspaper interviews and flamboyant compliments haven’t much impressed me since.

            That recital program was repeated in Wayland and Grand Haven under the auspices of clubs that received a share of the profits after expenses.  Sometimes I was asked to be the featured speaker for others’ recitals.  I don’t know what reimbursement arrangement was made, but do remember fondly an opal ring given by the Holland Chorus for my appearing as elocutionist in a concert the Chorus gave in Grand Haven.  These performances were never a burden.  Evidently I was already ‘hooked’ on having an audience.  Furthermore, as I lived in the country, I seldom had a playmate and the preparation of a new recitation was doubtless a form of entertainment for me.

            For my tenth birthday I was given a Kimball piano whose bass was my joy and, when I compared it to other pianos, my pride as well.  Its finish was “quarter-sawed golden oak” which has often been derided as hideous by decorators in recent decades.  I do prefer muted finishes on wood to the shiny surface of the Kimball, but its gorgeous patterns in brown and yellow have made me a devotee of natural woods.

            Both of my parents were musical.  Dad played violin as did all of the men in his family and, in his youth, played trombone in a band in Flint, Michigan.  When she was young Mother played organ for dances.  She could read music and play simple accompaniment for songs, but mostly she played by ear.  My piano teacher abominated playing by ear.  Mother preferred having me obey the teacher but hardly blamed me when I tried harmonizing by myself.  After two years of taking lessons I discovered I might compose my own music or play by ear if that teacher weren’t breathing down my neck.  When there were no more lessons I played what I wished and had many happy and fruitful hours at the piano.

            I was privileged to take vocal lessons when a senior in high school.  Singing in chorus, glee club and choir was very rewarding.  At the piano I could play simple accompaniments for myself and some of my singing friends.

            At age eleven I began traveling alone.  By fourteen I had covered much of southern Michigan by train and interurban, chiefly visiting relatives.  For a month during each of two high school summers I visited Eula Swift, a childless cousin of my father’s who lived in Flint.  Her husband was a drayman so they had horses.  One was a handsome chestnut that was kept for use with a crisp, open buggy.  I was never allowed to hold the reins but we took many pleasant afternoon drives.  The immigrants’ homes were far from the burgeoning Buick factory intrigued me.  The Poles, especially, had well-tended vegetable gardens filing their front yards.  I loved their bringing their European ways with them.

            Each year we attended a week of Chautauqua programs – two or three times a day.  The morning offerings were playground for the small children and Boy Scout training sessions.  Attending the latter was a charming old man in his nineties.  Someone asked why he, of all people, wanted a Scouting education.  “I might be the only one around who would have learned how to revive a nearly drowned person,” he answered.  “I’ve learned here what to do in many emergencies.”

            I vividly recall Strickland W. Gillilan, humorist in both speaking and writing.  His drollity delighted me and one ad lib brought such a pleased response that I learned then and there how important it is for a speaker to be aware of everything that goes on and take advantage of interruptions.  He was describing a dog, August; in the process of leading up to a punch line when about a block away a wailing automobile horn was sounded.  The Chautauqua programs were given in tents so the wail could be heard by all, although it was not really disturbing.  But Gillilan paused, raised his hand as if listening, then said, “Hear that?  That’s just the kind of voice August had.”  The roar of the audience meant quiet as much to me as it did to Gillilan.

            There was considerable homely American philosophy handed out during Chautauqua week.  At home Cousin Eula exposed me to the writings of Elbert Hubbard and to New Thought which at the time was usurping some of the popularity of Christian Science, many of their precepts being similar.  She not only opened my mind to popular, current trends of thought, she plumbed it as well, making me analyze and express an opinion.  The thinking wasn’t very deep, but at least more profound than that expected of many of my contemporaries and she made independent study attractive.

            Further chance to travel came in 1914/15.  Hope collage had fall, winter and spring terms.  I obtained permission to skip the winter term of my freshman year and to make up the credits with extra hours later.  I don’t remember how or why the decision to go to California came about; it probably seemed wise to get my mother away from the Michigan winter.  Eula Swift, Mother and I made the trip.  Dad got his wife and daughter railroad passes.

            A week’s stop in Denver with relatives opened a new world to me because we stayed near the Colorado National History Museum.  The view of three hundred miles of Rocky Mountains from its steps was stupendous.  The wildlife exhibits of stuffed animals in action and in a simulation of their habitat were the first of the kind I had ever seen.  In the mineral section was a darkroom exhibit of the action of radium, showing the power of its alpha beta & gamma rays.  The director ultimately showed me the laboratories, explaining the potential of radium and the process of extracting it from uranium ore.  It seemed quite an experience for a curious college student in 1914 when so little was known about radium.

            We arrived in Los Angeles Christmas Day.  Palm tress, flowers, and ladies in white cotton dresses…unbelievable!  Mother’s half sister lived there, working as an extra in the movies, occasionally picking up a second-rate part.  Movies weren’t so glamorous in those days when even the stars were paid nominal salaries and often by the day.  When I dated some of her actor friends I wasn’t exactly swept off my feet.  They were pleasant men and nice looking and I was glad to be taken to a show or for a Sunday walk in Westlakd or Griffith Park, but they didn’t compare with my college friends back home.  I saw an occasional filming on the street but there were no arrangements for visitors to the studios.

            We didn’t have much money so I answered an ad for waitress in a Pig ‘n Whistle, one of a chain of quality restaurants.  The one where I applied was near the City Hall, specialized in business men’s lunch and needed an extra from 12 to 3 PM only six days a week.  Perfect for me.  I received a salary, tips and lunch which I ate after 3 so that it supplied about all I needed to eat.  The food was excellent and I even gained weight.

            I bluffed my way into the job, having had no real experience, but on the first day I learned that the head waitress who hired me had my number.  The girl to show me around said, “You don’t know about waiting table, do you!”  I confessed I needed ground floor instruction.  I got along fine and was soon finding sizeable tips by the plates of the lawyers from the city court who asked to be put at my table.  A waitress soon learns to analyze people and quickly builds self confidence.

            Two summers I was allowed to go with Hope College friends to wait table in a resort hotel at Mackinac Island.  It twas there I met my future husband although we didn’t date until I went to U of M for my senior year.  These were happy summers, the word challenging but not too arduous with plenty of time for swimming, sunrise walks to the fort on the hill and moonlight walks around the island in crowds of a dozen to twenty after the day’s work was done.

            My first job after college was a travel opportunity as advance agent for a Chautauqua, substituting for a man who was inducted into the army, this being the summer of 1918. (I had tried to apply for overseas service as an entertainer but was rejected at once.  I was told I was not eligible because I had a brother in France.  Actually a better reason would have been lack of experience.  There were many good vaudeville performers in those days.  However, this advance work was my first experience in promotion and public relations and I loved it!

            During that summer’s travel I applied for a teaching job just for fun.  An overnight train change stop culminated in my teaching ‘playground’ and ‘expression’ (public speaking) at Keene, N.H., Normal School for the year 1918/19.  That was the year of the “flu” that took so many lives.  Although my experience of working in a hospital and ultimately contracting flu and its often fatal complication, pneumonia, is part of my personal story, it did not contribute to my career.  During spring vacation I came home primarily to attend the J-Hop with Stan Lowe with who I was then carrying on a regular correspondence.  While in Ann Arbor I signed up for a Michigan teaching job with the university Placement Bureau.  Shortly thereafter I was offered a position at Battle Creek High School.  As Stan’s family lived in Battle Creek, we decided this was a lucky break for us so that we might see each other oftener.  After two years of my teaching there, we were married July 14, 1921.

            Posterity may be interested in what sort of material was chosen for entertaining.  Some of the following items, songs or recitations, were old family favorites.  I shall include a few from my recital at age eleven. (April 1908)

            Anthologies for public speaking and entertaining sometimes included “statue poses” with details and photographs of how they should be done.  I cannot recall that we had one of these for the statue poses I did at that recital.  My mother had probably seen other entertainers use them and could very well have made up the subjects.  There were about a dozen in the series I performed.  I did not use this form of entertainment very much – I can well imagine that it might have been laughable if there were not an evening’s performance to lead up to it.

            Dialect was in high favor.  Negro, Irish, Scottish and German were most popular.  The poems of James Whitcomb Riley were mostly in “Hoosier dialect.”  There was an open acceptance of dialect in those days; one heard it on all sides from immigrants to our “golden land of opportunity.”  One who spoke with an accent enjoyed as much as the native a rendition of his peculiar speech.  Chips were not on shoulders; and entertainment was a special privilege to be enjoyed.

OLD UNCLE JOE

            (This is an old family favorite.  My Aunt Mina sang it for programs when she was a child.  I performed it several times, carrying a cane and limping about the stage, while dressed as an old man.  Aunt Nell gave a community performance with largely local talent in Grand Haven and had me sing it with a “chorus” of boys about my size.)

Young folks, come listen to my song.

I’m old, but I won’t detain you long.

I’m eighty-four I’d have you know,

And the young folks call me Uncle Joe.

My hair, once black, has all turned gray

But what are the odds while I feel gay.

I love to sing with joy and glee

For I feel as Young as I used to be.

Chorus:          Ti-dee, I-dee, whoop-dee-doo,

How I love to sing to you.

How I would sing with joy and glee

If I was as young as I used to be.

When I was young, I knew life’s joys

But now I am old, yet I’m one of the boys

I can take a drink and sing a song

With any good friend that comes along./

I can tell a story or crack a joke

And never refuse to drink or smoke.

I’m a gay old sport, you’ll all agree

And you’ll find me as young as I used to be.                  Cho.

When I was young and in my prime,

I was chasing the girls the most of my time.

I’d take ‘em out each day for a ride

And always had one by my side.

I’d hug ‘em and kiss ‘em, just for fun

And I ain’t forgot the way it’s done.

So if any girl here is in love with me,

She’ll find me as young as I used to be.             Cho.

            Aunt Nell used me (at not yet ten years of age) in as many of the numbers as she could, it seemed to me.  My mother’s notebook which I still have has the following notices:

Aug. 24.   Grand Haven Tribune:   Little Bernice Jones, the star of tonight’s Carnival at the Unitarian Church, is a little Holland girl and she is an artist in her line.  She will be worth going far to see alone.

Aug. 25, 1906   “Made a Hit”

            The Children’s Grand Carnival at the Unitarian Church last night was one of the most elaborate and pleasing entertainments of the kind ever given in Grand Haven.  Every member on the program was a surprise and delight to the audience and each received hearty applause it merited.  Little Bernice Jones, the child eleocutionist, made a decided hit and responded again and again to encores.

            Mother evidently did not write out all of the review.  I remember that Aunt Nell herself appeared once – in a specialty of hers:  pantomime of Rock of Ages.  (At least I think it was on that program.)  She wore a white flowing robe, clung to a “rock” in stage center so well that you could almost see the water swirling at her feet.  She had long, heavy, black hair which hung loose for this performance and was effective.

            Letter from Great-Aunt Nell Pierce, sister of Spencer W. Pierce.  She was born May 1867, hence nearly 85 years old at this writing.  I visited her shortly after her 90th birthday.  In this letter she tells a little about her work as teacher of elocution and director of programs.

Flint.  March 14/52.

Dear Bernice:

            I rec’d your nice letter and it gave me quite a thrill.  I remember you as a little girl who gave “The Share Store” on one of my programs, and how very dear you were.  I do not remember the Grand Haven Program where you gave “Uncle Joe”.  Did you costume it as an old man?

Will Pierce, Gracie’s youngest brother, used to give that in costume, when about eight years old.  His father put him on the train in care of the conductor and be made many trips to appear in my “Show”.  He also read many cute selections. 

What did I do with my old “Piecies”?  I just cast them away for the later ones.  I was in touch with the publishers and secured the latest readings.

And the Pantomime I arranged myself “Rock of Ages” was the first one, then some of the others were: “Above the Bright Blues”, “The Ninety & Nine”, “Abide with Me”.  Nearly all were sacred as I worked mostly for churches.   When working for clubs or other societies I pantomimed the secular songs: “In May Time”, “Roses Roses Everywhere”, “Indian Maid”, “Mother Mashree” and others.

It was like giving up life when I gave up my work.  Your mother called on me I think during her last trip to Michigan. 

I was preparing two girls for Graduates Recital and was terribly busy.  I told her the date and she attended the recital.  I didn’t see as much often as I would have liked. 

Thank you for the sheet you enclosed.  I haven’t known anything of your family.  I know they are lovely.  I didn’t know one of them had my mother’s name.  I am very fond of the name – always wished it were mine.

Maybe we will meet sometime and until then.

                                                                        With love,

                                                                                    Bye

                                                                                    Aunt Nell

P.S.  Pardon blunders; I can’t re-write.  N.

            This poem had Bernice written beside it, so obviously I was to learn it for public presentation.  However, it was often sung in our househole – perhaps my mother set it to an old tune.  I only recall the tune of the first two lines which we would often sing if we were going downtown on errands and the first to see the market would sing those two lines.

JUST BEFORE THANKSGIVING

Round the corner to your right,

There’s the market just in sight.

See the sign so big and bright

            Just before Thanksgiving.

Here is fruit of every kind,

Raisins, dates, and nuts you’ll find,

Oranges with yellow rind,

            Just before Thanksgiving.

Big cranberries, ripe and red,

Cabbage, here’s a nice fresh bread,

Squashes, turnips, all-out-spread,

            Just before Thanksgiving.

Nutmegs, cloves, and every spice

New York cheese and Carland rice,

Nuts and candy, new and nice,

            Just before Thanksgiving.

Tea and coffee, fresh and browned,

Butter, twenty-five a pound,

Nicest sugar to be found,

            Just before Thankgiving.

Pumpkin for the pumpkin pies,

Turkey’s price was ne’er so high,

Duck and chickens, come and buy,

            Just before Thanksgiving.

A BOY’S OPINION

            (This is one of the first poems my brother recited in public.  I think Aunt Nell found it and gave it to Mother because Lavern liked making things with his hammer and saw.)

The girls may have their dollies made of china or of wax;

I prefer a little hammer and a paper full of tacks.

There’s such comfort in a chisel and such music in a file!

I wish that little pocket saws would get to be the style.

My kite may fly up in a tree, my sled be stuck in mud,

And all my hopes of digging wells be nipped off in the bud,

But with a little box of nails, a gimlet and a screw,

I’m happier than any king – I’ve work enough to do.

            My brother was rehearsing Eugene Field’s The Duel one day and came to the lines “And some folks think unto this day / that burglars stole the pair away.”  He couldn’t remember and waited for Mother to prompt him.  She loved to tell the story that I sat on the floor listening (at about 20 months) and spoke up to do the prompting saying, “Burders, toe, toe, toe.”  Evidently Mother was sure from that experience that I would be a speaker and determined to do her part to make me into one.

I learned this verse in kindergarten in Holland, Michigan, in the fall of 1902.  I was in kindergarten only a month or two after visiting school after my sixth birthday.  I was then put in first grade which I completed by the end of the year, June, 1903.  My first grade teacher was Anna Haabermann, sister of Rudolph Haabermann, later Scretary of Battle Creek’s Chamber of Commerce.  She taught us to use the dictionary by teaching us diacritical marks and pronunciation by the use of flash cards.  Progressive education was not then talked about – simply done!

ONE NOSE

Eight little fingers, ten little toes,

Two little eyes and one nose.

Baby said when she smelled of the rose,

“Oh, what a pity, I’ve only one nose.”

Twelve little teeth in two little rows,

Lots of dimples and one nose.

Baby said when she smelled of the snuff,

K-chee, K-chee, deary me, one nose is enough.”

This verse was learned in first grade:

PANSIES

What I’ve learned about pansies

You really ought to know,

The more you pluck them and give them away,

            The more they are sure to grow.

I particularly liked that verse inasmuch as I was said to be in “charge” of keeping the spring pansy bed in good condition by picking the pansies (this large bed was in a several-sectioned cold frame).  My father was a florist and pansies were a prime sales item in the early spring.  When through with my “task” which was no task at all, I used the most expressive faces for playing school – I was the teacher, the pansy faces my pupils.