Elmwood Springs, Missouri
In the late forties Elmwood Springs, in southern Missouri, seems more or less like a thousand other small towns scattered across America.
Downtown is only a block long with a Rexall drugstore on one end and the Elmwood Springs Masonic Hall on the other. If you walk from the Masonic Hall to the Rexall, you will go by the Blue Ribbon cleaners, a Cat's Paw shoe repair shop with a pink neon shoe in the window, the Morgan Brothers department store, the bank, and a little alley with stairs on one side of a building leading up to the second floor, where the Dixie Cahill School of Tap and Twirl is located. If it is a Saturday morning you'll hear a lot of heavy tapping and dropping of batons upstairs by the Tappettes, a troop of blue-spangled Elmwood Springs beauties, or at least their parents think so. Past the alley is the Trolley Car diner, where you can get the world's best chili dog and an orange drink for 15 cents. Just beyond the diner is the New Empress movie theater, and on Saturday afternoons you will see a group of kids lined up outside waiting to go in and see a Western, some cartoons, and a chapter in the Buck Rogers weekly serial. Next is the barber shop and then the Rexall on the corner. Walk down on the other side of the street and you'll come to the First Methodist Church and then Nordstrom's Swedish bakery and luncheonette, with the gold star still in the window in honor of their son. Farther on is Miss Alma's Tea Room, Haygood's photographic studio, the Western Union, and the post office, the telephone company, and Victor's florist shop. A narrow set of stairs leads up to Dr. Orr's "painless" dentist's office. Warren and Son hardware is next. The son is eighteen-year-old Macky Warren, who is getting ready to marry his girlfriend, Norma, and is nervous about it. Then comes the A & P and the VFW Hall on the corner.
Elmwood Springs is mostly a neighborhood town, and almost everyone is on speaking terms with Bottle Top, the white cat with a black spot that sleeps in the window of the shoe repair shop. There is one town drunkard, James Whooten, whose long-suffering wife, Tot Whooten, has always been referred to as Poor Tot. Even though she has remarried a tea-totaller and seems fairly happy for a change, most people still call her Poor Tot out of sheer habit.
There is plenty of fresh air and everybody does their own yard work. If you are sick, somebody's son or husband will come over and do it for you. The cemetery is neat, and on Memorial Day, flags are placed on all the veterans' graves by the VFW. There are three churches, Lutheran, Methodist, and Unity, and church suppers and bake sales are well attended. Most everybody in town goes to the high school graduation and to the yearly Dixie Cahill dance and twirl recital. It is basically a typical, middle-class town and in most living rooms you will find at least one or two pairs of bronzed baby shoes and a picture of some child on top of the same brown and white Indian pony as the kid next door. Nobody is rich but despite that fact, Elmwood Springs is a town that likes itself. You can see it in the fresh paint on the houses and in the clean, white curtains in the windows. The streetcar that goes out to Elmwood Lake has just been given a new coat of maroon and cream paint and the wooden seats shellacked to such a high polish they are hard not to slide out of. People are happy. You can see it in the sparkle in the cement in front of the movie theater, in the way the new stoplight blinks at you. Most people are content. You can tell by the well-fed cats and dogs that laze around on the sidewalks all over town and even if you are blind you can hear it in the laughter from the school yards and in the soft thud of the newspaper that hits the porches every afternoon.
But the best way to tell about a town, any town, is to listen deep in the night . . . long after midnight . . . after every screen door has been slammed shut for the last time, every light turned off, every child tucked in. If you listen you will hear how everyone, even the chickens, who are the most nervous creatures on earth, sleep safe and sound through the night.
Elmwood Springs, Missouri, is not perfect by any means but as far as little towns go it is about as near perfect as you can get without having to get downright sentimental about it or making up a bunch of lies.
THE "NEIGHBOR DOROTHY" SHOW
Elmwood Springs, Missouri
June 1, 1948
Everyone in Elmwood Springs and thereabouts remembers the day they put the radio tower in Neighbor Dorothy's backyard, and how excited they were that night when they first saw the bright red bulb on top of the tower, glowing like a cherry-red Christmas light way up in the black Missouri sky. Because the land was flat, it could be seen for miles in every direction and over the years it came to be a familiar and comforting sight. It made people feel connected somehow.
Had you been there, between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m., unless somebody had knocked you out cold, most likely you would have been listening to the "Neighbor Dorothy" radio show just like everybody else except for old man Henderson, who still thought that radio was a silly invention for silly people. Both the high school and the elementary school scheduled study periods between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. so the faculty could hear it in the teachers lounge. Farm wives for miles around stopped whatever it was they were doing and sat down with a pad and pencil at the kitchen table to listen. By now Dorothy Smith was one of the most listened to radio homemakers in the midwest, and if she gave out a recipe for maple swirl pound cake that day, most men would be eating it for dessert that night.
The show was broadcast live from her living room every day Monday through Friday and could be heard over station WDOT, 66 on your dial. Nobody dared miss the show. Not only did she give out household hints and announce upcoming events, you never knew who might show up. All sorts of people would drop by to talk on the radio or sing or tap dance or do whatever it was they had a mind to do for that matter. A Mrs. Mary Hurt even played the spoons once! Mother Smith played organ interludes. Other regulars you didn't want to miss were Ruby Robinson, the radio nurse; Beatrice Woods, the little blind songbird who played the zither and sang; Reverend Audrey Dunkin, the minister, who would often drop by for an inspirational talk or read an inspirational poem; as well as a handbell choir from the First Methodist church. Last year The Light Crust Doughboys came on and sang their hit "Tie Me to Your Apron Strings Again, Mother" and Neighbor Dorothy also had a visit from the Hawaiian Fruit Gum Orchestra, all the way from Yankton, South Dakota. This is not to mention two local gals, Ada and Bess Goodnight, who would sing at the drop of a hat, and the news, which was mostly good.
In 1948 Neighbor Dorothy was a plump, sweet-faced woman with the big, wide-open face of a young girl. Although in her fifties she still looked pretty much the same as she did in the first grade when her husband, Doc Smith, the pharmacist down at the Rexall, first met her. After high school Dorothy graduated from the Fannie Merit School of Home Economics in Boston and came home and married Doc and taught school for a while until she had her first child, Anna Lee. Anna Lee had a few health problems, nothing serious, just a little asthma, but enough so that Neighbor Dorothy thought it was best to stay home with her and Doc agreed. While she was home all day she wanted to keep busy so she began baking cakes-and more cakes. Tea cakes, lemon, banana, caramel, cherry, chocolate, maple, and jelly roll cakes. You name it, she baked it. But her specialty was theme cakes. You'd give her a theme and she'd make you the cake to go with the occasion. Not that she couldn't make a mean noodle ring or anything else you wanted but she was known for her cakes. There was not a child in Elmwood Springs or nearby who had not had a pink and white circus cake with the miniature toy carousel on top for her birthday party. Which is how she came to be at the Mayfair Auditorium over in Poplar Bluff on Home Demonstration Day giving out the recipe for her circus cake on the radio. She just happened to mention that she used Golden Flake Flour for all her cakes and the next day, when Golden Flake Flour sales doubled in four states, she was offered a show of her own. She told the Golden Flake Flour people thank you, but she could not leave home every day to drive the twenty-something miles to the station in Poplar Bluff and back, which is how the radio tower came to be put up in her backyard in the first place and how her youngest child, Bobby, happened to grow up on the radio. He was only two years old when Neighbor Dorothy first went on the air, but that was over ten years ago and he does not remember a time when there wasn't a radio show in the living room.
When she first asked Doc what he thought about the idea, he laughed and said, "Well, you might just as well talk on the radio, you talk on the phone all day anyhow." Which was not quite true, but true enough. Dorothy did love to chat.
Although radio station WDOT is only a 200-watt station, because the land is flat-on cold, still days when the skies are crystal clear, and it is really good radio weather-the signal from WDOT can tear a hole straight through the midwest all the way up into Canada and on one particularly cold day was picked up by several ships at sea. You couldn't say her show is clever or sophisticated or anything like that, but one thing you can say for sure is that over the years she's sold a hell of a lot of Golden Flake Flour and Pancake Mix and anything else she advertises.
Neighbor Dorothy's house is located on the left side of First Avenue North, and has the address written in big black letters on the curb so you can't miss it. It is the last house on the corner with a wraparound porch, a two-swing front porch, one swing on one end and one on the other. It has a green and white canvas awning all the way around to the side of the house.
If you were to walk up the porch stairs and look to your right you would see written in small gold and black letters on the window wdot radio station, number 66 on your dial. Other than that it looks just like everybody else's house, without the call letters on the window and the big radio tower in the backyard, of course. No matter what time of day you come to the front door you are going to find it open. No point in closing it. Too many people in and out all the time. The milkman, the bread man, the ice man, the gas man, her twelve-year-old son, Bobby, who goes in and out a hundred times a day, and of course all her many radio visitors, who often come by the busload and are always welcomed with a fresh batch of special radio cookies she makes every day for the purpose. As you walk in, to the right is a large room with a desk with a microphone on it that says wdot. The desk sits in front of the window so she can always turn around and look out and report what the weather is doing firsthand. Mother Smith's organ is to the left, and about ten chairs are set up so people can come in and sit down if they want to. Neighbor Dorothy's house is on the corner where the Greyhound bus stops, so it makes it nice while people are waiting for the bus to go in and watch the show or sit on the front porch and wait, particularly if it's raining. The floors are dark wood and Neighbor Dorothy has some nice scatter rugs here and there. The curtains are green with a yellow and deep pink floral print with what looks like might be palm trees. She has recently put up brand-new venetian blinds, a Christmas present from Doc.
The dining room has a nice brass chandelier with four milk-glass shades with a little Dutch scene on them, and some lovely lace swag curtains on the bay window, and a pretty white tablecloth. The kitchen is still where everybody usually eats. It has a large white wooden table in the middle with a hanging lightbulb over it. The stove is a white enamel-and-chrome O'Keefe & Merritt with a clock and red and white plastic salt and pepper shakers to match. There is a large sink and drain board in a skirt of floral print plus a big Kelvi- nator icebox. The walls are beaded board painted a light green. Off the kitchen to the back is a large screened porch; Bobby sleeps there in the summer. On the other side is a group of miniature tables and chairs where all the children in town have their birthday parties and where Anna Lee and her friend run a nursery school in the summer to make extra money for clothes. The other two rooms on the left side of the house are Anna Lee's bedroom, a seventeen-year-old girl's room with a white canopy bed and a dresser with a mirror and a Kewpie doll with sparkle dust and a feather on its head sitting on top of a chest of drawers. There is a sunroom that Neighbor Dorothy and Mother Smith use as a sewing room and where Anna Lee keeps her scrapbooks on Dana Andrews, the movie star she is in love with this year. Three bedrooms are off the hall, Doc and Neighbor Dorothy's, Mother Smith's, and Bobby has the last room down at the end. Also living in the house is Princess Mary Margaret, who has free run of every room in the house and is famous in her own right. She is a ten-year-old cocker spaniel that Neighbor Dorothy got from Doc as a Christmas present the first year she was on the air. She was named through a puppy contest and when all her listeners sent in their choices, the name Princess Mary Margaret won first prize. A good name, because not only does England have a Princess Margaret, but Missouri has its own little princess, Margaret Truman, the daughter of Missouri-born president Harry S Truman and his wife, Bess. In 1948, Princess Mary Margaret is quite a celebrity. Not only does Neighbor Dorothy spoil her, so do her listeners. She has her own fan club known as the Princess Mary Margaret Club and all the dues money goes to the Humane Society. Princess Mary Margaret has received birthday cards from Lassie in Hollywood and many other famous people.
The other two residents of the house are Dumpling and Moe, the Smiths' yellow singing canary birds. Their white cage hangs in the living room and they can be heard chirping away all through the broadcast. Neighbor Dorothy's backyard is, as mentioned, like everybody else's except for the radio tower, with lots of open space all the way back to the railroad tracks and behind that are the cornfields. There are no fences so you might say that the whole town just has one big backyard and one leads into the other. The only difference between Neighbor Dorothy's house and the others is the clothesline that runs from her back door to her next-door neighbor's back door. Beatrice Woods, the little blind songbird, lives next door and that's how she gets back and forth to Neighbor Dorothy's house, by holding on to the clothesline. Apart from the fact that it has wdot painted on the front window in gold and black letters, an organ in the living room, a radio tower in the backyard, and is a Greyhound bus stop and has a nursery school on the back porch and a dog living there that receives a personal Christmas card every year from the president of the United States, it is just an ordinary house.
And today is just another ordinary day. At exactly nine-thirty everybody hears what they have been hearing every weekday morning for the past ten years. A male announcer from the main station comes on and says, "And now . . . Golden Flake Flour and Pancake Mix . . . that always-light-as-a-feather flour in the red and white sack . . . takes you to that little white house just around the corner from wherever you are, as we join . . . your neighbor and mine, the lady with a smile in her voice, Neighbor Dorothy, with Mother Smith on the organ!"
The minute they get the on-air signal, Mother Smith hits the first strain of their theme song and starts the show off with a rousing rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." In a moment, Neighbor Dorothy greets her radio listeners as she always does, with a pleasant, "Good morning, everybody . . . how are you today? Fine, I hope. It is a beautiful day over here in Elmwood Springs and I hope it's just as pretty where you are. We've got so many exciting things lined up for you today . . . so just sit down, put your feet up, and have a cup of coffee with me, won't you? Ooh . . . I wish all of you could see Mother Smith this morning . . . she's all dressed up and looks so pretty. Where are you going today, Mother Smith? Oh, she says she's going downtown to Miss Alma's Tea Room for a retirement lunch. Well, that should be a lot of fun. . . . We all love Miss Alma, don't we? Yes, we do.
"We have so many letters to read to you today, and we've got those two recipes that you all have been asking for-one is Lady Baltimore cake and one for a baby Baltimore cake-so be sure and have your pencils and pads ready and later on in the program, Beatrice, our little blind songbird, is going to be singing for us. . . . What's your song, honey? Oh . . . she says she'll be singing 'When It's Lamp Lighting Time in the Valley.' That sounds like a good one.
"Also, we have a winner in our How Did You Meet Your Husband contest . . . but before I do anything else this morning I want to start with some good news for all the gals that went to Norma's bridal shower yesterday. They were all mighty worried when all the Lucky Dime cake had been eaten and nobody had gotten the piece with the dime in it, but Norma's mother, Ida, called this morning and said they found the dime in the kitchen-she had forgotten to put it in-so all you gals can rest easy . . . none of you will have to be x-rayed after all . . . so I know that's a relief. As you all know, Norma is our little June bride to be. She is marrying Macky Warren at twelve noon on June the twenty-eighth down at the Unity Church, so if you are in town, drop in at the reception at the VFW Hall afterwards. They say everybody is welcome. So all of you out there be sure to come on by and you don't have to bring a thing. Ida says it's all going to be catered by Nordstrom's bakery and luncheonette, so you know it will be good.
"Speaking of brides . . . June is such a busy month, so many events--weddings, graduations--and if you're wondering what to get the special lady, Bob Morgan of Morgan Brothers depart- ment store says wonder no more, because it's pearls, pearls and more pearls . . . pearls for the graduate, pearls for the June bride, pearls for the mother of the bride, the attendants . . . pearls for everyone. Remember, pearls are right for any occasion. . . . Bob says come on in today . . . he'll be happy to see you.
"And let's see, what else do I have this morning . . . Oh, I know . . . I got a call from Poor Tot and her cat has kittens again and she says they are all ugly but one, so come on over, first come, first served . . . and in a minute I'm going to tell you how to clean your feather pillows, but first let's listen to Beatrice, our little blind songbird. . . .
" Twenty-five minutes later Neighbor Dorothy ends the show as she always does with "Well, I see by the old clock on the wall that it's time to go . . . it's always so pleasant to sit with you every morning and share a cup of coffee. You make our days so happy, so until we see you again, you'll be missed, so come back again tomorrow, won't you? This is Neighbor Dorothy and Mother Smith from our house to yours . . . saying . . . have a good day. . . ."
That evening, Neighbor Dorothy and her family were sitting on the porch all eating a bowl of homemade peach ice cream that Doc had made on the back porch earlier. Including Princess Mary Margaret, who had her own bowl with her name on it.
On summer nights almost every family in Elmwood Springs goes out to sit on their front porches after dinner, and wave to people as they walk on the sidewalk in front of the house, on their way to downtown to window shop or coming home from the movies. All up and down the street you can hear people talking softly and see in the dark the little orange glow of cigarettes or the pipes being smoked by men.
Bobby, happy and sunburned, with the smell of chlorine still strong in his nostrils and his eyes all red from swimming underwater all day up at the pool, was so tired that he fell sound asleep in the swing while the grown-ups talked. Dorothy said to Doc, "You should have seen him when he finally came dragging in this afternoon; he'd been in the water so long he'd gone all pruney."
Doc laughed. Anna Lee said, "Mother, I don't think you should let him go up there anymore. He does nothing but swim around underwater all day pinching people." Mother Smith spoke up, "Oh, let the boy have his childhood; he'll grow up soon enough."
Just then Macky Warren and his fianc?e, Norma, passed in front of the house. Norma had her little four-year-old cousin by the hand.
Dorothy called out to them and waved, "Hey, how're you tonight?"
They waved back. "Fine. We've just been up to the picture show."
"What did you see?"
Norma called out, The Egg and I with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. It was a good one."
"How long is it playing?"
"One or two more days, be sure to see it."
"We will," Neighbor Dorothy said.
Macky called up to the porch, "How are you doing, Doc?"
"Just fine," he said. He nodded at the little blond girl and said to Macky, "I see she's got you babysitting tonight. Well, you might as well get used to it, you'll be having some of your own soon."
Macky smiled and nodded, "Yes, sir, good night."
After they had gone on, Dorothy sat back, looked over at Anna Lee, and sighed. "It seems like only yesterday when both my children were babies. Time . . . how fast it passes. . . . Next thing I know Anna Lee will be married."
"No, I won't," said Anna Lee.
"Yes, you will, then you'll be gone and Bobby will be a grown man before we know it."
They sat for a while and waved and spoke to a few more people walking by, and then Dorothy said, "Don't you wish you could just stop time? Keep it from moving forward, just stop it in its tracks?"
"Mother," Anna Lee asked, "if you could stop time, when would you stop it?"
Dorothy thought. "Oh, honey . . . I guess if I could, I'd stop it right now, while I have all my family around me, on this very night." She looked over at her husband. "What about you, Doc? When would you stop it?"
He took a puff of his pipe. "Now would be a good time. No wars. Everybody's healthy." He looked at Dorothy and smiled. "And before Momma loses her pretty figure."
Dorothy laughed. "It's too late for that, Doc. What about you, Anna Lee?"
Anna Lee sighed. A recent high school graduate, she had suddenly become very wise. "Oh, if I had only known then what I know now, I would have stopped it last year when I was still young."
Dorothy smiled at her daughter, then asked, "When would you stop time, Mother Smith?"
Mother Smith mused. "Well, I don't think I would. I think I'd just let it go on like it has been."
Mother Smith had been taken to the great World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904 when she was a small child and had looked forward to the future ever since. "Oh, yes. I'd hate to take a chance on missing something good that might be coming up, just around the corner, wouldn't you?"
"I guess you're right, Mother Smith," Dorothy said, "we just have no idea of what the future holds, do we?"
"No, we don't. Why, just imagine what life will be like twenty-five years from now."
Anna Lee made a face. "I'll be an old woman with gray hair."
Mother Smith laughed. "Maybe so, but I'll be long gone by then. At least you'll be around to see what's going on!"