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By Florence Holub
High School Fol-de-rol
Editor's Note: Florence Holub's fond recollections of high school were first published in the September 1993 Voice.
Ever since a Saturday in April, when my man Leo and I visited my old alma mater--Balboa High School on Cayuga Avenue in the Excelsior--my thoughts have been wandering back to the happy days spent there.
We were attending an alumni fundraising event, billed as a "Fol-de-rol" show of music and comedy, but we arrived early enough to stroll around the campus and to admire the magnificent Spanish-style edifice with its red tile roof (built in 1928) and the school's expansive front lawn, studded with palm trees. The sight of the "green" brought back a flood of memories of the laughing, rosy-cheeked young faces that congregated there during lunch period.
Those of us who were attending the city's public schools in the 1930s were a league of different nationalities. I came from Swedish-speaking Finlander stock, my oldest and closest friend was born in Denmark, wee Bonnie's family was from Scotland, Pat's folks were Irish, Mary's were English, Nancy was from the Philippines, and Lorraine came from Petaluma--the chicken capital of the world! Many of the boys who hung out nearby were of Italian, Greek, Spanish, Armenian, or German descent We were children of the last wave of European immigrants, and we fiercely wanted to become 100 percent American, to embrace the ideals gleaned from our United States history classes.
It was a wonderful time to be young, for although we did not possess many material things, we were filled with a fervent optimism. Under the leadership and brave words of our great president Franklin D. Roosevelt, we were being lifted out of the paralysis of the Depression. We believed anything was possible.
Even though I studied hungrily during those years, most of my knowledge, so painstakingly acquired, has faded. But a few fragments--of classes and classmates--remain.
One is the image of my paternalistic "registry" (homeroom) teacher, who was also the biology instructor. He made us dissect frogs and peer through microscopes at tiny, crawly things--the lowest of life forms, in his eyes--while advising us in his disdainful voice to "please look at the family albums of your heavy dates!"
My art teacher held a loftier view, inspiring us to see and create beauty in the world. And since art had always been my major interest, I was eager to comply.
But politics intervened regularly. To overcome my shyness, I forced myself to run for one office after another until finally the student body elected me vice president, no doubt because of my persistence.
After my inauguration, I was disappointed to learn that the vice president's only duty was collecting money from the Kotex dispensing machines in the girls' lavatories. This commendable but largely unfulfilling task prompted me to strive to do something extracurricular for the student body--something we students could really put our hearts and "soles" into--like dancing! So, with the approval of the principal and the cooperation of the school band, I organized a series of noontime dances, held each Friday.
I can barely remember the steps, but the dance we used to do, to the tune of the "Basin Street Blues" and other jazz band numbers of the time, was called the Dime Jig. Couples would dance side by side, clasping each other with their arms crossed in front. The jig had very intricate and athletic choreography--about five different moves, as I recall--and we did our best to repeat them at Balboa's 25th high school reunion. (I later ran into one of the reunion participants who said he had thrown out his back by twisting a little too energetically to the Dime Jig!)
In the fall of 1936, we elected Bob Sweeney student body president. Like President Bill Clinton, he was competent and articulate, and during his tenure he was able to instill in us a deep pride in our beautiful school building and campus. He was so persuasive that he even had us picking up garbage and papers and putting them in the cans provided for that purpose.
This admirable young man was my "heavy date" for a good while in high school, and my escort to the senior ball.
We drifted apart after graduation, but as my classmates and I expected, Bob became a big success in later life--first in local radio, then in Hollywood motion pictures, but especially in television, as an actor, comedian, writer, and producer. He is perhaps best remembered as the director of The Andy Griffith Show. (Bob died in 1992, and I noticed in our alumni newsletter that his name had been consecrated in Balboa's Hall of Fame.)
At our graduation ceremony, I remember shedding a few tears, with the realization that I would be leaving behind the warm, nurturing environment of my tender years.
My friend Nancy Naftaly had lived in the Jewish Home located on Ocean Avenue, where her businessman father had sent his three motherless children (originally from the Philippine Islands) to be educated in American schools. Upon graduation, Nancy sailed off to join him on a luxurious ocean liner, waving joyfully to her friends on the pier. I imagined, with a slight twinge of envy, the rich exotic life before her.
It was not until the end of World War II, when she unexpectedly appeared at our door, that Leo and I learned of Nancy's fate. During the Japanese invasion of Manila in January of 1941, she was taken from the dress shop she operated and, along with other residents of the city, forced to march a long distance to an internment camp. There she was detained until the liberation of 1945.
When I saw her, she had lost so much weight that she bore little resemblance to my old schoolmate. She did not visit us again, so I assume she returned to Manila to pick up the broken pieces of her life.
Elaine Kiely was another of my chums, whose beauty and dancing skill earned her a position in the chorus line of the city's Golden Gate Theater after she graduated. Sometimes I visited her backstage between shows. She got lonely because the manager was very protective of his young dancers and refused to let them mingle with the more worldly traveling acts.
She did, however, break the rules once, to converse with an adorable little boy who was part of a traveling family act. The 6-year-old professional, Donald O'Conner, was so smitten with Elaine that he solemnly asked her to wait for him. She didn't, of course, because shortly afterwards she met and married a young man of more suitable age. When I saw her several years later, she was chasing after a lively set of twins in Golden Gate Park, and loving it.
The "Fol-de-rol" held in the Balboa auditorium in 1993 was a performance similar to the vaudeville revues of our youth. Like Elaine, Dave Barry, the event's master of ceremonies, had also commanded the stage of the Golden Gate Theater in his younger days.
At the show, Barry jogged our memories of the stern morality of the time, when he recalled a sign that had been posted on the wall for all to heed: "No Bad Language Allowed, 'Damn' and 'Hell' Prohibited!" He proved to be a very funny man and kept the audience laughing for one full hour, with a stream of jokes delivered with perfect timing.
Another star of the Fol-de-rol was a blond singer named Torill, who walked on stage wearing a top hat and tuxedo. She then proceeded to present a stunning re-creation of the fabulous Marlene Dietrich, singing the old favorites flawlessly. A well-trained chorus of young dancers rounded out the program, and a four-piece orchestra accompanied the acts. The whole production was so pleasurable that we hated to see it end.
Since I did not recognize one person from my class of '36, I could not help but wonder how many of us are still around. Not many, I fear, as the dwindling reunions indicate--which reminds me of a conversation I had recently, while waiting for the J-car, with a friendly Noe Valley lady.
She shook her head as she counted the number of local people who had expired lately. I concurred with a list of my own, admitting that we had to expect it at our age. Then, a bit more cheerfully I said, "But hey, we're still here."
And with that, we simultaneously reached for the telephone pole nearby, to knock on wood.