Sunday, September 25, 2011

Top Hat and Tails

I mentioned earlier in this blog that my grandfather, Carl Ericke, left us the gift of his voice on a tape recorder. In his eighties, at his leisure, my grandfather would turn on the device and travel back in time to when he was a younger man. He only recited a few stories; maybe the technology was too difficult for him or he had trouble concentrating after his stroke. Hearing his voice brings me back to the days when he lived nearby and would celebrate holidays with us, come over for Sunday and birthday dinners, or treat us to lunch at his favorite restaurant.

Here's another excerpt from my grandfather's oral stories, which he titled Top Hat and Tails.

Carl Ericke is on the far left.
I don’t know that I care to go ahead with this one because it doesn’t put me in a very good light. All I can say is it reflects the growing up of a young man in his immature age. So try to excuse it at the start, and I don’t know what you’re going to get here, but I’ve thought so much about it that I thought I would record it. It had to do with my growing up and the influence that fraternity life has upon a young man. 

At that time [1910-1920], the fraternities all had several formal events during the year and the fraternity wasn’t any good if it didn’t put on a formal dance every year. The girls in their sororities did likewise and it became almost a negative reflection on you if you didn’t attend these things. They were a lot of fun. I thought I’d give you some of the inner thoughts of a young man at that adolescent age. It all comes about in this way. 

Carl is in the front row, second from left, the blonde in the light suit.
All the fraternities and sororities had several formal events but the big event was the formal dance. And in those days, it wasn’t where you could go in and rent a suit, that kind of thing. I was just working for Firth Sterling Steel Company at a very modest salary, I don’t know, maybe $80-90/month. And to get a suit out of that, and a silk hat, makes it seem all the more ridiculous. But, I did save up my money and I bought a suit and tails, the silk hat, gloves, cane, and what have you. Now that’s hard to believe of a young kid that wasn’t dry behind the ears. But that’s the thing I’m going to tell you about anyway, and you’re going to laugh, I hope you do, instead of looking at me with scorn.

So I saved up my money, got a suit and tails, and so forth, and was ready to go to all these events. Well there weren’t that many, hardly enough to make it worthwhile to buy the suit, but it was one of those things you had to have at that age and so I did it. I can still see myself with a cloth in my hand, coming home from a party and wiping the silk hat to be sure it was all in good shape for the next time I went out. Well that suit brought about a lot of peculiar things.

Carl is in the second row, third from left, the blonde in a light suit.

One thing that stands out in my memory is the fact that I had a lot of invitations that were hardly intended for me, except for the fact that I had a suit! One of them was a daughter of a friend of my mother’s, Mrs. Herbert. She played in a card club that my mother belonged to; they played bridge every other week or so. And one of the women in the club was Mrs. Herbert, she was the widow of the owner of the Schmidt brewery company, and I have to laugh because there’s going to be some more breweries entering into this picture.

She had a couple daughters and one of them was invited out to a formal dance and I guess I was the only one they knew who had evening clothes. At first I turned it down, but my mother insisted that I go since Mrs. Herbert had been so nice to her; she finally influenced me to agree to go along. And we had quite an affair because the girl furnished the transportation and bought her own corsage. And I had a very boring evening. But anyway, we got over that hump and my mother was happy I agreed to do it.

Anyway, another instance is when I worked with two brothers, the Hallagans, who lived in Ottawa, Illinois. And as a result of owning this suit, why George, who had always been very good to me, sold me on coming down to Ottawa, Illinois to the dance they were having for the town there and he insisted I bring my clothes along because he had arranged for me to dance the opening for this affair they were having. They fixed it up that if I would come down there and put on the introduction dance, my partner would be the daughter of the governor of Illinois, who was Jeanette. So I went. [A little sleuthing on shows that Jeanette was one of ten children, and the youngest daughter of Governor Edward F. Dunne, and his wife, Elizabeth.]

My grandpa's "fancy dancing" event made the newspaper.
I just wanted to add, mentioning Ottawa. That is the historic location of Starved Rock where the Indians and everybody jumped off the edge of the rock. I think that's right (chuckle). I had some doubts, but we had a few drinks, where you get your courage up a little bit you know, and the music started, and the two of us had the whole ballroom floor to ourselves. I never was so embarrassed to put on a show like that because I wasn’t a specialty dancer or anything of that nature, but I did it. And it didn’t develop into anything because she didn’t appeal to me very much, but she was just as nervous as I was, so that’s that. We got a lot of applause and my friend Hallagan was very happy because it made him look important to have arranged all this. 

Years later, living in Detroit, I belonged to the Men’s Club in Rosedale Park and we had a theatrical club and at that time I was crazy about the saber sword. On one occasion they had me do the saber dance. Well the music kept me going, but it was the most awful thing you ever saw. All I did was swing the sword above my head wildly, and well it was just awful, and I’ll never forget it. But fun too, I suppose because we had a lot of these meetings and put on shows and so forth. 

So I donated Mr. Top Hat, and that may still be in existence someplace there, how good it’s doing them I don’t know, but at least it’s out of my hands.


  1. What a great story! I wish I had recordings from my family. Maybe not too late!

  2. Start now! I am sure you have some interesting stories to tell, Jeff!