Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Set Design in the Cellar

My childhood home on 15th Avenue in Mount Vernon, New York rises from the bottom of the memory drawer one more time.  You will note that the old homestead is on my mind since I drove past it on my NY visit in December.   Last week, I speculated about what the people there are now doing with my old attic.

Today we're moving to another part of the house.

At the far left of the photo on the first floor is a door that took you downstairs into our basement, sometimes known also as the cellar.  As my life has taken me as a visitor to many homes, I have seen some wonderful basements.  Some turned into family areas or so-called "great rooms."  Some converted to apartments.  Others being used as spare bedrooms.

For us, the basement was precisely that.  A basement.  Or, yes, a cellar.  You have heard of a finished basement?  Ours was unfinished.  Even more so.

An un-unfinished basement.

Yet, somehow, it magically gave me a place where my imagination had to work overtime.  In a bizarre way, our cellar was, for me, a ticket to worlds that I could only conjure up in my mind.

Not only was their entrance from the side of the house, but you could also enter the basement from my grandparents' hallway.  Two flights of stairs into one special flight of fancy.  The first landing found a bathroom, convenient for my extended play breaks.  At the bottom of the stairs, I'd find anything I would want it to be.

Now, when I was really, really young, my family was still trying to use the basement as an extended part of the house.  They laid down some linoleum which had obviously lived somewhere else in the house.  Ugly shelves, stocked with tools that had first been used during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's third term, were covered with paper curtains.  Bridge chairs were lined around the room.

Instant party location. 

For several years, my family's cellar was the central location for our New Year's Eve parties.  I've written before of those galas when I, at the age of five or six, acted as one of the bartenders and effectively liquored up a myriad of aunts, uncles, and distant cousins.  There would be dancing on the linoleum.  There would be sing-alongs to the record player in the corner.  Mitch Miller had popular record albums which provided enough of the sheet music to cover at least a family of 20.  The fact that there was no heat in the basement on December 31 made no difference.  The working furnace in the corner gave off some residual BTUs.  For added warmth, there was always that bottle of Cutty Sark.

There were good times. 

And they did not last long.

Over the next few years, the basement became nothing more than, well, a basement.  A place where you would throw things that had seen or lived better days.  My grandmother's old armoire.  A picnic table and two benches.  Had these ever been used in the backyard anyway?  An old table here.  An old wooden chair there. 

There was one room with a door in the corner.  Inside were all the windows for all the seasons.  Summer screens.  Winter storm windows.  And, on a shelf off to the side, the shoe shine box that my dad had built when he was a kid.  On the front, you could still see the price.  5 cents.  A bargain regardless of whatever year he had put this together.

On the other side of the basement, we found Grandma Central.  Specifically the laundry room.  Two sinks, a lot of hoses, and one ancient washing machine. 

This sort of looks like it, but even this version might be a little too modern.  This washer had a churning motion that could be felt and heard in the neighboring community of New Rochelle.  And the wringer mechanism was absolutely petrifying.  I had more than one nightmare that found my finger going through it and winding up like pancakes.  I'd always ask my grandmother if I could help her do the wash.

"Don't put your fingers too close."

Er, never mind.  I think you got this covered.

In this world of neglected treasures, this only child found a place where he could truly express himself.  Rarely did I play down there with any of my friends from "up the block."  I do remember some afternoons at the picnic table with my buddy Leo, playing some board games when it was too cold to lay out Strat-O-Matic Football on the front stoop.  But, other than that, my basement playmates were just the three of us.

Me, Myself, and I.

This became my Hollywood set.  In my earliest form of creativity, there would be two different television shows that I would stage down in that basement.  If that sounds a little screwy, I have since discovered friends of mine confessing to the same bizarr-o activity.   God bless us creative types.

Set design was my first project.  If I was going to put together my little pretend sitcom, I'd need to furnish the living room.  Grandma's laundry room was the kitchen.  The stairs upstairs would play, well, the stairs upstairs.  My characters were living in a basement apartment so the door to the outside world was, well, the world to the outside world.

Several of the New Year's Eve chairs moved over to the "living room."  The picnic bench became the sofa.  The old wooden table was the "dining room."  You never saw the bedroom.  There was in that spare room where my dad's shoe shine kit was housed.

It took me about an hour to put this together each time.  By the time I was done, I was frequently too tired to move on with the actual story development.  But, at least, the set was complete.

If I wasn't in the mood for an episode of "Len Knows Best," I had other television shows to tackle.  When I was a kid, I became particularly enamored with talk shows like "The Johnny Carson Tonight Show."  Heck, I can do that, too.

Set design was a little easier.  I simply organized a couple of bridge chairs into a circle and I was ready to meet my imaginary guest.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome please Miss Suzanne Pleshette"

Yeah, I used to pretend out loud.  And I frequently was heard by my grandmother upstairs.

"You shut up down there.  My stories are on."

There were times when she'd have the last word on my play area.  I'd be all riled up to run downstairs for another foray into the land of make-believe.  As I bounded down the basement stairs, I would be met with rows and rows of her laundry.  Hanging all over my sitcom/talk show set.

Yeah, there were clotheslines across the basement, too.

Dinner last night:  Shrimp lo mein at Wokcano.

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