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Big Chuck

August 16, 2010

I Was Just Thinking: Upcoming show will connect me with my grandma

I have been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately. The one I never knew.

Her name was Sarah Day D'Imperio, and she married my grandfather a century ago. She was a Unadilla girl. Old-timers, and they get fewer and fewer as the tempus fugit, remember her as the prettiest girl in town. I can vouch for this, because of the one or two hand-tinted old portraits I have seen of her.

Sarah was a musical genius. In her youth, she could read any piece of sheet music put in front of her without preview. Her piano-playing talents were the talk of the town. She died in Bassett Hospital of leukemia in (we think) 1936 and is buried with her father, Marshall Day, in the Walton cemetery under a misspelled tombstone.

I can't help but be drawn to this young beauty who graced her future generations with an affinity for fine music. How I would have loved to sit transparently in the quiet corner of 1 Martin Brook St. in Unadilla and listen to my grandmother play on an old upright the sweet songs of the 1920s for her friends and neighbors.

"Side by Side" would have had them all in full voice. "You're the Cream in my Coffee" would have no doubt elicited chuckles from her friends. "My Buddy" would have flowed from my grandmother's delicate fingertips like tonic ripples. Oh, how I would have loved to hear her play. Her talents as a musician were so renowned that she was requested to accompany many of the vaudeville shows that came through this area. She played in theaters throughout the Susquehanna Valley, accompanying dramatic readings, one-act plays and musical comedies.

One place that she was requested to play at more than once was historic Chapel Hall in Franklin. A remnant of the historic Delaware Literary Institute, it has stood sturdily on Institute Street in Franklin for a century and a half, propped up by its iconic white columns and anchored in its Greek Revival heft.

The Franklin Stage Company is the current tenant of Chapel Hall. What a treasure they are. The group puts on full-scale theatrical productions that any town 10 times the size of Franklin would be proud to call its own. It hosts community events and readings by local celebrities (like Tom Morgan, the "Sage of the Empire Hotel," and Delaware County's own "Good Humor" man, Jim Mullen) and acts as the perfect Norman Rockwell backdrop for the weekly Franklin Farmer's Market. In the "good old days" it was the home for numerous traveling vaudeville shows.

In the 1920s, my grandmother would somehow make the journey from Unadilla to Franklin (she never owned a car) and play piano all night long for the Shakespearean vignettes, baggy-pants comedians and weepy melodramas so popular in that era. When a vaudeville show or local theatrical production closed, it was a tradition for the cast and crew to "autograph" the walls behind the stage. This was an old theater tradition. I heard about this recently and went out to Chapel Hall to have a look.

"Was it true?" I asked. "Are there names still on the wall from four generations ago?" The answer is yes. There they are, proudly scribbled in pencil, yet as clear as if they were written yesterday. The actors from musicals in 1927. The stage crew from a drama in 1924. Producers, costumers, lighting men and more.

Dozens of names scribbled on the ancient walls of Chapel Hall. And I have been told that the tradition continues even today, with newer and younger thespians gaining inspiration from the signatures of nearly 100 years ago.

And there, several times on the wall, is the delicate, florid signature of Sarah Day D'Imperio, pianist. From the 1920s and earlier. Amazing.

Sunday at 5 p.m., I will be "performing" at Chapel Hall in Franklin. Actually, I will be telling stories. I have done my "one-man show" all over the state and am delighted that I have been asked to appear in Franklin. It is a nostalgic hour of tales of growing up in the black-and-white days of the 1950s and 1960s in small-town America.

If you are able to attend, I will look forward to seeing you. And do me a favor. See if you can catch a twinkle in my eye as I unreel my childhood stories. If you do discern a little glint in my eye, you can now know why it is there.

Before the show, just before I start my performance, I intend to go behind the curtain, pick up a pencil and sign my name up on the wall with all of the many other performers who have "played Chapel Hall." My name will be right there next to the name of Sarah Day D'Imperio.

After 90 years, I will finally feel like I have met her, the grandmother I never knew.

I'll catch you in two…'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck. You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books.

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