I'd rather be in the last row watching Ginger


The last place I wanted to be confined was an Eastern High School classroom on a Saturday afternoon in 1968.

It was January and one of the rituals that high school seniors endured -- then as now -- was the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the almighty SAT, which opens the door to college.

I wasn't an Eastern student. In fact, I did not know anybody in the room. These tests were administered at selected sites, and you took it at the place most convenient to your home.

Where did I want to be?

Where did I cut out to go?

The stage door of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

There, fresh from a performance of "Hello, Dolly!" was the one and only Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire's dancing partner and the delightful star of those 1930s RKO musical films. She died this week at age 83, but nearly 27 years ago, she seemed like one of the enduring goddesses of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Did I want to miss one of these legends, or did I want to fill in those little circles on a SAT score sheet? You guess where I spent the time.

In the 1960s, the films of 30 years before were getting an audience at the art revival houses around town. I can recall seeing the marquees on the old Five West and Seven East on North Avenue ablaze with re-releases of classics such as "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon." On another night, we gathered in a room at Govans Presbyterian Church for a screening of Ginger Rogers in "Top Hat."

If you were lucky and home from school that day, Channel 13 might show a cut-up version of Astaire and Rogers in their first pairing, "Flying Down To Rio."

It was big entertainment news that 1967-68 theater season that Ginger Rogers, live and in person, was coming to Baltimore. The Mechanic was just a year old. People were excited about going downtown to see a show.

I didn't have the money for a prime orchestra seat. In fact, I had enough for the worst seat in the house. And I only had that thanks to a gift from Great Aunt Cora, who slipped me the tariff. It was her Christmas gift. She wrapped a $5 bill around a piece of paper and wrote, "One seat to 'Hello, Dolly.'"

I took Aunt Cora's money and went to the box office. There were many seats left, but I managed to get one in the deepest balcony.

On the night of the performance, I presented my ticket to the usher who directed me to the south side of the auditorium. Then I met another usher who looked at my stub and motioned me to move on. Finally, my seat was located. It turned out to be a folding chair on a concrete platform that, I think, was normally used for holding the lights. I was in theatrical steerage.

The lights went down, the orchestra struck up the overture and the rest was theater magic. There was our Ginger, all dolled up as Dolly Levi. I recall her wig and makeup. Both were heavy, but TC had seen the great Ginger in person.

Was it a great performance? No, but the experience was there, and I wouldn't have traded my seat for a pair in the orchestra on the aisle.

And forever and a day thereafter, whenever anyone in my family found themselves placed in a less than advantageous seat, it was known as the Ginger Rogers Seat.

My college career, and the Scholastic Aptitude Test once deemed so important, both succeeded. My diploma is somewhere under a pile of books.

What does hang on my wall is a beautiful copy of the sheet music to "Flying Down to Rio" in its original art deco format. Not only would the great Ginger Rogers graciously sign autographs, she penned no fewer than five for me, each on a separate song sheet from her career. Her patience was only exceeded by my gushing enthusiasm.

She inscribed the music to me in her distinctive, flowing hand. Some 27 years later, the ink is only slightly faded from that day when I chose the Mechanic over the SAT test.

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