(HOST) Anticipating tomorrow’s Annual National Day of Listening, commentator Stephanie Greene tells a favorite family story about a very big event in a very small town.
(GREENE) I love my father in law’s stories about his quirky hometown, Sidney, NY. We have to tease them out. Stewart will divulge a little, take a sip of his drink, go silent. We’ll press him on a detail; he’ll pause, then add something new. It always feels like a successful treasure hunt to hear the whole story.
Sidney was a town of about 4000 in 1935, built where the Susquehanna and Unadilla Rivers meet. It was also a railroad hub where the Ontario and Western line joined the Delaware and Hudson. You could travel just about anywhere by train, not only there but throughout the country. It was the connector of the era and brought many live acts to small towns.
As a boy, Stewart took tickets at Smalley’s Theater, which sat 1000. It showed movies like "Bride of Frankenstein" and "Mutiny on the Bounty"; tickets, 35 cents. Stewart had a backstage pass to everything. When the Hollywood cowboy, Ken Maynard, came, Stewart took care of Maynard’s horse – named Tarzan – backstage, for the two nights he played at Smalley’s.
Once the train brought a hypnotist to town. An otherwise nondescript man in a purple cummerbund, he picked volunteers from the crowded theater, and got them to do amusing things. The audience loved it. But his tour de force was when he chose a local woman and put her to sleep – for a whole week.
A bed had been wheeled onstage into which she slumped on command. Then the sleeping woman was carried, perhaps via hearse – to Carr and Hare, Furniture and Undertakers, on Main Street, where she was ensconced in a big new bed featured in its plate glass window.
This business of a furniture store doubling as funeral home was not uncommon, by the way, because it was cabinet-makers who were often called upon to build coffins. Many years later, Stewart’s father, Will, was laid out in that same funeral parlor. During visiting hours, everyone sat on the furniture that was for sale.
But now, the sleeper was on view for the entire week in Carr and Hare’s front window. It was the talk of the town: was this a hoax? Every day people came to watch her sleep. Kids would set up shop in front of the window – hoping to catch her jumping out of bed for a glass of water. The vigil didn’t let up, but no one saw her awake.
At the end of the week, she was brought back to the packed hall – I hope in the hearse – and with great fanfare, the hypnotist revived her.
Faking or not, she must have been well rested.