Monday, March 2, 2015

Detailed Gene-ology

Knocking off bucket-list items takes commitment.

That's exactly the thought I had while driving through a messy mix of snow, sleet and rain on the busy Schulykill Expressway, on my way to downtown Philadelphia.

The news radio was reciting a litany of accidents across the area, and the multiple live weather reports were unanimous: If you don't have to go out today, don't go out.

And yet, I continued on.

This was, you see, a quest. A chance to right a long-ago wrong.

Let me explain: I was on my way to the Philadelphia Flower Show. I had a work commitment carrying me there, true. But I also had a personal one as well. I was finally -- at last and for true -- going to meet former Philadelphia kid-vid host Gene London.

I loved Gene. He was one of many on the local landscape of my late-60s/early 70s TV watching, sharing the spotlight with Sally Starr, Wee Willie Weber, Chief Halftown and Captain Noah.

But Gene was different. During the course of Cartoon Corners General Store, he could be counted on to settle in and tell us a story from the Disney canon. And I was transfixed because as he spoke, he drew, so after a few easy pencil strokes, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty would emerge magically on the page.

London, I have read, was a great admirer of Walt Disney, which made him aces in my book because even as a youngster, I was, too.

Truth be told, I still am.

My fandom led me to look and listen for Gene everywhere. There he was! In the Thanksgiving Day parade on a papier mache nightmare of a float but smiling intrepidly.  

Late one afternoon when I was eight or so, I heard him being interviewed on WCAU radio. Wally Kennedy, I think, was host, as as the questions continued, Kennedy threw his phone lines open to kids.

I dashed to the kitchen phone and ratcheted in the numbers on the plastic dial.

I do not know how old I was. I only know that I didn't know the difference between a ringing line on the other end and a busy signal on the other end.

So I hung in there for the remainder of the show, assured that Gene was going to pick up my call at any minute.

Zzzt! Zzzt! Zzzt!

I waited... And waited. And to my horror, I heard Kennedy wrap up the show and toss to the news.


What about Gene?!?!

Sadly, it was not to be.

But that episode explains an awful lot of what I was doing on a major roadway during some truly nasty weather on a pilgrimage.

I forged on and got to the city. I tucked my car into a lot and walked to the show. Upon entering, it was a dizzying array of flowers and fragrances, but my focus was elsewhere.

I asked directions to London's display, which, in sticking to the Flower Show's theme, involved his collection of costumes from classic Hollywood.

I found the room, entered, surveyed the impressive display and...

...saw no sign of my hero.

I was crestfallen. Once again the victim of the hand of fate.

Various docents wandered the room, and I asked one: "Is Gene here?"

"He's out to lunch right at this second," she said. "But he's due back any minute."

I decided to wait.

Various conversations were struck with similarly minded fans. Everyone, it seems, had a story, including the woman who was almost on an episode but was bounced because of the color of the dress she wore.

"It was soon after Easter," she said, "and my mother made me wear my Easter dress, which was all white with a pale blue sash. The cameraman looked at me and said, 'I can't put you on the show. You'll bleed out the camera and look like nothing but a snowman.'"

A flurry of activity stirred the room. I turned around and... there he was!

A line formed, which I gladly joined and within moments, I was shaking his hand.

"I'm nervous," I said. "This is like meeting Santa!"

He grinned. His eyes still sparkle, and his voice was soft, warm, and gentle but still sounds like it could easily slide into the Wicked Queen from Snow White.

I told him of the radio incident, and he laughed, saying how much better it was that we were meeting 1:1.

I was babbling: "I can't even tell you what you meant to my childhood," I spouted. "You were tea and toast on days when I was sick at home and my mother would wheel the TV into my room and put your show on. You were sugar and cinnamon. You were a warm blanket when I wasn't feeling well. That's what I remember most: You were comfort food on television."

He smiled and thanked me. "Are you a writer?" he asked.

I was floored. "Yes. How did you know?"

He nodded. "I could tell just from the way you were telling me that."

I told him how much I loved his stories and his expertise with Walt Disney.

"Keep telling your stories," he told me. "Keep writing and sharing."

I nodded.

"Maybe that's how you recognized what I do," I said. "Storyteller to storyteller."

"Can you give me a hug?" he asked.

And I did.

Our moment came to an end, and I stepped aside for the other fans.

Thank you, Gene London. For what you did way back then. For what you do now. In both cases, you're making people happy. And what better calling can there be than that?

As for me?

Yeah. I'll keep right on writing.