Holiday Music Quarterly: Santa's Crack

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Step into My Hot Rod

All Apologies

Holiday Hits

On the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation about music and memory with one of Seattle's longest-standing music fans. Seventy-eight-year-old Tonya Gerszewski lives at the First Hill Care Center. I hoped to engage her in a more holiday-oriented conversation, but Gerszewski wasn't having it.

Do you like Christmas music?

Well, not really. They overplay it. That's one thing I get tired of. Too much. Like up here, there's too much church. If they only had it twice a week, it'd be all right, instead of five times a week.

Do they play holiday music in here?

Oh yes. When the carolers come, we get all these kids coming, singing the holiday songs. They go from room to room and when they're down in the dining room, they all stand there and sing. We have a lot of children come up here and entertain us. But, otherwise, I don't really like the holiday music.

What are some other kinds of music that you like?

Well, let's see. I like the Mills Brothers; the Ames Brothers. They were my favorites. And I liked the Andrews Sisters. And of course we get back to Fats Waller. I like anything that gets me dancing.

What does it feel like to dance the Charleston?

You have to limber up and really be on the ball dancing that way. That and the Black Bottom. That's before your time, but the Black Bottom was another dance like the Charleston.

What did it look like?

Well, you'd hit yourself on one hip, and you'd turn around and hit on the other hip.

Sounds like the Hokey Pokey.

Yes. It's something like that. But they called it the Black Bottom. Well, when you got through you were black and blue.

How often did you dance?

I danced for a living for years. I wanted to be a famous Rockette [but] I never got there. I couldn't kick high enough. I'm not tall enough.

How tall are you?

I'm five foot and one-quarter inch. Don't forget that quarter inch, because I won't. I try and stretch up and make myself an inch.

How tall is the average Rockette?

About 5'7". They have the long legs so they can kick high.

Did you audition?

Yes I did, and they told me flatly, "Wish we could use you, but you're not tall enough."

Did you ever go out to clubs and dance?

I danced all my life in nightclubs and aboard ships. Everything you could imagine--acrobatic, tap dancing, ballet, and I was even what they call a "belly dancer." That was fun. Everybody whoopin' and hollerin'. I always went to nightclubs, wherever I was booked--like when Cab Calloway would be playing.

Oh wow. Did you meet Cab Calloway?

Oh yes, I have. I think he was a nice gentleman. He might have been rough singing, but he was a gentleman at heart.

Who else did you meet?

Oh, I met the oldest Mills Brother. Not the father, but the oldest boy. Now, he was an odd person. He had so much competition, but he just went through life singing the best he could, trying to outdo everyone else.

Was he obsessive about it?

Well, I don't think so. He just wanted to be really good. You know, entertainment, it's a funny life. You don't try and infringe on anybody else.

Is it a hard life?

Yes it is. Think of the hours you work. The hours you put into practice. People think it's easy, but it's a lot of work.

How many hours a day did you practice?

Sometimes six hours. Then I'd work eight hours.

Really? That's about 14 hours of dancing altogether.

Yes, it is.

You must've been exhausted at the end of the day.

You are. Really.

So when was the last time you danced?

I quit dancing about 10 years ago.

You danced until you were 68 years old?

Yes. Ballet dancing.

Do you miss it?

Sure I do. I miss the life. Because it's always something different. You're going from one place to another. You just enjoy yourself that way. I've ridden so many trains and so many buses and driven so many miles, I couldn't count them all.