The day Paul Whiteman ate my sandwich

Watching “King of Jazz” on Turner Classic Movies a few nights ago hurled me back in memory to my senior year in high school, more than six decades ago. On a chilly Saturday in Philadelphia, Paul Whiteman ate my tuna salad sandwich. Well, half of it, anyway. I will explain in a minute. First, for the benefit of younger readers, here’s a glimpse at who Paul Whiteman was.

Whiteman earned his place in America’s popular culture as the leader of a national known and well-regarded 40-piece orchestra throughout the 1930s and into the ‘40s, when he disbanded his orchestra and moved into television. From 1949 to 1954 he hosted Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club from Philadelphia on ABC-TV with announcer Dick Clark.

Whiteman, self-proclaimed “King of Jazz” stars in the 1930 “King of Jazz” film, which stars Paul and his orchestra and is essentially a musical review, a series of short scenes featuring several singers of that era, including the Rhythm Boys and its solo singer, a youthful Bing Crosby.

Whiteman shows up in cameo shots in the film. He never pretended to possess matinee idol looks. He was, to state it politely, stouter than the average man, with sparse hair, moon-shaped face and pencil mustache, but a winning smile and an outgoing personality.

From its beginnings, television has loved aspiring entertainers, hopeful that TV exposure would launch a career in show business. It’s still happening. Witness the popularity of American Idol and The Voice, among others. In earlier times, first on radio, then on television, such shows commanded huge, adoring audiences. Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour, later taken over by Ted Mack, led the pack. Then came Arthur Godfrey, whose show concentrated on professional entertainers.

In 1953 I was working afternoons after school as a mail clerk in a Baltimore television station whose local programs included a show that featured teen-aged entertainers competing with one another. There I met a petite and vivacious country singer I will call Brenda (not her real name), and we started dating.

Winners of the Baltimore show’s competition advanced to Whiteman’s nationally televised TV Teen Club in Philadelphia, and this is where I lost my sandwich. The producer of the Baltimore show treated Brenda and me to a train ride to Philadelphia for her to spend a Saturday rehearsing, then performing on Whiteman’s show that evening. Television was live then, not recorded to be aired later, so the long day was devoted to rehearsal, preparing every detail, and the process consumed several fascinating but exhausting hours. The Baltimore producer and I watched it all from folding chairs on the edge of the set. A few feet away sat Paul Whiteman, the big boss, who greeted us warmly and engaged us in friendly conversation throughout the proceedings.

Near noon, the producer handed me some cash and dispatched me to find some takeout lunch for himself, Brenda and me. I returned with a bag full of tuna sandwiches and distributed them to our little group. I had just taken a big bite of mine when Whiteman got a whiff of the food and turned to me to ask if I would be willing to share my sandwich with him. Well, sure. Who could refuse? Would he like me to go out and get him his own complete sandwich? Big smile. No, but thanks for letting me have half of yours, he said. He accepted a few potato chips.

Brenda won the top prize that day and returned the following week for the championship round, which she won. I was there for that, too. We broke up shortly after that. Paul Whiteman died in 1967 at 77 years of age.

The sandwich, as I recall, was delicious. So is this memory.

 

 

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