The Wonderful Stan
by Bill Bakaleinikoff
My father had a deep Russian accent and many of our family and friends only spoke Russian. My father also spoke seven other languages aside from Russia’s version of English pidgin. I always felt I had had one foot in America and one foot in the old world. The radio, television, books and comics were my brother’s and my grip on being Americans. My father Mischa, was born in Russia and my mother Yvonne, was born in France. Most of their personal friends were European and that reflected heavily within the confines of our home. My parents threw two kinds of parties, one for the movie stars and the other for the European crowd who usually were involved in the world of music or art. I was six then and my brother was eight.
America in the late forties and early fifties was a bonding process. The emerging middle class was being submerged into a new culture. Frozen foods, suburbs, clique-clothes, back yard BBQs, bright cars, independence from the diner table, and a final look back at the depression years. The immigrants have all but melted since the turn of the century and Ellis Island hangovers were going out of style. The cookie-cutter American was taking shape. Many times my brother and I still felt like foreigners. We sat down to a formal dinner, no frozen foods, no radio or television allowed during family hours, and American food was very seldom in sight. My father’s idea of a hamburger was a slab of filet mignon smothered in blue cheese and mushrooms on dark Russian rye. I envied the kids who got canned chili beans and hot dogs.
I am trying to give you a little back ground here. Going to a family event or party was not fun. Our aunt Nadia lived in the next canyon over from us in the Hollywood hills. She was a famous opera singer back in the late teens and twenties in Europe and South America. She was the oldest Bakaleinikoff then. Aunt Nadia was in her seventies, she had a mustache without a smile and always wore black. She spoke like a sub woofer. My brother and I feared Aunt Nadia. She was stern, direct, and always gave socks and underwear for Christmas and birthday presents. I used to see the photos of her when she was a young dancer in Moscow and later on stage as an opera singer. It was the difference between Britney Spears and Golda Mier. I never did believe those photos were of the same person. There were always stories of Aunt Nadia and her love affairs with famous European royalties and her villas that stretched out on several continents. Her vast wealth disappeared into a small Hollywood bungalow. Maybe that is why she always dressed in black. Six year olds only see what is in front of them.
Dinner parties at Aunt Nadia’s usually consisted of famous musicians like Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz, I think Issac Stern, and many other Russian or European musical talents. They were somber events for a six year old. Luckily for us, my parents would generally spare us and leave us home with a baby sitter. On the rare occasions they would take us to these events, aside from holiday dinners or birthdays, it would be because there would be some one of interest for us to meet (my brother and me). Usually these social events were held at one of the Studios (Columbia where my dad worked or RKO where my uncle worked) executives' parties. There would be guests like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan/Jungle Jim), Gabby Hayes, William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) Andy Devine, Lash La Rue etc.; but never at Aunt Nadia’s.
It was a Saturday I believe. My mother was in her makeup room and I could smell her bubble bath still draining. My father was in the shower and his clothes were laid out on the bed. It was about 5:30 p.m. This meant that they were going out. It was kind of a fun feeling because my brother and I knew it was baby sitter time and a certain amount of extra freedom and American food. There was always freshly bought baby sitter food for the baby sitters such as Cokes, root beer, chili beans, real hot dogs and buns along with potato chips and ice cream & cookies. Somehow my brother and I felt more American on these evenings. There also was ‘new’ American music on the radio or westerns on television. But the excitement soon left the evening. “Boys, jump into the bath and get dressed you are coming to Aunt Nadia’s with us”. My heart sank until I noticed Tony smiling, he looked over at me and said “Billy, this must mean somebody is going to be there or they wouldn’t be taking us”. As we were getting ready we frantically were trying to guess who it could be…Batman? Flash Gordon? Boris Karloff?....our minds went wild.
Soon we were in the Hudson driving over the narrow road that connected our canyon to Aunt Nadia’s. We pulled up in front of her Hollywood bungalow. There were the usual fancy dull cars parked in front (European music people drove dark Cadillacs to match the music). Our hopes were still up as we entered the house. Even though it was a bungalow the dining room could still seat about 12 to 13 adults and two youngsters. The living room was comfortable for a social event and there were many hors d’oeuvre trays filled with caviar, goose livers, sour cream and herring laying about with a hired butler serving drinks (Champagne or Vodka take it or leave it). My brother and I suffered the pats on the head and the hand shakes. We were even prepared for Aunt Nadia’s scratchy mustache kiss and hug. We were well trained and behaved in public.
As Tony and I scanned the room for our hero it soon became clear that there was nobody we knew other than the familiar European musical talents. Every time a knock at the door came, our eyes would dart to the opening only to find no hero that we could recollect. Soon the diner bell rang. Alas, Tony was wrong; we were going to be caught up into a somber evening of despair. We were seated and the butler and maid started to clutter the table with soups, foreign foods and wine. The voices got loud in Russian, French and Eastern European dialogs. Saddened, we accepted our fate. Suddenly I could feel a kick under the table and then a quick pinch on my leg. I looked over at Tony and his eyes were wide open and staring across the table. I looked but nothing registered. But then, the face that was sullen and dry sitting across from us started to look familiar. He was dressed like a British banker and he sat erect. We were both staring at him now.
The room became silent, all eyes settled on the British gentleman. Slowly he pulled a bowler hat from underneath the table and put it on. Our mouths dropped opened and an electric shock of excitement shot through our bodies; Tony and I just sat there transfixed as the stern gentleman started to point at his soup and his body became animated as he started to cry, fidget, and whimper while yelling that there was a fly in his soup. He then went into one of his famous routines that my brother and I have watched over and over again at the movies and on early television. Stan Laurel was now on stage live and in front of us across the dining room table. At that time, Laurel and Hardy were our biggest heroes and now we were seeing one of them in person. Mr. Laurel did a ten minute skit which seemed like hours to us and then reached for our hands. He then put a fifty cent piece in each of our hands and sat back. He closed with his famous quick eye blinks, nod, and wide closed lip smiles. He put the bowler away along with the smile and resumed eating. The room applauded and then joined him. The foreign languages came back and my brother and I were sitting there in seventh heaven. I looked over at Aunt Nadia and for the first time I noticed a twinkle in her eye and a small smile that softened her mustache. That evening was one of the most magical evenings in my life. Later, when we would visit Aunt Nadia and much later as a young adult when I would go over to see her by myself, I would look at the photos on her wall. She was frail now and in her nineties sitting in her rocking chair. Her sub woofer voice was now only a whisper; but she would still ask if I had enough underwear and socks. One of the last times I was there I made a point of looking at each and every photo on her piano and for the first time, I noticed an old yellowed photo of a young woman in England standing next to a young Stan Laurel. I never knew till that moment, that that magic night was her gift.
I can now see Aunt Nadia as she was when she was young and imagine what was really behind that old black dress and mustache. Every time I see a Laurel & Hardy film I think of Aunt Nadia and a British gentleman who made two children very happy.