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Introductory Series

Part 1

This Old Town

Cover detail from the Hollywood Dinner Club Menu and Wine List, Spring and Summer Season 1934, autographed by entertainers George Olsen and Ethel Shutta

Galveston is an old town. Not old in the global sense. There are no pyramids or Parthenons here. Nor is she especially old by American standards. Her closest kin, that Creole lady New Orleans, is older by a hundred years, slightly more.

To me, Galveston is a Goldilocks kind of old, not remotely young enough to be suburbia bland but not so old that she’s antiquated quaint. She is, I think, just-right old.

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Galveston deeply resonates with the rhythms of her past,
yet beckons us to join her in a modern‑day dance …

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It is a soft summer evening as I stroll through my quiet neighborhood of early-twentieth-century cottages and bungalows, a treasured pastime, these leisurely walks through Galveston history. As I meander along with no set course, after a time I find myself in the Palm Gardens neighborhood, and it gradually occurs to me that on this particular street at this particular moment, there are no cars parked in front of the houses. How nice, I thought. For once, no modern obstructions to mar the lovely view of this row of tidy homes from the ’30s and ’40s. In fact, there is nothing at all about this scene to belie the fact that it is actually 2019. Why, if a young Joan Crawford were to emerge right now from one of these front doors, she would be no jarring anachronism in this pleasant tableau. On the contrary, an SUV at the curb would be the anachronism. I had to smile at the thought because this is one of the many reasons I love old Galveston, that effortless ease with which she draws us into the past.

Since the discovery in my childhood of a dusty black Packard behind an old clapboard house next door to my great-grandmother, I have been enamored of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The ’30s and ’40s especially have always seemed to me sublimely classic, from the fashions of the era, both men’s and women’s, to those heavy, handsome automobiles, usually gleaming black, which themselves are today’s prized classics. It was an exuberant time, the blossoming of a nascent modernity, the scent of a new adventure always on the breeze. Sometimes I think I was born too late.

My favorite movie as a young child wasn’t a Walt Disney film (although The Three Lives of Thomasina was a close runner-up). It was the 1946 tear-jerker Sentimental Journey, starring the lovely Maureen O’Hara, in her square-shouldered satin gowns, and the dapper John Payne, his fractured character exuding such stabbing sorrow that it broke my young heart every time I watched the movie, which was every single time it came on television. I strongly identified with the dreamy little girl Hitty, but it wasn’t until much later in life that I understood truly why. The first time I had ever seen, or even heard of, a chaise lounge was in this movie, and even now, I sometimes pine for a velvety version on which to faint, or die. But it was the theme song especially—gentle, lilting, melancholy—that captured my soul. It is a melody that haunts me still.

As I continue my walk through the neighborhood, I pause to admire the careful brickwork and playful slope of the cat-slide roof on a nearby Tudor Revival, then close my eyes for a moment to drink in the fragrance of its well-tended garden. When I slowly open my eyes again, it is 1934 …

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All at once, the natural curl and finger wave of my short-cropped hair are the height of coiffure chic, and I expect to fetch many an admiring glance at the Hollywood Dinner Club tonight.

Oh, I am positively giddy with excitement as I anticipate the festive evening ahead. George Olsen and his Music, accompanied by his lovely wife, that marvelous songbird Ethel Shutta, are the scheduled headliners. I so love the rich, brassy sound of George’s lively tunes, and Ethel? I must remember to ask Marie to tell me again about her days in the Ziegfeld Follies.

I wonder, dare I try that scandalous absinthine tonight? Some years ago it was all the rage in Paris among the artistic and literary elite so surely it is something to try. Perhaps I shall have just one of those mysterious green concoctions, then magically a poet or a painter be! Wouldn’t that be a treat?

Suddenly I am startled out of my dreamy contemplation by the low rumbling of an approaching motorcar. As I glance behind, I see the sleek, low-slung line of a shiny new Auburn Cabriolet, then Freddy behind the wheel, his face dimmed in the shadow of a cocked Fedora. “There you are, my little scamp!” he calls to me, leaning over to unlatch the side door. “Climb in now, my sweet, or we shall be late!” “Oh, Freddy, you silly cad. I’m ready. Let’s go!” Stepping up on the wide sweep of the running board, I slide smoothly in beside him, and slowly we pull away, my reverie returning.

Oh, such a night tonight will be at the glamorous Hollywood, a night of sparkle and glitter, of song and of dance. I know I shall remember it always and dream of it, too, because tonight will be a night of which memorable dreams are made.

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This is Galveston, a Goldilocks kind of old. Your sentimental journey awaits.

History lingers here. History lives.©

Other Intro Series Articles:

A Youthful Lark

Part 2: The comic adventure, decades ago, that set the early focus for the eventual collection and indeed this project.

Read More »

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