Thursday, March 5, 2015

everything that you're hankerin' for

If you didn't grow up in Philadelphia and you were born after 1970, you can't fully understand the significance and impact of meeting the subject of this story. While I hope I can describe the feeling, the actual emotion may be difficult to convey. So, at the risk of this sounding like the misty-eyed musings of a sentimental old man, please indulge me. You have been warned. — JPiC
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been presenting its annual Flower Show since 1829. After a century plus, it moved its elaborate displays to a permanent location in the Philadelphia Civic Center in 1966. As a youngster, my wife would visit the show with her troop of Girl Scouts, although, I never attended until we married. Actually, our first trip to the show as a couple included our son, who viewed the various arrangements from the convenient vantage point of his stroller. While Mrs. P pushed that stroller through subsequent Flower Shows, I, however, made my second appearance at a Flower Show one week after our son purchased a house.

What was it that prompted a return to the show? Was it a sudden interest in peyones and proteas? Was it a heretofore undiscovered love of lush greenery? Was it a new-found appreciation for all things flora? Nope. None of those. In addition to all of those things, this year's Philadelphia Flower Show offered a stroll down memory lane.

In the 1960s, entertainment wasn't nearly as abundant as it is now. In Philadelphia, like a lot of large metropolitan cities, television was limited to three network affiliates and a handful of independent local stations. No cable. No on-demand. No DVD or Blu Ray players. No Netflix. No YouTube. You get the idea.

Childrens' entertainment was relegated to after-school hours and weekend mornings. There were a group of local hosts, in the guise of various characters, who played to kids in the home audience as well as a small in-studio audience, offering games, skits and contests, interspersed with cartoons. Some of my favorites were (from left to right, starting at the top row)...
Wee Willie Webber, Captain Philadelphia (portrayed by sportscaster Stu Nahan, the ringside announcer in Rocky), Lorenzo the Clown, Dickory Doc and Adam Android (both portrayed by local TV producer/puppeteer Aldo Farnese), hokey horror movie host Dr. Shock, Sally Starr, the beloved TV cowgirl who just passed away in 2013, and friendly pixie Pixanne,  But my all-time favorite, as well as the favorite of everyone in the Delaware Valley, was Gene London.

Gene London was a soft-spoken, young man who enchanted every child in the Greater Philadelpha area for nearly twenty years. On a shoestring budget, Gene transformed a small studio at WCAU into a magical wonderland of stories filled with adventure, humor, thrills and even a little culture. Gene, an accomplished singer/actor/puppeteer, played a wide variety of characters and deftly adapted timeless works (like She Who Must Be Obeyed and tales from Greek mythology) to the delight and interest of his loyal young viewers. In some segments, he would sit at a large drawing board and spin a tale from the Disney canon, while expertly sketching characters from the story. His gentle nature and easy-going manner made Gene come across as a friend. Over the years, he gained a lot of life-long friends.

Gene's show premiered three years before I was born and was finally brought to a close just after I turned 16. Upon the show's cancellation, Gene moved to New York City and became very involved in the fashion industry, operating a clothing store in Manhattan and using his talents as a consultant for Hollywood and Broadway productions. With the exception of a few rare local connections, he disappeared from the Philadelphia area.

During Gene's fashion career, he amassed an impressive collection of costumes and accessories from some of Hollywood's most treasured movies and stars. Over the years, he has displayed a small portion of his 60,000-plus piece collection at venues across the country. This year, the Philadelphia Flower Show's theme is "Celebrate The Movies," and it features a part of what has come to be known as "Gene London's Hollywood Collection."

That was reason enough to get me to go.

I took a day off from work, Mrs P bought tickets and we hopped the train to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Flower Show's home since 1996. We followed the crowds through the train station, up a couple of escalators, through some winding hallways until we arrived at Room 203 and the banners that marked the entrance to Gene's collection.

The room was beautifully appointed with two dozen mannequins clad in original costumes worn by Bette Davis, Doris Day, Tallulah Bankhead, even Clara Bow. Marilyn Monroe's actual dress from The Seven Year Itch was perched on a high pedestal, the skirt dramatically billowing above a strategically-placed hidden fan. My wife and I both quivered when we spotted Gene London himself, looking dapper in a natty pinstriped suit, greeting fans just past a slinky number once worn by Lana Turner. He was a little older and a little slower than we remembered, but he was unmistakably Gene London, that cheerful soul from our youth. A modest knot of 50-plus year-olds gathered around the one-time local TV icon. There was conversing, reminiscing, laughing and a bit of hugging. Mrs. P and I inched our way towards Gene and, just as we were about to gush with praise and adoration, an official-looking woman whisked him away, announcing that he was scheduled for a radio interview. 

We were crushed — until a sweet young lady who had been assisting Gene smiled and told us that he'd be back in a half hour. We took the opportunity to take a closer look at the costumes. Soon, Gene was led back into the room. He was stopped a few times by grinning women, posing for cellphone pictures and offering cheek-kisses to their childhood darling. Finally, Gene approached us with outstretched hands, like an old friend. My wife, positively giddy, smiled broadly as she related some of her cherished "Gene London" memories. Gene smiled as well, as he clutched my wife's hand and hung on to every single word she said. I listened and marveled at his reaction to my wife's anecdotes. Then, I presented him with two printouts of his portrait that I had drawn the night before. He signed one for me and, when I told him he was an early inspiration for my illustration career, asked if I would sign one for him. He was exactly as we had expected him to be — gracious, charming, warm and engaging. He posed for pictures, talked a bit more and thanked us sincerely for coming. 

At 83, Gene has not lost any of his magic. We didn't even care if we saw any flowers.

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