LEGEND

Arthur Whittemore’s Television Debut

My Uncle Buck NBC appearance was eagerly anticipated in my small South Dakota town, and he didn’t disappoint.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Let me start with my grandmother, Pansy Whittemore, who I believe owned the first television set in the town of Vermillion, South Dakota, except for Carey’s Bar.

My Uncle Buck bought her the set somewhere in the early nineteen-fifties. He was a famous concert pianist—the Whittemore half of the duo Whittemore & Lowe, and not long after the television set was delivered to the big brick house at 15 Austin Avenue, word came out of NBC studios in New York that Uncle Buck was scheduled for an early-morning chat with the network’s early-morning show host, Dave Garroway.

Today went on the air at seven in eastern South Dakota, and my grandmother’s friends began dropping in around 6:30, women in their 60s and 70s, everybody bundled up sensibly against the snow and cold but dolled up underneath. Church shoes under galoshes, fresh blue hair-dos and everybody had pink cheeks, either from walking over in the cold or rouge. Alice McCusick drove, parking her hearse-like Plymouth pretty much dead in the middle of Austin Avenue, which was where she always parked when she came to see Pansy, and Jan Truien came in with rolls from the bakery. She had been my uncle’s first piano teacher and she lived in Vermillion all her life, giving piano lessons and taking care of her aging father—they lived together until he died at 100, and followed him out to the Vermillion graveyard directly afterwards, and never had another pupil like Bucky.

And there was a woman whose first name I don’t think anyone knew—Mrs. Jordan—who walked every day to the post office dressed in her turn-of-the-century duds, make-up a quarter inch thick, every hair in place under her hat, carrying a parasol in one hand and the leads of her two beautiful Dalmatians in the other.

***

The south wall of the first story of my grandmother’s house was all glass; windows from east to west near two large connected sitting rooms and beyond them a huge dining room, where the cookies and rolls and coffee were laid out. That morning, to my memory, I couldn’t turn around without running into somebody’s bodice, which I thought was a polite word for butt.

And the ladies and various friends and music lovers of Vermillion ate and waited, and then ate and fretted, watching the clock, Mrs. Jordan was smoking cigarettes through a cigarette holder as long as your femur, and dark rumors circled the place that something had happened. A line developed at the downstairs bathroom door. The ladies glanced at my grandmother, too nervous to eat, everybody afraid that Bucky had been “bumped” so that Dave’s co-host, a diapered chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs had more time to show off for the camera. The rumors at the time were that Garroway was jealous of the chimpanzee—who had a 500-word vocabulary and 450 different outfits for the show, and was by far more popular with viewers than Garroway himself—and put Benzedrine into his morning juice to slow him down so he wouldn’t steal Garroway’s audience. Which he did, drugged or not.

The air changed odor. Reputations in Vermillion were on the line in some way. As famous as Uncle Buck was in classical music circles, this was something bigger. Television. And by extension, the little town itself was on television too.

Well, enough. It didn’t happen. My uncle did not get bumped by the primate.

By the time Uncle Buck finally got on camera it was the last quarter–hour segment of the show, and you could have floated a canoe on the relief that washed through the room. Many years later I learned that the Today show was Uncle Buck’s last stop of the previous evening’s tour of a large sample of after-hours Manhattan drinking spots, and he'd walked into the NBC studios still humming.

After that, there was a lovely chat. Everybody in the living room agreed that they’d had a lovely chat, Bucky and Dave Garroway. And Pansy’s friends remarked on how handsome Bucky looked on television—and then one of them recalled reading you had to wear blue shirts on television instead of white, and there was some disagreement about that, and then there was a commercial and then, almost before it had started, the lovely chat was over and they were saying goodbye.

But first, Dave Garroway asked Uncle Buck if he wouldn't mind playing a little something on the way out. This, even I knew, was something Uncle Buck hated, to be asked to play a little something. Still, he did not beg off, although suddenly the evening’s libations seemed to have caught up with him all at once, and he looked very tired.

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So a grand piano was rolled in and my famous uncle, the pride of Vermillion, South Dakota, sat down in front of millions of viewers—not to mention in front of his mother and her friends standing three deep around the first television set in the town — he sat down on the floor, legs splayed out from beneath the keyboard, facing backwards for a piano player, and plucked out “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

My grandmother said one word: Smarty-pants. Or maybe that’s two words.

And after her guests had left, she quietly unplugged the television and for a long time the first television in Vermillion, South Dakota, sat quietly against the west wall of the second sitting room, next to the ancient piano my uncle had first begun playing when he was five years old, collecting dust.

-P.D.