How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chapter 8: Call Her Madam

On a bright Sunday afternoon in June of 1932, 237 seniors of Catholic Central High School and their families gathered at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall for their graduation ceremonies.

As the Principal, Father Burns, read each name, the student would come forward and receive a blue square with a document inside that they thought prepared them for life. It was all going as smoothly as the rehearsal, until the priest read the name, “Modesta Campobasso.”

No one moved.

Father Burns glared at her. She glared back. Someone in the audience coughed. From another part of the resonating chamber came a giggle. The restlessness was spreading. Finally, Sister Anna Joseph approached the Principal and whispered something in his ear. He spoke again. “Esther Campobasso.”

As she finally rose from her chair, Esther smiled at the nun, her homeroom teacher, and accepted her diploma from Father Burns. When Esther's smile finally broke through, the applause from audience was a thunderous release.

Things were back under control as the roll call continued through the “C's,” and when Eddie Case's name was called, he and Esther exchanged knowing glances. It was not missed by their parents.

The next day, Esther announced to her her mother that she would not be working in the Campobasso Confectionery store, but would be taking a job as a sales clerk at Frear's Bazaar, one of uptown Troy's finest and most complete department stores. As usual, there was a lot of arguing, none of it productive. Esther would have her way. On the employment plan, yes. But her living plan? That was different.

There was no way that Maria and Francesco would allow Esther to leave the homestead and live independently in an apartment with some of Esther's former classmates. On this matter, Esther had no choice but to give in, because the same conversations were being conducted at the same time with the other girls by their parents. They wouldn't be allowed to leave the nest until their wedding day.

Eddie went to work, too, at Cluett's, and he willingly stayed at home, because he planned to save as much money as he could, to pay for the future that he and Esther had devised.

It was a testament to their commitment and passion that they never revealed their plans to anyone else, and went to their respective jobs happily, in a time when demands were rigorous and amenities like air conditioning, coffee breaks and overtime pay didn't exist.

Working conditions were better for Esther than for Eddie. She got to dress up every day and chat with the fashionable uptown women who shopped at Frear's. Esther found she enjoyed meeting people and had a natural talent for selling. After several months on the job, she prided herself on being able to “read” the customer and anticipate each woman's needs.

Until one brisk winter day that year, that is. An elegantly dressed woman sashayed up to Esther's counter in the sleepwear department. Practically dripping in expensive fur, which covered the latest New York style dress, the woman asked to see nightgowns for her girls.

It being the dead of winter, Esther dutifully gathered a selection of flannel wear. The woman chuckled, “No dear. Something a little more – diaphanous? Alluring? You know – enticing.” For one of the few times in her life, Esther was speechless. Then, in a conspiratorial stage whisper, the woman leaned toward her and said, “Sexy.”

Confused but compliant, Esther produced the desired styles, and the woman selected several, in different sizes. While thrilled to be making such a big sale, the naïve salesgirl was still in the dark, until one of her co-workers took Esther aside while the sales slip and cash were wending their way through the pneumatic tube system to the cashier.

Esther,” she whispered. “Don't you know who that is? It's Mame Faye!”

Esther's face turned almost as red as the Chinese silk nightgowns with the long, promiscuous slit up the side. When Esther handed Troy's most famous madam the receipt and the change, Mame looked her over and told her, quite sincerely, “You know, honey, with your looks, you could make a lot more money working for me than for old Mr. Frear.” And with a wink, she was gone.

It was a story Esther would take pride in telling – but not until many, many years later. At the time, she was too embarrassed, and concentrating on her secret plan with Eddie, which was about to shock everyone.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Part Nine, there they go.

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