The Gospel Singer

Back in the 1960s, when the maritime industry had a dominant presence in the Seattle area, the event of the year was the Annual Steamship Dinner that was held in the main ballroom of the Olympic Hotel. The dinner, having about four hundred attendees, was stag and formal. Amidst all the tuxes there was a sprinkling of Coast Guard and Navy officers in their uniforms. While I was in the Navy, I always rented a tux because I could then be more relaxed.

Despite it being a stag affair the entertainment was legitimate and first class. One year we waterfront denizens were serenaded by Sophie Tucker, then internationally known as the last of the red-hot mamas and the songstress who made famous such oldies as Ain’t She Sweet and Shine on Harvest Moon.

Drinks of all kinds were plentiful as were appetizers fit for royalty, including six or seven huge silver platters containing two-foot high neatly stacked filets of Dungerness-crab legs. The meals were always sumptuous.

Because of the formality, even the slightest gag provoked a degree of hilarity that it would not have earned in a different setting. For example, Herb Chatterton once said during a good-natured verbal joust with me, “All you Navy guys have to do is sit back and criticize, while we civilians have to get the ships built.”

Herb’s engineering office at Todd was one flight up and my Navy-inspection office was at ground level in the same building. Whenever he phoned to say that he had some business to discuss, I quickly cleared my desk and when he arrived I was sitting with my feet on my desk with both hands behind my head. That always provoked a comment about how he and other suffering taxpayers were paying me and that I should get off my duff. I would always respond that the beautiful actress Elizabeth Taylor was going through mankind, that she was up to the Bs (Burton was then her latest husband), and that I was saving my energy because my named started with C.

At the next steamship dinner when I found my reserved place and read the name cards on both sides of my chair, I was surprised to discover that I would be sitting next to Elizabeth Taylor. Herb had set it up with the catering staff and that accounts for why there was an empty seat between us when dinner started. The huge room was otherwise filled to capacity.

As the meal was being served, our waitress advised that someone had just arrived, and that a small table was being set up for him in the back of the room. With tongue in cheek she said, “Since Liz didn’t show, can he sit here? Otherwise he will be alone.”

That’s how a stranger in his early thirties came to sit between Herb and me, and after introducing himself, unknowingly stepped into a minefield by venturing to tell a joke. What he didn’t know was that Herb was the champion joke teller on the entire Seattle waterfront and whenever he told one, it triggered one from my repertoire.

With Herb’s first shot, the stranger was a knee slapper. When I followed, the stranger became a table pounder. Herb and I were used to outbursts of laughter but nothing like the stranger’s. We never gave him a chance to tell another and unmercifully whipsawed him with joke after joke. His starched shirt became soggy from his tears of laughter and he became weak enough to be beat with the proverbial wet noodle. Herb and I regard that as our finest hour as a comedy team.

However, it was at another steamship dinner, probably in 1964, that something more memorable unfolded. One of my officers, a lieutenant commander wearing his uniform, arrived with a problem that I knew was not work related. I’ll call him Mac. From where I was, I could see that he was drinking more than usual. My boss, a captain, was sitting directly across the large round table from Mac, but turned around in his chair with his attention focused on the entertainment then in progress. Just then, a waitress placed a plate, containing a slab of prime rib and a huge helping of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, directly in front of Mac. As she withdrew Mac passed out face forward. He was drowning in the mashed potatoes!

Since a basic tenet of leadership is take care of your people, I jumped up to rescue Mac and right alongside of me was always-helpful Herb. We pulled Mac out of the mashed potatoes, wiped his face and dragged him off through the back of the room. Herb suggested that we put Mac in the Todd reception room on the fifth floor. The Captain was completely unaware of what had happened.

Limp Mac was at least 190-pounds and lifeless. Herb and I were barely able to drag him off. However, Mac compounded our problem. About every thirty feet he would come awake and try to fight his way back to the table. Suddenly he would go limp again and we had to strain to keep him from hitting the floor. We went through at least four such cycles while getting out of the ballroom and traversing the hotel’s lobby. Just as I pressed the elevator button Mac began to fight again.

Thoroughly exasperated, with my back to the opening elevator doors I pulled while Herb pushed. Just then Herb looked past me and in a manner so friendly, so respectful, and so absolutely devoid of guile, said spontaneously, “Well hello Mahalia!”


Having read that morning in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Mahalia Jackson, the famous gospel singer, was opening that evening in the Olympic’s Marine Room downstairs, I knew instantly who was in the elevator car. Then Herb gave a mighty shove that took the fight out of Mac, he became limp again, and the three of us landed alongside of first somewhat surprised and then giggling Mahalia Jackson.

The scene inside the elevator car was something to behold. Mahalia was dressed in a royal-blue floor-length gown and was holding a bouquet of long-stem roses. She had just finished her opening show and was returning to her suite for a break before her next show later that evening. And there we were, slightly disheveled in our tuxes, holding up, thank God, again passed out Mac while mumbling how much we admired her singing. If ever a gospel was needed that was the time and place, particularly if Mac came to again.

When we hauled still-limp Mac out at the fifth floor Mahalia was still laughing.


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