THE STUDENT PRINCE
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
This posting was in response to a “Fantastic Forum” member, younger than myself, who also grew up in Detroit, and lives there still.
My God, I can’t believe you used to ride your bike in Palmer Woods. I used to do that too. When I was barely old enough to ride a bicycle, I'd zoom around there, in the enchanted woods behind my house, years before you. In those days, Palmer Woods and nearby Sherwood Forest were covered over by a majestic canopy of trees. It was dark and mysterious. The exotic names of these two fabled places, alone, excited me. I was certain that Robin Hood was in there somewhere, deep in Sherwood Forest. And if I circled long enough, over the same terrain, again and again, I would eventually meet him and his band of Merry Men, Friar Tuck, Little John, Maid Marion, and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
It was always quiet there, a safe place for a kid of six to ride a bike, with little traffic, except, maybe at Christmas time, when people came from far and wide to see the then glorious Christmas decorations. One can outdo them by the cart-load at any Walmart’s now. The most spectacular offering was the huge tree at what was known as the Fisher Estate. Every year that tree was decorated from top to bottom with a multitude of big fat outdoor lights.
I used to know the Fisher's gardeners son, a Polish immigrant. He was a little scary. He’d come around, from time to time, and hang out with me and my friend Bucky. His English wasn’t very good, to put it mildly, and he always showed us his knife. I can’t recall his name, but I do remember his favorite saying, which he repeated, time and again, like a broken record in broken English, with a look of menace in his eye : “I gonna kill U, U know?” I still think of him, every time I see a “U Turn Here” sign, hearing it in my mind, pronounced by him as if it were a menacing command.
My bike was red and really crappy. It had followed me there from Berkley, where I used to live, before movin’ on up to the West side of Seven Mile Road. It was a “girl’s bike” and a small one”. But it was a two wheeler. I’m not even sure it even had a chain. I only know it took a lot of pedaling to go slowly. Eventually, I got a Schwinn, but, by then, I had no place to go. Like you, I would work my way all the way into the deepest part of Palmer Woods, almost to Eight Mile Road. I recall it was sort of a dead end, and didn’t allow access to Eight Mile. That’s where I’d turn around and head home.
My cousins lived in the heart of Palmer Woods, a few blocks behind me, on Balmoral drive. Their house was always bathed in shadow. It reminded me of the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs deep in the dark forest.
Well, once again, I got waylaid. I wanted ask you if the Catholic School that you attended was for boys only? I think my buddy Bucky might have gone there. Did it extend right through high school?
His Catholicism was always a bizarre mystery to me. It was a mystery to him, too, I believe. All we knew was he had permission to do whatever he wanted to do, be as naughty as he wanted to be, sit out on his driveway and fry ants alive with a magnifying glass, all day, and then on Friday, he’d be forgiven, ready to start a week of wickedness, anew, assured he would not fry in Hell, like an ant on the driveway.
I believe that Bucky went to University of Detroit Jesuit. I was only there once. But I’ll never forget it. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my very ordinary life. I attended a gala performance of Sigmund Romberg’s “The Student Prince”, starring, none other, than Bucky, Himself! Bucky WAS the Student Prince.
I always knew that he was musical. His mother was always berating him for not practicing his piano lessons. But it wasn’t until that evening that I realized he could sing. Not only could he sing, but to my utter amazement, this kid, who I knew to be a devil, turned out to have the voice of an angel.
But that was not what made the evening so surreal. University of Detroit Jesuit, if that is indeed what the school was called, happened to be an “all boys” school. I’ve often thought back on that night and wondered how I would have solved a difficult situation if it were up to me. How does an all boy’s school stage an entire romantic operetta, from start to finish, when there are no girls in the school? Would boys play the female roles, as they did in Shakespeare’s day? Or would they borrow a girl or two from an “all girls” Catholic school?
As it turned out, they did neither. Imagine a packed auditorium, filled to the rafters with students and proud parents, and on the stage, a glorious production, complete with an orchestra in the pit, elaborate costumes, and impressive sets. The curtain rose to reveal my best friend singing “Golden Days”, flawlessly, it seemed to me. I was in total awe! Then a crowd of German students filed out and filled the stage, belting out a lusty chorus of “Drink, Drink, Drink”. More crowds appeared. Slowly I became aware that there were no ladies at the Heidelberg Fair. Next, came the big romantic duet… in which Bucky as Prince Karl sang the moving love song, “Deep in My Heart Dear” to the Inn Keepers Daughter, who, in this case, was an empty balcony!
That was it! They just cut the girls parts out! The orchestra played her music, but there was no one there. Bucky remained gesticulating on bended knee, until his beloved’s missing part was over, and then continued his half of the duet. Awe turned to hilarity as I tried to stifle laughter, sometimes unsuccessfully, throughout the next two acts.
A few years ago, my younger cousin, Madge, sent me a recent photograph of her old house. She, too, moved away, and now lives in Scottsdale Arizona. A friend sent her this photo, and she shared it with me. I was SHOCKED! The trees had completely gone away, not only from her house, but from the houses all around it. It was as if Madge had moved to Arizona, and Arizona had moved to Palmer woods.