Friday, May 11, 2012

WHO WAS EDDIE POLA AND WHY AM I WRITING ABOUT HIM?



In 1978, when I was a Junior High schooler at the disastrous San Fernando Valley prison camp known as Walter Reed Jr. High School, our English teacher (name and face a total blank to me at this date) selected a few students who seemed to have an aptitude for creative writing to join in a supplementary outside-of-class group where they'd focus on essay writing. I was one of the lucky few chosen--I say lucky because just the fact of being able to leave a classroom filled with thirty assholes and sit in a quiet group of five or six was a heavenly thought to me.

The mini-class was led by an aging--all right elderly--gentleman named Mr. Pola. And "gentleman" was absolutely the right way to describe him. It wasn't just the double-breasted suit and the worn but still elegant silk tie that he wore. He had a bearing, a gentle dignity about him, that felt to me (a kid who truly didn't belong in the world he'd been born into) as if it belonged in another era, maybe another century. (I see him in my mind's eye wearing a Fedora as well--but that may be a wishful projection).

Anyway, he was a charming teacher who inspired us to write quite clever essays on a variety of topics. I also recall him being very amusing on the subject of grammer--what was correct and why, as well as what was correct but idiotic. Since I'd always had a special relationship to my elders, I began talking with him as we walked to and from our classroom and asked him if he'd always been a teacher. No, he said, he'd been in show business his whole life--he wrote songs, performed, worked in radio and television. Since I was already a die-hard show-biz nerd, I quickly delved into my home research library (which was already dangerously large) and somehow came up with a reference to an Eddie Pola who appeared in an English musical revue filmed in 1930 called "Elstree Calling". (Don't ask me how I did this in those pre-internet times--how would I have known where to search?) When I mentioned this to him the next time I saw him he was amused that I'd found this out. But, as I recall, he didn't seem to want to go into it much. Perhaps it was all so long ago that it no longer mattered to him. I filed the whole episode in my mental bin of strange show-biz lore and went on with my adolescent life. He only taught us that one semester so I never saw him again. Perhaps I scared him away?

For no reason at all, this whole episode re-occurred to me a few weeks ago and now--thanks to the internet-- I've got a much clearer understanding of who the man known to us as "Mr. Pola" actually was. And he was quite the specialty act indeed. Though born in New York City in 1907 (which made him just past seventy when I knew him), he somehow drifted to London in the twenties where he wrote and performed amusing satirical songs for the Music Hall crowd. Indeed he became something of a star and was soon appearing in theater and film. He did a handful of movies before coming back to America where he became a radio actor. He continued to write songs as well and scored fairly big with the 30's hit "I Didn't Slip, I Wasn't Pushed, I Fell" and scored major big with the Christmas anthem "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year".  (The song must have been an annuity for him). But it's the novelty songs that I recently came upon that I find so amusing.


Here's a link to a British Pathe site that has a couple of short films of "Mr. Pola" strutting his stuff in the early 30's.  And below I've posted a recording of my favorite of his novelties, "I Want To Be A Nudist". It's quite a shock for me to see him as a young man in his twenties, largely because he looks pretty much the same as the man I remember meeting the seventies. Oh he was grey haired and a bit stooped, but the face--the big sparkling eyes and jowly cheeks--were exactly the same.

According to Wikipedia: "In the 1980's, Pola taught Creative Writing to elementary school students at Smiley Elementary School in Redlands, California."  So I guess this is how this gentleman-performer-creator decided to spend his retirement years: not sitting around reading Variety and cursing that the business had passed him by, but sharing his enthusiasm for creativity and joy of language with kids who could scarcely have guessed who he'd been a lifetime earlier. Except for one very strange kid with a large library of show-biz books who went to the disastrous San Fernando Valley based prison camp known as Walter Reed Jr. High School...













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