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Remembering a Local Cultural Czarina

Downtown Batavia, New York. Joseph/Flickr

“Knowledge and love of a place is a large part of the joy in people’s lives. There must be plays that grow from all the countrysides of America, fabricated by the people themselves, born of their happiness and sorrow.”

So said Robert Gard, the Kansas-born “Johnny Appleseed of American grassroots theater,”whose promising experiments in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Upstate New York, and elsewhere were casualties of the domestic fallout from the Second World War, which produced “frenzied writing on war-times themes,” but no more “home-grown plays on country stages.”

Ah, but the muses never really die.

The late Wanda Frank was the cultural czarina of 1960s Batavia. From her perch as the hostess of “Frankly Speaking” on radio station WBTA, she reviewed school plays, interviewed demi-eminences appearing on the Buffalo stage (I recall Anthony Newley), and opined on trends in theater and film (too much profanity!).

Flash forward to 2007. Though Wanda was an octogenarian, she hadn’t lost much on her curveball. She’d been quite a looker way back when, and was not unaware of the fact; she still sauntered through life assuming that your answer to any of her questions would be Yes.

Wanda had been the pistol who restarted the Batavia Players in the 1970s—she received a “break a leg” telegram from Thornton Wilder when she directed “Our Town”—and with her blithe spirit she thought that senectitude was the perfect time to hone her playwriting skills. So she had written an autobiographical trilogy taking her from childhood through middle age and into—let’s slip into Wanda-speak here—sassy seniordom.

Wanda Frank

Wanda rang. She wanted our daughter to play little Wanda, and just maybe there was another part for a member of the family.

“My mother was a beautiful woman,” Wanda told me, “but she was cold and cruel. Lucine would be perfect.”

Mirthfully I relayed this conversation to my wife, who gave me the evil eye but took the part.

The show was…unlike any other I have seen.

The first one-act of the trilogy, “Peach Basket,” concerned little Wanda’s allergy to peaches, and the inexplicable rage this induced in her mother. Wanda, usually a fussy director, insisted that an ostensible basket of peaches, which played a critical role in the story, be filled with apples, even though the play went up in August, when fresh peaches were plentiful.

“They’ll never notice” was the assumption, though of course the perplexed whispers of “aren’t those apples?” sussurated through the theater.

The trilogy’s other oddities—the men at the Ford gumball factory wolf-whistling and tossing handfuls of gumballs at ten-year-old Wanda as she walks by; an unsourced argument between estranged siblings over a Buffalo Bills cap—served, ingeniously, to detach us from the illusion that B follows A and guided us, slipslidingly sideways, into Wanda’s universe. I absolutely loved it.

But this was an arrant throat-clearing, a veritable Dubliners before the Ulysses, for Wanda’s masterpiece, “Grandpa’s Home for Christmas,” which aired over WBTA in the season of joy.

We possess what I believe to be the only bootleg tape of this production, and every December we gather ’round my circa 1980s tape recorder, pop the cassette in, drizzle eggnog into the glasses, and away we go!

This 40-minute radio drama concerns the widower Grandpa—played with just the right touch of Robert Mitchum-esque “Baby I don’t care” sleepiness by the late velvet-voiced DJ Jerry Warner—as he returns from retirement in Arizona to spend the holidays with his son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren in Batavia.

The family strolls the snow-covered sidewalks of the old hometown, Grandpa reminiscing about the olden days while the kids, in a radical departure from verisimilitude, boast Babbittishly about the “incredible!” properties of the new city hall.

If you’ve seen even one Hallmark Christmas special, you’ll know that Grandpa is being groomed for a move back home.

But then out of the blue, Grandpa chirps, “There’s nothing here for me,” and, to our astonishment, he declares his intention to fly back to Arizona “on the earliest possible” flight out.

Who saw that coming?

Wanda always heeded the inner voice, no matter how perverse.

Her legacy, the revived Batavia Players, now puts on a dozen shows a year, and usually at least one of them home-grown. This March our venerable friend Norm, the avuncular Nestor of the troupe, will be King Lear in what he says will be his farewell performance. (We still tease Norm about his role in Wanda’s trilogy, wherein his key line was the non sequitur “Mother always said I was good in the kitchen.”)

Wanda’s dramaturgy zigged when we expected it to zag, but she was Robert Gard’s dream walking. I prefer apples to peaches anyway, and if that old coot Grandpa wants to fry in Arizona, let him.

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.

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