Sophia Jarulzelski was born in Poland and had come to America with her widowed mother at a very young age. She remembered very little about her native homeland except for vague memories of people screaming, guns going off and homes burning. Her mother always talked about being caught between the Germans and the Russians. America was a big country, Sophie had been told, a place where they could be free.
They’d wound up instead living in an ethnic conclave in the lower east side of Manhattan, crammed into a crumbling tenement with no power or running water. Sophie’s mother had made ends meet by taking in laundry to wash, but there was little in the way of a good life or a promising future. Sophie might have ended up a laundress or working as a seamstress in a sweatshop until her fingers turned arthritic and her eyesight failed, but her mother had insisted that she make something of herself. Sophie had always loved music, particularly the piano, so whatever little money could be spared had been spent on lessons from a sympathetic neighbor who had been a symphony musician before having to flee the pogroms back home.
So from a young age Sophie had grown up dreaming of some day becoming a celebrated concert pianist. She had shown a natural talent for it. At eight she could play complicated Beethoven and Chopin melodies with finesse and Tchaikovsky with all of the necessary drama and bombast. She had something of a photographic memory when it came to reading music and could retain a melody after only a couple of listenings. Yet despite her proficiency there were no prestigious music academies or symphony jobs available for hard-luck Polish emigrants so she’d had to settle instead for a job playing a pipe organ in a tiny nickel theatre on 3rd Avenue. The owner had only hired her because he thought that a female organist would be something of a novelty.
She worked six days a week, playing six shows a day there from early-morning to late in the evening with very little break in between performances. The Colonial Theatre, as the place was called, had about a hundred seats, was dirty and smelly and the crowds that filled the playhouse, immigrants that she wouldn’t have claimed as her people, were often unruly and profane. She regularly endured catcalls, slurs on her gender, and men continually trying to pinch her breasts and buttocks as she walked past them. It made her days almost unendurable, but she couldn’t afford to quit. Jobs for single girls were scarce in those days and she was barely scraping along as it was.
Sophie was nineteen and a pretty girl, although she didn’t particularly think so. She wore her long silky brown hair up in a bun and dressed in a very modest collar and blouse and a plain dress. She could have used more flattering clothes to her figure, but she couldn’t afford much more than the second-hand outfits that she found in thrift shops. Not that it mattered anyway. Her life didn’t seem to be going anywhere. She didn’t even dare dream about having better things. Optimism was far too cruel.
The Colonial was featuring a Roscoe Arbuckle short from Metro that week in September of 1917. Sophie had heard the projectionist complain earlier that the print shipped in from the film exchange had far too many splices to hold it together. That worried her. The theatre’s regulars were unforgiving of mistakes. Whenever something broke down, which was often, they would jeer and pelt the screen with food. It had been hot as of late and the air was fetid. There were no fans to stir things around. Sophie was perspiring freely and uncomfortably and the stale warmth made things even more uncomfortable.
The theatre’s three-rank organ, salvaged from a burned-out church, was on its last legs. The pipes creaked and wheezed and sometimes the pedals got stuck. The Colonial’s owner was too cheap to get it fixed and it was a miracle that Sophie could even get something resembling a melody out of it most of the time. She played the console with her back to the audience and at least one eye always on the screen to follow the action. Getting the timing down with the scene was always the hardest part. She was like a boxer, punching knobs and kicking at the pedals in a frenzy of movement so that the music wouldn’t stop for a second.
So it was that in the middle of the fourth show of that day with Fatty Arbuckle belting the villain with a bag of flower that the film finally broke. A glass slide was instantly projected on the screen. It read: “One Moment Please.” Its appearance was greeted by jeers and curses. Sophie was rearranging her sheet music when an egg flew out of the restless crowd and hit her on the back of her neck. Aghast and outraged, she froze. Another egg thrown from the crowd hit her on the side of the face, slimy yolk dribbling down her cheek. She turned red with embarrassment, humiliation filling her eyes with tears. She should have fled, but she couldn’t move. Cruel laughter taunted her. She was frozen to her bench, fingers poised over the keys…waiting…waiting for someone to tell her what to play.
Jack Balaban was sitting in the audience that evening. Tubby, who was playing in another theatre nearby, had dragged him here to see the Arbuckle short on a bet as to who was the funnier comic. He could see that the ill-mannered crowd had turned on the pretty auburn-haired organist seated in front of the screen. He rose from his seat and nudged for Tubby to follow as he went down to the front of the theatre.
“Friends,” he said, shielding the girl from being pelted further and calling for quiet. “A moment of your time.”
Tubby didn’t know what Jack was doing, but he knew when to follows his lead.
“I’m Jack Balaban from the Ziegfeld Follies and my friend here, Mr. Taylor, is appearing on the bill at Loew’s Avenue B just down the street. Tonight I’m willing to bet anyone here that there isn’t a song that you good people can call out that he can’t sing.”
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out some tickets. “If there’s a song that he doesn’t know, someone will win these tickets to a Follies show. What do you say? Can someone suggest a song?”
Someone in the crowd took the bet, shouting out a song title, I’ll Be Seeing You Tomorrow, from the new George M. Cohan show. Smiling, Jack asked a startled Sophie, “You know it, darlin’? Can you play it?”
Although still unnerved, Sophie nodded at his request. She knew the tune from hearing it played in the store where she bought her sheet music. She pumped the pedals and the organ shuddered as she started to play the melody. The fat man didn’t look to her like he could sing a note, but when he opened his mouth he proved to have a fine voice.
I’ll be seeing you tomorrow
The end to all my sorrow
For my heart can’t wait another minute
Or a day without you in it.
I can say today
My heart is heavy
And the pain I feel won’t easily go away
But I’ll be seeing you tomorrow
And so my heart will follow
And again be young and gay
He finished with a flourish and gave out a joyous whoop, turning around and bending over to show the audience his backside. The crowd roared with laughter. Someone else shouted out another number: Girl of My Heart. Without even breaking stride, Tubby launched into the heartfelt melody and sang beautifully. He didn’t miss a single word or note and by the last note of song, he had the audience applauding wildly.
“What’s your name, darlin’?” Jack asked her during the applause, handing her his handkerchief so she could clean her face.
“Sophie,” she said shyly.
“Folks, Miss Sophie at the organ,” he called to the crowd. “Let’s give her a hand.”
The applause from the audience was more than she had ever gotten in her life. She smiled shyly.
But then suddenly, the small dusty screen flickered back to life and the audience, unexpectedly, booed the picture. They wanted to see someone win. Jack, Sophie noticed, didn’t lose his cool. He calmly addressed the crowd and they listened.
“Folks, since we absolutely have to have a winner, I’m going to give someone these tickets anyway.” He then picked an old grandmother in the second who positively beamed at receiving the free ducats. Sophie thought it was the nicest thing he could have done and certainly no one could complain about her getting the tickets
Realizing there was no music accompanying the picture on the screen, she went back to pushing the pedals and playing a jaunty melody. When she turned again to look back at the audience, Jack and Tubby were gone and she found herself curiously disappointed. She would have liked to talk to him some more; thank him for coming to her rescue so gallantly.
But later, around eleven, as she was leaving the theatre, she found him waiting for her outside by the Colonial’s doors. “Sorry, that I had to run off earlier,” he told her. He was a handsome devil: dark-haired, well dressed and with the airs of someone who was very much sure of himself. “Had to get my friend to his show. But I came back to give you this.” He handed her a ticket. “Enjoy the Follies…courtesy of an admirer.”
An admirer. No one had ever said that to her and here he was turning to again walk away. By some miracle she found her voice. “Thank you. I’ve never been to the Follies,” she said quickly.
He stopped, turned around and came back with a perplexed look that was only half-serious. “Never been…?” He whistled and tipped back his hat. “I must not be doing my job. You’ve never seen the Follies? Really?”
She smiled and said, “I don’t really go out much.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” he said and took the ticket back from her for a second and scribbled something on the back of it. “Now you come by the New Amsterdam Theatre…know where that it is?”
“You come by tomorrow night about eight and give this to the man at the rear stage door. He’ll get you in to see me and I’ll take you out on the town as a treat on me. That is, of course, if you’re willing to allow me the privilege…Miss Sophie.”
Taking a silent breath, Sophie screwed up her courage and told him: “I would like that, Jack.”
“So, eight tomorrow night? You’ll be there?”
She nodded. He smiled, wished her a good night, and walked away. Sophie just stood there for a moment to gather her nerve. Her heart was pounding madly in her chest and she realized that this had never ever happened to her before. “Thank you,” she said, glancing upwards, wondering who might have been listening to her prayers.