Note: this is a sequel to “Echoes from the Mask and Wig” published on May 2.
Two weeks ago, I received a phone call from Don Fisher, who graduated from Penn in 1975 and was sort of a Tommy Lee Jones type: as an undergraduate, he balanced working on the Mask and Wig crew/ business staff with breaking through the opposing football team’s defensive line at Franklin Field. The former president of Mask and Wig’s graduate club, he had read my piece “Echoes from the Mask and Wig,” and told me that he had more information about my step-grandfather Joe Follmann, who was pianist and music director for the collegiate song-and-dance troupe in the late 1920s.
“I believe Grandpa Joe was a scholarship student,” I told him. “And I know that today, the audition process for Mask and Wig is extremely difficult.”
“The Club was a lot harder to get into in those days,” Fisher told me. “And I will tell you this: he must have been hot stuff in his time.”
Here’s what I did know: my grandfather was an excellent pianist, equally at home playing Beethoven and jazz standards His parents were working class German-Americans from West Philadelphia — according to my mother (his step-daughter) his mother was a Bavarian Catholic and his father a Prussian Protestant who may have worked as a coal miner in his youth. There’s a photograph in my parents’ house showing him around the age of 10, with long blonde hair and dressed in a sailor’s suit. He is standing at the knee of a grizzled looking old man reading a book — most likely his own grandfather.
Grandpa Joe’s obsession with economy — served up with stereotypical Teutonic severity — continued into his adulthood, even after he had achieved financial stability.
Leaving the lights on in an empty room was a pet peeve.
Many of his fellow students at the Wharton School were being groomed for leadership in tightly-held businesses. In those days, there were many such family concerns in Philadelphia, from manufacturers (Disston and Baldwin) to magazines (Curtis) to banks (Philadelphia Savings Fund Society) to railroads (the Pennsylvania). In those heady years just before the stock market crash, Grandpa had no desk at a family business waiting for him after graduation. Studying finance was a practical route; what he really wanted was to be a professional musician. Perhaps Grandpa was dreaming of following in the footsteps of Ted Weems, who had also graduated from West Philadelphia High and Penn seven years ahead of him and had cut a big figure in the American “collegiate” hot jazz scene during the booming Roaring Twenties.
The Mask and Wig — which so was so prosperous that it had donated money to build a quadrangle dormitory — was a particular preserve of the “Old Philadelphia” elite, who had the time and the funds to indulge in such musical skylarking. Their show program books were chock full of advertisements from prominent — and now largely vanished — Philadelphia businesses. The clubhouse, a converted church a long trolley ride from campus, had been lavishly renovated by Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre Jr. in the 1890s, and its first-floor bar adorned with murals by celebrated artist Maxfield Parrish. In those days, one did not formally join the Mask and Wig Club until senior year, after a year or two of working as a choral alternate…little more than a grunt. According to the show programs, Grandpa was listed as a choral alternate his sophomore and junior years, and he was not formally elected to full membership until his senior year.
Grandpa’s eagerness comes across in the photograph of The Mask and Wig undergraduate club in the 1930 University of Pennsylvania Record — amidst his stone-faced, bolt-upright compatriots, a fresh-faced Grandpa Joe looks alert as he leans jauntily to one side, his eyes sparkling. His ears stick out from his head, just the way I remember them when he was older. He had made it, his hard work at the piano and at his composer’s desk had paid off, and he was proud. He had been the music director and co-writer of that year’s show John Faust, Ph.D, a comic spoof on the German legend popularized by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
This was a time when songs from Mask and Wig and other collegiate groups became national hits, covered by the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra. Perhaps Grandpa hoped that one of his songs would hit the big time. Grandpa continued to contribute to the club well after graduation. In fact, he contributed songs to Mask and Wig shows for the next two decades — most notably in the 1937 production Fifty/Fifty — and culminating in the show Doctor, Dear Doctor! of 1951. By then, the Club’s roster of undergraduate members had diversified considerably from the blue-blooded old days. Grandpa conceived the book and produced the show, basing it it on Jean-Baptiste Moliere’s 1666 play Le Médecin malgré lui (A Physician in Spite of Himself). A photograph from the show’s program shows Grandpa Joe — looking a bit more as I knew him, balding and with more pronounced jowls — smiling with delight as he pours over a set of scenery mock ups with a colleague.
“You know those ancient bronze busts of Roman senators?” my grandmother once said. “Well, he looks just like them.”