Carmine was almost famous. That is to say, a lot of kids knew him and those who didn’t know him knew of him, because Carmine was an original. But before I tell you about Carmine, it is important that I begin with a description of the terrain from which my memories of Carmine originate. The educational system of the city of New York is known as The New York City Department of Education which was, and still is, the largest school system in the United States and which includes the greatest number of elementary schools without names. Instead of names, elementary schools were assigned numbers. I happened to attend Public School 27 as did all the kids who lived in the Red Hook Projects of Brooklyn, including Carmine.
|PS 27 from Google Earth|
Being the youngest of five boys in my family, I had heard my brothers discussing the names of various composers and symphonic pieces. So my experience with classical music was not entirely new. I also recognized some music from radio broadcasts.
One might ask, what does this have to do with Carmine? Well, by way of explanation, I must cite three particular pieces of music which are closely related to my appreciation of music, and which will bring us closer to the study of the “Carmine phenomenon.” Suffice it to say that I cannot listen to these particular works of music without thinking of Carmine.
The first of these is Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Now, I really liked “1812 Overture” because, to my childlike way of thinking, Tchaikovsky had the good sense to include cannons as the overture neared its finale.
The second piece of music is the William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini. I especially enjoyed the imagery portrayed by Rossini beginning the piece with the dawn of a new day and a serene calmness followed by a raging storm and then another period of calm. However, when it came to the finale, as hard as I tried to resist the temptation, I was forced to yield to the scenario of a masked man who rides off into the sunset after leaving a silver bullet behind with a bunch of incompetent people who obviously didn’t know as much as I did about the guy on the white horse.
The third is a piece of music by Ferde Grofè known as Grand Canyon Suite with its five movements of Sunrise, Painted Desert, On The Trail, Sunset and Cloudburst.
As the school year progressed, our music appreciation teacher became more creative. Instead of playing the entire piece, she would occasionally play an excerpt of the piece or a movement and in so doing, increased the challenge she placed upon us to identify its composer.
Alas, here’s where Carmine comes in. One day, as we sat listening to different pieces of music, the teacher, without warning, suddenly played the finale of the 1812 Overture, cannons and all. As the cannons blasted away, somewhere off in the distance, came a voice shouting, “Charge!” The voice was later identified as that of Carmine. Everything came to a stop. This teacher was amazing: she had an uncanny ability to root out the culprit from over 100 students seated in the assembly hall. That was the day I first learned of the existence of Carmine. Carmine, of course was sent to the principal’s office where I guess the administration of justice took over.
The following week the classes once again converged on the assembly hall for music appreciation. Carmine had apparently paid his debt to society, because he was there in his class, prepared to appreciate some music. The teacher again played a number of recordings and the period seemed to progress quite smoothly, that is until she got to William Tell Overture. She placed the record on the turntable. As the overture began, kids were making bets as to what Carmine was going to do when the music got to the finale. Will he do it or won’t he? Some said, “Nah! He won’t do it. He already got in trouble once and she’s watching him this time.”
Others were of a different philosophy. They said, “Yeah, he’ll do it. Carmine is crazy: he’ll do anything for a laugh.” Well, as odds go, most were betting on Carmine’s performance. Everyone waited and listened. The overture went through the dawn, and the calm before the storm and the calm after the storm and true to form, when the music went tah-rah-rump, tah-rah-rump, tah-rah-rump-pump pump for all he was worth, Carmine shouted at the top of his lungs, “Hi-oh Silver, away!” It was like a Greek tragedy: you knew it was going to happen but there was no way to stop it. So Carmine was once again led off the principal’s office.
The following week, Carmine was nowhere to be found. Word went around that, as punishment, he was not allowed to attend music appreciation for the rest of his life. But new reports were surfacing all the time and we soon learned the Carmine had promised the principal that he would not, under any circumstances, make any shouting comments during music appreciation.
At the start of the next music appreciation class, Carmine took his seat and seemed quite reserved. He was a perfect gentleman. This was indeed “The New Carmine.” The teacher played one record after another and the class listened and dutifully identified the composers and Carmine actually contributed much to the class activities. Then the teacher talked about Fernando Rudolph Von Grofè as the composer of the “Grand Canyon Suite.” She gently placed the record on the turntable, and music filled the assembly hall. The suite began so gently with the “Sunrise” then skillfully transitioned to the “Painted Desert” and from there we began to hear the movement of “On The Trail” with its tump-ti tump-ti tump-ti tuh tuh tuh tump-ti tump … and while this was happening, the bets were flying across the room like wild fire: would he or wouldn’t he … and suddenly, as if by plan, off in the distance came Carmine’s voice in all its glory, “Call for Phillip Morris.”
Sixty-seven years have passed since then. I don’t recall what happened to Carmine after his last trip to the principal’s office. This all happened so long ago that I never really gave much thought to Carmine until a couple of months ago when I attended a concert performance by the Rio Hondo Symphony Orchestra at the Lopez Auditorium of Whittier High School. The program began with the William Tell Overture. To my own amazement, when the trumpets heralded the finale, it produced no images for me of a masked man riding off into the sunset as it had when I was a youngster. Instead, the music brought back memories of P.S.27 and gave me pause to wonder if Carmine was still around and what he was doing.