Above is the music that goes with this blogpost. The first sounds you’ll hear are crickets and thunder before the music starts – so just wait a few seconds if you think you’re not hearing anything
I first wrote out the story of Anna Bella & Piano Man Sam in a letter to my friend Jochen Vogel sometime in the early 90’s. Here’s what I wrote …
I’ll tell you something now, if you want to hear. It’s a story about my grandparents that nobody’s ever told.
For years, my Grandmother pretended to be leading a normal life: three children, a husband who sold used auto parts, a house with a back porch and a screen door, a cherry tree in the garden. But she was not normal. I know this to be true. Because every night at eleven-forty-five, after she put my mother and my two aunts and my Grandfather to bed, she’d get up secretly and fix the pillows in her bed to look like she was still sleeping there. She and my Grandfather slept in two separate beds in the same room. Then, she’d sneak downstairs and open a secret trap door in the kitchen pantry. And right below their house there was a passageway, a tunnel, that went straight from the secret cellar to another house, many blocks away.
Halfway along the passage, she was right under City Hall; that was where her dressing room was. She’d stop there take off her nightgown and put on this brash and feathery costume, sequins and rhinestones all over, and she’d paint her face and put one long, purple feather in her hair. You would have never recognized her in a thousand years.
This was in the 1930’s. During the Depression. During Prohibition, when there were secret speakeasies all over Portland, Oregon. And that’s just where she was going. At twelve-thirty, she was right at the other end of the tunnel, where she could hear the rumble of a boogie-woogie piano and hear the announcement, “And now the lovely, the talented, the exceptional beauty and wit (wild applause and shouts from the crowd), Miss Anna Bella Bellissimo!” (even wilder applause and shouts). Then, she’d open the trap door and right before her was the split in a crimson curtain.
She’d quickly lock the door behind her and step out onto the stage, into the spotlight. She’d look over at Piano Man Sam, give a wink and then sing and dance the night away. At one-fifty, when she’d finished her fourth encore of the night, she’d blow kisses to the crowd and back herself behind the curtain. Quick as a light, she’d be back down the trap door, and running down the passageway. She could hear the music for a block or two, but then it faded. Down the tunnel she hurried, and raced into her dressing room. While she was taking off her costume, she drew the water into a huge white porcelain bathtub that stood behind her dressing table. For seven and a half minutes she’d soak in the tub, in the light of a candle, sipping on a hot cup of tea nad gazing at a single bud in a small base hanging from the hot water handle, thinking maybe she could still hear a faint echo of the music. Then, she’d jump right up, dry herself off in the candlelight, pull on her nightgown and run down the passage to the pantry. Ever so quietly, she’d open the trap door and then fasten it tight behind her. She’d pour herself a small glass of milk and sneak back up from the kitchen, sipping at the milk enough to get a small white moustache, to prove she had a reason to be up.
In her room, she’d look over at my Grandfather, sleeping there so soundly, like a lump, never dreaming about his wife’s shenanigans, and she’d feel a little guilty. She’d fall asleep thinking about the music and about Piano Man Sam. Sometimes her heart went out so surely to his that she wanted to throw her arms around him, and run away with him to Paris, but then she’d think about my Grandfather and my two aunts and my mother and she thought it was better not to. By two-fifteen she was fast asleep.
Now, my Grandfather, who was a heavy sleeper, never heard my Grandmother get up. He was the kind of person who was dead asleep when he was asleep, but he was also the kind of person who could wake up exactly whenever he wanted to if he set his mind to it. And for reasons he never divulged, would wake up at exactly twelve-ten every night. He’d look over at my Grandmother’s bed, rearrange his pillows so it looked like he was still there and pad downstairs in his bare feet.
Then, he’d ever so quietly open the back door and sneak out into the garage. In the garage was a special room for his repair tools, and on the floor of this room there was a brilliantly concealed trap door. Well, no sooner did he open the trap door than he’d start down his own secret passageway. and halfway down the tunnel, when he was right underneath the Police Station, there was another little room, this one with an old candelabra on the wall. He’d go there, light up the candles, tear off his pyjamas and put on a natty black tuxedo and stick a fresh red rose in his lapel. Then, he’d pull a silver mask over his face, and put on a silk top hat.
At twelve twenty-five, he was down the rest of the passageway, and climbing up the stairs on the other end. Now, here was another trap door and this one opened behind a huge upright ‘Winchester’ Grand piano. It was the only piano ‘Winchester’ had ever made and it was a beauty. One of a kind. He flung the tails of his tux out behind him and sat down on the piano bench. The crowd went wild. He was so intent upon his playing of this wonderful instrument that he never noticed much for the first few minutes. And then, always, the apparition!
At twelve-thirty promptly, Anna Bella would appear. With a cherubic wink of her eye, she’d signal him for the first song, and from then on, he felt he was in heaven. Halfway through the night, he would always get carried away with one of her songs and he’d throw her the rose from his lapel. It made his heart swell when she took it every night and blew him a kiss.
At ten minutes to two, Anna Bella would disappear behind the curtain and my Grandfather would play for half an hour solo piano, his own compositions. He wondered if she ever stayed behind the curtain for a minute to listen to him after her act was over, and if she ever knew that he poured out his love for her in these songs. He always played one heart-breaking , melancholy waltz for her first, hoping she would hear at least some of it. He almost told her once, in a letter, how much he loved her, but then he thought of my Grandmother and my two aunts and my mother at home in bed, and he decided it was better not to. At two-twenty, he’d take his bow and saunter off the stage. He’d hang around backstage for a few minutes talking to the magic act, hoping Anna Bella might appear again, but she never did.
Then, he’d creep behind the piano and sneak back to through the trap door, always just a little bit sad. Down through the tunnelway he’d go, change his suit for his pyjamas in the dressing room, and crawl back up into the tool shed. He’d sneak back into the house and pour himself a glass of cider, then tiptow upstairs. There was my Grandmother, breathing a little louder now. He’d always stop to kiss her cheek and look at her for a moment before he got into bed, always glad that he hadn’t told Anna Bella about his wild ideas. He’d pad softly to his own bed and sit for a minute on the edge, looking out the window at the night sky. Then he’d lie down, and stretch out full, and finally drop slowly back into sleep, his own music still softly in his ears, thinking about the night and the old ‘Winchester’ and the long passageway and the beautiful, talented woman he loved.
©1990, Deborah Henson-Conant
AN ADDENDUM: Years later, after Sam had died, I read this story to my grandmother, and she vehemently denied it.
“That’s not true!,” she said. “Your grandfather and I never slept in separate beds.”
The recording above is from my 1990 recording of “Anna Bella” ?on the album “Caught in the Act” with guitarist Chieli Minucci and percussionist George Jinda.? (The sound you hear at first is crickets, rain and thunder.) This song is based on one of the solo compositions Piano Man Sam played in the speakeasy. It’s called “Anna Bella” and is recorded on GRP Records.