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Small man had a long life of big fun

As my grandfather Earl would say, it’s time for some minutus cantorum, minutus balorum, minutus carborata decendum pantorum.(Translation: A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.)

Cradling a brandy and white crème de menthe in remarkably lithe fingers, my grandfather — all 5 feet 2 inches and 115 pounds of him — looked up at me with mischievous amusement in his eyes and happily pronounced through the din of a raucous party: “You know, Billy, nothing beats fun.” He twirled the rocks in his stinger to accent his observation.

He would have known. By the time he gave his assessment of one of my parents’ famous wingdings, he’d spent close to 90 years pursuing fun. In fact, as I look back on that party in the mid-’80s — and his life in sum — it’s clear that he was an authority, connoisseur really, of la dolce vita.

Born in 1891 into a middle-class family headed by a railroad engineering father and doting mother, Earl Wood was a pistol from early on.

Perhaps in hope of scrubbing some of the rebellious edge out of him, he was given classical violin lessons as a preteen. It proved to be a skill that would serve him well later in life.

A small man with a nose roughly the same shape and dimensions of one found on an Indian-head nickel, my grandfather as a teen raced up and down the bluffs of the upper Mississippi River on a belt-driven motorcycle, winning races and raising hell.

He was kicked out of school a week before his high school graduation for organizing a beer bust. Shortly after, he hit the road.

By 1910, he ended up in Atlanta working at the Alcazar Theater and rooming with then-unknown Oliver Hardy. He swore until he died at age 96 in 1987 that he was the prototype for Stan Laurel’s character in the Laurel and Hardy comedies. He could have been.

When America declared war on Germany in 1917, Earl made his way to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where he made a living as a projectionist and pit orchestra man for silent movies.

When the Spanish flu hit the following year, a pandemic that killed some 25 million people in 25 weeks, Earl was pressed into duty retrieving the dead from their Canadian homes and apartments.

Organizing his own orchestra in 1919, he then plied the newly formed Orpheum Circuit, a federation of vaudeville houses and movie theaters that stretched across the country. His orchestra, called Earl Wood and His Music Masters, toured the Upper Midwest in a route that took them from St. Louis to Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

By the time talkies came in around 1930, burlesque houses were gone, pit orchestras for silent movies were history and the Orpheum Circuit had morphed into the movie studio RKO.

With a young family, including my mother, Earl and my grandmother Nellie (she and her sisters — Binah, Kiza et. al. — were all named after my great-grandfather’s favorite mules) faced the twin specters of unemployment and the Great Depression, so he turned to racketeering.

My grandfather’s choice of rackets was pinball machines that operated on punch cards that could be redeemed for money by barkeeps. If you won a game, you might make 15 cents for your efforts.

So, up and down the Mississippi from Dubuque, Iowa, to Minneapolis, Earl would bribe police chiefs and mayors of little river towns to put his pinball machines in their community’s bars.

Collections might take a week and by the time he got home, he’d place sacks of nickels on the dining table, place his revolver, nightstick and black jack next to them and have the family roll nickels.

Later in life he bought several cabins along the Mississippi, amassed a dozen flat-bottomed duck boats and became a hunting and fishing guide, raising nightcrawlers for bait, as well as a black lab that he taught to fetch him tools while at his docks. (“Blackie, get me the hammer from the skunk house.” And Blackie would.)

Nope, nothin’ beat fun when we summered at Earl’s little patch of paradise on the Mississippi. Just thought I’d share.

Reach Bill Morem at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.

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