“Whirled along from the first curtain rise to its final fall, dull care is banished and joy prevails…” The Faubel Entertainers brochure proclaims. Impersonator, fiddler, ventriloquist, comedian, Clarence Faubel appeared on stage in every state in the union, “ninety performances in ninety different towns on ninety consecutive days” year after year after year. The publicity photos show a bright-eyed, ambitious, energetic performer flanked by his wife Lenore and the third member of the Faubel Entertainers, Eunice “Bobbie” Diller, “the little girl with the big piano-accordion.” Bobbie was my mother and long after the collapse of the Chautauqua circuits during the “Great Depression” Clarence and Lenore kept in contact with my parents, pulling up in their little house trailer for a week or longer visit almost every summer.
They didn’t come alone: they brought two huge Saint Bernards in the trailer with them. Although Clarence was entertaining and Lenore was kind it was the Saint Bernards I was most delighted to see. I wrestled these accommodating monsters, rode them, pulled their ears, talked to them, my face almost touching theirs as they peered at me, their big sad eyes absorbing whatever nonsensical babble I was offering. Often they would emit baritone wruffs from deep in their chests, their tongues flopping out one side as they nodded their huge heads, confirming what either they or I just had said.
In some album somewhere I have snapshots of me and my cousin Joyce decked out in Twenties wear perched on the narrow seat of a little buggy hitched to one of the Saint Bernards, I holding the reins and Joyce with one hand keeping her bonnet from being blown away as bystanders applauded what must have been a Torrington, Wyoming Fourth of July parade. (Where the buggy came from I haven’t the vaguest recollection and I doubt that I knew—or cared—as we assumed our place behind a little marching band and a brightly decorated fire engine but I do remember being somewhat miffed that Clarence insisted on walking beside us instead of allowing me to assume full control of my participation in the procession.)
Although I have photos of Clarence as a young performer I remember him as an old man, older even than my father and mother and most of my uncles and aunts. One publicity shot shows him disguised as a country preacher who very much resembled the Clarence I knew; otherwise as far as I was concerned he was a fascinating old-timer whose greatest attribute was the Saint Bernards.
I considered them very special, a sentiment they may have shared since I obviously adored them; otherwise they and I were mere onlookers to the laughter, music, nostalgia and politics with which the Faubels and my parents filled our house. My mom would bring out her accordion, Clarence his fiddle and his Charlie McCarthy dummy, and “Remember? That night in Appleton..?” and “the Mennonites who were afraid to laugh in public!” and car breakdowns and Clarence’s Swedish farmer and Mom’s trilly solos and Dad’s imitations rebounded back and forth among them until they all were so exhausted they reluctantly sluffed away to bed.
Like Clarence, Lenore was a ventriloquist. Her dummy had an oversized head, a shock of red hair and freckles. I don’t remember ever seeing her perform with it and for some reason she gave it to my father. He entertained with it at club events and the likes but he never became as good a ventriloquist as Clarence. (I could see my dad’s lips move whereas Clarence’s didn’t move at all and he was much better at making his voice seem to come from the dummy.)
Unlike Clarence, who was good at entertaining kids but who didn’t seem to know how deal with them directly, Lenore was accessible and I spent time with her, in part because I hung out with the Saint Bernards but also because she collected miniature elephants. She must have had hundreds of them—ceramic, glass, porcelain, wood, some elegantly carved, others mass produced—and she carried most of them with her in the trailer. She could describe where and how she had acquired this one or that one; she even had amulets and necklaces and hairpins bearing elephant images. Why I was fascinated I don’t know but I decided that I wanted to collect things too.
I chose dogs. (Probably because of the Saint Bernards.) I kept these little trinkets in shoe boxes packed with tissue paper and took them out from time to time to look at them. My favorites were a mother and three puppies that were connected to her by little chains and a carved Scotty with a red ribbon tied around its neck. Although I enjoyed purveying the dime store for new ones, or looking for additions when my mom and my aunt and I made shopping trips to Scottsbluff, they were mere novelties compared to the Saint Bernards.
It took a visit to Clarence’s home somewhere near Denver to make me realize what a master of all trades he really was. I can’t peg down the date or circumstances, only that I was several years older than I’d been when the St. Bernards pulled my cousin and me in the Fourth of July parade. We frequently made summer trips through Colorado for my dad’s sister Naomi and her husband lived in Denver and my Aunt Mary and Uncle Ray lived in Las Animas further south. My mom and my little brother must have gone somewhere with Lenore because only my dad and I responded to Clarence’s, “C’mere, I want to show you something.”
The “something” was a magnificent German shepherd, regally marked with a black V across its chest and the look of a conqueror in its eyes. It was chained to the clothesline that ran the length of Clarence’s backyard. I started forward to pet it but Clarence grabbed my shoulder.
“No, son, he only lets me come close.”
The dog, he explained, had run away or been abandoned out on the prairie when it was a pup. Somehow it had survived, feeding off of what it could, including a lamb or two. Soon, fully grown, large even for a German shepherd and enormously strong, it had developed such a taste for mutton that it wanted nothing else.
Not only was it strong, Clarence averred, it was intelligent. For months ranchers tried to shoot it, trap it, pursue it but it only increased its predations, seeming always to know where the ranchers were, staying always out of range, attacking and devouring sheep as it reputation spread throughout the area. SHEEP KILLER! headlines in the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News proclaimed until finally rangers and ranchers successfully ambushed it.
“They wanted to kill it but I talked them out of it. I persuaded them that I could teach it to leave mutton alone.”
His old man’s smile seemed to come from a character on stage.
“He won’t touch mutton now even if I offer it to him!”
“How did you do it?” I wanted to know and he explained that he’d started the shepherd on a pure mutton diet, then gradually lessened the amounts until the dog wasn’t eating mutton at all.
“At the end,” Clarence chuckled, “I would offer it a big plate of beef-flavored dog food and a tiny bit of mutton in separate dishes. If it went for the mutton I yanked the other plate away and didn’t give it anything more to eat. It growled and barked but realized that if it took the mutton it was going to go hungry so it stopped taking the mutton. Even if I’d offer it a little bit of mutton and nothing more it refused to take it. Right boy?”
He turned to the dog and the shepherd, in response, raced from one end of the clothesline to the other, the loop and chain clattering as it romped back and forth. But as I turned to give it one last admiring glance it stiffened and exposed sharp, glistening fangs. I gasped, for a moment envisioning it attacking and ripping a sheep apart. That it could do it I could see in its eyes: Beneath the domesticity that Clarence had taught it, the killer instinct remained intact.
As we returned to the house Clarence confided that even ranchers who’d wanted to see the dog killed relented because “if it were a cowardly beast, like a hyena, they’d exterminate it immediately but it has things that here in the West they admire—strength, daring, courage—so they’ve let it live and let me keep it.”
I told him I was glad and he laughed and patted me on the back.
“Sometimes I wonder why I went to all that trouble just to have a beast like it in my yard.” His laugh seemed momentarily boyish as he slapped his thigh. “But you know, I never intended to leave the stage either. Things happen and I guess we go along with them or get left behind.”
Probably I agreed with him because I remember those words. Many years passed before I realized that in my own life I’d left him and Lenore and the St. Bernards and the reformed sheep killer and many other things behind. High school, then the Air Force, then college, jobs and marriage and children and debts silted boyhood experiences beneath what seemed more demanding exigencies. I can’t remember when I last saw Clarence and Lenore or when I learned about their separate deaths. But one night after a weekend performance in a summer stock Shakespeare production, amid boisterous laughter and on stage remembrances (“the door was locked, I had to run to the front entrance and come through the audience to get on stage..!” “They had to haul you from one entrance to the other in a wheelbarrow to keep your Hamlet’s ghost armor from clanking..!” “No, no, Ariel’s song went like this..!”) I looked up and there were Clarence and Lenore and my mom and dad and Clarence’s fiddle and mom’s accordion and I was hugging two huge furry Saint Bernards…
It only lasted for a few seconds but in the midst of the theater hilarity I missed them in a way I’d never missed them before.
Especially the Saint Bernards.
About the author:
Robert Joe Stout’s most recent books are Hidden Dangers from Sunbury and Where Gringos Don’t Belong from Anaphora Press. He now resides in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he freelances for a variety of trade and literary publications.