“Only a Pony,” by Hugh Burgess

Aug 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Odd how a small thing can stir a huge memory. One Saturday morning, on NPR’s “It’s Only a Game,” the talk had turned to the versatility of a noted sports writer, who was not, said commentator Glenn Stout, “just a one-note pony.” My body jacked bolt upright in its recliner, my Ovaltine sloshed into my lap, and my mind barely choked off an expletive so crude that it is now commonly reserved for strolling gangs of teenage girls.  One Note Pony?  Who in the name of Gypsy Rose Lee would possibly remember!                   

Tuneful ponies are, of course, rare, and nowadays seldom noticed. There’s no place for them to shine. But there was a time when, duly discovered, trained, and groomed in social graces, they joined such acts as acrobatic dogs, leaping lizards (oh, yes), and fortune telling parrots on vaudeville stages and in the side shows of country fairs. The most famous of the equine divas started her career in Akron, Ohio, shortly before the publication of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. The venue was a company picnic for the employees of the Goodtrip Tire Company, which specialized in producing solid rubber wheel fittings for Model T’s. For a short period, it outsold every other tire manufacturer in the country. Although the high incidence of loose dental fittings ultimately led to Goodtrip’s demise, at the time it was riding high (so to speak). Its annual outing, The Picnic, as it was called, dominated Akron’s social calendar, and the appearance of Rubbernose, the Singing Pony, held center stage. No record of the day’s program exists but some sources suggest the repertoire featured contemporary pop favorites. Considering its limited tonal range, it is likely that “Jenny, Keep Your Bloomers On” was among them. It’s tempting to add “I’m Heading for the Wringer over You,” but evidence is scant. 

During the off season, many animal acts toured music halls and burlesque houses. Although such acts carried the fear (or expectation) of natural functions, certain precautions kept unseemly outrages to a minimum. Rubbernose was not the first trick pony to be outfitted with rubber shoes and a large tent-like appendage—a belted quilt in reality–nor was she the last. Diaper Dan in fact was a headliner for years. Not so, Rubbernose. Early on, playing a third-rate burlesque house in Boston one winter, she was commandeered to substitute for a sick pony in a different act. This act comprised two monkeys on a rather narrow platform atop the pony, with one performer twirling plates on a stick and the other twirling batons. Unfortunately no one informed Fats Rudely—my uncle and Rubbernose’s handler—nor indeed Rubbernose herself—that in the finale of the act the tips of the batons would be set on fire. To be fair, Rubbernose failed to signal—and Fats apparently did not notice—that she was not feeling too well herself. Nonetheless things went pretty well up to the finale. Then at the first flick of flame, she screamed, reared—throwing monkeys to the stage rafters–, and began a frantic twirling that despite the best efforts of stage hands ripped open the restraining quilt and spewed effluent across the stage, over the stage hands, and onto the patrons in the front two rows. Only a somersaulting slip and a long skid brought her, dazed, to a halt. 

Although the management feared the consequences, there was no need to worry. The front row patrons were sufficiently eager to hide their identities to preclude lawsuits. A portly man (the rumor that it was President Harding was quickly dispelled) in the balcony sent a note backstage asking whether the flying effluent was a regular feature of the show or did it require a special request. Whether he received a reply is not known, but word of mouth increased attendance for several weeks.

Rubbernose’s indoor career was, however, over. So was her name. Known henceforth as Skidmark, she returned to company picnics and carnivals in the summer and the occasional senior citizen festival at race tracks in Florida. Gradually her voice, always a bit strained, diminished in range and volume. Moreover, audiences increasingly asked for upbeat numbers like “She Ain’t What She Was When She Was What She Ain’t”—a challenge even for Sophie Tucker.  Retirement became inevitable.

Happy to say, Uncle Fats landed a job cleaning stables at a woman’s college near Baltimore and brought Skid with him. Her pasture backed up to the parking lot of the Peabody Percussion Institute. Many a day she leaned against the paddock fence and listened to students practicing their craft. To her ears it was music.  At times she joined in with the single note she had left—an A flat which she bent ever so gently toward a G. As for my uncle, he tried to catch on as a Mark Twain impersonator but the field was so crowded that he seldom performed. On weekends, he donned his white suit, picked up a wooden folding chair, and sat at the corner of Delaney and Fairmont in Towson, MD holding a bunch of helium filled balloons. He sold the balloons to a degree but mostly he just tried to gain the attention of passersby. He told them stories. There was this pony…. He got written up in the local paper. The Lions Club—or the Rotary—one of them, invited him to be their luncheon speaker.

He visited us every once in a while when I was growing up. Him and his stories. He died when I was in college. I always thought of him as being happy, and now I’m older I really think he was. He had something to brag about. 


Hugh Burgess successfully exercises an aura of false modesty while living in Maryland.  Otherwise, he sometimes writes stuff.


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