Mildred is enjoying her newfound freedom after her divorce from Ray. She hits the dating scene and immediately falls in love again. The tall, handsome Gene Gephardt is amiable and ambitious. He dreams of building an upscale nightclub and restaurant on the outskirts of Granite City. The location? Not too far from St. Louis but removed from the downtown crowds.
Sharing Gene’s dream, Mildred helps him plan the nightclub’s layout, and soon the White Swan is born out of nothing. It offers everything, including floor shows, strippers, gambling tables, an elegant restaurant, and a sizeable, impressive horse-shoe bar that dominates upon entry.
Mildred and Gene attend several shows in St. Louis and invariably visit backstage. Mildred resurrects her show-biz contacts established during her years with her second husband, Ray. She invites them all to the new nightclub with assurances of peace, fine food, entertainment, and no crowds. She builds a good client base, and when these famous faces come to perform in St. Louis, they flock to the White Swan post-shows away from the public. They get to enjoy a little nightlife for themselves.
Gene is the love of Mildred’s life and her business partner. Late evenings, every day, Millie sits at the bar in her appointed seat. Attractively gowned and coiffured, nursing her martini. She is a veritable social butterfly and charms the guests with her small talk and wicked wit as she keeps a watchful eye on the cash register and the servers from her vantage point.
During the day, Mildred likes to socialize at the country club and play golf. Much to her surprise, she is natural with the irons. She competes and soon becomes the State of Tennessee’s amateur ladies’ scratch golf champion. Millie continued to hold the position for a few years running.
Mildred plays golf as they say it should be—with a casual, relaxed approach. She walks up to the tee and gives a side-ways glance at where the ball should go, followed by an easy, effortless swing after a puff on her cigarette. The little white orb arcs high and falls where intended.
The Club Pro, Teddy, gives golf lessons to her nine-year-old son, Johnny, with Ray. Teddy returns from a session shaking his head.
Mildred inquires, “How did it go?”
Wiping his brow and shaking his head, Teddy admits,
“Not sure who gave the lesson to whom! I sure learned all the things I am doing wrong.”
Johnny corrected the pro’s every tip to the nine-year-old, and teddy learned his stance, grip, and positioning were all not quite right.
Along with golf, Little Johnny is also receiving piano lessons, and he discovers he is a natural with his passion and flair. His teacher deems him a prodigy.
Now and then during the day, Johnny shows up at the nightclub, and in between eating free hamburgers, he practices on their piano. In just a few months, he develops an admiring audience of lunch-goers who drop by to hear Little Jack play. And play he does – all the classics!
The same nine-year-old has a weekend job directing traffic in the nightclub’s parking lot. Late into the evening, Little Johnny works on pointing cars to vacant spots. As the vehicles stop in their space, Johnny runs to open the car door for the ladies. He reaches up and offers his arm, the epitome of a little gentleman, as he guides these lovely gowned women around slick wet spots.
“Watch out for that puddle, ma’am.”
And up the front steps of the nightclub. Little Johnny bids them a polite,
“Enjoy the evening, and goodnight, ma’am,” to them.
The lady turns to her escort with an expectant look, telling him to tip while Little Johnny waits with downcast eyes, a cherubic angel. The lady coaxes her bumbling companion.
“Aww, come on! Tip him a dollar. He is so cute, a perfect little gentleman.”
Each weekend, the nine-year-old Johnny collects more in tips than most working men make during a week.
Ray tries to pull himself together from his heavy boozing and reassemble his band. Mildred and Gene help. Occasionally, the band plays at the White Swan, where sometimes Johnny displays his emerging talent by playing the piano and doing his Mama and Papa proud. A couple of celebrities watch and hear Little Johnny play, and they approach Mildred and offer to introduce him to Hollywood. Mildred declines.
One late evening, Bing Crosby and a few friends are enjoying a few quiet hours at the White Swan. Ray and his band are playing, and Bing waves to him as he and his friends get seated at a table. The two are acquainted from back when Ray played with the Dorsey Brothers and in other shows. Ray announces to the patrons the presence of the distinguished guest. And invites Bing to the dais to acknowledge the applause. He also requests a short signature song. Bing acknowledges the applause and begs out of singing, much to Ray’s chagrin.
Later the same evening, some guests move to the gambling tables. At some point, Bing finds himself short on cash and turns to Ray for a $500 loan.
“I am sorry, Bing, but I don’t have that kind of cash on me.”
Mildred misses nothing from her perch at the end of the bar. She has watched the entire evening unfold from when Bing walks into the club with his friends. In later years, she narrates this little episode with great pride. Not to miss the wee tinge of the pleasure of getting even.
As Johnny nears his teenage years, hormones kick in; Greg, a retired World War II sergeant, is the Night Club manager. He catches Johnny in the act! Grabbing him by the scruff of his neck, he strides into Mildred at her perch at the corner of the bar. He holds a squirming, wriggling Johnny off the ground, arms and legs flailing in all directions. Greg directs angry words at Mildred.
“Look what I caught your little boy doing!”
“What did he do, Greg?” Mildred responds with a mild drawl.
“He was drilling holes in the restroom walls.” A red-in-the-face Greg yells.
Another mild drawl from Mildred, “Which one, Greg?”
“The ladies, of course!” counters a frustrated, flustered Greg.
“Thank God!” and a sigh of relief from Millie. “Let him go, Greg!”
Greg’s jaw drops as he lets go of Johnny in a heap on the floor!
Along with golf and piano lessons, little Johnny is also learning the value of a nickel. The weekend job pays well. Johnny enjoys running around, helping park cars, and escorting beautiful women to the front door. During the week after school, Johnny sets up pins in a bowling alley, and not to forget, some afternoons, he works with his auto-mechanic uncle in his garage. Johnny’s favorite paid chore is hanging upside down from the eaves. He helps Grandma wash windows and paint the outside of the house. Of course, this impresses all the girls passing by, and Johnny loves it when they stop to watch his antics and exchange teenage banter.
Around the same time, or maybe a couple of years earlier, Grandma loses her eyesight, and her sister moves in to help and keeps her company because the home is not as clean or tidy as before. As Johnny grows, he gets into the dating scene, and Grandma does not entirely approve. There is this girl, Mary, whom Johnny is very fond of and brings her home. It turns out Mary is Grandma’s doctor’s daughter. Both sisters are sitting on the front porch steps when Johnny introduces his friend.
“Grandma, I’d like you to meet….”
Grandma interrupts Johnny, snapping,
“I don’t want to meet any of those old Janes you go out with.”
She sure is in a foul mood, Johnny thinks as he hustles Mary into the house away from Grandma.
Lo-and-behold! Johnny looks around the living room for the first time and sees the mess. Jackets, shoes, socks, and a few dishes are strewn here and there. The undusted furniture and unswept floor. He stops dead and cannot take a peek at Mary, not even a furtive glance, nor could he muster enough courage to take her to the kitchen.
This turns out for the better because now Johnny is very conscious of maintaining a clean, tidy home. Grandma does not see the mess and cannot help it, and the aunt comes over to relax in the company of her sister. The same aunt talked another kid out of his ball for a nickel a few years back. She had seen the longing in Johnny’s eyes at the toy in the kid’s hands; the same kid little Johnny had socked in the face. So, Johnny does not need anyone to tell him what to do. He takes over ensuring a clean, presentable sitting area and a not-so-untidy kitchen. The approving nods from Grandpa mean the world to a shy smiling Johnny, and Millie puts a squeezing arm around Johnny when she visits next.
High school terrifies Johnny; he dreads get-togethers, homecoming dances, and proms. He is a shy, awkward dancer at best. Graduating from middle school and not knowing how to dance is a problem; he confides in his friend, Margo. Shocked beyond belief, she promises to remedy this dire situation. Grandma’s kitchen, with its black and white chessboard floor, is perfect for dance lessons.
Margo and Johnny begin in all seriousness, and she brings Mary, who we have seen, knows Johnny well. Both girls put Johnny’s feet on two adjacent black-and-white tiles. Margo and Mary position themselves the same across from Johnny. He has to step from one tile to the next, and he does not quite get it. So, Margo and her friend kneel on the floor and lift Johnny’s foot to place it on the correct adjacent tile. Easy enough, it should go smoothly. It does not! Margo and Mary each grab a foot and lift it together, and Johnny falls. Mary and Margo trip over him in a rush to help him up. They end up as a pile of three teens, laughing their heads off and wiping tears.
Recovering from their laughter, they start again. It takes a few more tumbles for the girls to get their instructions in sync and for Johnny’s feet to move to the music. After a few more days of intense lessons, Johnny learns some intricate footwork. As he becomes steady and more rhythmic, Johnny develops his style. The unique combination of gyrations evokes admiration and smiles. Johnny is in his own world, cavorting and grooving, eyes closed, head thrown back. He does not need a dance partner. Margo and Mary look at each other and shrug their shoulders. “Whatever!”
It all ends well in the end because Johnny completes his first year of high school being nominated as best dancer.
*Most of Granite City knows Grandpa as Jack and refers to Johnny as Little Jack.