The Elmore Theater, Tanner’s premier movie-house during its 1930s heyday, had been restored to its original opulence in the 1990’s as the centerpiece of an ambitious downtown renewal project. Since then it had served as the city’s most prestigious venue for traveling shows, noted speakers, and special events....like the Tanner Pops Big Band Night.
For two hours on that Saturday night the Elmore would be ringing with the sounds of classic tunes.... from raucous to melodic, from “Sing, Sing, Sing” to “Moonlight Serenade.” Inside, the cream of Tanner society, along with a more plebeian middle-class crowd of big-band enthusiasts, would be gathered in the gilded splendor of another era, all in the name of good music and the Hospital Auxiliary's annual fund drive.
In the guise of their much debated double date, the four of them....Angie and Hank, Gladys and Jimmy....would be spending those hours together, savoring, or perhaps enduring, each other’s company. Though they would be sitting side by side in the same row, their time together was sure to mean something different for each of them, as had their preparations for the first ‘first date’ any of them had experienced in decades.
For Angie McDonald that preparation had begun days before with a long morning spent shopping Tanner’s best stores. Friday afternoon included a visit to her favorite salon, sitting patiently as Raymond created a new and hopefully-appealing hair style for her. Though he gave her the creeps, everyone said he was a styling genius. Besides, it was serious business, that campaign of hers. Nothing about her first date with Hank Rolland, and making the desired impression on the ‘right people,’ could be left to chance.
Gladys Horner, on the other hand, was dealing with a very different sartorial dilemma. Though Jimmy Brooder had not mentioned his own wardrobe preferences, she realized he was not likely to settle on a particularly formal option.
Did he even own a suit? She did not recall ever seeing him wear one in church....or a tie for that matter. She had not considered those wardrobe questions during her frustrating campaign to coax Jimmy’s invitation. Now, as she perused her long closet, mentally trying on one outfit then another, she had already decided to settle for a middle-of-the-road informal look.
There was no reason for Jimmy Brooder to be selecting his night-on-the-town outfit too far in advance, so he waited until late Saturday afternoon. Not only were his options limited, he was not one to attach great importance to such matters. He was definitely not of the ‘clothes-make-the-man’ school.
For all their married life the night life he and Karen favored had tended toward square dancing and bowling. Though they never missed Big Band Night, they had always been on hand for the music, never to impress anyone. To see and be seen, anywhere but on the football field, had never been a priority for Jimmy Brooder.
Meanwhile, as the others set about choosing their attire for the big night, whether their options were few or many, Hank Rolland carried on....safe in the knowledge that his choice had already been made. In fact, the matter had been decided nearly two years before, by Sarah.
It had been shortly after her last Christmas together when the two of them had spent a couple hours in a downtown Tanner men’s store, taking advantage of a post-holiday sale, and Sarah’s always reliable fashion sense, to assemble four color-coordinated ensembles of slacks, sport coat, shirt, and tie. Once the necessary alterations were made, each outfit was hung in his closet on its own hanger.
Sarah’s instructions at the time were a matter of pure simplicity. Whenever an ‘uptown’ wardrobe was called for, whether for church, a funeral, or other special event, the hanger on the left was the outfit he should wear. When it was returned to the closet, that ensemble was hung on the right end of the four hangers, ready to be worn every fourth time. Now, as he prepared for the night’s Big Band occasion, Hank would be dressing himself in shades of gray, the next hanger in line.
By seven-ten Saturday evening Hank was on his way to Angie McDonald’s Tanner Heights home. Though he had never visited the McDonald home, his computer map promised to take him right to her door step. It was not, however, those navigational matters that had his attention as he hurried past the sprawling country-club complex toward the red X that marked his map destination.
A date, a first date at that, with Angie was cause enough for his anxious trepidation. For months he had promised himself it would never come to that. Yet there he was, cornered by her relentless persistence and his own desire to help Jimmy pursue his ‘Gladys Horner’ dream. To further cement his commitment to an evening with Angie he had turned to Sarah that very afternoon, seeking her advice on how to make the best of a dubious situation.
As always, Sarah’s counsel had been straight forward and practical. What was the sense of grumbling about Angie’s aggravating conquest, she seemed to be asking. Why not relax and make the best of their night out? Who knows, Sarah seemed to be saying, he might actually enjoy himself.
It was a striking observation. One that sounded very much like Grace’s Sunday morning admonition. In any case, as Hank started up the sidewalk to Angie’s front door he was reminding himself that for the next few hours he must play the pleasant companion, enjoy the music, and have a good time.
Angie opened the door to let him in and almost at once Hank’s impersonal detachment melted into something closer to admiring acceptance. The lady looked nice, very nice. Sarah had always favored an informal approach to Big Band Night, usually slacks and a sweater. Here was Angie standing before him in a dark green dress....long, but not quite a gown, loose fitting, but flattering. “Dressed to the nines,” Sarah would have said.
“My, you do look nice,” Hank offered, aware that he meant every word of his unexpected compliment.
“Why thank you.” It had been a very long time since Angie last felt the blush that reddened her cheeks. They had been together only seconds and already her days of careful preparation had been repaid. “You’re looking pretty spiffy yourself,” she replied. “I’m thinking this is going to be the best Big Band Night ever.”
Their drive to Gladys Horner’s place, on the far side of the Heights, took little more than five minutes. Left to his own devices Hank could have done that without a word being spoken. Angie, however, was not about to let their brief time alone pass in silence.
“It’s too bad we didn’t plan this better,” she said as Hank turned up the gentle hill, where the street paralleled the eighteenth hole of the golf course.
“How’s that?” he asked.
“We could have taken time for dinner before we picked up the others. Emil’s Restaurant, down in the mall, has special pastas on Saturday night. We could have had a nice meal and a chance to visit.”
By then Hank was uttering his silence thanks that her idea had arrived as late as it did. Two or three hours of awkward small talk, with Gladys and Jimmy on hand to help share the conversational load, was apt to be his limit. Another hour, alone with Angie over dinner, would have been more than he bargained for.
A moment later Angie had moved from an opportunity lost to the enticing prospect of what lay ahead. “It’s going to be such a good night,” she gushed. “You don’t often see them all together in the same place, the people who’ll be at the concert tonight....unless it’s at the counter club. And I haven’t been there in ages.”
“I’m afraid that’s not on my regular itinerary either.” There was little humor in Hank's forced laugh. He nodded as Angie motioned for him to turn right at the next intersection.
“I just hope you can get over your nerves,” she said, pointing to the driveway just beyond a bank of mailboxes. “You need to lighten up a little. Hopefully the music will do that.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Hank said, pulling to a stop in front of the three-car garage. “High society has never been my strong suit. But the music the Pops Orchestra plays is right down my alley. I’ve always liked the tunes from that postwar era. So don’t you worry, we’ll be having a good time.”
“Of course, I’m far too young to remember those days,” Angie teased. “But I like the music anyway."