Every so often we write a newsletter for the Merrie Ukes, Chula Vista’s famed group of ukulele/guitar players and singers. The piece generally is telling the group where they will be performing or practicing, particularly if it is a place out of the ordinary.As a joke — and we must admit it is not a very good one — we end the newsletter with something like, “Next performance, the Palace.
We are, of course, making reference to the good old entertainment days of vaudeville. Vaudeville players generally played a circuit. A group of theaters at various cities were on the circuit and the individual or group would take his act on the road.
A vaudeville act, however, had not hit the big time until it played the Palace in New York. The performers aimed not only for that venue but strived to be at the head of the playbill, the top banana, so to speak.
We sometimes see, on television, clips of some of the greats, George M. Cohan, Al Jolson and, of course, the beginning of the legend, the Voice, Frank Sinatra, himself. Almost every great performer, or group, played the Palace.
I really did not know too much about vaudeville. It was before my time. In my early days I recall going to some of the movie houses that featured a stage show of some sort. They might have been vaudevillians but more likely they were some of the local people putting on an act. Maybe they were the American Idols of the day. On second thought I don’t think so. This was before the day of those blaring sound systems. An American Idol contestant would be lost without one.
But back to the Merrie Ukes: as we have reported in the past the group was formed in 2001. John Porner, the founder and still leader, got together with three other ukulele players and a musical group had its start. The ukulele was selected because it is a simple instrument to play. On top of that it has a pleasing, melodic sound reminding one of an idyllic setting, something akin to one of those paintings of light attributed to the late Thomas Kincade, who died the other day. Every time you played something pleasing it wanted to make you come back for more.
I came into the group about a year later. I was admitted even though I obviously was totally lacking in talent. The group needed members and anyone who could wrap two or three fingers around a couple of frets was fair game.
There was an empty chair so I took it.
The group had been in existence for about two years and had grown in numbers and talent when someone suggested that perhaps it could entertain at some of the assisted living homes and other such places in the area.
The Ukes were subsequently admitted with open arms at various homes and they have brought an hour or so of pleasantries to the residents. The custom of entertaining, that is playing for others, has caught on and now every couple of months or so a program is rehearsed and the Merrie Ukes will play on someone’s stage.
Today the Merrie Ukes number 42 members. In addition to the ukuleles one can find a few guitars, a banjo or two, a bass, a keyboard player and a couple of other stringed instruments without a name. We even have a few ukuleles fashioned out of cigar boxes that emit pleasant sounds. They were made by one of the group’s musicians, Hideyo
Haga, who, we could say, doubles as the group’s craftsman.
Last Tuesday the Merrie Ukes went to the J Street Marina to play at the Chula Vista R.V. Park.
Since it is early spring the program consisted mostly of love songs and was well received by those in attendance. And the singing and playing members of the Ukes outdid themselves. I think that most of them thought that they had finally arrived at the Palace.