Friday, August 19, 2011

Grandpa's Coolest Souvenir

Throughout July, people took various items from my grandparents' house. They owned a lot of stuff, most of it valuable (think collectors, not pack rats). There wasn't much that I wanted. I'm not the collector that I used to be, and our house already looks like an episode of "Hoarders" without adding more to it. Since I was at best fourth in line (actually more like sixth), I watched patiently for several weeks to see whether anyone showed interest in the prized memento of Grandpa's youth. Incredibly, no one did. Now it's mine.

Encased in a wood frame and covered with glass is a wooden paddle made by the Hi-Li Sales Company of Shelton, CT. Originally the half-inch-thick paddle would have had a ball attached with a rubber cord. The goal was to bounce the ball off the paddle as many times as possible without missing. I remember similar paddles from my youth, but lower quality. Grandpa's looks just like this one except the colors are faded and there's writing on it:
CARL BECKER, JR
CHAMPION
ENTERED HI LI CONTEST EMBASSY THEATER (sic)
SEMI FINAL
8/25/36 WON ROLLERSKATE
8/28/36 FINAL CONTEST
WON BICYCLE
Yes, that's right. My grandfather won a bicycle for being the best at paddle ball! And it was just a few days after his eleventh birthday.

The Embassy Theatre stood at 3956 W. Fullerton Avenue, just east of Crawford Avenue (the street name changed to Pulaski Road in 1933). Built in 1926, the theatre was in its prime when my grandfather won his bike. Alas, like most of the grand theaters built in the 1920s, the Embassy fell on hard times. It reopened in 1957 as a ballroom and remained so until 1981. I can't help but wonder whether my grandparents ever went there as a couple. The building was demolished in the mid-1990s. Now it's -- what else? -- a drugstore. There are photos from around the time of demolition here.

Looking at this Hi-Li paddle, I have so many questions I never thought to ask. Did Grandpa practice a lot, or was he a "natural"? Was there some trick to doing it well? How many other kids competed? Were the competitions held as the "opening act" or between shows? Who sponsored the contest -- Hi-Li, the Embassy, or someone else? Of course, even if I could ask those questions today, Grandpa may not have been able to answer them. Seventy years is a long time to carry around a memory.

No comments: