In ‘63, a German family (the Schmelings) moved into my Long Island neighborhood—the father, Rudi, his petite and beautiful wife Lisle, and their big-boned daughter Greta.Before coming to …
In ‘63, a German family (the Schmelings) moved into my Long Island neighborhood—the father, Rudi, his petite and beautiful wife Lisle, and their big-boned daughter Greta.
Before coming to America, on busy Hamburg streets, Rudi led a bear named King Tut around by a leash. The leash was attached to a ring—a ring that was embedded in the poor creature’s nose. On command, King Tut would do spins and dance for money. As a sideline, Rudi juggled bowling balls. And yet, in Nassau County, none of these antics were impressive enough to draw the kind of audience that would secure the Schmeling family’s future.
Rudi then built a 20-foot high oval-shaped motorcycle track in his backyard. Lisle and King Tut danced and then ascended metal ladders on opposite sides of the track, where they mounted separate motorcycles and circled around, King Tut chasing Lisle who was provocatively dressed in a swim suit. However, even this marvel failed to draw enough spectators. When Greta began selling homemade sausages on the side, however, the masses came!
Rudi kept King Tut in the barn. In between shows, he led Tut (without a leash) from the barn to the track. Everyone backed away except for me, a mere 16-year-old. I was a regular at the show, and the first few times I saw it, Lisle appeared happy; but soon she stopped smiling and waving at the crowd. One day Rudi asked me if I’d be interested in replacing her in the act. Shocked by his request I asked, “What about Greta?” but I already knew the answer. Greta was too hefty and I, like Lisle, was a petite blonde. To save face, Rudi simply stated, “Greta’s going to college.” And she did. I was on the verge of dropping out of high school (just like my older sister had) to work in the family bakery.
When Rudi requested that I join the act, I don’t think he realized who he was dealing with—me, the local Dairy Queen and daredevil, often up to all sorts of mischief! Like piercing my own ears with a sewing needle, shooting guns, stealing a car, kissing boys in the woods, and secretly converting from Protestantism to Judaism without the permission of my parents. Naturally, it never crossed my mind to ask my father if I could perform with the bear.
Rudi told me he would give me a piece of the “take”—a few dollars a day. So without telling my parents, the next morning I forced myself into the stretchy, sparkly skating costume my mother had sewn a year prior. I did my hair in a French twist and lined my eyes in real charcoal. As soon as the music started, I danced the twist with Tut and then climbed the metal stairs where I fearlessly mounted the motorcycle. Rudi strapped King Tut onto the bear’s bike and the two of us took off zooming around the track. Smiling and waving to the crowd, I spotted my father looking up from the audience. Damn, I thought. I sure hope he doesn’t know it’s me. Though it took only a few minutes, circling the track seemed like an eternity. When the show ended and I was back on solid ground, I burst into tears.
“What’s the matter?” Rudi asked, “Is it your father?”
“No,” I answered shaking uncontrollably.
“Is it King Tut? Are you afraid of the bear?”
“No,” I answered balling and choking on my words, “I forgot to tell you that I’m afraid of heights!”
My father shot a disparaging look at me and told me to go home. As I left, I saw him grab Rudi’s elbow and lead him toward the barn. I thought it was all over. Instead dad came home with my take of the cash, which he promptly put in a jar. “That’s going toward your college education,” he said. A year later, The Schmeling Family Circus (as we came to be known) was asked to perform at the 1964 World’s Fair. And sure enough, I got over my fear of heights.