Waiting for Go-DoughWhile perusing The Philadelphia Inquirer over my morning coffee in March, 2006, my eyes suddenly locked onto a name. It was an obituary for the Honorable Judge Tullio Leompurra, brother of Romolo and father of Mark and Tully. To me, this combination of names had to be more than a coincidence.
Thirty years before, I had worked as a waitress at a cocktail lounge called Mark Tully’s All New Nut Club. I was trying to earn money to study acting in Paris. I began to reflect on my experiences at the club, which lead to reminiscences about the summer before, when I had also been a waitress. This was long before the era of political correctness; one was never referred to as a server or being part of a wait staff. We were simply waiters and waitresses.
My first experience was at a chain restaurant in Philadelphia called La Crepe, located at Broad and Chestnut. As the crepe is a staple of Brittany’s cuisine, we were required to wear what some higher-up regarded as official Breton costume. This consisted of a blue blouse with puffy sleeves, a blue dirndl skirt, a white ruffle-edged apron, and the piece de resistance, a stiff lace headdress almost a foot high. These were affixed to our scalps with numerous bobby pins. We were all in a constant state of panic that the hats would fly off.
It was 1971 and crepes were still a novelty in this country. So there were many mispronunciations of the restaurant’s fare. As a French major, I constantly had to bite my tongue as customers ordered “creeps”, “queechies” (quiche was on the menu), or even “crappies.”
Our bosses were two guys in their late thirties with major attitudes. They both considered themselves Don Juans. We waitresses nicknamed the collegiate type, with the brown hair and blue eyes, Paul Newman and the dark-haired one, with the world-weary expression, Humphrey Bogart. There was a modeling agency above the restaurant and every night, there seemed to be a new nymph sitting on Paul’s or Humphrey’s lap, in full view of the customers. For a while, it seemed like Paul had found a steady girlfriend. When she abruptly disappeared, I asked Humphrey about it.
“He got tired of her body,” he replied nonchalantly.
As for the surly bartender, he reminded us of Paul Muni in Public Enemy Number One. Eva, a waitress from Brazil, who was having difficulties with English, once took a customer’s order for shrimp cocktail. She gave it to the “tenderbar” as she always called him.
“Whaddya mean, bringin’ me an order for shrimp cocktail? It ain’t no cocktail, ya dumb broad, it’s FOOD!”
Eva was completely befuddled. Helene, who at six feet looked particularly miscast in her Breton costume, laughingly explained it to her. We all laughed, including Eva, but Muni didn’t think it was funny.
“Go back to Puerto Rico!” he shouted.
One night, Paul summoned me to the table where he had been surveying the action. Someone told me that he had attended a prestigious college in Massachusetts, but he still retained strong vestiges of his Northeast Philly accent.
“Listen,” he began, “I think yer a real ger-oove, and I’d really love ta ball ya, but ya gotta get yer act together. One of our investors came in the other night. He said ya messed up his order.”
I realized that I was supposed to be flattered by this declaration of desire. I supposed it was meant to soften the blow of his criticism. But his words shocked me and his rebuke rankled. I thought I was a pretty good waitress. I liked people and prided myself on being particularly solicitous. Most of the time, I was rewarded with good tips.
After Paul’s reprimand, I returned to my station. Humphrey was sitting at one of the tables, chain-smoking and staring off into the middle distance. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
“Get me a cuppa coffee, will ya, hon?” he said. As I set it down before him, he asked, flicking ashes from his sleeve, “So... how’s your hippie boyfriend?”
The boyfriend had once stopped by the restaurant wearing bermuda shorts and black socks. He was tall with long reddish blonde hair, a beard and wire-rimmed glasses. Humphrey was aghast when he saw him and wasted no time letting me know.
“I can’t believe that guy is your boyfriend! He looks like a hippie faggot!”
The one intelligent choice that the owners had made was to have classic French chansons piped into the restaurant. Every time I heard Charles Aznavour singing “La Boheme,” I found myself transported to France, headdress, Paul and Humphrey completely forgotten.
There was one more summer before graduation. My plan was to find another waitressing job and to leave for France in September. My mother decided that she, my two sisters, and I would spend the summer in Cape May, and she had managed to find an affordable apartment above a garage on Reading Avenue. This was before Cape May’s renaissance, and there were not many jobs to be found. So I hopped into my “not safe at any speed” Corvair and crossed the bridge to Wildwood, which, by contrast, had many bars and restaurants. Cruising down New Jersey Avenue, I finally spotted a help wanted sign in North Wildwood, in the window of an ugly white stucco building. The establishment, Mark Tully’s All New Nut Club, was directly across the street from Cozy Morley’s.
I got out of the car and knocked on the door. A thickset, thirty-ish man sporting a black pompadour answered.
“Hello,” he said in a rich baritone, extending his hand. He had an open, friendly face and a firm handshake.
“I’m Mark Tully.” He looked about as Irish as Liberace. “You’re here about the job?”
When I responded in the affirmative, he ushered me to a seat at one of the long tables that extended from the stage. The room was cavernous and dark and smelled faintly of beer. After a brief conversation, Mark hired me and told me what I would be expected to wear. After my Breton uniform of the previous summer, I thought I was prepared for anything. Mark told me that I would need white short shorts, or hot pants as they were called then, and white patent leather go-go boots. He would supply the red polyester zip-up top with short sleeves and Nehru collar.
“Forget it,” I thought to myself. “Why should I have to look like a hooker while serving 7&7s and All New Nut cocktails?”
But then I considered the hours. Part of being at the shore meant having beach time. I wouldn’t have to report to work until 5:30 and would be home by midnight. I knew how unusual it was to have a nice boss in the restaurant business, and it didn’t hurt that Mark’s wife Lillian, the hostess, was also sweet natured. Petite and fine-boned, she favored evening gowns and Grecian curls. She always looked as if she had just arrived at her prom.
After I started work, John, the piano player told us that Mark’s real name was Romolo Leompurra. At the time, we waitresses often speculated on how our boss morphed from Romolo to Mark Tully.
The Nut Club was a cocktail lounge and nightclub. Part of the entertainment was Cubby, a female impersonator, who actually had a joke that included my first name. “CLAUDIA!” he would scream at the top of his lungs. This never failed to startle me as I tried to balance the Cutty-and-sodas on my tray.
He was followed by Mark himself, a singer whose repertoire ranged from the inane “The Candy Man” to Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding “It’s Like I’m Losing My Mind”. Every night, Mark would stop in the middle of the song at exactly the same spot, step forward, make eye contact with the closest ringside female and ask, “Am I gettin’ to ya lady?”
Most of the time, the lady in question would oblige, but one night, a woman actually said, “No!” The other waitresses and I were mortified. We were used to rolling our eyes when the inevitable moment arrived, but we all liked Mark and we empathized with him.
Mark had also hired a young singer, Yvette, from Montreal. She didn’t have a great voice, but she had a magnificent French song in her repertoire, Edith Piaf’s “Hymn to Love” (“Hymne a l’Amour”). As I listened, it never failed to work its magic on me. It evoked the same longing and curiosity that I had felt while listening to Aznavour’s music the summer before.
By the end of the summer, I had earned enough money to go to Paris. But that, as Hemingway said, is another story.
page last updated: June 18, 2006