Bring on the Clones
by Ron Simmonds
Bernie was slumped in an easy chair eating potato chips and watching a television talent show. Every few minutes, when his big fat gut was completely covered with debris from the chips he switched on the vacuum cleaner beside him and cleaned it all off. He’d seen John Candy do that in a film and it had disgusted him so much that he had decided to copy the idea.
‘Look at him,’ he said in despair. A trumpeter was playing Carnival of Venice. ‘Everybody plays that. Why do they do it?’
‘He’s pretty good,’ said Blanche. His wife was busily cataloguing her collection of dinosaur eggs. She only had one, as big as a rugby ball, but that didn’t put her off. The egg scared Bernie witless. He was sure the central heating would hatch it out one day.
‘Where did you get the damn thing, anyway?’ he asked, for the hundredth time. He knew it had been lifted from a museum, but which one? As far as he was concerned they could have it back, with knobs on.
The trumpeter finished with a flourish, and received a round of applause from the studio audience, who were prepared to clap anything that moved.
‘Mmm,’ said Blanche, approvingly. ‘Get away!’ said Bernie. ‘Everyone can manage it now, but do you remember the impact Harry James had on the world when he first played it?’
The trumpeter had been replaced by a girl singer. ‘Oh, look,’ exclaimed Blanche, ‘she’s doing Billie Holiday!’
‘Be more believable if she put a bag over her head,’ grunted Bernie, his mouth full of crisps.
‘Or a mask,’ said Blanche.
‘A Billy Holiday mask. You know, like in Spitting Image.’ Bernie got up, with difficulty, and waddled over to his wife, showering potato chips all over the carpet on the way.
‘Blanche, my darling, you are a genius,’ he said, giving her a kiss. She was, too, for she had just solved a huge problem for Bernie. A few weeks back he had landed the coveted task of providing the second half of the annual Mammoth Christmas Television Show. An all–star cast had already been booked for the first half, but he’d been looking for something sensational for the finale.
He rang his manager at once. ‘Take down this list of names,’ he barked. ‘I want photos of every one of them on my desk tomorrow.’ He watched the rest of the show in silence. Inside he was trembling with excitement. He was about to do something never done before: something that would put his name on everyone’s lips.
Next day, after glancing at one or two of the top pictures, he took the photos along to a theatrical wizard he knew. When Bernie had finished explaining his idea the man was ecstatic, for this was going to boost his own reputation considerably. He set to work as soon as Bernie left.
A couple of days before the TV show Bernie turned up in the studio to watch the rehearsals. He’d hand–picked all the musicians, the best studio players in the country. The band, under the direction of a well–known conductor, accompanied the various singers and artists smoothly and professionally.
‘Where is your contribution?’ asked the director, appearing suddenly beside Bernie. Bernie tapped the side of his nose and winked. ‘Wait a while. You won’t be disappointed.’
‘I sincerely hope not,’ said the director, who knew Bernie of old. He would never forget Bernie’s last production, when he’d set the studio on fire. Still, he could always be relied upon to come up with something new.
One day before the show the masks arrived. They were so lifelike that Bernie reeled back in shock when he opened the box. Benny Goodman looked out, beaming at him from a nest of tissue paper. ‘It’s him!’ he gasped. It most certainly was, right down to the little inverted ‘v’ filed in the front teeth.
‘Incredible, eh?’ said the wizard. ‘Even if I say so myself.’ He pulled out one or two of the masks proudly. Bernie began to shake with excitement again. ‘Hand them out,’ he commanded.
A moment later the union man was standing at his elbow. ‘What’s all this about then?’ he demanded.
‘Can’t you see? You’re going to be a part of the greatest show in history.’
‘We’re not wearing no masks,’ said the union man, who had been educated at Eton.
‘Aw, come on! It’s Christmas! Give the people something to remember. Can’t you forget union rules for once?’
‘Maybe we can, but it will cost extra.’ They haggled a bit about that, and then the man went back to the band. There was some grumbling, but the next moment everyone in the band had put on his mask.
‘Hit the lights!’ shouted Bernie, rushing up closer. There they sat, resplendent in their tuxedos, and there it was: the most perfect band in the world!
He had loved them all as a boy, worshipped them! There was dear old Benny Goodman in the front row, Artie Shaw beside him, Jimmy Dorsey, the Hawk and Pres, with Harry Carney on the end. What a sax section! He didn’t remember asking for three alto saxes, but who cared? Like he’d said: it was Christmas.
Behind the saxes sat the four trombones. He looked them over slowly from left to right, savouring the moment. Tricky Sam! Glenn Miller!! The great Tommy Dorsey!!! When his gaze fell on the fourth man he took a step back and yelled for his manager, who came running at the double.
‘Who the hell is that?’ Bernie spluttered, pointing a shaking finger at the offending musician.
‘What’s wrong? I only did what you told me.’
‘That’s O.J. you fool!’ hissed Bernie. ‘I told you to get J.J. Get rid of him!’ While they were hustling the guy out he took a good look at the trumpets, and gave a sigh of relief. Miles, Dizzy, Harry James and Ish Kabibble were all there. Wait a minute! Ish Kabibble? Where did he come from? He whirled around angrily, to find his manager deep in conversation with Kay Kyser, the bandleader, looking dignified in gown and mortar board.
‘I didn’t ask for Kyser!’ he screamed, completely beside himself. ‘I wanted Kenton!’
‘I knew it began with a K. The connection was bad.’
‘Not as bad as the connection I’m going to make with your head when this is all over,’ howled his boss. It was too late now to change things. He’d have to leave Kay Kyser in charge of the band. The masks were so lifelike that he’d already forgotten about the guys inside them. He remembered that Kay had run a joke band way back, in a show called Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge. Ish Kabibble, his trumpet player, had always looked as if his head had been put on backwards, and it certainly looked like that now, too. Never mind, maybe no one would notice; he couldn’t send anyone else off.
Stepping back, he cooled down a little and viewed his creation with some pride. It was just like a fairy tale, being able to gather all these great musicians of yesteryear together. Such nostalgia! There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the place, guaranteed. Buddy on drums, Art on piano, Slam on bass and Django, dear old Django on guitar. Frank and Ella waved to him from the wings. He had to sit down for a moment, overcome with emotion.
‘Can they play?’ asked the director. Of course they could, the masks had mouth cut–outs, didn’t they? All except Ish, who had one in the back of his head because the wizard hadn’t been able to figure out which way round it was supposed to be.
‘The music will be here tomorrow,’ said Bernie. ‘I couldn’t gather it all together sooner.’ The director clapped his hands loudly. ‘All right. Finished for today! See you all tomorrow.’
Bernie lay in bed that night planning his production. He would zoom in fast from way back and pan slowly over the famous musicians while they played. What a surprise the viewers would get! He turned over and discovered a large cold object in the bed between him and his wife. It was the dinosaur egg. He hurled it in rage against the wall. The egg bounced off and landed on the carpet, rolling around slowly. Blanche leapt out of bed and cradled it in her arms.
‘Poor thing. It’ll get cold.’
‘Poor thing,’ he sneered, thinking of Jurassic Park. He fell asleep. In his dream a brontosaurus played Creole Love Call on the trombone, producing a perfect three part harmony all on its own, like Albert Mangelsdorf.
Next day he was handing out the newly arrived parts to the band when his manager appeared beside him, greatly agitated.
‘Er, there’s something I think you should know, Bernie.’
‘Not now. Can’t you see I’m busy? Help me with these parts.’ He had Let’s Dance, Begin the Beguine, Body and Soul, Getting Sentimental Over You, Miles Ahead, Trumpet Blues and a load of other charts. For Dizzy he had the score of Things to Come. The transcriber had really gone to town on that one, and copied down every note of Dizzy’s recorded solo perfectly for him. ‘This’ll shake ‘em all,’ Bernie chortled. Shame he’d only managed to get the music at the last minute, but that didn’t matter. The guys he’d booked would sail through the stuff. They didn’t need a rehearsal. No time for one now, anyway.
His manager still kept trying to say something until Bernie snarled at him, causing him to shrug and walk away in a huff. His place was taken by a thin, doleful looking man dressed entirely in black like an undertaker.
Bernie uttered a little bleat of horror. It was Murphy! Murphy The Lawmaker! ‘What are you doing here?’ he croaked. The last time he had seen Murphy was just before the fire that gutted the studio during his last production.
‘Begorra, whitsa matta witcher? Yer dead pale, yar.’ (What’s the matter with you? You have gone white.)
‘Get away from me,’ gasped Bernie. ‘Nothing is going to go wrong today.’
Murphy tapped the huge leather–bound volume under his arm. ‘If it can, it will,’ he said gloomily, and disappeared.
The lights came on, the studio quietened down and the Mammoth Christmas Show began. The first half went like a dream. Just before Bernie’s part of the production there was a commercial break. When they came back on the air the lights were out and all was silent. The voice of the announcer boomed out.
‘LADIES AND GENTLEMEN—WE PROUDLY PRESENT—THE GREATEST BAND IN THE WORLD!’ With that everything lit up. Searchlights blazed. Coloured spotlights whirled. There was a thunder of applause. Everyone craned forward, expectantly.
When the enormous battery of lights over the band flared on all the musicians were wearing their masks. The sudden blaze of light brought with it a sharp rise in temperature, and a strong smell of hot rubber filled the studio as the masks began to heat up. At once it was clear that something was terribly wrong.
Artie Shaw was standing up waving his saxophone. ‘I’m not playing second alto to him,’ he declared, pointing at Benny. ‘Well I’m certainly not playing second to him, either,’ said Benny crossly, throwing down his sax.
Buddy was busily engaged in dragging his drums down to front centre stage, cursing and knocking musicians out of the way. Up on the rostrum Miles, dressed in a floor–length black leather overcoat, black leather pants and a wide–brimmed floppy black leather hat, was already standing with his back to the audience, and had a tin mute in the bell of his horn so that no one would be able hear him. Over on the right Harry James was examining Ish Kabibble with interest after having experimentally screwed his head around one complete turn.
Meanwhile the Dorsey brothers were rolling on the floor, exchanging punches, while Glenn was down the front arguing with Kay Kyser as to who should be bandleader. ‘I’m a MAJOR!’ he shouted, pointing at the badges of rank on the uniform that had magically appeared in place of his tuxedo. ‘I don’t care if you’re a goddam general,’ sneered Kyser, trying to hit him with his cane. Behind him Coleman Hawkins appeared to be fast asleep, while the Lester Young clone was examining his tenor with the manner of a man who has never seen one before.
Dizzy was standing up waving his part. ‘I can’t play this solo,’ he complained. ‘Man, I can’t even read it!’ Beside him Harry was now trying to force a mouthpiece through a tiny hole he’d discovered in Kabibble’s mask. Bernie didn’t get it for a moment, then it hit him. The heat inside the masks had somehow turned the bandsmen into the men they were supposed to represent! (I told you this was a fairy tale, didn’t I? Well I meant to.)
‘Play!’ screamed Bernie as the assistant producer waved to him. Kyser whacked his cane down briskly. At first nothing happened. Then awful honking farmyard noises began to emerge from the masked players, growing in volume as more and more of them raggedly joined in.
‘What’s happening?’ gasped Bernie. His manager came hurrying back.
‘This is what I was trying to tell you. The pro musicians were insulted by having to wear the masks. They arranged for some bit actors to take over during the commercial and they’ve all gone home.’
‘But these people can’t play,’ Bernie wailed. ‘They aren’t real clones!’
‘That’s right. But I’ve fixed that,’ said the manager proudly, and gave a signal. A deus ex machina in the form of a tape recorder descended rapidly from above, playing the original Goodman recording of Let’s Dance. The clones stopped tootling and began to mime to it.
They were saved! Bernie let out a sigh of relief and mopped his brow. Boy, it was hot. But things were going to be all right.
Somewhere nearby there was a loud cracking noise. He heard Blanche utter a little squeal of delight. A moment later a baby dinosaur hopped up on stage and ate the tape recorder.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved