The great Irish-American tenor, John McCormack, was nearing the end of his lengthy career when he appeared on the concert platform at the Portland Civic Auditorium in the mid ’30s. He was a much beloved international figure of the ’20s. Loyal crowds came to hear his lyrical rendition of Irish folk songs. In honor of McCormack s visit to Portland that week, my mother and Phoebe went all the way. They featured “McCormack corned beef and cabbage” with boiled potatoes, all week long.
McCormack never made it across the street to see how he’d been honored at the “Good Eats Cafe.” But a few of the stage hands did. One evening, when it was almost closing time, three workmen sitting in a back booth finished their heaping plates of corned beef and cabbage. Then, unexpectedly, in “a tribute to the chef,” they burst out with a rousing rendition of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” The surprised customers seemed to love it.
That’s when my grandfather prodded and cajoled me into joining the fun. “Come on, Byron,” he growled, “stand up there and give ’em an Irish song of your own.” The workmen picked up on that and urged me on.
I was terribly embarrassed, of course. While I had often hammed it up with the family at home, the idea of singing in public scared the daylights out of me. Finally, after further arm-twisting, I did it. I made my painful debut there in the middle of the “Good Eats Cafe.”
Silence descended on the room, as I stood there for a moment or two with a poignant look on my face, clutching my checkered cap in both hands. Then, I gulped a couple of times, opened wide, and belted out a heart-grabbing chorus of dear old “Mother Machree” in my high 12-year- old tenor voice.
A dozen or so people still left in the place applauded wildly. My grandfather said afterwards, “There wasn’t a dry eye left in the house.” I don’t know about that.
Even now, when on a darkened street, seeing a faint neon CAFE sign, I am reminded of those days and my mother and Aunt Phoebe and their little west side restaurant called the “Good Eats Cafe”.