Friday, August 23, 2013

What a dame my mother was -- singing 'without no pants on'

A mother's love of all things theatrical inspires lifelong affection for drama, movies, costumes and the Land of Make Believe 

Rudolph Valentino inspired the writer's mum's sense of drama.

"I'm the sheik of Araby (without no pants on)
Your love belongs to me (without no pants on)
At night when you're asleep  (without no pants on)
Into your tent I'll creep (without no pants on)......"


SHE WAS always my first birthday caller.
She'd burst into the traditional "Happy Birthday" song, always adding in her perfect-pitch mezzo: "Without no pants on.  And many more."
Ellen Nystul Cosgriffe
class valedictorian photo, 1945.
The writer's parents, Ellen and Richard Cosgriffe, in the late 1940s.
I understood the "and many more" part. Lots of people add that little footnote.
Robbie,  Ellen, Cookie
frolicking on board the QEII.
But the "without no pants on" part -- what the heck did that mean?
After more than six decades of wondering, I decided to find out as my mother's own Aug. 27 birthday approaches.
So here goes:  That little addendum, "without no pants on," forever part of our family tradition,  refers to the song, "The Sheik of Araby." It was written six years before my mother's birth, in 1921, by Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler who composed it in response to the wild popularity of Rudolph Valentino and his "Sheik" films.  Mums was a huge Valentino fan.
THE SONG lived on long after Valentino's untimely demise, and  Don Albert's band recorded the first parody version with the chant "Without no pants on" between the lines of lyrics.

Cookie and her mum, Ellen,
had tons of fun, here singing "Side by Side."
Fats Waller, Rosey Clooney, Spike Jones and many others -- including the Marx Bros and the Beatles -- recorded their versions.
Valentino died young, in his twenties, almost a year to the day of my mother's birth. He'd been in that great casbah in the sky for a year when Ellen Betty Nystul, was born Aug. 27, 1927, the only daughter of Gustav and Olive.
As a child, she looked much like Shirley Temple with fetching curls and that same precocious talent.  She could sing and tap dance, play trumpet and violin.  She learned piano in a day, watching her mother, my talented gram, play. She was drum majorette, tap dancer, ballerina (I have her toe shoes, a red pair and a beige.)
STILL A TODDLER, she began her lifelong love of theater, costumes, singing.
Valentino's sense of style
inspired Ellen, and a parody with
 the famous "without no pants on." 
When we Cosgriffes were growing up, we entertained in our small Montana town.
The late Jim Annin ("They Gazed on the Beartooths" author and city father) often introduced us, "The Countless Cosgriffes."
Ellen's memorial was a theatrical family affair.
It began with just two Cosgriffes -- "Cookie and Peny" -- and grew to include the whole family.  My mother always dreamed we would be a Rocky Mountain version of the Von Trapp family, singing a western "Edelweis" to an enraptured audience.
WE PERFORMED cuttings from popular Broadway shows of the day:  "Oklahoma" (I was Ado Annie, the girl "who cain't say no") and "My Fair Lady" (my brother Rick was a reluctant Henry Higgins, complete with English accent; we females were the extras -- flower girls in Covent Garden, the hatted Ascot horse-race ladies. Peny was picked to sing "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" to my piano accompaniment. In a sketch from "Annie Get Your Gun," we wore western duds for a bang-up "Doing What Comes Naturally.")
Ellen's later years included theatrics and lots of dogs.
Mum dressed us alike for our 1964 trip to the East Coast and the New York World's Fair, hoping, I presume, that we'd be discovered by a news photographer from NBC.  I remember one of our outfits well:  black and white t-shirts, black shorts and smart little red scarves.
One afternoon, we walked from our hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, to Rockefeller Center.  We sang "Give My Regards to Broadway" on a street corner, to amused New Yorker smiles.

Ellen also enjoyed hats and wore this one to her granddaughter's wedding.
MUM HAD dyed all our hair red --  hers was already a brilliant henna and my sister Peny had an authentic, gorgeous naturally red mane.  Mine was not red enough for mum, so she touched it up a bit. The blondes and brunettes in the family became redheads, too.
Daddy wore the t-shirts, but refused to submit to the Clairol bottle!
I KNOW Valentino was mum's greatest theatrical inspiration for his sense of style and drama.
 She saw all his pictures multiple times, knew about his romances on and off the screen.
She had a trunk of Middle Eastern costumes -- long flowing robes and scarves. She became an excellent belly dancer and performed her "Dance of Seduction" at her 25-year high school reunion!
 The writer knows her mother would have enjoyed Cairo's belly dancers. 
MUM IS responsible for my love of the Middle East. And my passion for costumes, dancing, dress-up and hats. I've played in pit orchestras for dozens of musicals, from "The Fantasticks" to "Man of La Mancha" and "Cabaret," in which I played piano as head of the bawdy Kit Kat Band. (NOT "without no pants on"!)
Late last year, I returned to Cairo, where a buxom belly dancer entertained us, slithering up to Keller during a Nile cruise performance. I toured a real casbah!
A casbah in Morocco.
I've been to several exotic dance performances recently, including a spirited tango show in San Diego and a flamenco production in Las Vegas.
I've donned a pirate girl hat on an afternoon sail with Cap'n Keller.
 "Come to my casbah," mum would whisper to us as little kids. "We shall make beautiful music together."
Ellen's last public appearance in 2008, here at a
reception with her daughter, left, and Hannelore Carter.
 THAT INVITATION meant come to the costume trunk.  We'd squeal with delight and rummage through mounds of costumes -- orange and green can-can skirts, red and black flapper dresses, Victorian bustles, western skirts. And always hats!
We'd decide on a theme, dress up and off we'd go off with mum to a world of make believe -- the casbah. And beyond.
At mum's memorial, the clan gathered to tell stories, remember costumes, sing her favorite songs.

Cookie and Keller carry on the costume and hat 
tradition inspired by Cookie's late mother!  

My mother: what a dame! She was inspired and inspirational. She painted, danced, traveled, lived with gusto. She invented recipes and didn't let a missing ingredient send her to the store. "Improvise," she'd say. No flour for the Thanksgiving gravy? Use pancake mix. Delicious! Everyone raved.
SHE WON every masquerade ball in which she competed, whether dressed as a Russian cossack, Indian princess or French chanteuse. Her prizes:  three months of milk from the Columbus Creamery, a radio, 25 pounds of butter, a garbage disposal, 300 feet of garden hose, a free permanent at the hair dresser's!
SHE WAS eccentric, no doubt, larger than life, an Isadora Duncan figure living in a small Montana town, surrounded by people who mostly didn't share her sensibilities or sense of drama but appreciated her talent. She yearned to "bust outta this little berg" and she did, saying "Good-bye Columbus" (Montana) to earn
New York's Times Square -- Cookie and her mum loved it!
advanced degrees and use her own personal struggles and experiences to help others.
Although she's been gone five years, I still hear her voice on my birthday phone call. How I wish I could call her on hers and return the compliment.
I keep her castanets on my night table and look at them every day.  Sometimes I put them on my fingers and click them.
"Come to my casbah," they seem to say. Thanks, mum. "And many more. Without no pants on."

Santa Catalina is a picturesque destination for our travelers.
COMING UP: Travel with us to "26 Miles Across the Sea....." The island of Santa Catalina is waitin' for us! Then we're north to Alaska, with a look at the pleasures of cruising the state's wild coast.
Plus a study of the evolution of the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings, Montana, flowers under the Big Sky, Montana Jack's summer offerings and Rio's wonders.
Remember to explore, learn and live and check us out Wednesdays and Saturdays at:


  1. Wonderful woman. So happy to have known her, and to have been a small part of your family's lively life.

  2. Read this first time'round and it is so fun to read again. Wow, your mother was truly gifted and you carry on her talented tradition.