By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Kahm's typewriter, an IBM Selectric II, is in the dining room. It's his first electric machine following six manual Smith-Coronas, and although he only bought it this year, he already wants to get rid of it. "The keys are too light," he says. All around the apartment there are pages of typing paper from myriad projects, some decades old, most in all-caps type, strewn on desks and tables, and in boxes and folders on the floor. The Selectric sits on a round fire oak table that expands to seat twelve. The table has three lion's paws at the base. "Everyone asks about that," Kahm says. "It hasn't been used for that many people since my parents died."
Kahm attributes his gifts as a writer to his mother, Jeanette Virginia Sackerman. "When she was 15," he remembers, "she entered a short story contest in the Chicago Tribune. She did a lot of entertaining, and she would write short verses on placards for each of a dozen guests. In Chicago, she set up a secretarial business for herself, serving hotels. It was very unusual for a woman to do that. She met my father at a dance and married when she was 17. At 18, she had me. She said I was her 'little accident.' She proved that by not having another child for 12 years. Later, she helped my father in his business. They had a live-in Swedish maid, Bettina. I was practically raised by my aunt. In those days, spinster sisters frequently lived with their families. Her life was devoted to me.
"My mother had a terrific sense of humor. I'll give you an idea what she was like. When we had company, I was always present with all the adults. One night, Miss Bresky was at the table--she was a lawyer--when I told a naughty story. Miss Bresky gasped. 'How can you say such a thing,' she said, glaring at my parents. And I answered, 'Well, they're the ones who told it to me!'"
Kahm's father, Sigmund, was born to a family of millers in Vienna and emigrated to avoid conscription into the Austrian army. "He first worked as an egg-candler," Kahm says. "When he was 18, my father quit that job, got his own horse and wagon, and started delivering to restaurants. By the time he was in his twenties, he was selling eggs by the carload. Then he set up an amusement park in Columbia Heights. It was called Forest Park. It consisted of a vaudeville theater, a dance hall, picnic grounds, refreshment concessions, and games of chance. The Swedish National Dancers came there every June.
"I spent all my summers in Columbia Heights. It was at the end of the streetcar line then, a village of 300 people. On weekends, the streetcar company attached extra cars to bring people there. Columbia Heights was a few hundred feet higher than the city, and a nice breeze would blow in. It was a delightful place in the summer.
"They also had a couple of dance halls. Fairyland was one--that word didn't have the same meaning then. The Dick Long Band used to play at Fairyland. His first professional job was at Forest Park in the dance hall there, and he finally ended up with his own band at the Curtis Hotel. My father also ran the Cyril Theater, which was one of the first nickelodeons in town. It was at a storefront at 114 Hennepin Avenue. My father was the first secretary of the Motion Picture Exhibitor's Association. I saw all the Charlie Chaplin films at the Cyril theater. Sometimes, when the piano player wouldn't show up, I would fill in. My mother taught me how. Those were wonderful days."
Kahm's eyes are closed as he recalls this; he raises his hands in the air over an imaginary keyboard and begins to play.
In 1927, when Harold Kahm was 21, he followed his parents into the entertainment business, buying a traveling merry-go-round. "It was financed by my cousin in New York," Kahm says. "He played the racetrack. I think he financed it because of the horses." Kahm's merry-go-round featured music from a Wurlitzer Band Organ and ran off a 10-horsepower electric motor. Along with the merry-go-round, Kahm toured with a Venetian swing. This consisted of a triangular iron frame with a suspended wooden gondola that held two passengers. The swing was operated by pulling a pair of ropes. "They were very popular in Europe," Kahm says, "especially in Eastern Europe. I think they still have them there. It was a man-killer to take apart and put back together though. The idea I had was that I could travel with the merry-go-round in the summer and spend the rest of the year as a writer."
Kahm credits Edith M. Penny, a teacher at West High School, with first inspiring him to write. "She told me, 'Harold, it is a pleasure to read everything you write.' I was about 16 then, and I've never been able to wear a hat since. Annie G. Ford was the principal of West High School. At our graduation, she said that life is like the Mississippi River, growing ever wider and deeper as it heads south to the sea. It was a beautiful speech. But then no one gives a fuck about stupid shit like that."