Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The Other Question


There's another research question to grapple with before this month comes to a close. When I started this month's project, my hope was to track my father's music career from his early adulthood. After all, even though he was only one generation removed from me, there was a lot of life story that I didn't know much about. I was curious. Now that digitized genealogy and general history resources can be found at the click of a mouse, this was my golden moment.

Granted, I found a lot of newspaper reports on my dad, thanks to leads my brother provided. Not hints given to me, personally—hey, I was the kid sister; what would I know?—but to several interviewers documenting his own career over the years (for which I'm grateful), and also, once again, thanks to the archiving essence of our now digitized world.

Before I close out this month's family research project, though, there is one other question I need to answer. The month started out with me wondering what my brother meant when he said he descended from a line of entertainers—both his father and his grandfather. My dad I always knew about—but what about my grandfather? He was dead before I was born; I never met him. What little I had gleaned about his life and his personality from older siblings and cousins led me to understand they too knew little about his background. This would be my month to track down an answer to that other question: just what entertainment this grandfather might have provided in his younger years.

The trick in researching such a question lies in the fact that this was the man who changed his name upon arrival on American shores. Known in his homeland by the Polish equivalent of the name Theodore J. Puchalski, once in New York, he reversed order on his given names to become "John T." Whether he used his surname, originally Puchalski, or opted for a more streamlined American version for this entertainment diversion, I can't tell.

Theodore J.—or John T.—was born in 1876. Though the information on his petition for naturalization states he arrived in New York in 1884, I have not been able to find any trace of him in records before the 1905 New York State census. By that point, he would have been almost thirty years of age—hiding a good ten to perhaps twelve years of the possible work my brother alluded to.

After that point—state enumerations did not include information on occupation—the federal census records were of no help, though they did confirm some details my older sister had shared with me about our grandfather. He was either listed as a "machinist" or working at a printing press. For one census, he was listed as a "foreman" but the enumerator didn't follow instructions for how to enter the type of industry—and had sloppy handwriting on top of that. I think I can be safe in saying he wasn't serving as a foreman for any night club acts.

As for the most obvious possibility for how the man could have been an entertainer—if you guessed vaudeville, we are both on the same page—there may be some clues. Both my older sister and my cousin—the oldest of the surviving grandchildren—have told me stories of how John T. was a juggler and had a friend who was a professional wrestler. But before we get lost in conjecture, let's get the overview of the historical setting of the era in which vaudeville flourished, tomorrow.

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