A Quickly Forgotten Lesson

March 19, 1925, Paris, France

Carrying a suitcase containing our evening clothes, Bob and I made the long trek to the Chateau Caucasian, arriving just after noon and hoping someone would be there.  We were going to tell them that we wanted to rehearse, but the real reason we arrived early was we hoped to get a cash advance from Mr. Varounis, so we could get Bob’s banjo out of hock and have some money for food and other essentials.  We brought our evening clothes along in case we were unsuccessful and couldn’t afford cab fare, as I refused to walk between the club and our hotel twice in one day.

After banging on the front door several times with no answer, we headed around the block to the back of the club.  Delivery trucks were lined up offloading cases of food and booze. In the kitchen, a small army of chefs were busy cutting, dicing, frying and stirring.  The delicious smells reminded me that I hadn’t eaten today.  After getting lost a couple times, we finally found the stairs leading up to the Cabaret.

“You’re early,”  the Admiral said, as he walked up to us wearing a frown.  “If you’re looking for food, dinner service doesn’t start for another five hours.”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly eat a thing,” I lied.  “We had a huge, late breakfast and I’m so stuffed I might not eat again all day.”

“We came to rehearse,” Bob interjected, not wanting me to say any more.  “We would also like to have a quick word with Mr. Varounis.”

“Mr. Varounis is a very busy man and normally doesn’t deal with employees.  That’s my job.”

Employees! I hated the sound of the word and was becoming irate at the Admiral’s rudeness.  Maybe everyone else around here jumped at his commands, but I refused to be one of them.   

“Still,” Bob said quickly, seeing I was angry and might lose it at any moment, “If you would be so kind as to let him know we would like to see him.”

“He’s not here, but when he arrives I will tell him.  Until then, rehearse all you want.”

I uttered a sarcastic response under my breath as we walked past him onto the stage, when I spotted a beautiful, black grand piano waiting for me. My hunger and anger were quickly forgotten as rushed over and began caressing the keys. It was perfectly tuned. The room had surprisingly good acoustics and, in a short time, Bob and I were once again happily playing and singing our hearts out.  Some of the kitchen staff and workmen had gathered to listen and even applauded after one of our numbers, until Admiral jackass came by and told them to get back to work.

“I understand you would like to see me.”  We were so wrapped up in our music we hadn’t seen Mr. Varounis walk up on the stage.

Bob explained we needed to buy some new music, clothes we could perform in and other items for the show, carefully avoiding letting him know how broke we really were.  “So, if you would be so kind as to give us an advance on our salary …”

“I see.  How much of an advance are you requesting?” he asked without showing any emotion.

We had already decided that one night’s salary would get us everything we needed till payday, and then some.

“We were thinking 100 francs.”

“Hmmm.”  Mr. Varounis went deep into thought again, looking down at the stage.  “A long time ago, I decided it was best to never give people money for work they have not done.  It is bad business and can only cause problems.” 

He paused and my heart sank.

“But in your case, I will make an exception this one time.  I don’t have any francs on me.  Will American dollars do?”

We nodded as we hadn’t converted any dollars to francs yet and American dollars were easier for us.  My mind started racing, wondering if I had time to get my hair done and do some shopping before the first show.

He reached in his pocket and brought out a large roll of bills.  He stripped four of them off and laid them on the baby grand.  Returning the wad of bills to his pocket, he reached in his other pocket and carefully counted out several coins putting them on top of the two bills.

“Will there be anything else?” he asked.

Bob and I starred at the $4.54 laying on the piano – our mouths hanging open in disbelief. 

“What is this?” I asked.

“Based on the exchange rate today, exactly one hundred francs.

“Let this be a lesson to you both,” Mr. Varounis said more like a father than an employer.  “Now, I suggest we go back to my office and discuss a salary that is fair to everyone.”

For the next hour he lectured us on the value of money and how critical it was to save every penny we could.  He had written a book on money called Dollars that he had penned for the youth of America and gave us an autographed copy.  I didn’t listen too much of what he said, as I was angry at myself for not knowing that 100 francs was only $4.54.  He offered a salary, which was lower than I thought we were worth, but enough that we could get an small apartment, eat and have some left over for shopping.  He also gave us a week’s advance that he would take out of our salary over the next month. 

When the meeting was over, we had no interest in rehearsing any more.  While Bob took a cab to get his banjo out of hock, I rushed down the street to a beauty salon to see if they could do my hair fast enough so I still had time to drop by the boutique next door.  They had this white dress in the window that would look fabulous on me.