On the Off Beat

My life has always been a little left-of-center. It’s something I’ve grown used to through the years, and something that I actually value. My family history is sketchy, but the first off beat Waller I know of (although there’s probably a few much farther back) was my grandfather. He was literally born in the Vaudevillian theater and went on to become a celebrated child star.

"Little Jackie Waller” was a diminutive child who possessed the curious Salzburg “bump” in his personality. His family was from St. Wolfgangsee only a few miles from Mozart’s birthplace and they passed down the same kind of sense of humor that one finds there. He toured what was called the Circuit back in those days, singing and dancing and making the newspapers who extolled his prodigious musical talents. He could play any instrument given to him, played a trap set while dancing around it, and he even played the piano with his toes. During his teen years, however, his father died and he had to go to work to support the family. Then came WWI and he was off with the other Doughboys. When he returned, he went to Chicago in hope of returning to a musical life and he met an imperious, svelte coloratura and fell in love. So this is from whence I spring. Vaudeville meets Grand Opera. Talk about seria-buffa

My grandparents were always an odd couple, or at least I thought so growing up. He was short, not much over 5′ 4″ and she was nearly 6′ tall. He stayed at home puttering around his lush garden and in his garage while my grandmother worked as County Clerk at City Hall. He was a Hobbit and she was a socialite. Although this may not sound off beat to some of you who were born before 1970, this was in the 50s when the term “house husband” wasn’t even a concept.

My father, too, was off beat. Born into this musical family, he later went on the road as a drummer during the Big Band era (until Uncle Sam nabbed him in 1942). He kept a diary during one of these tours and in it he wrote about the cities they were in, the monkey business that went on in the band’s bus, the audiences and the parties in the hotel rooms along the way. Imagine my surprise when I read many years later about how the trumpet player smoked some “reefer” and couldn’t play for shit when he thought he was really wailing. No wonder my father told me back in the 60s, “If you’re ever going to smoke pot, just tell me and I’ll make sure you get the good stuff.”

During the great radio-to-television migration of the late 1940s and early 50s, my family (all of them) moved together from the Midwest to southern California in hope that my father would be the next Red Skelton. If you want to know who my dad was, put Red’s personality behind the face of William Bendix, a film star my father was often mistaken for. Things didn’t work out, however, but my dad still spent his life as a musician, playing in a Dixieland band right up until he died thirteen years ago this Friday. He was an amazing man. Unsung, humble, gentle, patient, and a mechanical genius. His drumming style was what I always called “meat & potatoes”—solid, dependable and right on the money.

I too had my days as a vagabond musician. In high school I performed at coffeehouses and in small, local concerts. At 18 I left home for Haight-Ashbury, where I literally sang for my supper. Later, I toured the western states, performing in coffeehouses, schools, rallies and prisons, as well as on television and in large concert venues in Hollywood and L.A.

Life has never been normal in the Waller family. We’re clowns, really. One of my grandfather’s acts was as a clown. My father was a clown in parades and in sketches and I’ve invented Boxxo the Fuckin' Clown, not something I’m particularly proud of, I must add. Still, the spirit runs strong. When you look at it, life is just a carnival anyway. You put on the funny hat, get on the ride and scream your head off while the less adventurous people are pitching dimes into goldfish bowls, hoping to snag a prize. The secret is, Life is the prize, not the big fuzzy toy. The big fuzzy toy just bogs you down. You can’t take it on the ride and you can’t just leave it for fear that someone will steal it. What a bother. Just get on the damned ride, scream, hurl if you have to, then go get a friggin’ sno-cone and rest in the shade for a bit. Even when the carnival leaves town, remember that it’ll be back soon enough with better rides for you to get on instead of pitching dimes.

I’m always happy to take people on the ride with me, and I have enough barf bags for everyone.


  1. I always thought so much of your dad. I cherish the memory of a trip one night from Solvang to Camarillo when I sat in the front with him and we talked the whole way. It’s not like anything important was said, but that he took the time to be interested in having a conversation with me. (I know you were with us. You must have been asleep in the back of the van.)

    When I think of him, I see his friendly smile that he always had for me, even the last time I saw him when he was so sick.

  2. He thought the world of you, Deni. He always told me, “You need more friends like her. Other people bring you down, but when you’re with Deni, you’re ‘up’.”

  3. Great post Steph. I can’t believe it has been 13 years. Your dad is one of the greatest men I have ever had the good fortune to have met. He was always kind and gentle and I never knew him to be cross or impatient.
    I will never forget the day he taught me to Jitter Bug in his garage on Benito. That will always be one of my most favorite memories. Not just in the memories I have of him, but of all the good memories in my life. I still miss him at times. He was a well loved man, as you well know. Knowing that brings peace to my thoughts when he comes to mind.

  4. What a great family story to tell. This was awesome to read.


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