Okay—stop everything. There were six members in the Wenzler family. We’ve only talked about five. When did number six come long?
Well, not too long after we moved in at the farm. Here are the details as I recall them:
Mom was pregnant with baby number four and went to the hospital. Dad made us a lot of scrambled egg sandwiches with ketchup while she was gone. They were best washed down with Ovaltine.
While Mom was at the hospital, I thought I could get away with wearing my black patent leather Sunday shoes to school. My everyday saddle shoes looked enormous on my feet—I thought. But my plan for shoe independence was thwarted by a woman named Fern. She lived in the Kiekaver’s carriage house and took care of the castle. Mom had arranged for her to come over and stay with us while she was at the hospital and Dad was at work. My memory as a six year old was that Fern didn’t have too many teeth and smiled a lot. Anyway, she noticed my shiny shoes when I came home from school and told Dad. So it was back to my clod hoppers.
Joan Elizabeth was born on April 23, 1961.
She grew to have beautiful blonde curls, unlike the rest of us. Joanie and I shared a bedroom across the hall from Ed and John with Mom and Dad in between, making a triangle on the second floor of our farm house. Each of the kid’s rooms had trundle beds which pretty much went wall to wall when the lower beds were pulled out. Dad had built plywood desks with shelves above along one wall in both of our rooms so we would each have a place to study. I never used mine for homework. I kept my fish in a glass bowl on it along with a record player and a case of 45s which I played often and sang along with loudly.
I remember I told Joanie once that she was adopted and made her cry–she remembers this too. I also blamed her for things I did and didn’t let her play with my friends and me. I don’t remember feeling anything but love for her so I don’t know what the story was there. Maybe I was jealous of her blonde curls.
By the time I was in high school we were great friends. We both got into trouble equally. She was a better student.
I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an art major. She was in town visiting a friend during a Badger game weekend that fall. She and her friend snuck into the stadium and were wandering around the base of the seating looking up into the crowd. So there I was, 50 rows or so up and I hear “DEBBIEEEEEE!” I look down by the cheerleaders and there’s my little sister with a friend, yelling up to me as loudly as she can in a stadium with 70,000 screaming fans, and waving here arms madly. Somehow they made it up to my seat which was in the student section in the end zone. For those of you, who are younger, at that time it was a beer throwing, body passing, den of rowdiness. So here’s my 12 year old sister sitting next to me, thoroughly enjoying the experience and we watched the rest of the game together. She’s a huge football fan. I don’t remember the game at all, or who won–I’m not even sure why I was there. But it was so fun that my little sister found me.
After the game, we joined the exodus of students heading back to their dorms. At some point the friend dropped out. Joanie was hungry—like a little sister visiting her big sister tends to be—so I treated her to a luxury dinner on my dorm food card. For those of you who missed this epicurean delight, the commons by Celery (where my brother Ed and husband Todd lived at the time) and Ogg dorms was a large cafeteria style hall with Formica tables evenly spaced. You got a lot of food for the money. Joanie ended up spending the night with me in my dorm. How in the world she found me that day I will never know but that’s the way it’s always been with us. Nothing can separate us for long.
Now, back to the story….Joanie was in high school at Riverside and taking dance classes at the University. I had been accepted into the School of Music as a voice major my second semester at Madison and transferred to UW-Milwaukee School of Music my sophomore year but I was spending a lot of time in the dance department along with Joanie because I loved it. She was training to become a ballet dancer. We took classes together from a great dance faulty including Jury and Judy Goltshalks, Gloria Gustafson, Myron Nadel and many wonderful guest artists (Michael Maule, Jonathon Watts, Lisa Bradley, to name a few). We would share a bowl of popcorn and drink Tabs before the 1:30 Ballet class. We always waited until the last possible minute to leave the house—usually 1:20—to hop on my bike and race over. I would buck her with both of us carrying our large dance bags over our shoulders. One day, crossing Downer Avenue and Kenwood Boulevard, when we were especially late, I told her to hold on tight. I was going to take the curb—this was before handicap accessible sidewalks. She yelled for me to stop but instead, I sped up thinking I could pop a wheelie or something and make the curb. I didn’t. We hit it straight on and wiped out in front of the traffic when a bus was trying to make its turn onto Kenwood. She grabbed her bag and marched on ahead, gathering her dignity, while I wrestled with the bike and my bag, all the while laughing. She was not at all amused and I couldn’t convince her to get back on the bike. I walked it along beside her in silence. I think we were late for class that day.
Joanie was serious about dance like I was serious about becoming an actress, and/or a singer and/or a dancer—I was still deciding. Joanie loved the Joffery Ballet. This is what Dad remembers about her first big audition:
“Joffery Ballet had sent out a notice of their auditions for Joffery II in Chicago. I called and found out the details and Mom and I we went down with Joan. She did a great job and won a scholarship. That was Saturday. On Monday, I called the Joffery office and talked to the head administrator, Edith D’Darrio. I told her what had happened–that Joan had won a scholarship and that she was only 17 so I wanted to bring her to NY and find her a safe place to live where she would be protected. She told me they had a great place called the Katherine House on West 13th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues not far from the studios. I told her we were going to come the next day to check it out. She said, “Oh–don’t do that! We are just about to have a transportation strike and the whole city will be shut down. You won’t be able to get around.” I said, “Okay.”
Then I thought about it a minute. I called the airport and got two round trip tickets to NY, then I called Riverside High School and told them what was up and asked to have Joan out on the sidewalk in 15 minutes. I picked her up, we went to the airport, got to NY, caught a shuttle, got to Joffery, walked into the office and I said, “Hi, I’m Bill Wenzler. I talked to you on the phone earlier today?” She looked at us with a rather stunned expression and said, “Why you couldn’t have come from Manhattan that fast!” So she gave us a list of places to check out for Joan to live. We found Katherine house, liked it, got Joan signed up and flew back home that afternoon.”
That’s how Mom and Dad were. They let us dream our own dreams then did what they could to support us. I thought I was the one who would end up in NYC. Now that Joanie was there I was determined to join her. I just didn’t know what I was going to be doing exactly or how I would get there. I had thought about auditioning for Neighborhood Playhouse but I was performing at the Skylight at the time and was having a great time. One night after a run ended, we were having a cast party at our house on Shepard, where I was living at the time while attending UWM along with Ed, John and Mom. Colin Cabot was at the party and said he had to get going because he was driving to NY that night. I said, “Can I come along?
“Well, sure,” he said, “Hurry up.” So I quickly packed more than I needed as I usually do, filled up his Volkswagen Van and we took off for NYC that night. Joanie let Mrs. Marshall, who ran Katherine House, know I was on my way and had a room ready for me when we arrived the next evening.
I remember Dad telling Joanie when she left for NY, “Go and God bless you and your dancing, Joan.” When I left, he looked at me—the Jack of all trades and master of none as our neighbor Mr. Abert had called me to my face—and no more certain than I was myself about what I would be doing, said, “ Debbie…well, go and God bless you.”