Maternal-Side Christmas: Christmas Eve

My maternal grandparents (Bruno and Viola (Biliunas) Markoski) lived on the other side of the state, so I don’t think I ever saw them at Christmas time. However, my mom carried on the Polish tradition of pierogies on Christmas Eve.

Being good Catholics, we were not to eat meat on Christmas Eve, so the Polish often made pierogies for dinner. Folks would later ask me, “Were they stuffed with potatoes?” I’d never heard of such a thing! My mom’s family made their pierogies stuffed with farmer’s cheese (which is kind of like ricotta) or kapusta (a sauerkraut mixture). (Personally, I prefer the cheese-stuffed pierogies slathered with melted butter spooned over them!)

Cheese pierogies on the top, kapusta on the bottom! Author’s collection.

Both my sisters have made pierogies, as well as a few of my first cousins on that side of the family (as reported on Facebook). Me? I do have my mom’s recipe, but I’ve never made them. Maybe someday! For now, I’m enjoying everyone else’s!

My side of the family continues this cooking tradition, as well as opening presents on Christmas Eve. It all started with our opening the gifts from our parents on Christmas Eve (which included the obligatory matching jammies that we’d put on that night), then Santa gifts on Christmas Day. As we got older, the Santa gifts faded away, and we were just left with Christmas Eve. Usually, we had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing classics in the background as each of us took turns opening our gifts. When my dad was alive, and if we were really lucky, he’d play some Christmas songs on the cornet. He had a really awesome tone! (And yes, I would say he inherited his musicality from his ancestors!)

We continue these traditions to this day on the years we have Christmas with my side of the family. For my own family (husband and kids), we have our own presents on Christmas morning as well as a yummy Christmas dinner on a table with Great-grandmother Bertha’s tablecloth and my aunt Cheryl’s silverware set that Great-grandmother Eva gave her.

Great-Great Uncle Eugene Jule Pleau: A Career for a Lifetime

Unlike his older brothers, I’ve found no record of Eugene writing his own music. However, he did enjoy a long career in music and acting.

The 1905 New York Census listed his occupation as playing piano. Apparently this was a lifelong love, because he played piano and the solovox (a keyboard instrument) in 1947 in Florida nightclubs and even on the radio.

Eugene, like his brother Al, took part in many blackface minstrel shows throughout New York State. In 1912 and 1913, he took part in and even directed a benefit for Fairport Lodge 476 in Fairport, NY.

One of Eugene’s unique talents was dancing. In 1917 he performed a “scarecrow dance” in Cato, NY. In 1925 he danced along with “monologuing” at the Masonic Hall in Sandy Creek, NY. And in 1928 he was lauded as a “stylish stepper” at a show put on at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament right in his hometown of Rochester.

Finally, Eugene spent many years acting in comedies aside from vaudeville acts. Two of the acting troupes I know of were the Jack Lynn Stock Players (in 1922) and the Bunny Strickler Players (1927). Among some of the plays he took part in were: “My Mother’s Rosary,” “Other People’s Money,” “Why Women Divorce Men,” “Judy O’Grady, or When Dreams Come True,” and “Scrambled Wives.”

It seems to me that whenever and wherever Eugene was, he was able to use his talents to do what he loved: entertain people.

Great-Great Uncle Albert Joseph Pleau: On With the Show!

Out of the three performing Pleau brothers, I think Al had the most experience, exposure, and consequently, fame.

In 1903, newspapers reported him playing piano (another piano player!) and performing skits with his wife, May, as part of Shield’s Vaudeville in Montana and Washington. 1904 is the first mention of his doing blackface comedy in Los Angeles. Blackface appears to be his “schtick”, as he performed it for many years all over the country. Some of the companies he was with were: Haverly’s Mastadon Minstrels, Hawley’s Minstrels, and even his own Al Pleau’s Minstrels. His wife Henrietta was even part of the act during their marriage.

Early in his career, Al played a leadership role for the causes he cared about. 1908 was when he seems to have put together Al Pleau’s Minstrels that performed a benefit for the Acadia Hose Company in Newark, NY. In 1912, he was director and musical director of the Western drama, “The Half-Breed” in Le Roy, NY that was to benefit St. Joseph’s Italian Church.

Another benefit that Al participated in was after World War I. On April 29, 1919, a day of entertainment was provided to a number of veterans who fought at Argonne at the country home of Senator James D. Phelan in Saratoga, CA. Al was named the “vaudeville tenor”.

Al must have made many friends in show business. In 1906 he contracted the measles, which affected his vision for a while, making him unable to perform. So in January 1907, a benefit was organized for him as he recuperated, perhaps to make up for his lost income.

Al also had a hand in songwriting and arrangement.  I was able to find some songs that he had copyrighted:

  • “When I Stroll With You” in 1910
  • “Don’t Be Jealous of Old New York” in 1910
  • “My Cousin Antone” in 1910
  • Sandy McPherson in 1910
  • “The Call to the Boys in Blue” in 1918 (by his own Al Pleau Music Co.)
  • “Where ‘ja Get It” in 1920
  • “Draw” also in 1920
Courtesy Library of Congress.

Courtesy Library of Congress.

My big thrill recently was finding the sheet music and manuscript of “The Call to the Boys in Blue” (the manuscript says “The Call of the Boys in Blue”) on the Library of Congress website! I wouldn’t be surprised if he wrote even more songs.

As vaudeville declined, so had the articles about Al’s performances. In 1922 he played Dave Tolliver in “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” with the Hildebrand Company on stage in Klamath Falls, WA. I suspect that stage acting was the direction Al’s career took, as he was listed as an actor in his 1940 voter registration (he was a Democrat, by the way). For all I know, he may have done radio or even some film roles, but I haven’t found any evidence of that yet.

Great-Grandfather George: The Music

I first discovered that my great-grandfather was a musician via the Rochester City Directories, which the Monroe County Public Library has made available on line. He is listed as a musician in 1902, then from 1910-1918, and as a shoemaker before and after 1902, then as of September of 1918. The only time his employment address was listed was 1914-1917 (282 West Main Street, which was the Empire Theatre).  1900 picture Empire Theatre Rochester

As I stated in my previous post, George seemed to get his first taste of performing while attending Our Lady of Victory School. In 1890, he performed in “Le Distrait”, and in 1891 he played Brun, King of the Gnomes in “The Interviewer and the Faries”, which was an operetta.

Like George, his younger brothers Albert and Eugene also became musicians and seemed to be more successful at it. (More on them in future posts!)

I had no idea what kind of a musician he was until I came across a 1902 ad in the Wayne County Review (which I found on , an awesome source for New York State newspapers). He was a pianist, just like his future wife Bertha and his son!

In a Google Books search (“Catalog of Copyright Entries:  Musical Compositions, Part 3, Volume 22, Issue 1”) I found that he wrote the melody to an unpublished song in 1927 called “Stop Time Buck Dance”.

I have no idea how he and my great-grandmother Bertha met, but I like to think that perhaps music had something to do with it. Did they sit side by side at the piano, singing songs? I’ll never know, but it is a nice mental picture.