The backstage of the pavilion was simple with its wooden floors and temporary props. The 1964 World’s Fair of Flushing, NY would come and go and no one would remember the little five year-old girl who played with her Barbies in its grand shadow.
While some country stars were just cutting their musical teeth at the fair, others were moving into their prime. Songs would immortalize the magnificent occasion for years to come. The 1964 World’s Fair! Many would rush pass the little girl named Cheryl, never seeing her. Others might toss a smile, more worried about their own performance. One singer in particular had the peculiar habit of running past to grab a sip of Budweiser, going out on stage through the red and white wooden gateway to the hectic throng of fairgoers, come running back off stage after singing, throw up, and then do it all over again beginning with a fresh can. For many years, Cheryl believed Budweiser itself made you throw up. Later she realized it was instead the amount this notoriously alcoholic star chugged -- not the cool, golden liquid itself.
Often unsupervised, the little dark headed girl knew instinctively to stay close to the stage. Sometimes a boy named Tommy babysat her while her parents were busy practicing and performing their opening songs for the big acts. Her younger brothers were nowhere in Cheryl’s memory, though they had already been born.
The 1964 World’s Fair had many new things to see - from space inventions to fountains timed to music. A large Unisphere would become symbolic of the Fair yet doomed to disgrace for being the only world’s fair to open without the blessing of the BIE (Bureau of International Expositions). Because of the controversy, major countries pulled out of participating, leaving the burden of entertainment and costs to smaller countries like Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Thailand, Greece and Belgium….Belgium, at least, introduced the Bel-Gem waffle with strawberries and cream that would become an American diner favorite.
But all this swirling activity was above the head of little Cheryl who remembers just being grateful for a compassionate lady named June Carter and the nice words of people called the Carpenters. She wouldn’t realize until later the significance of these individuals to the country music scene. The star who would run past her wide eyes and playful Barbie make-believe world was none other than Johnny Cash, a star whose troubled alcoholic past would make movie history after his death.
Back in their little trailer, Cheryl would blast the new sounds of rock-n-roll on her precious little transistor radio to pass the time.
“Whose kid is this?” one country music star would ask jokingly.
“Not mine,” replied her dad with a chuckle, whose own tunes most resembled Hank Snow. Her mom, Elizabeth Hopper was the Patsy Cline of the family.
Cheryl’s dad was a charming Frenchman named Don LaPlante, ancestor of French nobility if you cared to trace back that far. His talkative and handsome ways worked wonders for him in a crowd, but he didn’t know how to keep away from the alcohol and other influences behind the scenes. His growing habits resulted in abusive behavior to his family and eventually the end of his marriage when Cheryl was twelve. Just like pieces of the traveling World Fair where he sang in all his glory, he too would move far away, rebuild and get a new start. He would never again have contact with his first children. At a later time his “newer” teenage offspring would reach out to the older half-siblings in the wake of his death.
Elizabeth Hopper, Cheryl’s mother, was a different breed with familial connections to the quirky Thomas Edison family. Raising children didn’t come easy to the woman plagued with health issues and her own struggles with temptations the entertainment industry afforded. During their travels around the U.S., her mother used churches as a babysitting service and dropped Cheryl off at the front doors on Sundays starting at a very young age. Independent and able to handle herself, Cheryl was grateful for the opportunity to learn about God and sing the wonderful songs that her mother would never teach her at home. Though she remembers adults making fun of her metal legs braces as she climbed the Texan church steps alone, Cheryl was known for not letting the little things get in her way.
Born with twisted legs, Cheryl barely made it into the world when her own mother could not push out the breached child and the doctor failed to show up in time. Another mystery doctor pulled the child with the compromised legs to safety, despite of an order to terminate the life of the baby who might die anyway. The doctor’s daring rescue saved both lives. Later in life, Cheryl was unable to locate the doctor when she went in search to thank him. No record remains of his name.
Eventually her mother listened to the advice of her wisened daughter Cheryl, who had become the mother to her own mother by the ripe age of twelve, and her mother packed up and left her abusive father. She re-married after bringing the family back to New York where their journey had begun. Cheryl’s step-father was a merchandiser for Grant’s department store which was opening a new store in another state and the opportunity looked too good to pass up. They settled in Pennsylvania where Cheryl would be able to put down roots and blossom into adulthood where her faith carried her through many trials to come.
The alternative rock band “They Might Be Giants” paid homage several times to the same 1964 World’s Fair where John Linnell, half of the band, attended as a little child. Their famous song “Ana Ng” included one line which states “All alone at the Sixty-Four World's Fair / Eighty dolls yelling ‘Small Girl After All.’” One can’t help but wonder if that little songwriter-to-be didn’t spy another lone child behind an open stage door, far removed from the ever popular Disney attraction “It’s a Small World After All,” playing with her Barbies, perfectly content, and perfectly oblivious to where her world would take her.
Thank you Cheryl, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2008 by Sarah Peppel and Story of My Life®