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State Theatre's first stage manager 'posted' many Vaudeville memories

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 6:09 p.m.
Bobbi Williams Fetsko of Uniontown displays the framed circus poster that her grandfather George “Zeke” Williams pasted somewhere in Uniontown when he worked in show business in the early 1900s. The retired elementary teacher has fond memories of her grandfather, who toured as a stagehand in vaudeville and was the State Theatre’s first stage manager. LAURA SZEPESI / For The Daily Courier
Pete Williams’ poster is tattered compared to the circus poster of his older sister, Bobbi Williams Fetsko. “What do you expect? I was one of the youngest in the family,” said the feisty Uniontown resident who teaches computer classes at Laurel Highlands Middle School in Uniontown. “I got the last pick” (of his grandfather Zeke Williams’s poster collection from Zeke’s show biz days). LAURA SZEPESI / For The Daily Courier
zeke williams
The restored State Theatre Center for the Art’s is Fayette County’s counterpart to Westmoreland County’s Palace Theater in Greensburg. The State’s new marquee is one of the newest features of the Main Street theater. The State enters its 10th decade this year; it dates back to 1922. LAURA SZEPESI/For The Daily Courier
Zeke Williams of Uniontown, the first stage manager at the State Theatre, toured as a stage hand for Eva Tanguay.

Editor's note: This is the third in a six-part series on old-time Fayette County theaters. It focuses on “Zeke” Williams of Uniontown, the State Theatre's first stage manager.

By the time the State Theatre opened in Uniontown in 1922, “Zeke” Williams had already had a world tour, much of it backstage in vaudeville.

Born George Nikolas Deebe in 1882 in Lebanon, Zeke's last name was Americanized to Williams at Ellis Island, where he entered the United States by ship, at 17.

When he died at 86 in 1968, Zeke left behind seven children, numerous grandchildren and a ton of (often hilarious) family legends. Most of those tales touted Zeke's colorful career in show business.

His granddaughter, Bobbi Williams Fetsko of Uniontown, was a teenager when she lost her grandfather, but her recollection of him is crystal clear — memories magnified by a stack of yellowed black-and-white photos of the Williams family. His grandchildren called Zeke “Gidy,” an Arabic word that means “my grandfather.”

Uniontown in 1899

When the Williams family came to Uniontown in 1899, they settled on Vance Street. “Many Lebanese immigrants lived there,” Fetsko explained. She's not certain why the family chose Uniontown, but she suspects the region's coal mines lured them from Lebanon. The nearby mountains and greenery suggested the terrain of their homeland.

When Zeke grew up, he donned the required miner's helmet, picked up his pick ax, and dutifully went underground.

He soon came up for air — for good.

“Gidy didn't like coal mining, no sir,” Fetsko said. “He was a real character.”

Her gregarious grandfather was a people person. Thus, buoyed by his boisterous personality, Zeke traded in his pick ax for a brush and a bucket of paste.

He became a vaudeville bill poster.

‘Posted' show bills

He didn't handle receipts or cash, as the title suggests. He “posted” (pasted up) signs advertising coming attractions at Uniontown's vaudeville theaters. There were several in the early 1900s, including the Dixie Theater at Penn and Peters streets, the Penn Theater on East Main Street and the Capitol on West Main (near Walgreen's Pharmacy).

“My dad (the late Joseph Williams) told me that Gidy was a very good poster. He was really fast,” Fetsko said.

In addition to slapping up signs around Uniontown, Zeke posted billboards the old-fashioned way, panel by panel. His signs advertised more than vaudeville; circuses also drew big crowds back then.

As Zeke posted, he made friends with show business people. Those contacts landed him a job as a stagehand for a famous vaudeville performer, the risque actress-singer Eva Tanguay, who shot to national fame when she was nicknamed the “I Don't Care Girl.”

Vaudeville stagehand

“Gidy toured with Eve Tanguay on the vaudeville circuit. They traveled across the United States for several years,” Fetsko said. As a child, Fetsko was fascinated by her grandfather's steamer trunk, which was covered with vaudeville stickers from faraway places. (A family member living out of state still has Zeke's trunk.)

Eventually, Zeke returned home to Uniontown, where he continued to post bills. In 1917, the 33-year-old married Budra (“Betty”), who was only 17.

“That's the way they did it back then. Women married very young,” Fetsko said.

Zeke's show business career was revived in 1922 when the State Theatre was constructed by Penn Amusement Co.

“He had become friends with the owner,” Fetsko explained. Zeke was a permanent fixture at the State for many years, booking acts and serving as stage manager.

He saw many famous acts up close, according to his granddaughter.

“He stood behind Harry Houdini onstage once and saw how some of Houdini's tricks were done.” Fetsko laughed. “He wouldn't tell my dad Houdini's secret, though. That used to really make Dad mad!”

There were perks to being the children of the State's stage manager.

“Dad said they could all go to the movies for free. All they had to pay was one penny of tax,” Fetsko said.

The Williams family lived so close to the State that Zeke usually walked to work. If the weather was bad, he would hop a streetcar.

“He never drove,” Fetsko said.

Worked in Depression

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the State Theatre kept the Williams family going.

“My grandfather made $90 a week, which was unheard of back then,” Fetsko said. “When the theatre owner died some years later, my grandfather was included in his will. In fact, Gidy said the owner left a little something to all of the State's longtime employees.”

Zeke and Betty Williams had seven children together before Betty died of a stroke on Christmas Eve 1944. She was only 44. At the time, all five of their sons were serving with the Navy and Army during World War II.

“She suffered from high blood pressure but refused to take her medicine,” Fetsko explained.

Zeke never remarried.

After he retired from the State Theatre, he entertained his grandchildren with show biz tales. Fetsko remembers him taking her and her older sister, Connie (Evans), to a carnival at the Reagan Lynn Lot, which was off North Gallatin Avenue; Fayette County Community Action's building stands there today.

“Gidy knew all the carneys who worked at the carnival, so he got us free ride tickets,” Fetsko said.

Posters still ‘posted'

After Zeke passed away, his children collected his belongings and shared them for memories. Joe Williams and his wife, Magdalen (now 84), selected large show posters for their six children: Bobbi and Connie, as well as Valerie (Cortis), Mary Williams, Dan and Pete. All six were framed and now hang in their homes.

All of Joe and Magdalen's children stayed in the Uniontown area, except Connie, a retired English teacher who lives in Ohio. Fetsko, a retired Menallen Township Elementary teacher, is married to Bob Fetsko, who retired last year as technical director for Laurel Highlands School District. Valerie teaches at Uniontown High School, and Pete Williams teaches computer classes at Laurel Highlands Middle School in Uniontown. That leaves Mary Williams, who lives in Uniontown, and Dan Williams, who operates Williams Amusements, a vending company.

Pete and Dan Williams — the “youngsters” of the Williams family — have more than posters to remember their grandfather. Thanks to their “big” sisters' memories, their Gidy Zeke Williams forever capers through a show biz spotlight bigger than life itself.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

Thursday: Uniontown man toured United States with vaudeville's “Lady Gaga.”

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