Maine, Chavez, and the Pajama Game
The Pajama Game — a 1954 musical that sings and dances its way through a tale of garment workers fighting for a seven-and-a-half-cent pay raise — nearly lost its most sizzling number when an out-of-town preview audience either missed the point entirely or (depending on where you sat) got it all too well.
The number in question, "Steam Heat," conjures a stereotypical walk-up apartment heated by a boiler in a basement far below. In Bob Fosse’s minimal staging, this apartment (chilly and crowded, we imagine) is not depicted in the set design but rather evoked by a trio of performers who clank imaginary pipes, mimic the “fsssss” of leaking steam, and sing lyrics like these:
They told me to pour some more oil in the burner.
But that don't do no good.
The radiator's hissin,’ still I need your kissin’
To keep me from freezing each night.
I've got a hot water bottle, but nothing I've got'll
Take the place of you holdin' me tight.
There’s a bit of uncomfortable realism here, wrapped in a schmalzy, musical-comedy love story. In adapting Richard Bissell’s novel 7-1/2 Cents for the stage, choreographer Fosse, along with directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins, chose to play down the realism while cranking up the romance. They reasoned, I expect, that the latter would make the former go down easier.
That's how things worked out when the show hit Broadway. But the song “Steam Heat” nearly died in New Haven, where the audience found the number’s suggestive choreography to be evocative of a different kind of bodily warmth. You can see why in this YouTube clip of the original production: Watch: “Steam Heat”
Somehow I feel that Mainers — despite our relative lack of experience living in cramped city apartments — would have detected the underlying social message.
We know all about how hard it is to stay warm through the winter. We understand too that more than money is involved. Love, for sure — as in, do we care enough about our neighbors to lend a hand to those who need help? And also luck. In The Pajama Game, the shivering union gal happens to fall in love with the factory manager. In real life, any capricious turn of events — from economic displacement to medical catastrophe — can have an equally dramatic effect.
We’ve also come painfully to understand, like the author of the original story, that ultimately a lot comes down to raw power politics.
The State of Maine already works hard, despite daunting budget constraints, to help low-income residents keep their homes warm. This year the number of households — not individuals but households — getting help through the state’s LIHEAP program is expected to rise to about 72,000 from last year’s 50,000. At the same time, largely due to an increase in federal funding, the average benefit will rise to $940 from $757. And these dollars will go farther, thanks to a drop in the price of heating oil.
One does have to ask, though ... how far would $940 carry you through the winter in a typical, drafty old house?
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. More help is available — the equivalent of about $280 per qualifying household — through a public-private partnership that is so unusual as to be downright bizarre. It is also demonstrably effective.
I refer to the Citizens Energy Corporation, a nonprofit enterprise founded by young Joe Kennedy. According to the official company history, “Beginning in 1979 with oil-trading ventures in Latin America and Africa, Citizens Energy has used revenues from commercial enterprises to channel millions of dollars into charitable programs in the U.S. and abroad.”
That bland language glides over more recent developments that have been decidedly more dramatic. TIME magazine summed things up fairly in a recent article:
"Four years ago, Hugo Chávez [president of oil-producing Venezuela] scored one of the more impressive p.r. coups of the new century when he started delivering free heating oil to low-income Americans. Even if it was political opportunism, as conservative critics insisted, it got home-heating fuel to hundreds of thousands of yanquis during the past four winters, when the price was often skyrocketing....
By this year, the service has expanded to more than 200,000 families in 23 states. The partisan controversy around it has also grown. Republicans grouse that taking fuel from Chávez, America's chief antagonist in the hemisphere, is unpatriotic and simply aids his anti-U.S. foreign policy. Democrats and advocates for the poor disagree. In a website video for Boston-based Citizens Energy, which helps distribute the Citgo oil, director Joseph Kennedy, son of Senator Robert Kennedy, says, "Some people say it's bad politics to [accept the fuel]. I say it's a crime against humanity not to."
And that’s where things stand. The oil is still flowing from Venezuela into Maine. And it flows more quickly than through official channels. The State of Maine warns LIHEAP applicants to expect a delay of at least six to seven weeks before getting a thumbs-up or thumbs-down — followed by whatever time is needed to process a voucher and schedule a delivery. Citizens Energy works literally twice as fast. A Lincolnville resident who applied for assistance on January 20 had Venezuelan oil in his tank by February 18. The whole process was handled online and via the U.S. Mail.
Company spokesman Brian O'Connor tells me that in 2008, Citizens Energy helped about 20,000 Maine households through its residential heating program, an additional 3,000 households through a separate program aimed at Native Americans, and 14 homeless shelters around the state. These numbers approach 50 percent of the households reached by the official LIHEAP program, and represent (at last year's average price of $3.50 per gallon) more than eight million dollars in aid coming into the state.
TIME magazine muses: “All of which raises the question: If Chávez can keep donating fuel even as his oil revenues tumble, why can't any U.S. oil companies step up to do the same?” The article goes on to note “the irony that for four winters now, hundreds of thousands of Americans have had more reason to thank one of the world's most anti-U.S. leaders than their own President or oil companies.”
It’s a fair point, I think. And Chávez’s motives are, in a sense, irrelevant. Politics makes strange bedfellows. This year, many bedrooms in Maine will be warmer thanks to a crafty demagogue in Latin America.
Maybe someday, someone will pen a song-and-dance number about that.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville and is a contributing editor to Down East.