Have you ever played musical chairs? With cake?
For as long as I can remember, the school I attended as a young’n hosted an event known as The Carnival in mid-March. While its intent was to raise funds for various projects, its effect was that of an indoor Mardis Gras. (A welcome break from the snowbanks outside.)
It also happened to coincide with my birthday, which meant that there was a good chance of celebrating with two cakes instead of one.
Classes were dismissed at noon on Friday to decorate the gym with streamers and balloons and glittery posters. Shop students worked feverishly to pound last-minute nails into makeshift booths. Faculty members supervised the tumult with lighthearted smiles and the occasional admonition to “stop horsing around!”
Prizes were then unpacked from large cardboard boxes stacked on the stage, yielding plastic trinkets and wholesale teddy bears that somehow transformed themselves into desirable objects simply by merit of being displayed on a shelf.
In short, the hometown basketball court became a thing of beauty.
The next night (Saturday night), the doors leading into the gym were propped open at 7:00 o’clock sharp and folks would file into the bleachers that angled upward from the gym floor — a vantage point to shed winter coats, visit friends and neighbors, and keep an eye on their children scurrying around below.
I still remember the thrill of clutching a fistful of tickets…
Priced at a nickel apiece, families could afford an evening’s worth of entertainment for their progeny, along with a mutual understanding:
“When the tickets run out, it’s time to go home.”
With my personal stash of five-cent-increment happiness in hand, I’d wander wide-eyed past each booth, sizing up the odds of winning and calculating the staying power of my ticket-trove.
The games were as varied as their names. Ring Toss. Dip the Duck. Free Throw Booth. (It was situated on a basketball court, after all…)
But, my premeditated destination was The Cake Walk.
Tucked in a corner of the gym behind a fence-like barricade, a dozen metal folding chairs encircled long tables on loan from the school cafeteria. Atop those tables were cakes. Not just any cakes, mind you… The Carnival was an annual opportunity for the ladies of the community to show off their baking skills — and show off they did!
Sometime between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening, a parade of baked goods made their way into the gymnasium, balanced on matronly laps during the car ride to town, or tucked on the floorboard farthest from the car heater so as not to melt the frosting.
Each carefully constructed creation was delivered to The Cake Walk with its glory intact — towering three-layer beauties, billowy angel food encased in Seven Minute Frosting, light-as-air German chocolate under a thick layer of coconut and walnuts, two-layer cakes artfully appliqued with butter cream…
Basically, the Pillsbury Bake-Off in a booth. ;)
After producing the required tickets to enter The Cake Walk, folks lined up in front of the chairs and the music would begin in typical musical chairs fashion. But, unlike the traditional game where one chair is removed after each round, The Cake Walk chairs remained in place — randomly numbered to avoid mass hysteria, potential injuries — and toppled cakes.
Round and round we’d shuffle to the Beatles crooning, “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” or Petula Clark belting out “Downtown.”
(On a record player, ahem.)
When the music stopped, it was our cue to scramble for a seat — and scramble we did. Then we anxiously awaited for the corresponding “lucky number” to be drawn from a bowl. Amidst groans and cheers, the winner would stand, select the cake of their choice (which was another reason to get there first), and emerge victorious.
It’s been years since I’ve been back to the The Carnival, primarily because I moved 750 miles away and I can’t do “winter,” but also because the homemade cakes of yore were deemed dangerous by the legislature and eventually replaced by packaged angel food cakes.
Sometimes a memory is better than being there.
I must admit, I don’t covet cake with the same intensity I once did, but if I spy one that elicits that “carnival” craving, I know I’m going to be the lucky winner — without leaving it up to chance.
. . .
I can almost hear the music now… “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah…”
Enjoying cake walks,