The novel “7 1/2 Cents” opens with a sample of blue-collar Iowa conversation:
When I woke up in the morning, even before I had my eyes open, I knew I wasn’t in Chicago anymore. …
Then with breakfast, across the street at the Elite Cafe, I had to listen to this with the coffee and elastic toast:
“Was you to the dance last night out at the Royal?” says the waitress, talking through her nose.
“I was there, was you?” says a milk truck driver likewise.
“Yeah, I was there. I never seen you though.”
“Well I never seen you neither.”
“That’s funny, I was there.”
“Well, I never seen you.”
“Where was you at? I never seen you.”
“Well, it’s funny we never seen each other.”
Written by American novelist and playwright Richard Pike Bissell, “7 1/2 Cents” portrays pajama factory superintendent Sid Sorokin, fresh from Chicago, ready to give Iowa a try, but not too sure he likes it. It’s “The Music Man” a generation later, a scrutiny of a midsize Midwestern Iowa city, but in this case the sham artist is not Harold Hill, it’s Myron Hasler, the boss of Sleep Tite pajama plant, who obstinately refuses to grant the workers the raise for which the novel is named.
Bissell was born June 27, 1913, in Dubuque, Iowa, graduated from Harvard and was a river pilot. He died May 4, 1977, in Dubuque. His “works provide witty and fresh images of Midwestern speech and folkways” says the “Britannica Encyclopedia of Literature.” His novel “A Stretch on the River” (1950) and “My Life on the Mississippi, or Why I Am Not Mark Twain” (1973) are based on his river experiences, and he wielded his knowledge of rivers in “The Monongahela” in The Rivers of America Series (1952). “7 1/2 Cents,” based on his real-life experiences in the clothing industry, was his first successful novel, and collaborating with George Abbott he transformed the story into the musical “The Pajama Game,” which opened in 1954, enjoyed a long run on Broadway, and was filmed in 1957, starring John Raitt as Sorokin and Doris Day as Sid’s love interest, Babe Williams, a factory worker who leads cutting room employees in a slowdown and sabotage intended to coerce Hasler into granting the increase in pay.
“The Pajama Game,” like “The Music Man,” bursts with exuberance and joy, but “7 1/2 Cents” is more cynical, more introspective and darker. In the book, Sid and Babe criss-cross the Mississippi, taking in nightclub acts, back when clubs featured vaudeville-type performers such as accordion players, comedians and singers, while their relationship rises and falls with the fortunes of that raise that would soon come between them. Sid plays a larger role in resolving the strike in the play than in the book, forcefully piloting Hasler toward granting the raise, whereas in the book he is swept along by the currents at work in Sleep Tite, experiencing hopeless despair over the labor problems alienating him from his love and wondering why he left the life of the big city. A few leading characters were manufactured or enlarged for the play and events were greatly altered to fit the demands of the stage. The book’s greatest strength and source of humor is its portrayal of small-town culture and conversation, often in a stream-of-consciousness style, and some of its funniest moments come when Sorokin’s secretary, Mabel, fails to understand his dry humor:
“Where you been anyway?” I said.
“Up to the funeral parlor.”
“Who’s dead now?”
“Old Mrs. Schilsky. You wouldn’t know her. You should of seen the flowers.”
“I wish I could,” I said. “Who’s old Mrs. Schilsky?”
“Well, I never knew her but her son married a girl that used to live next door to us in Cuba City when I was in grade school.” …
“Think I better go up and have a look?”
“Oh you’re the silliest man I ever met. Why should you go up there? You don’t know her.”
“Looks like I know her as well as you did,” I said.
“7 1/2 Cents” paints broad portraits of the business world and Midwest society of the early 1950s and through its detailed delineation of Sorokin’s job and leisure time limns the cracks in the sidewalks and the brickwork in the factories of a fictitious Midwestern city:
This neighborhood I was in was squashed right up under the hill — the hill was so steep it was a regular cliff only all covered with trees — and way at the top a bunch of little white houses perched on the edge. They could spit off the porch and it would land on our roof two hundred feet below.
- American Indians
- C. History
- Civil War
- D. Books
- E. Clothing
- Historical Clothing
- Historical Festivals
- Musical Instruments
- Ohio History
- Old West
- Revolutionary War
- World War II