Cheerio, Part 1

by | Mar 30, 2023

Above: Cheerio sharing Thanksgiving Dinner at the Rice household in 1954, from left, Ennis “Cheerio” Clarke, Walter Rice, and Edna Rice. Photo credit: Don Rice

August 2, 1896 – November 9, 1970

East Greenwich has always seemed to have more than its fair share of interesting characters, some of them homegrown, some settlers from elsewhere. Studio photographer and dedicated Marxist Ennis William Clarke – aka Cheerio – was one of the latter.

RMS Saxonia. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cheerio was born in 1896 in Walsall, Staffordshire, England. In 1903, a few months before he turned seven, his father, Ennis Homer Clarke – a harness maker by Trade – and mother Gertrude (nee Sutten), along with young Ennis and his younger siblings – brother Robert Ward and sister Gertrude May – boarded the Cunard liner RMS Saxonia in Liverpool and sailed to Boston. We can reasonably assume that the Clarke family was among the 1,000-plus Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, English, Irish, and Jewish passengers in steerage and didn’t spend the crossing mingling with the elite passengers who occupied staterooms on the upper decks. They arrived on May 28. The ship docked at the Cunard Pier in East Boston, not far from where Logan Airport is situated today, and the Clarkes found living quarters just blocks away. Though they moved two or three times, Cheerio’s parents spent the rest of their lives in the same neighborhood.

A few weeks after their arrival the Ford Motor Company was incorporated, an event little noted at the time, but which marked the beginning of the end for the harness industry – or so you would think. Yet, Cheerio’s father continued to describe himself as a harness maker, or sometimes as saddle maker, until 1940. He died in 1945.

Fortunately for the Clarke family, starting in 1904 it was possible to catch a streetcar in their neighborhood that traveled by tunnel beneath Boston Harbor to downtown Boston, making it possible for Ennis and Robert to continue living at home while holding down jobs as typewriter repairmen at Kriss Typewriting Company on Franklin Street.

This is where they were working when President Wilson was reelected with the campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” referring to the bloody European conflict then taking place. This sentiment changed due to the unrestricted submarine assaults on American shipping, and Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, in order to make the world safe for democracy. Though still British citizens, both Clarke boys were required to register for the draft. There were so many immigrants back then that an estimated 20 percent of active-duty service members were foreign-born. Today that number is closer to 5 percent. 

Soldiers waiting to be inoculated at Camp Devens. Image Credit: National Archives and Record Administration

Military records indicate that Cheerio registered on June 5, 1918, and that his enlistment began on Aug. 28. There’s a roster showing him assigned in December 1918 to the 60th Regiment FA (Field Artillery) in Camp Jackson, S.C. On Dec. 31 he was reassigned to Camp Devens, 40 or so miles from Boston, as a member of 1st Company, 1st Battalion, 151st Depot Brigade. Then on Feb. 1, 1919, he and the other 55 enlisted men and noncoms in his company, including the cook and the bugler, were separated from the service. World War I, you may recall, didn’t end until Nov. 11, 1919. Is it possible that the War Department (as it was then called) already realized these 55 men were redundant? Seems unlikely, but it would probably require a trip to the National Archives to sort it out. 

Back in Boston he resumed his employment at Kriss Typewriting, but somewhere, somehow, by 1930 he’d become a portrait photographer, a profession he was to follow the rest of his life. We know he was into photography at least as early as the mid-1920s because in the June 1926 issue of Photo-Era Magazine, it was reported that the 18th Annual Exhibition of the Union Camera Club in Boston included a print of “a delightful snow-scene” by Ennis W. Clarke titled “After the Storm.”

I’ve always had the notion that he moved to East Greenwich to work in an established photography studio before opening his own studio in the Halsband Building at the corner of Main and Church. Problem is I have no definite memory of his telling me that nor have I been able to find any evidence to support it. The only photography studio I was able to find in East Greenwich in the early 1940s was Carl Gunderson’s in the Greenwich Hotel before he moved diagonally across Main Street to the Masonic Building. Is it possible he worked for Gunderson?

In Cheerio’s obituary in the first issue of 1971 of The Western Socialist, an old friend and comrade, Harmo, remembered that Cheerio had moved from Boston to East Greenwich in the late 1930s. That agrees with what I would have guessed, but the U.S. Census shows him still living in Boston in 1940. And, in fact, the City of Boston, Ward 1, Precinct 1 List of Residents shows him still living there in 1947. Furthermore the earliest record I can find of Cheerio’s being in East Greenwich is in the 1948-49 Armstrong Warwick-East Greenwich Directory. I have some circumstantial evidence that puts him in East Greenwich in the early 1940s, but I can’t prove it. For the time being, I guess, the definite when-and-why of Cheerio’s taking up residence in East Greenwich will have to remain unknown.

Cheerio never spent a lot of time talking about himself, but he wasn’t a secretive person. Had I asked him how he came to be in East Greenwich, he would have told me – but being a typical solipsistic teenager it didn’t occur to me to ask. On occasion he would volunteer things from his past, such as how he came to be a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist, one of a number of things that distinguished him from every other adult I knew in East Greenwich. He said that one day while walking through Boston Common he stopped, as he sometimes did, at “speaker’s corner,” to listen to one of the ranting characters that could always be found there. The speaker that day was a member of the World Socialist Party, who was extolling what he believed to be the unarguable superiority of Marxism. Cheerio said it all made such perfect sense that he was sold on the spot. Although he wasn’t the sort who would mount a public soapbox himself, he was quite willing to engage in debate if someone else brought up the subject. He loved arguing socialism and religion – he was an atheist, of course – with other old timers on the courthouse steps.

It should be remembered that this was during the so-called Second Red Scare when Sen. Joe McCarthy was warning us every night on television about the dangers posed by all the dirty commies in our midst. I can’t say that I can remember anyone who found Cheerio threatening. On one occasion while discussing his bohemian life in Depression-era Boston, he mentioned the antics of an eccentric character named Joe Vodovich. This was remarkable. The artist Fred Ryan, father of my good friend Jim Ryan, also lived in Boston during the Depression – and he had already told me these same stories. I like to think I’m the only person alive who is two degrees of separation away from Joe Vodovich—and knows it.

Not only was Cheerio an interesting character, he was perfectly willing to befriend and have serious conversations with teenagers such as myself. There were a few of us who visited him in his studio/living quarters directly above the knotty-pine Colonial Restaurant in the Halsband Building. It was a single room with a closet that Cheerio had converted to a darkroom. On the south wall, to one’s immediate left on entering the room, there was a sink, a kerosene stove, a chest of drawers, and an icebox (with never a cake of ice). I imagine those items had once been a cream color, but years of cigarette smoke turned them a brownish yellow.

In front of the west wall was his impressive studio camera, of which he took great pride, along with a few flood lights on tripods. Directly opposite on the east wall there was a burgundy velvet curtain in front of which was an upholstered oblong stool on which his subjects would sit. There were a couple of windows on the north wall that overlooked the flat roof of the adjoining building which housed Maille’s Bakery (and before that, Bailey’s Bowling Alley). It was on that roof, accessible through a raised window, that Cheerio kept a wooden box with a hinged top that was maybe two cubic feet in size. During the winter months he would keep perishable food items in there, a common practice among poor apartment dwellers in the pre-refrigerator days of Cheerio’s youth.

Along that same wall was a visitor’s chair, a wooden table, and Cheerio’s single bed. On the table sat a gooseneck lamp, a stack of The Western Socialist, journal of the World Socialist Party, a handful of books, and a round aluminum ashtray in which two cigarettes smoldered among the remains of many predecessors. Cheerio sat at the foot of the bed smoking a third cigarette. I don’t think I was ever there when there weren’t three cigarettes burning. The odd thing is I don’t believe he inhaled.

stamps / cheerio / don rice

Philippine Issue, 1944; Army Issue, 1945; Mount Palomar Issue, 1948. Image Credit: Smithsonian National Postal Museum

I first visited him because I learned he was a stamp collector. Like any enthusiast, he was happy to share his knowledge with a neophyte. Cheerio was chiefly interested in Germany, Austria, and the British Colonies, because he thought they produced the best-looking stamps. U.S. commemoratives, with their crowded allegorical themes were, he thought, artistic abominations. There were a few, though, he particularly liked: the 1944 Corregidor, the 1945 US Army/Arc de Triomphe, and the 1948 Palomar Mountain Observatory. For years afterward I used them as touchstones when judging other stamps.

Cheerio preferred mint stamps and had a dealer who sent him new issues on approval. He’d select what he liked and could afford to buy, sometimes buying in quantity as an investment. The rest he’d send back. As I noted, appearance was important, and it was his insistence on good design and excellence in engraving that caused him to make the biggest mistake of his collecting career.

Israel 1 through 9. Photo Credit: HIP Stamp

On May 14, 1948, Israel became a new nation, but in order to have a functioning postal system in place, the first stamps – known as Israel 1 through 9 – were printed in advance. Normally it takes months to design and produce a new stamp. These nine stamps took just twelve days. As a result, the quality of the printing and design were far from good. Because they were the first stamps of a new country, Cheerio considered buying the three or four sets the dealer sent him, in spite of their crude appearance.

After thinking it over for a few days he sent them all back. What he hadn’t taken into account was that there were many Jewish stamp collectors around the world, and Israel 1 through 9 sold like hotcakes. The price, of course, rose dramatically.

Whenever Cheerio would remember that mistake he’d lose his temper and stalk around the room yelling in anger. “I had the damn things right here on this table!” He’d slap his hand on the table. “Right in this spot!” Bang. He’d hit it again. Sometimes I’d slyly bring up the topic, and he never failed to go through the same routine all over again.

Because he bought some stamps in quantity, he’d give me a dupe or two for carrying his one-gallon kerosene can down to Annie Turk’s store and to get it filled. He used the stove for boiling an egg every morning and for heating water for hot chocolate. When he had dinner – which is what working people called lunch in those days – he’d have a sandwich and coffee across the street at Earnshaw’s. For supper he’d go to Jigger’s.

Cheerio was very careful with his money, and over the years he’d finagled a cheap custom meal. It started out as just a slice of meatloaf with gravy and a piece of bread.

Over time, for just a few cents each, he talked the counter people into adding one item after another – mashed potatoes, green beans and so on – until he finally ended up with a very inexpensive plate of food. He ate this same meal night after night for years. Jigger’s staff knew they’d been hornswoggled, but smilingly shrugged it off. Cheerio, on the other hand, was never that charitable.

One night – it must have been in the late ‘50s—I stopped in Jigger’s while Cheerio was eating his supper and sat down beside him. He was in a foul mood and proceeded to tell me why. Directly facing him was a jukebox selector and he happened to see the song, “Little Star” among the selections. Assuming it was Manuel Ponce’s sweetly lyrical “Estrallita,” he decided, for the first time ever, to spend a dime on a song. What he heard was a boys group called The Elegants, performing a doo-wop version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” He felt tricked and cheated. Misspending even a dime was no small matter to the man.

Narragansett Park in Pawtucket. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One early evening in late May, probably in 1957, I joined a small crowd of men on the sidewalk outside Halsband’s. They were waiting for the Shortline bus that would drop off a bundle of The Daily Record, a Boston tabloid that published that day’s race results at Narragansett Park, Lincoln Downs, and Suffolk Downs. At that time there were quite a few people in East Greenwich who played the ponies, along with a fair number of bookies to accommodate them. The men were waiting for The Daily Record to see how that day’s bets fared. The tabloid also published what was called “The Policy Number,” a figure reflecting the last three digits of the total amount bet that day at Suffolk Downs.

Players picked their own numbers and the amount they wanted to bet. They placed the bets with bookies, but there were also runners who followed a standard route every day. The payoff if you were right was 600 to 1, so if you bet a dime or a quarter – which were typical bets – you could win $60 or $150. The odds were 1,000 to 1, so that even after expenses the mob made a tidy profit.

Female Luna Moth. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I can pretty accurately determine the time of year because there was a luna moth, newly emerged from its cocoon, clinging to Halsband’s outside wall. I might not have noticed it if Cheerio, who was busy talking with all his pals in the crowd, had not been nervously eyeing it. He had a morbid fear of insects. Even a pestiferous housefly could drive him from his studio, and here was this monstrous insect not 10 feet away. It struck me as an opportunity for some fun.

I knew that you could pluck a luna moth off a wall and place it someplace else, where it would stay until it was moved again. When Cheerio’s back was turned toward the moth I picked it up and carried it over to where he was standing. In those days Cheerio would sometimes wear a green baseball cap, and that’s where I put the moth. It looked like a big green bow on the back of his cap. Then I walked some distance away. A short while later Tar Tar Ucci happened by. As he passed Cheerio he clapped him on the back and said, “How’s the moth business, Cheerio?” Cheerio’s eyes opened wide with horror and he turned to look at Halsband’s wall where the moth should be. It was gone!

Now in a panic he backed away from everyone and started jumping around in a kind of St. Vitus dance looking for the moth on his body. Finally he took off his cap and saw it. He yelled and flung the cap down on the sidewalk. The moth, sensing that it was no longer welcome, leisurely flew away. Everybody was laughing as Cheerio, his heart palpitating wildly, picked up his cap. Still in a state of shock, but now also hurt and angry, he retreated up the stairs to his studio.

I can remember this incident with such clarity because I felt terrible about what I’d done – and I still do. Cheerio had treated me with nothing but kindness over the years and I’d paid him back with a truly mean and thoughtless trick.

Find Part 2 HERE.

Donald Tunnicliff Rice is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. His latest book is “Who Made George Washington’s Uniform?”

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Mark Thompson
Mark Thompson
April 1, 2023 11:57 am

Fascinating tale, Don…thanks for telling it!

Robert (Terry) Bergeron
Robert (Terry) Bergeron
April 7, 2023 11:53 am

Thank you, Don. Wonderful EG story, with connections to many of us.


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