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Two Broadways

Published December 07. 2013 09:00AM

My mother - Virginia Mandracia Wells - lived her life on two Broadways - one in Manhattan, NYC, and one in Jim Thorpe, PA (AKA Mauch Chunk, PA).

Mom always wanted to be a dancer. When she was a young child, she would make up her own dances and entertain the family. She loved watching movies that showed singing and dancing.

Growing up in the small PA town of Mauch Chunk, Mom didn't have the opportunity to take dance lessons. Her family struggled financially and didn't have any extra money to satisfy the whim of their middle child.

So, when Mom graduated in 1928, she told her parents that she wanted to go to New York City and become a dancer. Her parents were not thrilled with that idea, but finally relented. They made arrangements for Mom to live with relatives in Brooklyn, sent her off on the train, and warned her that they expected a phone call weekly.

Arriving in the big city, Mom first decided to get some training. She enrolled at the Alviene School of Dramatic Arts and appeared in the school's dance recitals and musicals. The school sent its students out to audition for Broadway shows. Mom was lucky at her first audition and got a part as one of 16 dancers in Irving Berlin's musical "Face the Music."

From that point on, Mom never lacked work. She was noticed by other theater producers and got jobs dancing in "New Moon," "Harry Delmar's Black and Silver Revue," and "The Red Shadow," a movie based on "A Desert Song."

Virginia Mandracia was in heaven. She was doing exactly what she loved. Her career took her throughout the United States. Her travel companies rented whole railroad cars for the troupe and the young dancers and actors enjoyed seeing our country by rail.

Mom's family was very proud of her and made trips to New York City to watch her dance. When the movie "The Red Shadow" was shown at the Capitol Theater (now the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, PA), the town turned out in droves to watch a hometown girl who made it. Never mind that Mom was only on screen for a few seconds. The town loved seeing her there.

On one of her train trips, Mom became ill. She required surgery for appendicitis. The traveling troupe went on without her. She went back home to Mauch Chunk to recuperate at her parents' home.

When she began to feel better, Mom got a job as a waitress at the Hotel American on Broadway in Mauch Chunk. While on the job, she met the bartender, Robert Wells. The two began a romance that would end in marriage. She never went back to New York, but she didn't stop dancing.

Mom and Dad bought a home on West Broadway, right across the street from the Mauch Chunk Bakery. The big, old house had 15 rooms and was a historical treasure. The Wells Family enjoyed life there for almost 50 years.

Mom started giving dance classes in the basement of our house. Dad bought her a big mirror from one of the houses on "Millionaires' Row" downtown near his bar. He paid three men in beer to carry the mirror up Broadway to the house. Luckily, they didn't get their beer until after they carried the mirror.

Dance classes were fine, but Virginia Mandracia Wells missed being on stage. When the Historical Society bought the old Capitol Theater and turned it into the Opera House, Mom was one of the first volunteers. She welcomed visitors, told them about the building's history, and even did some tap dancing on stage to show them the wonderful acoustics in the structure.

As her children, the three Wells Sisters naturally took dancing lessons. We were singers, too, and shared our talents for years as "The Wells Sisters." Mom was never more proud of us than when we sang for people.

When the Mauch Chunk Opera House Theater Group started in 1983, Mom was a big supporter of each play. She loved watching the young children learn their parts, and she taught a few of them how to dance.

Mom died in 1992 at the age of 81. She lived her life well on two Broadways.

If you would like to contact Dr. Smith, she can be reached at her e mail address: or in care of this newspaper.

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