Francis Vincent Zappa was born May 7, 1905, in Partinico, Sicily. [...] He, his brother [...] and their parents [...], came to America in 1907 and lived in a small apartment on York Road in Baltimore, Maryland.
[My Dad] went to college at Chapel Hill, in North Carolina, and played guitar in some sort of 'strolling crooner' trio. (I still get birthday cards from the insurance company owned by Jack Wardlaw, the banjo player.) They used to go from dormitory window to dormitory window, serenading coeds with songs like "Little Red Wing."
Frank Zappa Sr. was a student at UNC from 1926 to 1930. He had little money and first made ends meet by working as a barber in town. In 1928 Zappa met fellow UNC student Jack Wardlaw who was a banjo prodigy. Wardlaw was starting a group he called the Carolina Banjo Boys, and convinced Zappa he could further supplement his income as a guitar player in his band. In the these days the banjo was more popular than the guitar, and bands with good banjo players were in demand for dances and other social functions.
Frank Zappa Sr. bought a guitar in Raleigh and for the next three years played in two very popular bands that were headed and organized by Wardlaw. Wardlaw's most famous band was called Jack Wardlaw And His Carolina Tar Heels and had thirteen musicians. Zappa learned to become a good guitar and banjo player from Wardlaw and became adept at many styles of music. In the Banjo Boys he played hillbilly and ragtime guitar, while in the Carolina Tar Heels he performed jazz music and Dixieland on both guitar and banjo.
My father started out as a teacher of History at Loyola College in Maryland. And after that he went to work for the government as a meteorologist. He was working at a place called uh, Edgewood Arsenal during World War II, which made poison gas.
Rose Marie Colimore was born June 7, 1912, in Baltimore, Maryland.
[RoseMarie and Francis] dated for four years. [...] Theresa [Colimore, mother of RoseMarie] asked my Dad if he wanted to marry RoseMarie. He said yes and that was accepted. There was only one condition—they would have to live in the Colimore house. They were officially married June 11, 1939.
December 21, 1940. That's how far back I go. That's my first show. That was It. Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
My real name is Frank Vincent Zappa (not Francis [...]). I was born on December 21, 1940, in Baltimore, Maryland. [...] My first memories of childhood include wearing a little sailor suit with a wooden whistle on a string around my neck, going to church all the time and kneeling down a lot.
"Frankie probably doesn't even know this but at his birth he almost didn't make it," said Maria "Aunt Mary" Cimino, the 85-year-old sister of Rose Marie Zappa, Frank's 74-year-old mother.
Aunt Mary is sitting at the dining room table of her apartment next to Seton High School on North Charles Street. Spread over the table are old family photos and newspaper clippings about her famous nephew, the earliest from the time he won a fire prevention poster contest in the ninth grade.
"The doctor had delivered about nine babies that day and didn't want to do any more so he gave Rose Marie some kind of drug to retard her labor," she continued, noting that she had a front-row seat at Mercy Hospital for the entire episode on Dec. 21, 1940.
"The baby was born breech and it was going from bad to worse," she says. "At one point it looked like they might lose mother and child, Rose Marie needed a blood transfusion.
"When the nurse finally brought him out he was limp and his skin looked black. Rose Marie's husband was crying that the boy wouldn't live, but Frankie fooled him—he made it."
After leaving the maternity ward, Rose Marie and the infant Zappa went home with Frank Sr. to live with Rose Marie's family, the Colimores, in a West Baltimore rowhouse at 2019 Whittier Ave., at the corner of Monroe Street. [...] Mr. Colimore died in 1941, his wife sold the house not long afterward, "and we all went our separate ways," said Mrs. Zappa.
On December 21, 1940, Frank Jr. came into the world [...] at Baltimore's Mercy Hospital.
Shortly afterward, Charles, Mom's Dad, died after a long illness. Theresa sold the house and everyone went their own way.
Francis and RoseMarie rented an apartment on Park Heights Street near my Mom's sister Mary.
Three years after Frank was born, Robert, aka Bobby, was born August 28, 1943. All four moved in with Theresa for what was to be a six-month stay.
When the family left Whittier Avenue they took an apartment in the 4600 block of Park Heights Ave.
"I remember it was one of those rowhouses," said [Frank] Zappa, whose parents often spoke Italian in the home. "There was an alley in the back and down the alley used to come the knife sharpener man—you know, a guy with the wheel. And everybody used to come down off their back porch to the alley to get their knives and scissors done."
We lived in one of those row houses on Park Heights Avenue in Maryland. We had wood floors, heavily waxed, with throw rugs on them.
We lived in a boardinghouse one time when I was very little. I think it might have been in Atlantic City. The lady who owned the boarding house had a Pomeranian and the Pomeranian used to eat grass and vomit things that looked like white meatballs.
I was sick so often in Maryland, Mom and Dad wanted to move. The first time I managed to escape from the state was when my Dad took a job in Florida—another civil service position, this time in ballistics, something about shell trajectories. It was still World War II. [...]
Opa-Locka had a lot of mosquitoes and if you left the bread out overnight, green hair grew on it.
Every once in a while we had to hide under the bed and turn all the lights off because somebody thought the Germans were coming. [...]
My mother got homesick and, since I was taller, figured it was okay to go back to Baltimore.
We went back to Baltimore and I got sick again.
Dad went to work for the Navy in Florida, taking the whole family with him. [...] Around this time, Mom developed an abscessed tooth and the whole family packed up and went back to Baltimore so she could get it fixed.
When we moved back to Maryland, we didn't go to Edgewood—we moved into a rowhouse in the city and I hated it.
I don't think my folks liked it very much either, because the next thing I knew, they were talking about moving to California.
Frank's health improved [and that], combined with his mother's homesickness, meant that a return to Maryland could be contemplated. Not to Edgewood but to a terrace house in Park Heights Avenue in Pikesville, a north-western suburb of Baltimore and part of the city's Jewish enclave.
After Mom's dental work was done, they moved back to Maryland, to a cottage located on the Army Chemical Center on Polasky Highway. [...]
On September 10, 1948, Carl was born. [...] I was born on March 28 of . Now all six of us were living at the Army Chemical Center.
I was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 10 in 1947.
We had moved to Edgewood from Baltimore after dad got a job in the chemical weapons section at the Edgewood Chemical Activity (ECA) Center at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. [...] The base was divided into two sections. The northern sector was known as the Aberdeen Proving Area and the southern sector was the Edgewood Area, or the Edgewood Arsenal. Dad worked at the Edgewood Arsenal.
We used to live in the Army housing facility in Edgewood, Maryland. [...] My Dad was employed as a meteorologist at the Edgewood Arsenal. They made poison gas there during World War II, so I guess it would have been the meteorologist's job to figure out which way the wind was blowing when it was time to shoot the stuff off. [...] Winter was freezing cold in that house at 15 Dexter Street. The walls were so thin—it was like a cardboard house. [...] Edgewood, Maryland, was sort of out in the country. It had a little woods and a creek with crawdads in it, just at the end of Dexter Street. I used to play down there with Leonard Allen.
SPIN: What was your background? Your father worked in a nerve gas company?
Zappa: Well it wasn't nerve gas, it was mustard gas.
SPIN: Is it true he volunteered to be an experiment?
Zappa: That was a way during the war you could earn extra money, you could be a human guinea pig for these things called pap tests. They wouldn't tell you what it was, they would put stuff on your skin and then cover it up with a big bandage. So he'd have these big bandages on his arm, and sometimes come home with two or three on his arms, and they'd itch and burn, and he'd suffer with these things, but they'd be thirty dollars more a week. And I don't know what they put on it.
SPIN: What was it like growing up in that environment—how aware of that were you?
Zappa: I thought I understood it pretty well at five or six years old. It was about killing people. My father worked at a place that manufactured stuff to kill people.
SPIN: And how did that affect you. Looking back now, forty-five years later, how did it affect you?
Zappa: That was WWII. There was a reason for going out and doing those things. Everybody has a different outlook. And the other thing was that he was a Sicilian, and it was not a good idea to be of Sicilian or Italian extraction at that point in American History; he had to try extra-hard to be patriotic, I think.
The family settled in a neighborhood of Army housing in Edgewood. Frank remembers the address as 15 Dexter St., located in a now-demolished project. [...]
Once in Harford County, Zappa was enrolled in Edgewood School, which is no longer used but still stands on Cedar Drive. His first-grade teacher, Mary H. Spencer, an Edgewood resident, recalls a boy who, "was fairly mischievous, but he wasn't naughty."
A colleague of Ms. Spencer's at the time was Cybil Gunther, who holds sharper Zappa memories.
"I had him in the third grade," said Ms. Gunther. "And sometimes when I tell people I had Frank Zappa in class their mouths just fall open."
She said she taught Zappa at a time "when we had 40 or more in a class and kids could get lost in a crowd. Frank didn't get lost in the crowd but it wasn't music he was into—he was big on drama.
"For any reason I had to leave the room, I could turn to Frank and he would hold the whole class enthralled with something," she said. "I never did figure out what it was, but there never was any trouble with the class because Frank was doing something that never really made any sense to me.
"It was some sort of drama . . . my impression [of Zappa's act] would be some sort of cowboys and Indians. I don't know that he liked the attention, but he liked doing what he was doing."
Actually, said Zappa, he was attempting to recreate the crashing temple scene from the movie "Samson and Delilah" [(1949)].
[FZ] got his first record on his seventh birthday in 1947. It was "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" by Spike Jones and his City Slickers—a big Christmas hit that year. Frank liked it so much he wrote a fan letter to RCA Victor asking for a photograph. "I was expecting a photograph of Spike Jones in the mail," he told Charles Amirkhanian, "but instead, I got a photograph of a man named George Rock, who was the actual vocalist on that tune, and he looked like a master criminal. It was, like, a frightening thing to receive in the mail."
When we lived in Edgewood, Maryland, I used to go with [my father] fishing, down to this where you could catch catfish or you could catch crabs—and so besides working however many hours a day he did at his job down there, he was also out there hustling to get food to feed the family. [...]
I had three friends. One was Paddy McGrath, a boy who was crippled and lived up on the hill. I used to go to his house and have contests eating peanut butter sandwiches with him.
I had another friend named Leonard Allen. He was interested in chemistry. I used to go over to his house and we would work on experiments. And it's difficult when you're six years old to find the right things to make gunpowder, but we managed to do it.
I had one another friend, named Paul—I can't remember his last name—who was from Panama. I used to go over to his house and his grandmother would make omelettes with spinach in them.
The Edgewood years were difficult ones for Frank [...]. He drew a lot (usually Indians and trains) and made puppets, sewing their clothes with a careful hand—a skill that proved useful later when he needed to repair torn clothing on the road.
[FZ's] interest in arts and crafts would grow beyond the cardboard tubes from rolls of linoleum that he used as pillars to be knocked down in his Samson act and became more involved with drawing and the building of puppets.
Favorite hobby: Puppets
Frank seems to have been a popular child. His childhood sweetheart, Marlene Beck, then aged eight, remembered: "He was a cut-up . . . kind of like being the class clown. He was a very nice person, but he was always kind of strange."
Aunt Mary and Uncle Robert lived north of Baltimore's now-trendy inner harbor above the intersection of Charles Street and East Lombard Street. [...]
Later that same summer, Frank and I went to visit Aunt Mary in Baltimore for a few days by ourselves. This was [...] before we left for California. Mom and Dad drove us to Balitmore with Carl and Candy in the car, handed Frank and me over to Aunt Mary, then they headed back to Edgewood.
Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos