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Wodehouse admiration becomes group effort

If this was a story by P.G. Wodehouse, it would start off this way:

They were gathered in the drawing-room when the door opened, and a box of black Shropshire pigs entered the room. Behind the box a discerning eye could -- just barely -- make out the petite figure of Shirley Sampson, who had made her way from the City of Tonawanda for the purposes of the meeting on that sunny, blue-skied afternoon. She had the fat pigs nestled into wee crates and arranged in rows in a carton; in one hand, she also grasped a silver item stuffed with flowers in cheery shades of yellow and white. It was the cow-creamer. They couldn't do a thing without that.

But this is not a Wodehouse story. It is a story about people who like Wodehouse. Really, really like him.

So it will begin this way, instead:

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of some 15 people from across upstate New York gathered in the home of Jane and Hugh Snowden, in Williamsville, for a meeting of what has become the region's first P.G. Wodehouse appreciation society.

They came from as nearby as Hamburg and Alden, and as far away as Syracuse.

They talked of books and movies, songs and Broadway shows.

They ate a three-course lunch off of Limoges china and drank tea from a Wedgewood pot.

And they marveled -- who wouldn't? -- over the aforementioned "silver" cow-creamer, which Sampson, co-founder of the local group with fellow Wodehouse fan Laura Loehr, made by painting a ceramic cow-creamer from Premier Gourmet with silver paint. (If you read Wodehouse, you know that such a creamer factors into some of the novels as an object of desire and revulsion, in almost equal measure. "Revolting things," remarks Bertie Wooster, in one of the books. "A milk jug shaped like a cow, of all ghastly ideas.")

The members of Western New York's new Wodehouse society -- at only their second meeting since forming the group last fall -- called the afternoon a great success, and set a next meeting for late spring. They are open to new members joining the group then -- in fact, they invite it.

If you love Wodehouse? You'll fit right in.

"It took me forty years," remarked Vijay Swamy, a retired University at Buffalo professor of pharmacology who was attending his first meeting of the group on this sunny Sunday, "but I have finally found like-minded people."

So: Who is Wodehouse, and why do these people care so devotedly about him?

In a way, you couldn't find a writer more unlike Western New York than P.G. Wodehouse -- that's Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, to be precise.

He was born in 1881 in England, traveled with his parents as a child, attended proper British boarding schools, and built a worldwide reputation as the author of many novels, stories, plays, lyrics and essays, all marked by his signature light, razor-edged, subtly funny, very cosmopolitan wit.

Wodehouse's humor is not the one-liner, slapstick type. It's more situational: He builds a scene, or a plot, until it is so preposterous that you can't help but laugh out loud.

"It's just funny," said Elaine Coppola, who drove to the meeting from Fayetteville, outside of Syracuse, with her friend Carol Cavalluzzi, a fellow Wodehouse fan. "The entertainment value of it -- most of his things are highly amusing, and we all need more comedy in life."

Among Wodehouse's literary creations: the characters Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, his butler -- or, to be precise, not a butler but a "gentleman's gentleman." The wary, symbiotic relationship between the two characters creates moments of hilarity through a whole series of novels and stories. (And also TV shows, which you may have caught on PBS or British TV broadcasts.)

"I first saw the Bertie and Jeeves movies on TV," said Cavalluzzi, who works at Syracuse University as a librarian. That led her to read some of the books, attend some sessions about Wodehouse at conferences, and before she knew it she and Coppola were signing up to attend a major national Wodehouse conference in Rhode Island.

Now, the women -- who are also big fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Homes books -- are members of the Buffalo group.

"The people are just marvelous," said Cavalluzzi. "They're witty, they're literate, and they're always up for a good time."

The genesis of the local Wodehouse society was a conversation between Sampson and Loehr last year, over coffee and doughnuts following a performance of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on a weekday morning. The two women, who had attended the concert with their husbands, struck up a chat over the refreshments and soon discovered that, besides music, they shared a love for Wodehouse.

"We just started talking, and we found we had this in common, and it just took off from there," said Sampson. "We decided to do something. And we did."

Both women are members of the P.G. Wodehouse society of the United States, and they have other connections to the author as well.

Loehr has a sister, Elin Woodger, who headed the national Wodehouse society in the United States, and who married a Wodehouse expert, Norman Murphy, who used to head the Wodehouse society in England. Loehr's sister now lives with him in London, and helps put out the British society's Wodehouse newsletter.

Loehr traces her love for Wodehouse back to her childhood.

"Back in the '50s and '60s, when we would go on vacations as a family, we would go to the library and take out all the books by P.G. Wodehouse," she recalled. "There was no TV there. And we all read them."

That youthful affection turned into lifelong passion, and now Loehr is happy to see her own appreciation for Wodehouse turned into a group that is open to any and all in the Buffalo region who want to talk about, and enjoy, the author.

"It's about his use of the English language," she said, summing up the reasons for her ardor. "All of the stories are pretty predictable: boy meets girl, boy is pretty dumb, girl is pretty smart, boy gets into trouble, girl rescues him -- but it's just his use of the English language. 'Le mot juste,' if you know what that means."
If you want to join the group or learn more about them, here's how: e-mail the Western New York Wodehouse society at pgwinwny@yahoo.com.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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