My pal Danny Appolinar was a fellow singer/pianist working clubs in the sixties. He told a marvelous story on himself: he was booked in a hotel in San Juan, the Dorado Beach, for the summer, and while there he struck up a romance with a good-looking busboy, Carlos, a kid of eighteen with great appeal. They had a hot thing going all season, walks on the beach by moonlight, staff meals together in the hotel kitchen…and hours in bed together. When the summer ended, and Danny had to leave, go back to Manhattan, the kid was all broken up, disconsolate. “But Danny, what will I do without you? You are my sun, my moon, my planets–every night for three months you hold me in your arms, how can I live alone now?” A very Latin temperament, Danny told me. “Carlos, my life is in Manhattan -I wish I could bring you home with me but that’s not possible,” he said. “But I will always remember you -I’ll think of you every night–” Carlos had a request: “You will say a prayer for me? When you speak to the heavens, you will not forget me? Will you give me something I can remember you by -no, no, I don’t want money, give me something personal, something of yours only.” Well, Danny had thirty copies of a record he’d made -an LP- and he took out his pen and signed one to Carlos, with a passionate inscription: “To Carlos, who has been more than my life, more than my passion, my obsession, whom I shall never forget, who has meant the entire universe to me (and who has the most beautiful you-know-what in the world). With all my love, forever, Danny.” And he got on the plane. And six months later, he saw the exact album in the dollar bin at the 69 cent shop.
Went to see End of the Rainbow – a show that presents a performer named Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland. Needless to say, a whole contingent of Judy fans turned out to see this early preview. I’ll save my comments on the show for a couple of weeks. However: after the performance I stepped out of the theater, and on the sidewalk, just leaving, was a woman in her thirties. When she saw me, she put her hand to her mouth and tears sprang to her eyes. “My God,” she said to me, “you’re…John.” She proceeded to seem more than moved, as if she were watching either a golden Pacific sunset -or a Freeway accident. She was becoming terribly emotional. “Yes,” I confirmed, “And you are…?” But she simply shook her head and moved away, still seemingly affected by the sight of me. I can only assume this was because she recognized me from my photo in Heartbreaker, my Garland memoir (I was wearing the same cap as in the shot). It was both exhilarating and unnerving.
Memorials have become big business. Major showbiz figure dies, and his friends and family book the Imperial Theater on a Monday afternoon and there are reminiscences by his celebrity friends and film clips of his work, and telegrams from Mayor Koch. Though you’re aware this is a Solemn Occasion, there is, nonetheless, a sense that you’re going to a Special Event, and a kind of party atmosphere prevails. If open to the public, the crowds begin standing in line at eight AM for a two o’clock event. Because…Liza Minnelli might be there! Or Lauren Bacall! The famous folk onstage approach the podium with varying degrees of humility. At Larry Kert’s send-off, there was a six page printed program replete with black-bordered ads from various sources, including the Lighting Company that handled West Side Story. Arthur Laurents comes out and introduces himself and there is applause from the show-wise audience that knows he wrote the book to West Side (and Gypsy).
There are photos projected of the shows, each featuring the deceased. At Leonard Bernstein’s memorial Adolph Green told a charming story: he first met Lenny at a summer camp in the Poconos. Lenny whipped off a piece at the piano that he said was a rare Mozart minuet; had Adolph ever heard it? No, said Adolph, I never did. Lenny clapped him on the back -“Good for you! All these other phonies tell me, Oh sure, that’s the famous Minuet in G! Well, I wrote it myself!” At Cy Feuer’s memorial, his son, Jed, put together a band that played a medley from his father’s shows: Where’s Charley, Guys ‘n Dolls, Silk Stockings. And afterwards (and often during), all the showbiz Wannabees head straight for the celeb that can do them some good:
Last Sunday I went to a memorial on a smaller scale. It was held at the Unity Church on West 58th st. The room holds maybe one hundred people. My friend Paul Trueblood, a pianist/accompanist was the honoree. I’d worked with him early in both our careers when he accompanied the shows at The Upstairs at the Downstairs, the sleek, racy revues that Julius Monk presented in the nineteen-sixties. Some of Paul’s arrangements were played over the sound system, and some -for duo pianos- were accompanied by one of Paul’s musical associates, Dennis Buck. We heard Fascinating Rhythm (the Gershwins), I Love a Piano (Irving Berlin) and a song from On the Town (Bernstein-Comden & Green). Paul’s style delighted us -he had learned his lesson from Julius Monk: you needed to lay back and let the singer predominate, for most of Julius’ numbers were comedy songs. You needed to be able to follow the dynamic of the song, when to press forward, when to retire…and, finally, you had to develop a gloss and sheen to your playing that matched the imagination of the tune. Paul was able to do all this, and I thought of the other marvelous pianists who’d been nurtured at the Upstairs: Gordon Connell, Bob Colston and…most glittering of all..Billy Roy, who now, in death, has decided he wants to be called William Roy.
The young Latina was nervous. She’d never been called on to give testimony. She sat in the witness box before us, thirty members of a Grand Jury, and answered the questions fired at her by the assistant District Attorney. He was young, maybe thirty-three, impatient, eager for us to arraign the alleged perp, a young black guy. “What time of day was this?” he wanted to know. “It jes’ before nine,” she said, “jes’ before I have to close up. I already pull down the blind–” “Speak up, please,” said the DA. “Who else was on duty that evening?” “Nobody, jes’ me.” “Tell the jury what happened please, in your own words.” And who else’s words would she use? I wondered, sitting in the third row. She shifted uncomfortably on her chair. “So I alone in the store,” she began, shyly, “an’ thees boy come in and I tell him, We close now, but he say I je’ want one cup of Leopard Spot Caramel, so I let him in, and suddenly he pull out this knife, an’ he grab me an’ he put the blade up to my neck an’ he say, ‘Go to the register and get the cash’ an’ if you scream I swear to God I kill you.'” The girl caught her breath, swallowed, intensely upset, as if maybe she was going to cry. “And then?” “Well, an’ then, like he say, I go to the register and give him the money -we have a special bell under the counter for the police, but I’m too afraid to do anything.” There was silence in the room as she collected herself. We were all totally enthralled. The DA waited her out; he knew she would continue when she could. “So I geev him the money, there was three hundred ‘n eighteen dollars, and he come right up close to me with the knife an he say, Where the toilet, an I think he need the bathroom, for himself, you know? but he lead me in there, an’ he say, I want you should stay in here and count to one hundred and you don’ make a sound, you quiet, like a mouse, you get it? An’ I nod to him, and he take me in there and ooh, he make sure I see that knife, an he tell me again Don’ you cry or make any kinda sound or I come back and cut you good, girl, an’ I say No sir, no sir, I be quiet. Because, you know, I’m scared outta my mind, I keep thinking, If he cut me, who’s gonna know? Nobody around, nobody but me…I could bleed to death on the bat’room floor…” And finally this poor girl broke and put her hands to her eyes to rub away the tears. We squirmed in our seats with identification, each of us wondering what we might have done in her situation. “And so he left?” the DA asked her. She nodded. A moment went by, the DA waiting to see if she had any further comment. Finally, he said, “Anything else you remember about him?” She looked at him with her little down-turned, trembling mouth and she said “Well…he was very good-looking.”
My friend -I’ll call him Don- wanted to impress an attractive young fellow just arrived from the mid-West, so he invited him to hear Anita O’Day, the renowned jazz singer, at a club way over on the West side below Fourteenth street. Anita was in the twilight of a rocky career, her ups and downs with heroin and alcohol had brought her -at age 78- to this nondescript little dive, and Don was chatting up the boy -let’s name him Bruce- and inquiring politely what had led him to leave Boise Idaho for the Big Apple. “Well, this is where they tell me the action is, the opportunity.” Kid couldn’t have been more than twenty-two years of age. “What is it you’d like to do?” Don inquired. “I’m an artist,” said the boy, “like to get maybe with an ad agency…” “Mm,” Don responded, “I might be able to help you with that.” He put a friendly arm around the boy’s shoulder. “With your looks, you’ve got a foot in the door before you even say hello.” Bruce blushed significantly. “Now, just who is this we’re hearing tonight?” he inquired.
“She’s one of the greatest jazz singers you’re ever gonna hear,” Don told him. “Her sense of time, her rhythm is simply unbelievable. Wait’ll you hear her scat.” “What’s scat? Mouse droppings, maybe?” Don couldn’t believe Bruce’s naivete; but he would have to play this very very carefully, not scare the kid away. “You’ll see. Just sit tight. she’ll be on in a few minutes. She’s gonna come through that red curtain, there, you see?” Anita was due on at one AM (this was the last show on a Saturday), but at twelve-fifty, Don saw her cross the room from a side entrance, obviously where the dressing room was -probably nothing more than the ladies room here. The boys in the room shifted to make way for her. There was a decent side crowd, maybe ninety people. Don was amazed to see her head right for them. She pushed her way through guys at the bar and settled herself directly in front of Bruce. Ignoring everyone else, she pulled the boy’s shirt front up close to her face. In a cool whisper, Don overheard her say: “I’ve been waiting for someone who looks like you all evening, brother. Now if you’ll just wait till I do about fifteen, eighteen numbers for these assholes in here, I’ll take you home with me -I’ll take out my teeth- and I’ll give you the greatest blow-job you’ll ever have.” With that, she pushed her way back through the crowd, and a minute later, the voice came through the loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, the West Street Room is proud to present -Miss Anita O’Day!” The curtain parted and Anita came out, just a piano behind her: NO-ONE MADE/HAS GOT A SHADE ON SWEET GEORGIA BROWN/TWO LEFT FEET/BUT OH SO SWEET IS– Don looked at Bruce, the kid was red with embarrassment. “I-I-I’m sorry,” he said to Don, “I…I have to leave. Thank you for…for…” he stumbled out, leaving Don with the check -and a giant hard-on. When he told me the story, out of everything Anita said, the line that stuck with him was, ‘I’ll take out my teeth’.