FinalMINNEAPOLIS—The legion of devotees to Nye’s Polonaise restaurant and piano bar form a neon ribbon that runs from Hollywood to Manhattan.

Albin “Al”  Nye opened his Polish-American restaurant in 1964 at 112 E. Hennepin, just west of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Nye’s charms have been how it remained a period piece in a forthright Minnesota manner. Nye’s is Garrison Keillor with a lampshade on his head.

Earlier this year Nye’s announced it was closing in the autumn. The date keeps getting pushed back and now what Esquire magazine once called “The Best Bar in America” is slated to remain open until January, 2016.

Nye sold his restaurant in September, 1994 and died in 2004 at the age of 89. Brothers Rob and Tony Jacob bought Nye’s in 1999. In December, 2014 Rob Jacob told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, “We have made the decision to close Nye’s after careful consideration. In recent years, business has fallen off and it’s been difficult for us to stay competitive.”  (The Jacob brothers declined further comment for this story and our Aug. 29 WGN-AM segment on Nye’s.)

Minneapolis media reported the brothers are working with a development company to build two fancy pants high rise apartments on the site. Updates can be found at the popular Facebook page Save Nye’s Polonaise.

How do you keep the music playing?

Something bigger comes into play when a mid-20th Century place like Nye’s goes dark. We lose our cultural memory. We lose track of gentlemen like Nye’s bartender Phil Barker.  

“I’ve been here 46 years, three months and 20 days,” Barker told me on May 20 in a conversation at Nye’s “I had just gotten out of the Navy. I was sitting at home when Al Nye called me. He asked if I would come down and tend bar for him at lunches. The light went on. I thought, ‘Why get a job where I gotta’ behave myself?’ It beats the heck out of being stuck in some office where you can’t have any fun.” Barker was 22 years old when he started at Nye’s. He said he will find another bartending job in the neighborhood, but it won’t be the same.

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Phil Barker with a Polish beer at Nye’s

Barker grew up in Northeast Minneapolis where his father worked for a burglar alarm company. Barker’s mother owned a grocery store. Nye’s is in Southeast Minneapolis. “The street out front, East Hennepin Avenue divides northeast from southeast,” he said as he peered out of the bar’s daylight darkness. “This used to be the Skid Row area of Minneapolis. In the late 1940s they tore down all the flophouses on what used to be called ‘The Gateway’ into Minneapolis.

Barker is a direct connection with Nye.  He is the senior employee at the restaurant. Collecting voices like Barker’s is why I do this website.

 “Al Nye was Polish and Austrian, “ Barker said. “He was born in north Minneapolis. His father moved to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, which is where he was raised. He moved back here during the Depression. He worked at Minor Ford before World War II and got a job at Northern Pump (company, established 1929). They made ordinates for the Navy there. He started out by owning a beer joint in South Minneapolis. Then he bought this bar, August 1, 1950 from Jimmy Heffron. This (bar) building opened  in 1908 it was the Prince Street Cafe.“

 Old regulars call the original bar “The Old Bar or The Old Side.” Newer folks call it “The Polka Lounge.”

 “The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” plays on Friday and Saturday nights in the bar. The cozy bar with eight Naugahyde booths and a dance floor is open Tuesday through Saturday.  The bar only opens during the day (at 11 a.m.) on Friday and Saturday, when Barker tends bar.

Barker looked toward the dining room and continued, “He added on the restaurant—the first room– that opened December 23, 1964 at four-thirty in the afternoon.”

Of course, old-timers call this “The New Side.”

But it is technically The Polonaise Room. Diners slip slide away into the past while sitting in the gold vinyl covers of large booths. 

The iconic piano bar is part of the supper clubby room that serves Polish-American cuisine like cabbage rolls and pierogis along with strip steaks and walleye. Music starts at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Folks sit around a curved piano underneath a portrait of 18th Century composer Frederic Chopin.

In a folksy Northern setting where more people are familiar with Harry Chapin, Nye loved Chopin. He wrote his polonaises mostly for solo piano. “Chopin lived in Paris and that’s where the polonaise comes from,” Barker explained.  “Chopin missed Poland so much he wrote the ‘Polonaise’ which means ‘Poland’ in French. So it’s Chopin’s Polonaise.”

And so it became Nye’s Polonaise.

Around Valentine’s Day 2008 I hung around the piano bar listening to the playful Sweet Lou Snider sing standards of the 1950s and 60s. She sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” for my date and I. Sweet Lou started at Nye’s in 1965 and health issues forced her to retire around  Valentine’s day 2011. She had been coming to work on crutches.

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Sweet Lou met her future husband David, on Labor Day weekend 1959 while she was playing with the rock band Lanny Charles and his Harem at  the Casino Bar in La Crosse, Wis. David requested “It Had to Be You.”

“I had to look it up,” Sweet Lou told me as her eyes sparkled under multi-colored Flintstone-like lamps that were handcrafted in Winona, Minn.. What will become of these lamps when Nye’s goes dark?

Where will these stories go?

Daina De Prez now sings at the piano bar between 8:30 and 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

A second dining area opened in 1967 in a former sign shop, and the third area [The 80-seat Pulaski Room, east of the Polonaise Room] used to be John’s Café.  “Everybody still calls it John’s,” Barker said. “ That opened in December, 1971, ” Finally, the open-spaced Chopin Room seats another 80 people between the piano bar and the Pulaski Room.

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When I was working on The Supper Club Book  a few summers ago I debated on whether or not to include Nye’s. It was a close call. I concluded the scene just seemed too large for a traditional supper club. Nye’s reminded me of Chicago’s Busy Bee restaurant on steroids.

“For the amount of food we serve and the number of people that come in here, it’s a supper club,” Barker said. “We still have relish trays. Family owners. Old Fashioneds are  popular again, especially  the Brandy Old Fashioned from Wisconsin. At one time like 51 per cent of every bottle sold in a Wisconsin liquor store was a bottle of brandy.

Barker said the Polish Vodka Martini is the most popular drink at Nye’s. “And our Polonaise (with Chopin potato vodka! served with dry Vermouth and an olive),” he said.

Vodka was outlawed in Minnesota until 1957. “They thought you couldn’t smell it on your breath,” he said.  “And it smelled like lighter fluid. Another Minnesota spin is the addition of hazelnuts to a White Russian, another go-to drink at Nye’s.

Nye’s doesn’t ignore its imported Polish beer.  You can find Zywiec, Okocim and Tyskie on a menu of 35 brews. “They’re basically all the same,” he said. “They have kind of a sweeter, hopsy after-taste to them from what I understand. I don’t drink. I used to drink, I was my own best customer. I made a deal with the state highway department years ago. They let me drive a car if I quit drinking.”

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Barker has served several thousand people during his 46 years at Nye’s. But he has not taken care of Minneapolis notables like Prince or Jesse Ventura.

 “I’ve served a couple vice-presidents,” he said. “I talked to Hubert Humphrey when he was vice-president. It was on a Monday. We used to have a Teamster business luncheon here and he stopped in to ask a question. He ran in and ran out. We’ve had (former Minnesota Viking) Bill Brown. (The late and rowdy New York Yankees-Minnesota Twins manager) Billy Martin  had lunch here with (former Twins coach) Frank Quilici. Billy behaved himself.”

But is the everyday people who made Nye’s what it is. And it is the everyday people who will be missed.

 

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Davenport, Iowa, June 29,  2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

Davenport, Iowa, June 29, 2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

DAVENPORT, Ia.—Sometimes you reset the odometer.

I buried my parents in  April and late May and in early June my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire stopped running at the toll booth on a trip from Naperville to Chicago, a journey I had been making weekly over the last 18 months. Finis. The car was as loyal as an old mare and left only after it had done its job. I’ve spent 30 years writing road stories of small towns and gentle intentions and never had to call a tow truck.

I needed a lift.

When it came time to drive to the Quad Cities for my Midwest League baseball column I deployed my parents 2006 Hyuandi Sonata. You learn a new car, you learn a new way of life. I had used the four-door Sonata for all of my parents doctors appointments. My Pontiac only had two doors and a back seat full of half read Sunday New York Times.

The measured cadence of baseball lends itself well to being in the moment. Keep your eye on the ball. Embrace every blade of green grass of a Midwest League field because soon it will be winter for all of us. But on the drive out to the great Mississippi River I could not deflect recent moments, especially on my mother’s final visits to the Naperville Cemetery.

I would remove her black Drive wheelchair from the trunk of the Sonata. The caregiver and I helped my mom out of the passenger side of the car and into the wheel chair. I would wheel mom over the grass to my father’s grave. My parents are buried around stories much sadder than theirs.  Mom  got as quiet as a broken radio. Sometimes I looked away. She never wanted to stay long but she always wanted to arrive. Mom and Dad were married 65 years.

Rivers have a timeless nature which is why I wanted to see the Quad Cities River Bandits after all that I had been through. Rivers are always going somewhere and I feel a greater sense of history in Mississippi River towns than I do when I am along the ocean in Key West and Myrtle Beach -although Coney Island is an exception.

I drove alone to Davenport, at least in a physical sense. I brought along a river mix CD I made in 2012:  “Kern River” by the great Merle Haggard, “River Bends” by Tim  O’Regan,” “Get Down River” by the Bottle Rockets, and “Moon River” by Andy Williams, a song my parents liked.

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

The first thing I did when I got to downtown Davenport was visit the Quad Cities Visitor’s Center, housed in the former Union Station, 102 S. Harrison St. The center features souvenir books, locally made food and drink, postcards and bike rentals that are perfect for the riverfront.

I found the River Music Experience (RME) museum and performing arts center thriving at 129 N. Main St. in downtown Davenport. The two-floor RME is in the former Von Maur department store in the  Redstone building, erected in 1872. I first visited RME right after it opened in 2004 and it continues to amaze me Davenport can feature such a fine music museum while Chicago cannot get its act together to honor its important music heritage. In fact, RME is expanding to honor coronetist-composer, Bix Beiderbecke, born in 1903 in  Davenport. (Sun Ra sideman Pat Patrick was from East Moline, Ill.)

RME presents an all-ages and free “Live @ 5″ series on the museum courtyard; Hal Reed & Mississippi Journey play today, followed by Fickle Filly and the Haymakers on Aug. 7, Wicked Liz & the Belly Swirls on Aug, 14 and the Ellis Kell Band on Aug, 21 (Kell is also a long-time museum staffer.)

I walked along the Mississippi River.

I had been to the former John  O’ Donnell Stadium several times but I had never found the time to  carry my thoughts along the river and Le Claire Park. I made discoveries. I saw a plaque that commemorated Aug. 22, 1963 when the  Catholic Interracial Council and other area organizations held Iowa’s  largest civil rights rally at the 400-acre park. Nearly 2,000 marchers listened to speakers like John Howard Griffin, author of “Black Like Me,” who spoke in the park’s since-refurbished band shell.

The march was a warm-up to the August 28, 1963 March on Washington (D.C.) which drew more than 250,000 people to hear Dr. Martin Luther King and others.IMG_0954

Finally, everyone can enjoy a nice picnic in the park and walk to what is now  called Modern Woodmen Park. The fraternal financial services company  scored naming rights in a 20-year deal worth $4.5 million. The 84- year-old “Modern Woody” often makes national news for getting flooded  out. Home plate is 400 feet from “The Big Muddy.”

The stadium was doing fine in June. A removable flood wall was created in June 2013 with a removable bridge that provides pedestrian access from the floodwater to the stadium. It is one of the three longest installations of its type in North America and the wall can be installed by six people in less than 24 hours.

June was the wettest month in Illinois history with 8.9 inches of rain, a fact not lost on my blue mood. I sat through an 86-minute rain delay before the game was suspended after four innings  with Quad Cities (Astros) leading Beloit (Oakland)  1-0 (Quad Cities  won 2-1 the next day.)

Earlier this year Modern Woodmen Park was voted “Best of the Ballparks” in Class A baseball by fans and readers of Ballpark Digest, which conducted a bracketed online voting competition of all Class A venues.

Modern Woodmen is the oldest stadium used continuously by a current minor league baseball team for more than 50 years. Davenport’s baseball history is one of the most storied in America, going back to 1879 when Davenport was a member of The Northwestern League that included Rockford, Ill. Dubuque, Ia. and Omaha, Ne. Northwestern is acknowledged as the first league west of the Mississippi River.

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My brother recently gave me the 2013 John Sexton book “Baseball as a Road to God (Seeing Beyond the Game)” which cites a 1956 poem John Updike wrote for the New Yorker while sitting in the Yankee Stadium bleachers:  “Distance brings proportion…From here the populated tiers as much as players seem part of the show…..”

Sexton wrote how Updike saw unity in time and place within the framework of baseball.

I last visited the riverside park in 2004 when the team was known as the “Swing of the Quad Cities,” which always sounded like some kind of private kinky club. The improvements are impressive and memorable.

In May, 2014 a new 110-foot tall $1 million Ferris wheel was erected beyond  the left field fence. The wheel was shut down during lightning and thunder, but it is easy to see that you can see views of the Mississippi River and the humble Davenport skyline. Why didn’t Tom Ricketts think of this as part of his left field renovation? The Cubs have been spinning wheels for generations. There is a $5 charge to ride the wheel.

A children’s amusement area is being built in the right field corner, bringing a bit of the wonderful Brooklyn Cyclones-by Coney Island experience to Iowa.

The latest addition for this season is a tiny cornfield in the left field corner beyond the bullpen. Bumper cars will be added in the right field corner before the season is over.

It is clear that River Bandits owner Dave Heller is all ears for just about anything. He realizes the shortened attention spans of today’s younger baseball audience.

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This is Iowa baseball.

“When I get five or six innings out of my kids I feel like I’ve really accomplished something,” Heller said from Connecticut where he was tending to his ill father. “If we’re in someone else’s park and they’re tired, we can leave. But when it’s Quad Cities and I’m in charge, leaving is not an alternative. Part of it is understanding first hand the struggles parents have to carve out affordable family friendly entertainment for themselves and their families. We wanted to do things that hadn’t been done before in minor league baseball to provide enough other attractions to keep them there for nine innings.”

Heller is a life long Democratic political media consultant. He attended Yale University where he completed his Master’s thesis and taught an undergraduate seminar on 20th Century American Politics.

“I’ve worked for 25 different members of congress,” said Heller, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “I’m working on a number of campaigns include Congressman Alan Grayson who is running for the U.S. Senate in Florida. I still love politics. But I joke that I’ve spent my entire life selling something nobody wants to buy and now I get a chance to sell something people really enjoy—baseball.” And sometimes, something people really need.

 

 

 

Dave Hoekstra photo,  June 9, 2015

Dave Hoekstra photo, June 9, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C.–If you look hard enough you see history in the misty shadows of bright neon.

As Asheville grows as a tourist destination many people stop to take photos of the Mountaineer Inn neon-lit sign on the near east side of Tunnel Road. The 1960s era sign features a hillbilly with a rifle resting against his right leg.

The iconic sign is purposely spelled with backwards N’s and E’s to attract roadside attention, but it attracts its own desires at night when it is lit up in cherry red and evergreen outlines.

Asheville is now filled with trendy motels and boutique hotels, so the Mountaineer Inn is left for extended stay residents, day laborers and the occasional prostitute. On a lazy June afternoon I sat by the pool (closed for remodeling) reading the biography of North Carolina born writer Joseph Mitchell. I saw that a few families were attracted to the Mountaineer Inn. The families asked proprietor Chris Moutos to see a room and then left for greener pastures.

And they were witness to the kind of room I stayed in: a saggy bed, a 1970s era Zenith television set jerry-rigged to cable TV and an air conditioning system run through the front office. I paid $59 for a Monday night stay. As one family drove away a middle-aged man with a walking cane left his room. He startled the mockingbird perched on the roof of his unit. His dago tee shirt wasn’t doing any favors for his ample belly. The man asked me how far the Waffle House was. It is two blocks west, not far from where the sun sets on Asheville.

Dave Hoekstra photo

Dave Hoekstra photo

The Mountaineer Court was built in 1939 as a 19-unit motel. Moutos added another 44 units in 1973. “Some of the biggest rooms in the state, 14 by 28 (feet),” Moutos crowed. The Mountaineer now consists of 76 units and the spectacular neon of the barefooted mountain man with his corncob pipe and rifle.

John Turk, Vice-President of the Western North Carolina Historical Association and Professor Emeritus Youngstown State University told me, “Asheville was founded in the 1790s and has had up and down times. The civil war certainly a down time.

“When the railroad got here in 1880 the place started to boom. You could get to Asheville from Baltimore or Philadelphia. A lot of people came to the mountains to get away from the heat and humidity. It built up until 1920 and the stock market crashed.Asheville went into the dark ages until the 1960s when tourist trade started to jump again. That’s when all these motels were built on the three main roads that led into Asheville. Themes varied from hillbilly to Florida chic to Colonial Revival and that was the time period before Howard Johnson’s where they all looked the same. There was a certain amount of character to the Mountaineer.”

Turk leads walking tours and bus tours of downtown Asheville through History At Hand. He has lived in Asheville for 10 years.

He admits he has never stayed at the Mountaineer.

“It is wonderful this motel is still in operation,” he said. “It prides itself in this huge sign. And if you live in Asheville everybody knows where it is. You are either in the camp that thinks its a horrible filthy thing that we need to get rid of or an iconic statement about what was happening in Asheville in the 1950s and 60s.”

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

 The 5’2” Moutos shuffled about his front office which features a vintage sofa and a front desk where he registers visitors by pen and paper. On a good day Moutos will tell visitors about studying Byzantine music as a young man. A Greek Orthodox, Moutos wanted to be a priest when he was young.

Here is a portion of our interview that we aired on the July 18 edition of Nocturnal Journal on WGN-AM 720 in Chicago.

“I will be 92 in one month,” he said. “And I work from seven in the morning until 11 o’clock at night. If we have a storm, we get big problems with the neon. It cost money to operate. It is hard to get parts. I fight and fight to keep the sign. The city has made it a historic sign. People from Europe and all over take pictures of that sign. Several people have tried to buy the motel. It is not for sale. What do I do if I stay home? Keep working. That’s all I can do. I love to meet people. I meet good people.

“Remember ‘Horse’ on ‘Bonanza”?

Actually it was ‘Hoss.’

“I wanted to give him (Dan Blocker) the room free,” Moutos continued. “He would not take the free room. He went across the street and ate feta cheese and bread just like he was in Athens, Greece. He came here in September, 1964.”

Blocker was one of Moutos’ first celebrity guests. Moutos was an Asheville restauranteur on June 10, 1964 when he visited the motel to sell a chamber of commerce membership. “I bought the motel in less than three minutes without knowing what I do,” Moutos said in a broken Greek accent.

Moutos was born in Greece and grew up in Athens. He was a messenger in World War II and came to America in 1951. Moutos lived with his aunt and uncle in Augusta, Ga. for 18 months before relocating to Greenville, S.C. to work in a restaurant. He next moved to Asheville to open his restaurants. He liked Asheville because the cool climate reminded him of the Mediterranean. At one time Moutos operated four diners in Asheville.

But Moutos found his calling in the Mountaineer.

His first restaurant, Cosmos, was across the highway from the Mountaineer.

“One of the most nice and high reputation in the state,  the best part of the city,” he said. Moutos is married to a high school classmate from Athens but they didn’t get hitched until April, 1977. It was not a shotgun wedding. “I was 53,” he said. “I went back to Greece to get married. She is 17 years younger than I am.” Barbara and Chris have sons ages 34 and 36. The oldest son John is involved with the motel and lives in Raleigh, N.C. Nick lives in Asheville.

Portions of the 1988 hit baseball film “Bull Durham” were filmed in  Asheville and the nearby McCormick Field is a minor league baseball treasure. McCormick is situated in a slope on the fringe of the downtown area. I’ve visited McCormick Field the past two summers.

The tiny brick framed ballpark (4,000 capacity) opened in 1924 and was renovated in 1959. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Willie Stargell are among those who have played at McCormick where the right field wall is a mere 297 feet from home plate. The Asheville Tourists are a Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Yankees.

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Waiting for the gates to open (Dave Hoekstra photo)

McCormick is baseball’s oldest minor league stadium still in use. The vintage scoreboard reads “Visitors” in the guest slot and “Tourists” underneath in the home slot. In “Bull Durham” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) ends his career with the Tourists after being released by the Durham Bulls.

 “Bull Durham make shot,” Moutos said. “It was all right. I gave them the room free because it was good work for the city. But they took off the screen doors and never put them back. They were rough people. I’m glad they did the scene with no clothes on at another hotel in Greensboro (S.C.)

Moutos had a better experience with the acclaimed 2003 indy film “All The Real Girls” that starred Zooey Deschnael and Paul Schneider. 

“That was the best movie we had here,” he said. “Good girls. It was nice. They stayed here from October to March. 40 rooms. They were beautiful people. They paid the bills and it was good advertisement for the motel. The producer (Jean Doumanian) wanted to write a story on me. I came here with nothing and made something.”

The 92-year-old proprietor can walk around his grounds and realize it is not 1964 any more. “It’s not good people like it used to be,” he said. “You have to watch close to whom you rent it. You don’t want to rent to people who have a good time or dealers of dope and those things. You have to watch it close. You have to be 21 to rent a room. We have a bridal suite with new furnitures.” And like an old wedding ring, the Mountaineer circles the past with hopes for the future.

The Mountaineer Inn is at 155 Tunnel Rd, for reservations, call 1-800-255-4080.

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn

Finding yourself on the road; George Maharis (left)

Finding yourself on the road; George Maharis (left)

A couple weeks ago I saw my pal Jimmy Rittenberg at Gibson’s Bar and Steakhouse, 1028 N. Rush for an interview on the most comprehensive book about Disco Demolition you will read.

Rittenberg was the impresario of Faces, 940 N. Rush, arguably America’s best known disco. It certainly had a longer run  (1971-89) than Studio 54.

Like a Frank Sinatra ballad, our conversation floated off into the dreamy 1970s memories of Rush Street; a time when footsteps were lighter and the Jack was stronger.

Soon we were joined at our table in the bar by comedian Tom Dreesen.

This guy is everywhere.

He was on my WGN Nocturnal Journal radio show in May  and now he was in Chicago to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs-Dodgers game.

Dreesen told a few good stories at Gibson’s  but I loved his recollection about his bit role in the 1971 movie “T.R. Baskin,” which starred Candice Bergen as a young woman from rural Ohio who meets sleazy guys in the big city.

The mostly panned movie was shot in Chicago and included scenes at the now-gone O’Connell’s Coffee Shop on Rush street. The coffee shop wasn’t far from Punchinello’s, 936 N. Rush, a popular after-show spot for acts at the Shubert  Theater and Mr. Kelly’s—now Gibson’s. The second floor Punchinello’s is also where comedienne-singer Pudgy got her big break.

Jimmy Rittenberg (L) and Tom Dreesen (Paul Natkin photo)

Jimmy Rittenberg (L) and Tom Dreesen (Paul Natkin photo)

 “I just had a couple of lines,” Dreesen said. “But in the movie with me was a gay kid who worked at Punchinello’s. He was one of the first gay guys back in those days who buffed, who wore the tight shirts and everything. And his name was Bon-Bon which I thought was the greatest name for a guy in a movie. Everybody liked him and he was a likeable kid.

“George Maharis was working at Mister Kelly’s. He goes down to Punchinello’s and he likes Bon-Bon. But George wasn’t out of the closet in those days. I don’t if he ever was out of the closet.”

Rittenberg leaned over and said, “He is now!”

Actually, Maharis was arrested in 1974 for  on a sex perversion charge with perfectly named male hairdresser Perfecto Telles in the bathroom of a Los Angeles gas station. Just a year earlier Maharis posed nude for “Playgirl” magazine.

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“George Mahraris was (Buz Murdock) on Route 66,” Dreesen continued. “So Maharis sees Bon-Bon and makes a move. He says, ‘Would you like to go out later?’ Well Bon-Bon says ‘Yes!, are you kidding?’ Bon-Bon tells Maharis he’s going to get off in five minutes and Maharis says ‘I’m going to leave, meet me on the corner.”

Dreesen looked over his shoulder to distant characters on a different Rush Street.

With impeccable pacing he continued, “Bon-Bon was disappointed because he wanted his friends to see him. So Maharis is walking through the restaurant going out and Bon-Bon starts walking behind him.”

And Dreesen started tip toeing around the crowded restaurant bar, smiling with sealed lips as he pointed to an imaginary Maharis. “All the other gay guys are applauding Bon- Bon,” Dreesen said. “ And Maharis is beaming and going ‘Thank you, thank you!’

“It was a scene I could put in a movie.”

Rittenberg and I took it all in.

Rittenberg was born in 1943 and grew up in West Garfield Park. His father James, Sr. was a Jackson Boulevard bus driver for Chicago Motor Coach, his mother Lucille was a telephone operator. “My Mom was a music buff but I hated a lot of her music,” he said. “I remember breaking ‘Sentimental Journey’ by accident on purpose. Then when ‘45s came out I ruled the roost, ‘Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard was my favorite. I played ‘Lucille’ and my mother hated it.”

He broke onto the Rush Street scene tending bar at the original Store, 1030 N. State, which previously had been the Gate of Horn, where in 1962 Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were arrested on obscenity charges.

“Rush Street was different than State Street,” Rittenberg explained. “Rush Street was a little dressier. I made $6 a night in tips bartending at the Store, when I moved to Jay’s (1026 N. Rush) I was a school teacher so I only worked Friday and Saturday nights. I made a $150 a night.”

Rittenberg taught sixth and seventh grade and coached baseball and basketball for six years at St. Francis Cabrini at Sacramento and Polk. “I go back to the Marienthals, Chez Paree,” he said. “I learned from those guys.” George and Oscar Marienthal owned Mr. Kelly’s, the Happy Medium and the London House in the north Loop. Rittenberg declared, “ Rush Street has been destroyed.  I tell (Gibson’s owner Steve) Lombardo that all the time. No more hookers, no more jazz joints. Its turned into restaurant row and now clothing.”

And life is more fun when you peel back the layers.

Dylan,_Cash,_and_the_Nashville_Cats_-_Bob_Dylan_Nashville_Skyline_album_cover

NASHVILLE, Tn.–Bob Dylan began recording “Blonde on Blonde” in the fall of 1965 with the Hawks, the Ronnie Hawkins band that was still navigating the departures of Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. The sessions were sluggish and producer Bob Johnston moved the show (with Robbie Robertson and keyboardist Al Kooper) to Nashville, Tn. 

Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy became the connector.

The Nashville session player was visiting New York in the summer of 1965 to see the World’s Fair when Johnston invited him to play acoustic guitar on the 11-minute “Desolation Row” for Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album. McCoy helped open the doors to one of the most prolific eras of Dylan’s career. Dylan recorded “Blonde on Blonde” “John Wesley Harding” “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait” in Nashville with generous session players that became known as the “Nashville Cats.”

Dylan also buddied up with Johnny Cash, which is the point of the new “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City” that runs through Dec. 31, 2016 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. The cats were popularized in the 1966 Lovin’ Spoonful hit “Nashville Cats.” Cash taped his ABC television series “The Johnny Cash Show” between 1969 and 1971 at the Ryman Auditorium.

McCoy had been a member of the Escorts that also featured ‘Nashville Cat’ drummer Kenny Buttrey. Dylan likely heard the root source of the Escorts that he was looking for in the Hawks. Dylan also found a recording process that was more democratic and less rigid than New York studios, which begins to explain how the double-album “Blonde on Blonde” zig zags through country, rock, folk and rhythm and blues.

During a charming interview in late April at the Country Music Hall of Fame (the same day Dylan appeared with his pop combo a few blocks away at Andrew Jackson Hall) McCoy figured Dylan knew of his harmonica playing on the 1962 Escorts hit “Harpoon Man.” The exhibit companion CD was released this week and includes “Harpoon Man” as well as a previously unheard Dylan outtake of “If Not For You.”

“Somehow I didn’t see Bob Dylan checking out the country charts,” McCoy said. “It was a strange deal. He never talked in the studio. And I’m the leader so I’m supposed to be the go between between the artist, producer and musicians. Every time I asked him his thoughts about what we’re going to do, his answer was, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’ I told Bob Johnston, ‘Listen, I’m not getting any answers from him so I’m going to quit asking. If he doesn’t like something, maybe he’ll speak up. He never said a word. Ever. So that’s what we did.“Maybe I should have been paid as producer.”

The cats were led by McCoy but also included Charlie Daniels, guitarist-producer Norbert Putnam (J.J. Cale, Linda Ronstadt) and many others. McCoy did the arrangements on “Blonde on Blonde.” “You listen to ‘Blonde on Blonde’, there’s not a lot of solos,” he said. “A lot of songs are real long, too. It was just another session. But it was a strange session for us. In the country world, nobody had budgets to have a room full of musicians sitting around all night.”

McCoy’s favorite track remains “Lay, Lady Lay.” “The (Pete Drake) steel on it was magical,” he said. “Many people swear we overdubbed, he did not over dub. I sat there and watched it.” McCoy went on to play bass on “John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait.”

Michael Gray, museum editor and co-curator of “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” said, “When Dylan and others were coming in the late 1960s they were working with that second wave of studio musicians. Bob Dylan was 24 when he first came to Nashville. The musicians he was working with were about that same age. ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is a much different record than ‘John Wesley Harding’ or ‘Nashville Skyline’. It’s more of that R&B based rock n’roll. I think Dylan was impressed with the fact Charlie McCoy and the Escorts, the core band on that album were a white R&B band.”

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Charlie McCoy (far right) and the Escorts (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Dylan, McCoy, Johnston, Robertson and others began recording in Columbia Studio A, 34 Music Square East. Cash, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline  found magic in the studio walls and relaxed atmosphere that includes a living room.

In 2014 the studio was restored and reopened through an estimated $10 million donation from the Curb Family Foundation. Studio A is closed to the public but in recent months Ben Folds and Kacey Musgraves have recorded there. After hosting Dylan, Studio A became home to folk-rock artists.

“The great thing about Dylan is that it exploded the town,” McCoy said.  “The ‘A’ team guys (The Nashville “A-Team” session players included Floyd Cramer on keyboards, Bob Moore on bass) were as full as they could get. They couldn’t do anymore. All of a sudden there’s this new  volume of recording. There became a need for a lot more players.“The studios started springing up right and left.”

This is where “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” gains traction.

For example the exhibit pays homage to Paul McCartney, Neil Young and others who came to Nashville to record as well as the outsider’s Quadrafonic Studio, a.ka. “The Quad” where Steve Goodman’s self-titled 1971 debut album was recorded with Putnam and Kris Kristofferson.

“Quad” co-owner Putnam produced the early hit records of Jimmy Buffett at the studio that also attracted Jerry Jeff Walker and J.J. Cale. “They built that studio thinking they would be the home for hippie artists with their ‘alternative’ lifestyle,” McCoy explained. “Because smoking grass and all that was absolutely not allowed in mainstream studios here. Although I did not agree with it I think David (Briggs, co-founder) and Norbert were smart in they let guys do what they want.”

The Nashville A-Team had already sat the bar so very high.

Nashville Cat Lloyd Green's Show-Bud pedal steel which was used on the Byrds 1968 album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," introducing pedal steel to rock audiences. Green also played this instrument on Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

Nashville Cat Lloyd Green’s Show-Bud pedal steel which was used on the Byrds 1968 album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” introducing pedal steel to rock audiences. Green also played this instrument on Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

“Pursuit of excellence,” McCoy said. “Those guys were doing three or  four sessions a day, cutting hit after hit. When I started playing in 1961 my first session was with the A team. I was inspired by their work ethic–in a relaxed way. And it was all good. Of course the music was relatively simpler then. It was incredible.

“One day on three back to back sessions for Mercury they cut three number one records with three different artists: “Ahab the Arab” for Ray Stevens, “Wooden Heart” on Joe Dowell and “Walk on By” for LeRoy Van Dyke. In the same day.”

Bob Johnston’s name appears as producer on Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen records, but he did not have the high profile of a modern day Don Was or Joe Henry.

“Bob was a songwriter from Texas who came to Nashville to demo songs to get into Elvis movies,” McCoy said. “That’s how he and I knew each other. I was leading sessions for him with Kenny, Pig (Robbins, keyboardist)–that group. He took songs they turned down for Elvis to New York. The Columbia producer said, ‘These are great demos. Where did you record these?’ He said he did them in Nashville. He then asked the age old question, ‘Did you produce these?’ And he said ‘Yes.’ Don’t say ‘no’ to a question like that. Say ‘yes’ and figure it out later.”

So Johnston was assigned to produce Patti Page in Nashville. He later  became the head of Columbia’s Nashville division. “He revived Patti’s career and made him the golden boy for Columbia Records,” McCoy said. “That’s when they offered Dylan to him, after the Patti Page record. Bob (Johnston) was a smart guy. He wasn’t totally musical but he had a good instinct for tempos and grooves. He could converse with these artists and make them feel like they were in the right place. He stayed out of the way of musicians, too.” Johnston, now 83, went on to produce Jimmy Cliff’s 1978 “Give Thanx” reggae record and Carl Perkins’ 1996 all-star record “Go Cat Go.”

Chicago artist-country-rock musician Jon Langford contributed the exhibit’s artwork, CD cover and the engaging rustic atmopshere of the museum rooms.

The wonderful work of Jon Langford (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

The wonderful work of Jon Langford (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Gray said, “We considered different artists and painters. The staff here knew Jon Langford had done paintings of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. We knew he understood the story and had a love and appreciation for it. We called him out of the blue and said, ‘Would you be interested in creating the art for this exhibit?’ The primary piece we commissioned is a picture of Dylan and Cash together and the names of the Nashville cats are scrawled all around it. Shortly before the exhibit opened he sent us another painting he did on his own because he has a passion for this, and that one was of all the Nashville Cats that we feature in the exhibit.” The museum took Langford’s look and style to the exhibit graphic designer who used the same feel and fonts to create the rest of the exhibit.

Langford, country singer Deana Carter and others were guests in a Nasvhille Cats band led by McCoy during the exhibit’s opening weekend in late March.

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Jon Langford at work (Museum photo by Dave Hoekstra)

McCoy was born on March 28, 1941 in Fayette County, W. Va. “The same town Hank Williams died in,” he said. “I got my first harmonica when I was eight years old. I saw an ad in a comic book, 50 cents and a box top for a harmonica. So I conned my mother out of 50 cents. After about a day she said, ‘Could you take that thing outside?’ That same year I got a guitar for Christmas.

“My Dad lived in Florida. My Mom lived in West Virginia. I was kind of an anemic kid and they figured the warmer weather would be good for me. I went to school in Florida in the winter and went back to West Virginia in the summer.”

On one lonely night at the age of 15 McCoy heard the grinding blues of Jimmy Reed on WLAC out of Nashville. “It was so strange,” said McCoy, who was also listening to Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. “My father didn’t like rhythm and blues music. So there was a kid in the neighborhood whose Dad was a ham operator. He took my clock radio and put an ear phone jack on the back of it. So I could listen to WLAC late at night and my Dad wouldn’t hear it. I’d hear Howlin’ Wolf. All the blues stuff. Then I discovered Little Walter and that was it.  He’s still the greatest for blues harmonica.”

McCoy came to Nashville in 1960, the day after he graduated high school and by May, 1961 he was hired for his first session. McCoy played harmonica behind singer-starlet Ann Margaret. “It was like I  died and went to heaven,” he said. “There’s God. Chet Atkins. His disciples, the Nashville A-Team. There’s the heavenly choir, the Anita Kerr Singers. And there’s an angel–an 18-year-old Ann  Margaret. The bass player on that session asked me if I was free Friday. I was free the rest of my life. He said, ‘Come back to the studio and record Roy Orbison.’ So we did ‘Candy Man.’ (Elvis Presley sideman) Scottie Moore was playing guitar. Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph were on it. After that record became a hit my phone started to ring.

“It was like a charmed, magic dream that I’m still in.”

McCoy played empathetic harmonica on the George Jones hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and in 1995 some of his  fellow Nashville Cats (Pig Robbins, Buddy Spicher on mandolin, the Jordaniares singing group) backed alt rockers Ween on their excellent “12 Country Golden Country Greats” tunes that included “Piss Up a Rope” and the peppy “Japanese Cowboy.” The 10 song project was recorded at Bradley’s Barn in Nashville under the production of Ben Vaughn. “They did their homework,” McCoy said. “They came here and knew all about everybody which was amazing especially how young they were. Some of their lyrics were over the top, but musically it was good. And they were nice guys.”

Charlie McCoy

Charlie McCoy

McCoy also was the long time  musical director for the hit Buck Owens-Roy Clark variety show “Hee-Haw.”

“First I was called in to play one show behind Ray Charles,” he said. “At that time they were filming in a television station in downtown Nashville. They would tape for a month and every time they would tape the City of Nashville police department had a field day writing department tickets. There wasn’t enough places at that station for their own employees more less 60 or 70 people that it takes to do a major TV show.

“A year later the producer called me back and asked me to consider playing in the band. I was working around the clock. I tried one shot and 18 years later I was still trying one more shot. It was such a great show and every day you went to work you were surrounded by legends. Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Grandpa Jones, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl.

“Later it became evident to me how important this show was to country music. Today, when I go out and play people say, ‘We miss ‘Hee-Haw’. It was our Saturday night routine. If you can’t laugh at yourself, that is too bad. That’s what we were doing. We were laughing at ourselves.”

No session player in Nashville had the gritty blues textures of McCoy, a fact that was not lost on Dylan. “In my formative years I was trying to play as much like Little Walter as I could,” McCoy said. “For a while here (in Nashville) that  was a novelty. Then it started to wear thin. I’d get comments like, ‘Could you play maybe not quite so funky? That nasty tone and all that stuff.’ I realized if I was going to stick around I’d have to do something different. I started copying fiddles and dobros and cleaning up the sound. I tried to play melodies. You don’t hear many harmonica players play melodies. The combination of all that stuff together gave me a sound. 

Bob Dylan? I didn’t realize he was playing tonight. The last time I saw him was when he did ‘Nashville Skyline’.”

Look at this resume of Charlie McCoy, (he’s playing the Hatfield-McCoy Reunion tonight in West Virginia.) McCoy took a long pause at the end of our conversation. He looked around the room, smiled ever so gently and added, “You know I worked with so many artists and Steve Miller (McCoy is blowing harmonica on Miller’s 1970 “Number 5″ record)  was the only one who has given me a gold record.”

My parents back porch

Overlooking my parents back porch, June 2015

You set out on the road to get centered.

The loss of both parents within six weeks is hard to take, even when they were 93 and 94 years old. In their last weeks they asked for “one more day,” which is the gift given to all of you reading this.

On the day after my June 2 birthday I drove to see my brother in Nashville, Tn., I double shot over to listen to Beach Music in Myrtle Beach, S.C., watch the Pelicans lose a double-header and then headed back to Chicago through Asheville, N.C.

The birds chirped louder.

At night I walked alone in the Atlantic Ocean along North Myrtle Beach. The stars seemed closer. I drove and I swam. I tried to keep going.

But I stopped to pick wild flowers. My parents loved flowers. I’ve been looking at Kodachrome slides and discovered portraits of my father in fields of roses, tulips and marigolds. He was always smiling.

I teared up at seeing a Bob Evans restaurant sign and that came out of  nowhere. My folks were Bob Evans regulars before we had to take away the car keys. This road trip presented the conflict of memory and being in the moment.

That all James Taylor station on Sirius XM is not a good idea in this condition.

Cemeteries aren’t as foreboding as they used to be. The first thing I did when I returned to the Chicago area was visit the Naperville Cemetery. The grass has grown over my father’s side. The other night a friend at the Cubs game told me you aren’t fully grown up until a parent dies. I get that now.

I waited for two hours to hear Marsha Morgan singer her Beach Music hit This Girl Needs a Tune-Up” on a Sunday night at Duck’s Too in North Myrtle Beach.

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I learned that my favorite newspaper writer Joseph Mitchell called depression “The Black Dog.” Joe was from North Carolina.

I brought along Van Morrison and remembered that “Enlightenment” is the end of suffering. I also thought of my Sun-Times editor and mentor Lon Grahnke and how Van’s “Full Force Gale” was played at the end of his memorial service.

I drove 1,900 miles but still have a long way to go.

In reality, the present is all you have.

North Myrtle Beach, S.C., June 2015

Under the Boardwalk, North Myrtle Beach, S.C., June 2015

Mom at an 80-something birthday at Hugo's Frog Bar in Naperville

Mom at her 80-something birthday at Hugo’s Frog Bar in Naperville

Like petals in a basket, I carry so many shades of life from my mother’s gallant journey. One of the most emotional snapshots of Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra came on April 9, the day after my father died. Although my mother battled dementia she managed to find her gold wedding ring. She slipped it on her finger without any of us knowing about it.

And the gold ring remained on my mother’s finger until the moment she passed over from heart failure Friday night in her Naperville home.

Mom was 93 years old.

All moms are amazing and so was ours. She was placed into home hospice twice and discharged once. Last August the hospitalists at Edward Hospital in Naperville told me she had “two to three weeks” to live because of her congestive heart failure.

Later, a hospice nurse told me she would never walk again. Up until a few days ago her head was down with determination as she walked slowly on her walker with the assistance of our caregiver.

Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra was was tough that way, a plainspoken coal miner’s daughter from Carlinvllle, Ill.

Only six weeks separated the deaths of our parents.

They stayed strong for each other.

In recent years as the sun set, my dad would hold my mom’s thin hand, colored purple by Coumadin. She would look ahead, blinking her eyes into the approaching darkness. And he would kiss her good night. Every night.

They lived a deep love I may never know.

Mom and dad got hitched late in life, at least for their generation.

They were married 65 years. Their wedding dinner  and honeymoon night was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the far north side of Chicago. The sunset pink colored hotel was pegged as the “Site of America’s Most Successful Meetings.” When my mom opened the door to her hotel room she found a surprise from my father–a bouquet of a dozen roses.

Our mom loved flowers and over the past six weeks we were bringing flowers to my dad’s gravesite. She sat in her wheelchair, gently twirled the ring around her finger and looked at the family plot. She always asked me when the headstone would be ready. It is not up yet, but it will be identified by a gold ring linking their names. Mom battled macular degeneration but that did not stop her from having me park the car in the driveway after our trip to the cemetery. She would blink repeatedly at the white magnolia in our front yard. It is an early and fast bloomer and you have to pay attention.

Mom often got a charge out of the short Zumba dancing sessions I’d throw down with our Ghanian caregiver. (I’d say we had about 30 caregivers over the past eight years.) Mom was lost in mid-stage dementia but when we started shaking our stuff she would smile, clap her hands and say, “Do it again. Do it again.” Who doesn’t want another dance? The power of music can cut through dementia.

Zumba shakedown (Photo by Jude Hoekstra)

Zumba shakedown (Photo by Jude Hoekstra)

Our mom secretly typed out her 26 page autobiography in 1989. I found it in the bedroom safe of their Naperville home. 

Of her wedding day she wrote in part, “The bride wore a rose-pink satin tea length gown and carried a dainty bouquet of white roses. The groom wore a brown suit and a rose and brown striped tie with a white carnation boutonniere….The bride commented it was the happiest day of her life. The day was perfect–sunny, bright and happy.”  The way my mom wrote in third person narrative illustrated her humility.

I also discovered a sidebar essay she wrote in 2000 after we celebrated our parents 50th wedding anniversary at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Mom began, “Once upon a time there were these two introverts who met, fell in love and got married…Well these two are still around today and you guessed, it, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on Feb. 11, 2000….After considerable time packing, as old folks are apt to do, they were off to the Drake Hotel. It was there that they planned to meet their two boys, one boy’s (my brother Doug) wife and the other’s (me) friend. You see, their sons had planned the celebration, and it was with their compliments. And of course, the parents were looking forward to “living it up” for the weekend.”

The weekend was full of surprises, including dinner at the old Jilly’s on Rush Street. “This is a well known night spot where Frank Sinatra and people of his ilk made famous,” my mom wrote. “It was fun to be in a place where the clientele was somewhat out of the ordinary.”

My mom was of very ordinary means.

Her Lithuanian parents came to America to work in the Union Stock Yards in Chicago and the Peabody Coal Mines in downstate Illinois. Mom was born on Dec. 10, 1921 in Carlinville, Ill. When the mines around Carlinville closed in 1925 the family moved 45 miles north to Taylorville, where my mom grew up.

She was a first chair clarinet player in the Taylorville High School Band and in her senior year was awarded first prize for an essay she wrote about her high school. This led to her interest in journalism, which she later studied in night school at Northwestern University in Chicago. During the day she worked as a stenographer at Gulbransen Pianos and as secretary at Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, which produced magazines like “Popular Photography” and “Modern Bride.”

In 1946 my mom met my dad at a dance at Northwestern. He was also attending night school at Northwestern. She wrote, “After all these years I can still recall that he was wearing a navy blue suit and that he made an impression on me because he was so witty and personable.”

Our Mom & Dad

Mom & Dad with flowers

Mom and Dad didn’t travel much when we were growing up. Dad was a purchasing agent for Swift & Company in Chicago and mom stayed at home. I’ve been listening to the oral history CDs Doug made in 1993, spending several hours interviewing my parents. I am forever grateful to him for doing that. My folks said they didn’t travel because they were saving money for a house. The first house they owned was a small ranch house which they purchased in 1952 in Westchester, Ill., just outside of Chicago.

In the early 1960s Swift transferred dad to Columbus, Ohio. I used to ponder the “Leave it to Beaver” dynamic of our household. We had two boys, no pets, a nattily dressed father heading off to work and a stay at home mother –who owned pearls but rarely wore them. Several  years ago I talked to the creators of “Leave it to Beaver” and they said the show was indeed based on their experiences in “Central Ohio.” After my brother and I finished high school my mom found secretarial work at Amoco Research Center in Naperville and it was a job she loved.

This modest pedigree leads me to one of my favorite stories about mom. In 1993 the Chicago Sun-Times assigned me to shadow Frank Sinatra during his appearance  at the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, Ill. I asked my mom to be my date. She was 72 years old. Frank was 77. We went to the concert where Frank told his fans he would do “nothing new because no one writes anything anymore.”

We followed Frank to a post-concert dinner across the street to the Cafe Harlow restaurant in the Hollywood Casino. Frank enjoyed sliced veal, onion rings and French Fries. He washed it down with Jack (Daniel’s) and ice water on the side. As he left the dinner table around midnight the casino security staff cleared a path by our table.

Although I was told not to bother Frank, I started to say hello. Frank ignored me.

Then he smiled and winked at my mom.

Now he did it.

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Mom was not ready to go home. We all went to the casino’s Directors Lounge to hear the late great singer Frank D’Rone. The other Frank had another Jack. My mom was having a blast and my dad was getting worried.

I finally dropped mom off in her Naperville home in the wee, wee hours of 2 a.m. Every time I repeated this story over the years my mom  scolded me for “not letting me talk to Frank.” My mom radiated measured class and even Frank Sinatra saw that. We played Frank Sinatra CD’s by her hospice bed.

The best way to conclude this essay is to use the end of my mom’s autobiography: “My parents came to the United States for better opportunities and a better way of life. They strived and worked hard for everything. I, too, have worked hard and tried my best to do things right and to make a good life for my family. “Perhaps one might call these memoirs ordinary and not too exciting–but just think. If these two people had not come the many miles from Europe, if their paths had not crossed, then I would not have the privilege to be here and write the tale of my life for you to read.” Her privilege will continue.

My brother and I have spent our lives making a living with words and now my mother’s nurturing spirit will inform all the words that follow. She is here.

She is the gold ring around my heart.

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The view from our mom’s favorite chair, 5/23/15

Deep thanks to all of you who have visited this website over recent years to help me navigate my parents journey. For more on music and dementia, listen to my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal  show on the subject. Share it with someone who is traveling a similar path.

Services for Irene Hoekstra are at 10 a.m. May 27 at Grace United Methodist Church, 300 E. Gartner Rd.  in Naperville. Visitation is 9 a.m. at the church, services are followed by a luncheon at the church. Burial immediately after the luncheon at Naperville Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

It should not come as a surprise that Bob Dylan loved Calvert De Forest, a.k.a. Larry “Bud” Melman.

Melman was an everyman David Letterman character with jiggly jowls and huge Harry Caray glasses that blurred boundaries between image and reality, just as Dylan does.

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Melman was often placed within an incongruous setting–always a key to a fun time. Something like Dylan doing an album of obscure Frank Sinatra songs.

In his 2009 memoir “We’ll Be Here For the Rest Of Our Lives–A Swingin ‘ Show-Biz Saga” “Late Show” bandleader Paul Shaffer wrote that Dylan was fascinated with Melman.

“He mentioned he always saw Larry Bud [walk on] with those gorgeous models,” Shaffer told me in 2009. “Dylan said, ‘Why is he with those chicks?’ It is as simple as that.”

Melman made his name  during the 1980s “Late Night With David Letterman” run on NBC. Back then Dave had a bigger budget, sending Melman off to South America in a Winnebago to harvest his unfiltered observations on culture and food. Back on his home turf Melman once distributed hot towels to grimy travelers at the New York Port Authority bus terminal.

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When Dave moved to CBS from NBC in 1993, NBC said “Larry ‘Bud’ Melman’ remained as their intellectual property. Dave simply continued to bring De Forest on stage at the same wide-eyed character, except he was “Calvert De Forest.”

On the May 13, 1994 “Late Show” Dave promised that Johnny Carson would deliver the Top 10 list. De Forest appeared as “Johnny Carson.” Just after De Forest waddled off the stage, the real Johnny Carson appeared. It would be Carson’s final television appearance.

De Forest died in 2007 at the age of 85.

I’m gonna miss you Dave. I’m pulling for “Like a Rolling Stone” tonight.

Or “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky.–The early spring afternoon in downtown Bowling Green dictates a stroll through Fountain Square Park. Daffodils and tulips are blooming between the Dogwood trees. Workmen are sprucing up the old fountain. Children are smiling at the glimpse of summer.

A new beginning is the air.

Greg and Theresa Shea know all about fresh starts.

In May, 2011 they left New Orleans, La. to open Tea Bayou, a New Orleans cafe and tea bar at 906 State in Bowling Green. Tea Bayou is on the ground floor of the historic brick Settle Building, constructed in 1890. Greg is a chef who was born and raised in New Orleans. Theresa is a native of Ottumwa, Ia. who had lived in New Orleans most of her life.

Tea Bayou serves more than 50 teas and organic teas along with beignets, bourbon bread pudding, shrimp and grits, catfish marigny (on jambalya, topped with crawfish etoufee and eight different po’ boys including the cochon (pulled pork, ham, bacon and provo cheese). Their timing is fit to a t.

The Tea Association of the USA has reported that retail sales of tea have jumped from just under $2 billion in 1990 to nearly $11 billion in 2014, according to a May 6, 2015 New York Times story on tea culture.

Welcome to the percolating North Coast of New Orleans.

“We stayed after Katrina, went through that mess and I ended up developing very bad allergies,” Theresa Shea says id after lunch hour rush. “It became bad for me to stay. Your lungs itch you can’t get away from it. Then after the BP Oil Spill (April, 2010), we could smell that in New Orleans. Things got worse. We looked around and planned retirement.”

Shea has a sister who lives in Bowling Green.

They visited the third most populous city in Kentucky (61,000 after Louisville and Lexington) on Thanksgiving, 2010. The Sheas liked Bowling Green so much they considered buying retirement property in the city about an hour north of Nashville. Tn. Shea, 54, checks out the cafe, smiles and says, “By the way, this is what retirement property looks like.”

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The Sheas; New Orleans, new start.

The Sheas found downtown real estate so affordable they bought the building before having a business plan. “This was the only one on the square that was for sale at the time,” Shea explains. “There were a lot of lawyer’s offices. There were no eateries or fine shopping on this side (of the square.) Downstairs had to be completely gutted. It laid vacant for a while.”

Tea Bayou had never been a restaurant. The ground floor had been a jewelry store for most of the 20th Century. The upstairs once was a luxury hotel. Shea reflects, “We feel grateful to find a building that was in such good repair. Bowling Green allowed us to finance this building with both of us moving here with no real jobs. It only cost us $30,000 and we did a lot of work ourselves.”

Shea reclaimed more than a dozen mid-century school chairs and repainted them in bright spring colors. “I got them from the basement of a consignment shop right around the corner,” she says. “Bowling Green is the consignment capital of Kentucky. There are more consignment shops up and down Broadway. They specialize. Some are fine furniture, some are just clothing. We outfitted the entire shop from things we bought from old barns or consignment shops. We put it together in a look that we like. The chandelier is the only thing we purchased from a catalog.”

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A cafe bench came out of a Kentucky barn. The beautiful new Amish pine floor was imported from nearby Caneyville, Ky. “Greg drove to pick up the wood and the owner’s wife came out with a cup of hot coffee and a homemade cinnamon roll,” she says. “We kept the costs down. Most of the furniture was made by a furniture maker in Scottsville, Ky., which is 30 minutes south of here.”

A gold Sputnik-era clock on the wall was salvaged from a nearby VSA (state organization on arts and disability) that closed due to lack of  funding. Tea Bayou sells VSA artwork on walls and 100 per cent of proceeds go back to VSA. Tea Bayou shows more than 10 artists at a time in the store and more than 50 pieces adorn the walls.

Shea studied art at the University of Iowa and obtained a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a minor in business a the University of Wisconsin (La Crosse.) She moved to New Orleans right out of college and found a job at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).

Shea is still a graphic designer and the New Orelans Jazz & Heritage Festival is one of her clients. She designs the festival’s annual posters and souvenir shirts. The Sheas occasionally return to New Orleans to visit family.

The Sheas lived in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, which was hit hard by Katrina, the near suburban Metarie and finally Kenner. Greg was a chef at Tony Angello’s in Lakeview and later with the Loews hotel chain.

 “And this year will be 10 years since Katrina,” she says with a lost sigh. “That is so hard to believe.”

Bowling Green is a thriving community known for the National Corvette Museum /GM Corvette Assembly Plant and a Fruit of the Loom plant. Bowling Green is the home of Western Kentucky University, where former Chicago Bull Clem Haskins played in 1972.

Film director John Carpenter is from Bowling Green as was Duncan Hines (1880-1959), the original road foodie. Hines maintained a test kitchen in Bowling Green. The kitchen has been preserved. It is in the Hardy and Sons Funeral Home on Route 31 W., the original Dixie Highway. Hines lived in the ranch house from 1940 until his death in 1959 when the Hardy family purchased the property. They kept the kitchen with original red and yellow checkered wallpaper and it can be seen by appointment only. During a 2007 visit to the kitchen/funeral home we quietly walked through a visitation.

“Duncan Hines’ great grandson lives here and works at the Hilton as sales director,” Shea reports. “Duncan is a good friend of ours and what is even odder is that he was born in Lakeview, New Orleans. We found an ex-pat New Orleans thing going on here and I think it has something to do with riverboats. His father was in riverboats.” The Green River in Bowling Green is a tribiutary of the Ohio River.

The young Duncan Hines was looking for a King Cake during Mardi Gras season. “We were advertising it and he called, thinking, ‘These people probably aren’t even from New Orleans’,” she says. “He ordered it and once he had it he was all over it. He ordered like 200. He’s in here all the time. We even have a pizza named after him.”

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Shea glances out the window to Barbara Stewart Interiors on the other side of the square. She whispers, “There’s a lady there in her 90s and she still comes to work. She went to a party where the woman who played Betty Crocker was at a party in town. Betty Crocker got a little loaded and Duncan Hines was also at the party so she has this whole story about Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines in Bowling Green.”

And there’s more.

Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” and “Dating Game” fame lives five blocks from Tea Bayou. Barris, 85, also wrote the pop hit “Palasides Park”  “His wife (a Bowling Green native) comes in often,” Shea said. “He’s out of town quite a bit.”

Chuck Barris

Chuck Barris

I ask for some high energy tea for the drive back to Chicago.

I get matcha tea, which is high in antioxidants. The leaves are processed as green tea, where they are steamed, dried and ground into a fine green powder. “The Japanese found they could cut high quality green tea with roasted rice to extend the tea,” Shea says. “Kind of like how New Orleanians use chicory to cut coffee. The result in both cases created a unique, regional blend. It’s like getting the benefit of up to 10 times a normally brewed cup of green tea. It provides vitamin A, B1, B2, C, E and minerals.”

Tea Bayou teas are available online at the store’s website.

POSTSCRIPT: In 2008 I got a Christmas card from the Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky Museum, who curated a Duncan Hines exhibit. The card contained this toast from Mr. Hines:

Well, if the oysters had been as cold as the soup, if the soup had been as warm as the wine, if the wine had been as old as the chicken, if the chicken had breasts like the maid, and if the maid had been as willing as the hostess, it would have been a wonderful evening.”

Enjoy every sandwich.

Beryl and Ken Nordine visit Nocturnal Journal May 2, 2015

Beryl and Ken Nordine visit Nocturnal Journal May 2, 2015

Now, when I see old people together I see my parents with piercing clarity.

Chicago voiceover legend/word jazz poet Ken Nordine and his wife Beryl arrived a half-hour early for Ken’s appearance on my Saturday night radio show on WGN-AM. They drove downtown from their home on the far north side of Chicago. Ken and Beryl will celebrate heir 70th wedding anniversary this year.

Ken walks with a cane so I escorted him and his wife up an elevator to avoid the Michigan Avenue stairway to the Allstate Showcase Studio. They walked together. Moments in time.

We talked about moments in this Ken Nordine segment.

I thought of my Dad, who passed away on April 8. I thought about how old people do everything together and I smiled. My parents were married 65 years.

This is my friend Colleen Bush’s favorite story about my parent’s bond, one that I had forgotten about in the flurry of activity over the past few months. In the final days before my parents could no longer drive a car,  my mother had Macular Degeneration. My father had a bum right leg. So on short spins through the neighborhood, my father provided the eyes and my mother took care of the pedal. I doubt this set up lasted very long, but they were a team with a scheme.

Old people always take care of each other. And that is beautiful.