Our Naperville house, April, 2016

Our Naperville house, April, 2016

Rarely do I tear up at the theater.

Frankly, rarely do I even go to the theater.

But “Naperville,” which opened Sept. 6 at Theater Wit, and runs through Oct. 16 at 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago, hit home. And home is the centerpiece of the splendid work from Naperville born playwright Mat Smart. 

“Naperville” is framed by nuance and empathy, characteristics that are key to getting by in urban and suburban living. 

“Naperville” premiered off-Broadway in  2o14 at New York’s Slant Theatre Project and New York Theater Review called “Naperville” a “valentine to the heart and soul of the American suburbs.”

I grew up in Naperville.

Smart’s play is set in a Naperville I never knew, a since-closed Caribou Coffee shop on 95th Street on the far, far south side of town. Naperville’s population was about 25,000 when we moved there in 1967.Today, Naperville is home to more than 140,000 people.


Naperville playwright Mat Smart

“Naperville” tells the story of Howard, a young man who is conflicted about relocating from Seattle to his home town to take care of his mother, who was blinded in a home accident.

While planning a new future under cloudy skies the mother and son cross paths with Anne, Howard’s former classmate at Waubonsie Valley High School (where Smart is a ’97 grad) who is working on a podcast about city founder Capt. Joe Naper.

The script’s connector is Roy, a highly caffeinated spiritual soul who sees people without prejudice and asks, “What is the opposite of faith?”

“Naperville” is merely the setting for universal, provocative questions from Smart, but seeing this work at this time in my life was very personal. Smart even references the same church where we had our parents funerals in the spring of 2015. And yes, my parents still get mail from that church asking for financial donations.

We sold my parents Naperville ranch house last week. Closing is set for the end of September. Last Friday night I spent my final night in the house.  The empty rooms were full of thoughts. Echoes were everywhere. Like a series of magic carpets, my deepest dreams floated out of long shadows.

One small bed remains in my brother’s old bedroom. The brown bedroom door was half way open and from the bed I could see swirls of people coming and going: My brother, my nephew, ex-wives, Mom smiling and walking to her piano, neighbors with apple pies, Mom and Dad in their wheelchairs, girl friends, hospice nurses, my dear Naperville friend Steve Lord bringing flowers to my Mom, Dad fetching home movies, Ibach disposing of beer from the Thanksgiving ’75 party and gentle people like Roy. Rings of distant circles.

When I was young I was in a hurry to leave all of this and Naperville.

And now I didn’t want to go.

The world changed around that small mid-century house on Page Court. 


In the Chicago area it has become  popular to take cultural shots at Naperville, often from people who haven’t spent much time in Naperville. It is a well-to-do suburb, not unlike Barrington or Northbrook or dozens of others, but maybe Naperville is a better target because it has a funny sounding name. Like Smallville. Or Raunerville. But for better and worse, it has been my Naperville and I have my own set of stories. “Naperville” helped me reconnect with those memories.

I know sincere Naperville doctors, teachers and neighbors and in recent years the ER staff at Edward Hospital. I was stopped by the cops in high school for being a long haired pedestrian and a few years later, lectured by Mayor Chester Rybicki for civil disobedience in having a group of teenagers paint a hippie mural on an old Naperville house to accent the youth center we started. My parents liked to point out that these days there are murals all over downtown Naperville.

Coffee shop scene from "Naperville" (L to R) Candice (Laura T. FIsher), Roy (Charlie Strater), Howard (Mike Tepeli) and Anne (Abby Pierce). Photo by Charles Osgood

Benovelent coffee shop scene from “Naperville” (L to R) Mother Candice (Laura T. Fisher), Roy (Charlie Strater), Howard (Mike Tepeli) and Anne (Abby Pierce). Photo by Charles Osgood

Naperville’s transient population of professionals and tech workers that frequent places like Caribou Coffee also make it unique. I used to get a kick out of  “Officer Friendly” George Pradel getting elected as Naperville mayor for 20 years. Although Naperville is run on City Manager government, it was the old timers who always put the since-retired Pradel in office because the transient population rarely voted. The beloved folksy figurehead did an excellent job of deflecting the problems of any American city of 140,000 people.

In late July the Tribune (a popular Naperville newspaper name dropped in Smart’s script) ran several stories about the viral Facebook post from Brian Crooks, who grew up as one of the minority African Americans in Naperville. His feelings of isolation and injustice are sincere. Yet, none of the stories, including his post, balanced to mention the groundbreaking accomplishments of African American Olympian Candace Parker, a WNBA all-star who graduated from my alma mater, Naperville Central High School. I’m proud to say she’s from Naperville.

My friend David Holt's portrait of Candace Parker, Class of 2004 Naperville Central (From the author's collection)

My friend David Holt’s portrait of Candace Parker, Class of 2004 Naperville Central High School.

This is where Smart’s “Naperville” excels.

Forward motion must be nurtured. Negativity can become a brush fire.

In “Naperville,” Anne’s marriage has broken up because her Detroit-bred husband scoffs at all things Naperville. He diminishes her hometown dreams and her passion for volunteering at Naper Settlement  (where I got married and a couple blocks away from where my parents are buried.)

Anne’s (Abby Pierce) meltdown in the coffee shop bathroom is sterling: anyone can tear down, but what is it like to build something?

That’s what my parents did. Like Napervillians of all colors and religions, they attempted to create a better life for their families. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard people tell me “I hate Naperville.” You know what you should hate? Violence. Sexism. Racism. Traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway.

As I prepare to leave behind a carousel of memories in our modest cul-de-sac home, Mat Smart’s  “Naperville” helped me recognize the kindness and individuality that is forgotten when you look at suburbia through a narrow lens.

Look for a discussion with Mat Smart on an upcoming edition of my Nocturnal Journal on WGN AM-720 in Chicago.

Tracy the Mermaid (Dave Hoekstra photo and tip)

Tracy the Mermaid (Dave Hoekstra photo and tip.)

GREAT FALLS, MT.–The wide open spaces of Montana can spawn the tallest of tales.

Located in sleepy downtown Great Falls, the mid-century O’Haire Motor Inn is anchored by the Sip n’ Dip Lounge. Guests walk up a short flight of stairs past traditional western lithographs into the lounge.

The dimly lit bar has a tiki motif replete with a 1960s bamboo ceiling. On Wednesday through Friday nights “Piano Pat”  Sponheim is playing lounge music with a subtle polka beat. She has been the Sip n’ Dip headliner for more than 50 years.

Piano Pat faces the bar and a large window that is adjacent to the motel swimming pool.

This is not some cowboy cantina.

On a steamy June evening she is playing a polka version of the boogie George Thorogood version of Hank Williams “Move it On Over.” A silver disco hangs above Pat. A major league baseball game is playing on a television set directly behind her. Pat is in her own world.

I order a cold bottle of beer, the kind with threads of perspiration rolling down the side like creeks down a mountain.

Two beautiful mermaids with eight feet long tails are swimming inside the pool. One mermaid waves at me. This is not a wet dream.

“The most surprising thing is that we have mermaids in the middle of landlocked Montana,” says Sandra Thares, General Manager of the motor inn and lodge in an interview the day after my visit. “Our mermaids are in there six to seven days a week.” The mermaids start swimming at 6 p.m until their shift ends around 10 or 11 p.m.

Piano Pat singing “Margaritaville” while all this is going on is pretty overwhelming. Pat plays piano with one hand and organ with the other hand. About ten people can sit around her piano, not unlike the late great Lou Snider holding court at the late great Nye’s Polonaise Room in Minneapolis. “Pat is the heart of the Sip and Dip,” Thares says. “She’s been playing at the piano every single week except for vacation for more than 50 years.”


Piano Pat (Courtesy of the Sip n’ Dip Lounge)

Locals also talk about the lounge’s “Fish Bowl,” an anti-freeze blue concoction of 10 to 12 shots of rum and fruit juice served in a  64-ounce fish bowl. “If you’re coming to drink one of those, you probably should get a room,” Thares says. “But they are meant to be shared with friends. And every tropical drink you can think of you can get here.”

The O’Haire Motor Inn opened in the fall of 1962 at the corner of 7th Street and 1st Avenue South back when downtown Great Falls had great dreams. The motor inn had the only public parking garage in town. Thares’ stepfather bought the complex in 1968.

“Pat can’t quite remember the year she started,” says Thares, 46. “Its 1963 or ’64. We’ve been trying to get her in the Guinness Book of World Records but we can’t find any paperwork. She would be under ‘Longest House Gig of a Bar’. The keyboards have always been her domain. She politely declines any assistance from guests, but there’s been a few guests over the years. (Country singer-songwriter) Phil Vassar was one.” And so was Julliard professor and composer Phil Lasser. I’d love it if Lasser and Vassar bumped into each other one night at the Sip n’ Dip.

The motel was built by brothers Bill and Edgar O’Haire. Edgar was a Montana contractor before opening the motel. “They traveled the U.S. for an entire year finding everything they liked wherever they stayed,” Thares says. “They bought it back here and put it into this motel.” My room had a ceiling-sized mirror above my bed.

But there were no mermaids in my room.

“The idea for the mermaid windows actually came from the Playboy Club in Chicago where they had a set up similar to this,” Thares says. She is referring to Hugh Hefner’s original Playboy Mansion at 1340 N. State Parkway in Chicago. Hef held court in this 72-room space between 1959 and 1974 before moving to Los Angeles. The downstairs classical French style indoor pool featured swimming Playboy bunnies. The bar could be reached by shimmying down a fireman’s pole.

This gives a different meaning to ‘Great Falls.’

The entire motor inn  is made of concrete which translates into quiet rooms. The O’Haire brothers even built a helipad above the pool.

The early days of the O'Haire Motor Inn

The early days of the O’Haire Motor Inn

“That was back when oil barons would fly in and out on helicopters,” Thares says. “They were building the ICBM (Intercontinental Ballisitic Missile)  silos n the area in the late ’60s. We had the contract to house the government crews. They would come in on helicopters every night. The port has been disassembled. It was shaking the building a little too much.” The motor inn still has 64 rooms. Each room has a souvenir yellow rubber ducky in the bath tub.

“We did not start the mermaids until 1996,” Thares says. “But before that many a guest was swimming in the pool and putting on a show (for the bar). Keep in mind it was during the time of the three martini lunches. And we had a beauty shop down the hall. Women would get their hair done and men would come to the bar and have a cocktail or two while waiting for their wives. You never quite knew who was going to walk in the pool.”

The Sip n’ Dip soon became known for its Skin n’ Dippers.


The pool is eight feet deep at its deepest end. The pool is now locked and closed to the public when the mermaids perform. But the occasional guest gets in on the action.

Texas comedian Ron White jumped in with the mermaids while he was fully clothed. Actress Daryl Hannah put on a mermaid costume when she was in town filming the acclaimed 2003 film “Northfork” with Nick Notle and James Woods. Hannah co-starred with Tom Hanks in the 1984 mermaid flick “Splash.”

“It was in the middle of the week and quiet in the lounge,” Thares recalls. “Maybe four people. Daryl Hannah told the bartender, ‘I want to be the mermaid.’ We went and got her tails. She swam for about 15  minutes, got out, autographed the window and away she went. Unfortunately about six months after she autographed the window, the window cracked and it had to be replaced.”

Thares even designs and makes the vinyl, velvet, beads and sequin mermaid tails.

“If I had known how much work it would be I probably would not have started it,” she says. “I spend about eight hours a week working on the mermaid tails. Each of the mermaids picks what they want it too look like.”

Mermaids Tracy (L) and Alex (Dave Hoekstra portrait)

Montana Mermaids Tracy (L) and Alex (Dave Hoekstra portrait)

It is hard work being a mermaid.

Each tail weighs between 10 and 15 pounds. Thares explains,  “They’re dragging that extra weight around off their waist. They’re not allowed to use their feet because they’re in a tail. They’re mermaids. They don’t have feet.

“Most of them swim in four to five  hour shifts two to three days a week. We get criticism from people who say, ‘Mermaids don’t wear goggles!’ The reason our mermaids wear goggles is so they can see everyone in the lounge and have that crowd interaction.

A large fish-bowl tip jar stands behind the bar for customers who want their picture taken with the mermaid–and with this being all P.C. 2016–mermen.

Mermen appear on Tuesday nights. “We put mermen in the pool a few years ago and it was an epic failure,” Thares says. “Last year we started getting the request again. They started the first of March and it has been a huge success.”

And in recent months the Sip n’ Dip even added a Sunday “Mermaid Brunch” for families. An all you can eat brunch is offered on the first and third Sunday of every month, featuring blue Mermosas. Of course.

Everyone cannot become a Sip n’ Dip mermaid or merman.

First off, applicants need to know how to swim.

“My ‘merpeople,’ Thares says with a light tone of sarcasm, “Because we can’t be gender specific, the merpeople have to complete an application at the front desk. Then they go through a half hour interview process about their swimming background. The first checkmark is if they have to hold their nose under water. If they have to hold their nose under water they are ineligible to be a merperson. Why do they want to be a mermaid or merman?


Tracy (left) and Alex wear wigs to keep their hair in shape (D. Hoekstra photo)

“From there they go into a 10 minute swim tryout, based on swimming ability and audience appeal. Can they smile under water? Can they blow bubbles? If they survive that 10 minutes, then we put them in a tail for the next 10 minutes and hope they don’t drown. At that point we’re really looking for swimming ability.

“We don’t care what they look like. They can be heavy, thin, it doesn’t matter. We can do anything with the tails. It’s really about if they’re going to have fun when they’re in there swimming.”

On the night of my visit Tracy Nesbo is training rookie mermaid Alex Strom. During the day Tracy is a nurse’s aid assistant in Great Falls. She has been a Montana Mermaid since Oct. 28, 2012. This will be Alex’s first night. She is also a server at a Great Falls Applebee’s and is studying to become a midwife.

Tracy explains,”I will show her how to put on our tails, jump in the pool and start acting like we’re mermaids. You get into your zone. You go to the bottom of the pool and give the customers the ‘fishy face.’ You act like you’re going to fish for them and reel them in. It’s very therapeutic. It’s a great workout.”

“You have to keep your legs together (in the tail) so its mostly your upper arm strength, The hardest part of being a mermaid is sinking because you want to float to the surface. You learn how to stay down in the water. That’s the hardest part. I think I can now hold my breath for a minute.”

The Sip n’ Dip is clearly the most breathtaking place in Great Falls.

The motor inn and lounge has an engaging, organic feel of authenticity. The Sip n’ Dip did not just tumble out of the Big Sky like a hipster Chicago tiki bar with a wait line. 

It is a real place.


One of the most remarkable bars in America (Courtesy of the Sip n’ Dip Lounge)

Thares nods her head and explains, “I always tell my staff, ‘Don’t promise more than what we are.’ We are face value. People go, ‘You don’t have authentic tiki totem poles.’ Well, I’m sorry about that, but you know what, I’m not changing that.

“Or, ‘You should put the mermaids in a big rubber suit with a tail so they look more like a mermaid.’ First of all, I hate to break it to everybody but mermaids really aren’t real. We get asked that question 50 times a night.

“So maybe it doesn’t look a lot like a mermaid—but it looks like our mermaid.”

Thares was born in Great Falls and moved to Billings, Mt.. Her stepfather bought the motor hotel and lounge in 1968. “I became  part of his family in 1974,” she says. “In 1976 he and my mom were in a very bad accident. We had to move in with my grandmother in Spokane. A cousin took over the business and he ran it until 1994. We were living in Billings Dad said, ‘Do you want to  move to Great Falls and run the family business?’ I said, ‘Hell no,’ but yeah, here I am 24 years later.

“Downtown Great Falls was thriving when this opened. We had J.C. Penney’s downtown. Woolworth’s, Bon Marche’, which was a big department store. As with any other downtown in any other small town, it hit on hard times, But it’s coming back. A microbrewery came in downtown. There’s some new development. Its fun for us because we’ve always been the cornerstone of downtown Great Falls. And we’ve weathered the storm. We never meant for this to become a tourist attraction. And it has become that and we’re trying to wrap our head around that.”

And don’t keep your head above the water.

Oceanic Arts co-founders LeRoy Schmaltz (far left) and Bob Van Oosting (far right) with author and his friend.

Oceanic Arts co-founders LeRoy Schmaltz (far left) and Bob Van Oosting (far right) with author and his friend, April 2016.

WHITTIER, Ca.–Every day is a getaway day at Oceanic Arts.

The holy grail of American tiki culture is tucked back in an industrial park in Whittier, Calif., the early home of President Richard Nixon.

Oceanic Arts is to the free blue seas what the Watergate complex was to fishy burglars.

Oceanic Arts is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Founders LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting are still hanging ten. 

Master carver Schmaltz turns 81 years old on May 14. His large hands are battered and knotty, the passionate notches within a mountain of a man.

Schmaltz’s father Earl was a 17-year-old  choir director on the north side of Chicago, became an insurance salesman and later counted votes for Al Capone. His grandson Darby Goodwin was on the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 All-State Football team as a defensive lineman for Loyola Academy.

The family left Chicago for the west coast and Schmaltz was born in Los Angeles.  Van Oosting, 80,  is a former carver and the Los Angeles native now runs the business end of Oceanic Arts.

Oceanic Arts delivered the South Seas decor to Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber, Disneyland, the Polynesian Hotel at Disney World, the Bali Hai in San Diego and even the set of the “Gilligan’s Island” television show. Oceanic Arts sends supplies to Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar on a monthly basis.

The 10,000 square feet Oceanic Arts is open to the public and features carvings, tiki heads, totems, shields, masks, thatching, fake tropical birds, seashell light shades, magazines, tiki CDs and books such as Douglas A. Nason’s “Night of The Tiki (The Art of Shag, Schmaltz and Selected Primitive Ocean Carvings)” [Last Gasp, $49.95]

Oceanic Arts showroom

Oceanic Arts showroom, April 2016

Visitors are greeted by a female mannequin in a grass skirt and a small waterfall as they enter the mall of eternal high tides. Oceanic Arts has two other warehouses in Whittier. It is not known if President Nixon shopped at Oceanic Arts, but Johnny Depp is a regular customer.

The Rolling Stones once rented from Oceanic Arts for a party. “We lost some things,” Schmaltz said during an early April conversation at Oceanic Arts. “We don’t know where the party was but some of our skulls ended up at other people’s houses.

We didn’t do a lot for ‘Gilligan’s Island’ originally. There was another firm that was closer to Hollywood. We got involved in later years with bamboo and thatching for their sets.

Oceanic Arts workshop (D. Hoekstra photo)

Oceanic Arts workshop (D. Hoekstra photo)

Most of “Gilligan’s Island” was shot at Radford Studios in Studio City, Ca. Earlier segments were shot on the beach in Malibu and the pilot was made on the island of Kauai.

Van Oosting said, “Early on when we were broke we were in a barn that was used for horses for a while. To save some money we decided to use some boards on the floor and carve them. They ended up in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. These boards had been urinated on for years by horses. We wire brushed the boards, hosed them down every day, but we started hearing about this ‘strange aroma’ in this restaurant.”

In his book, Nason wrote of Schmaltz, “Through his work as co-founder and an artist at the Oceanic Arts gallery and shop, he has probably had a larger influence on where tikis appeared and how they were perceived in America than any other individual.”

Van Oosting has been attributed to have said, “As long as the world is in turmoil, people always turn to peaceful, pleasurable worlds–and this is one of them.”

The good Dutchman laughed and said, “That must have been somebody else who said that. It is a fun place to be. We get set designers who meet here for some odd reason and they say to each other, ‘I haven’t seen you in 22 years.’  We get Wayne Johnson, ‘The Rock,’ Bridget Fonda. You supply a tropical movie, then they want to do their house that way.”

Schmaltz said, “In the earlier days we had a lot of people from Disney, architectural firms and interior decorators who made a beeline every Friday to our shop. We were more loose then. We had drinks and barbecues going.”

Oceanic Arts emporium, April 2016

Oceanic Arts emporium.

Schmaltz and Van Oosting met as students at Mt. San Jacinto College, about 25 miles from the current Oceanic Arts location.

Schmaltz was studying architecture and carving Palm Frond Masks (the thickest part of a palm tree leaf)  as a side project. Schmaltz and Van Oosting partnered up and sold thousands of Palm Frond Masks (500 per order) to the Builder’s Emporium home improvement chain. Their wives stained and painted the masks.

“We got a little place in Bob’s garage,” Schmaltz said. “In the late 1940s Bob Carter was importing tikis and tapa cloth from the South Pacific (to sell to “Trader” Vic Bergeron and Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber’s). He saw us and invited us to start working. We didn’t know much about tikis.” One of their earliest popular items was the Tahitian Support Posts for Trader Vic’s.

Oceanic Arts---what a place.

Oceanic Arts—what a place.

Van Oosting added, “We grew into a packing shed in Whittier, overlooking Los Angeles, We started doing carvings for Bob. We did some sales work for him. He was also involved with the Kahiki (in Columbus, Ohio) and we supplied them.” But both men kept their day jobs–Van Oosting worked in a pots and pans factory and the Hickory Hop drive-in restaurant in Pico Rivera, Ca. “Just a hippity hop to the Hickory Hop,” he cracked. Schmaltz was a designer and salesman in mid-century modern furniture at Crossroads Furniture in Whittier.

Initially, their work did not whet any appetite for tropical escapism.

Schmaltz said, “I went to look at mountains near here. So did Bob. That was paradise to us, you got the pine trees. Then the desert areas are kind of neat. We have the ocean here.”

Van Oosting added, “Once we got in the business, paradise was out there.  So we went out there for three and a half months and 37,000 miles.

The carvers are modest about that 1960 journey they call “The Big Trip.”

Schmaltz and Van Oosting traveled from Hawaii through Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Guinea, the Australian outback and then New Zealand. “Hawaii was no different than being in Southern California with the same stores and businesses,” Van Oosting said. “Once we got on the airplane and landed in Tahiti we were in paradise. In those Tahiti and Bora Bora didn’t have any hotels. We stayed in grass shacks. Bob Carter helped plant a dream into us. He had a slide show he showed us of his trips.”

“We hired a Chinese Tahitian fellow with a speedboat and went all around the islands. He wanted us to see the schools and figured the kids would get a kick out of it (the visitors in a speedboat). We have color slides of those kids and they looked at us and started crying.” The kids had never seen white people.


Bob (left) and LeRoy (right) in Chimbu Village near Papua, New Guinea–1960. (Courtesy of Oceanic Arts)

The journey instilled a world of confidence in the young carvers.

“We were supposedly just young punk kids who didn’t know anything,”  Schmaltz said. “We kind of made ourselves an authority. We knew what we had seen. They were filming Marlon Brando’s ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ when we were in Tahiti. So we looked at all the structures and buildings. We never saw Marlon Brando but we heard about him. He wanted a carved head but we didn’t let him have it.”

Van Oosting elaborated, “We learned a lot about design. We saw a book from 1868 in Fiji. We picked up good ideas in Dutch New Guinea. We have their masks and shields we replicated in hardwood. Somehow through gin and tonics and stuff we landed home in Los Angeles with $1.50 in our pockets.”

LeRoy Schmaltz, still carving at 81 (D. Hoekstra photo)

LeRoy Schmaltz, still carving at 81. (D. Hoekstra photo)

The carvers later worked for Pan American World Airways in Samoa and Tahiti. The largest tiki in Tahiti is 30 feet tall–it was carved out of Southern California pine by Schmaltz.

Van Oosting said,  “We never got a ‘big break.’ We were broke all the time. We had enough to buy a good bottle of rum and that was about it. We did a lot of work for Disney World too.

“LeRoy carved a 35-foot totem pole for them, We did Trader Sam’s (the bar at Disneyland in Anaheim,) At one time LeRoy designed restaurants. We worked on restaurants in Tarrytown, N.Y., one near Kalamazoo, Michigan (the since-razed Tur Mai Kai), another in Denver.”

One of their prize commissions is an 18-feet tall and 16’ wide carved redwood tympanium for Marriott’s Kona Kai at their world headquarters in Bethesda, Md.

Schmaltz has done thousands of carvings in his lifetime.

He prefers redwood, sugar pine and mahagony, wood that is easy purveyed from Southern California lumber mills. Schmaltz deploys chisels, routers, sanders, grinders and chainsaws. “The more things I can get rid of to work faster, I prefer,” he said. “If I could use blasting powder, I would use that too.”

During my visit he was working on light fixtures for LuLu’s in Waikiki.

LeRoy Schmaltz--hand of a carver.

LeRoy Schmaltz–hand of a carver.

What does the master carver think about as he works?

“When I was carving with other people I would go into fantasy land and pretend I was one of the characters I was carving,” he answered. “I’m a New Guinea guy. Or a pirate–arrrrrgh. I try to think how they would be thinking.”

He sells his work to collectors for anywhere from $300 to $2,000. I picked up a hand carved table size Hawaiiian Bloxam Idol warrior for my home tiki bar for $300. The detail, especially in the face, is exquisite. It is made with care and dignity.

Schmaltz still works in his shop on a daily basis.

“I still do carvings,” he said in reflective shades. “Fine art. I keep pretty busy, but I don’t do as many big tikis as I used to. I have to bend down and lift them.” That’s okay.

LeRoy and Bob have uplifted the spirits of people all over the world.

Courtesy of National Blues Museum

Courtesy of National Blues Museum

ST. LOUIS–The National Blues Museum is in a former department store in downtown St. Louis. The museum got a lot of love even before its April 2 grand opening, as the $14 million center was named a top travel destination by the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine.

I waited until the doors opened to get my mojo talkin’.

The National Blues Museum is a snappy, well told story with lots of panels, posters and photographs. It has an ambitious vision. It is billed as the only institution of its kind dedicated exclusively to preserving and honoring the history of blues music and its impact on American and world culture.

There’s also the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Ms., the Blues Hall of Fame in downtown Memphis and the quaint River Music Experience  in Davenport, Ia.

Am I missing any important blues cities?

The majestic St. Louis building was born in 1906 as the Grand-Leader department store. The 23,000 square feet of the museum gives it ample room to grow and evolve, just like the blues itself. That’s what is exciting to me about the St. Louis development. I’d like to see more interactive exhibits, more source interviews and sounds and more original artifacts at the National Blues Museum.

For example, the museum points out that W.C. Handy “The Father of the Blues” lived in St. Louis circa 1892-93. On display in front of his picture are a random coronet and a regular trumpet that denote his instrumentation. In 1967 the new St. Louis Blues hockey team was named in honor of Handy’s legacy.

Conversely, the interactive highlight comes from a $100,000 gift from rocker and Paramount Records blues archivist Jack White. [The eagle eye will notice the museum’s “Ma Rainey’s Mystery Record,” recorded in 1924 at Paramount in Grafton, Wis.]

Jack White: 21st Century blues man.

Jack White: 21st Century blues man.

White’s “Mix It Up” room is the end result of a series of touch monitors throughout the museum that allow visitors to create their own blues persona, music (with harmonica, guitar and piano), lyrics and album artwork.

Each monitor visit can be mashed up into a unique song delivered in the “Mix It Up” room at the end of the museum tour. Guests received a free mp3 “Mix It Up” file as a souvenir.

During my visit on a rainy weekday afternoon, the “Mix It Up” room had the most visitors–and the most young people.

The museum tells the story of the blues through its migratory path from Mississippi through Memphis, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Canada while also branching out west to California. It moves on up to modern day, illustrating the blues imprint on hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar.

It messed me up to read about Chicago’s rich blues history in a St. Louis museum. One museum panel paid homage to the blues inspired jazz and vaudeville artists who performed at The Chicago Theatre. Around the corner I saw wall sized portraits of Chicagoan Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.

That’s as lame as seeing an image of Stan Musial in a Chicago baseball museum.

Chess Records architect Willie Dixon--his family runs a modestly visited tourist site in Chicago.

Chess Records architect Willie Dixon–his family runs a modestly visited tourist site in Chicago.

There are Chicago connections at the museum. Interpretative manager Jacqueline K. Dace was formerly project manager for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Ms. and collections manager  at the Du Sable Museum of African American History in Chicago.

And the first person I bumped into after walking through the front door was the friendly volunteer docent, Paul Bruce, retired director of safety from METRA. The Chicago native’s daughter lives in St. Louis. He showed me the museum’s 150-seat music venue, deployed with four HD (High Definition) cameras for internet screening. Regular live performances just began.

The museum is part of the new MX (Mercantile Exchange) district, an emerging downtown destination that includes an Embassy Suites on one side of the museum and Sugar Fire Smoke Barbecue on the other side. Most important the museum is two blocks from the America’s Center Convention complex.

Let’s see. In Chicago, the Chess Records studio and the historic Record Row is within walking distance of the McCormick Place convention complex.

But NOOOOOOH, our mayor wants to borrow more than $1 billion for a Star Wars museum filled with Norman Rockwell paintings? Wonder if it’s because he has a brother with Hollywood ties.

Executive Director Dion Brown (Courtesy of the National Blues Musem)

Executive Director Dion Brown (Courtesy of the National Blues Museum)

National Blues Museum founding executive director Dion Brown came to St. Louis in June, 2015 after serving as Executive Director of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Ms..

How did St. Louis pull off what Chicago has so sadly failed to accomplish?

“I’ve followed this museum since 2011,” Brown answered during a conversation in his office. “I even asked ‘Why St. Louis?’ The answer I got was that it belongs wherever people wanted it. St. Louis pushed for it and had the donors who actually wanted to see it here.”

That’s how I felt about the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

I thought it should have been built in Memphis, but Cleveland worked the hardest to get it.

Brown said, “If you look at the central location to Chicago, Memphis, down to the Delta, geographically, St. Louis is the best place for it. Everybody can come to it. They started talking about this in 2010 and they pulled this off in six years. That’s something. And this is only going to get better. It has so much room to get better.

“I’m a dreamer. Being the  National Blues Museum, what’s wrong with having a branch in Chicago? It’s about branding and growing the museum.”

Besides Jack White’s involvement other notable museum supporters include St. Louis native and actor John Goodman, Devon Allman, Morgan Freeman, and Chicago’s Buddy Guy. The turning point in making the museum a reality came in 2012 when Pinnacle Entertainment, which formerly owned the nearby Lumiere Place casino and hotel, invested $6 million into the project. Prior to that bet the museum had raised $1 million.

Freeman provides narration for an introductory blues film.

Maybe Rahm can hire R2D2 to do the voice over for a Chicago blues museum.

The National Blues Museum in St. Louis (courtesy of the museum)

The National Blues Museum in St. Louis (image courtesy of the museum)

“We had Bonnie Raitt come here before we opened,” Brown said. “She just fell in love. We didn’t ask her to do anything, but she believes in what we’re doing so much she went and raved about us at her sold out concert here in town (at the Peabody Opera House). That’s from the heart. We weren’t there, it’s not like we gave her a script.

“That’s what I love about this.”

The National Blues Museum was designed by Gallagher & Associates, who also did the B.B. King museum, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans–and The Mob Museum of Las Vegas. The ceiling design incorporates original railroad ties from the area while the gift shop and performance area uses reclaimed wood from the Mississippi River.

Brown is from Decatur, Ill.–the hometown of former Chicago Cubs great Bill Madlock. Brown’s father worked at the since-closed Wagner Castings plant and his mother worked at Decatur Memorial Hospital.

“I’m a die-hard Cubs fan,” the 51-year-old Brown said with a proud smile. “Actually on media day I had my Cubs hat. They go, ‘ You’re not going to go on stage with that cap on. You’re gonna’ close that museum before it even opens.’ Jose’ Cardenal. Big Cubs fan.”

American poet and Cardinals fan Chuck Berry recognized with his "Special Occasion" Gibson ES-355 that he deployed in the 1987 documentary "Hail!, Hail!, Rock n' Roll" (Museum photo by Bill Motchan)

American poet and Cardinals fan Chuck Berry recognized with his “Special Occasion” Gibson ES-355 that he deployed in the 1987 documentary “Hail!, Hail!, Rock n’ Roll” (Museum photo by Bill Motchan)

Brown obtained a Bachelor of Science degree (Magna Cum Laude) in Human Resources from Southwestern College. He is also retired from the United States Air Force after 21 years of service. Brown grew up as a fan of jazz and sports talk radio.

After leaving the air force, Brown was first hired as Director of Human Resources at Exploration Place and was promoted to Chief Operating Officer at Exploration Place in Wichita, Ks. He moved to the B.B. King museum in December, 2010. In 2013 the Delta Business Journal as named Brown as one of its “Top Minority Business Leaders.”

“My last job there was to bury Mr. King there at the museum,” Brown said. “We buried Mr. King on May 30 (2015) on the grounds of the museum, drove my wife back to Kansas on May 31 and drove here June 1.”

And now, the blues are reborn in St. Louis.


JOHNSON CREEK, WIS.—-The band Starship reopened the historically quirky Gobbler Theater Sunday in Johnson Creek, about half way between Madison and Milwaukee, Wis. Vocalist Stephanie Calvert channeled her inner Grace Slick reminding the older crowd to “Feed Your Head”  in the band’s cover of the Jefferson Airplane 1967 hit “White Rabbit.”

Only the late 1960s would be able to birth the Gobbler Motel and Supper Club.

Feed your head, indeed.

The Gobbler complex was created in 1967 by area turkey farmer Clarence Hartwig, who decorated his dining room in pink colors and pink shag carpeting. Late Wisconsin architect Helmut Ajango blended Mid-Century design with Prairie Architecture in a place that was advertised “Where Central Wisconsin Meets the Concorde Age.”

The Gobbler served turkey 365 days a year, along with supper club staples like prime rim and seafood. From the ground, the Gobbler Theater looks like a compacted Houston Astrodome. From the air, it looks like a turkey, even with windows replicating turkey eyes.

Early into the band’s hour long set, Starship lead singer Mickey Thomas remarked, “This is a beautiful venue–and very unique.”

Thomas stared ahead to the original circular bar, formerly the Royal Roost Cocktail Lounge.

The bar was bathed in Princely purple light and still revolves like the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. But the Gobbler bar moves in a more meandering hourly rotation than the Carousel. In the late 1960s Willie Nelson played in the Gobbler basement for $695 and he likely flew by more than once an hour.


Gobbler bar–reopening night (D. Hoekstra photo)

The Gobbler sold out all of its 475 seats on opening night. In fact, I bought the last ticket at $35 about an hour before the 7 p.m. showtime. I was on I-94 back to Chicago by 8:15 p.m. Audience seating is circular and elevated, like a theater in the round. The  most distant seat is just 55 feet from the stage. Accented by a tall American flag in a stand, the stage is on the site of the former kitchen.

Food is not served at the Gobbler. Wisconsin beers are a reasonable $5 and $6, wines and Mike’s Hard Lemonades are $4 and $6. The hilltop motel is gone but new owner Dan Manesis has done a remarkable job in restoring the Jets0n-like supper club into a fine music venue.

The best way to get George Lucas out of Chicago’s hair is to send him to the Gobbler.

Manesis even looks like Lucas with a spiritual dash of Jerry Garcia.

Dan Manesis at the Gobbler (Wisconsin State-Journal photo)

Dan Manesis at the Gobbler (Wisconsin State-Journal photo)

Manesis’s story is as unique as the venue’s.

He owns a Milwaukee trucking and warehouse company and has been racing dragsters since 1980 at the Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove. Wis.

His team currently drives the Carol “Playboy Bunny” Burkett tribute car, a 1973 Ford Pinto, colored  pink for breast cancer awareness. Manesis, 62, attended University of  Wisconsin in Madison in the late 1960s where he obtained his business accounting degree.

“I would bring girls to the Gobbler supper club while at University of Wisconsin,” Manesis said on the day after his successful re-opening. “A steak was $16 and I made $1.30 an hour, so I had to work a long time to go on a date. It was a miniature Playboy Club. The waitresses had neat little outfits and they had turkey feathers coming out of their suits instead of the little bunny tail. It was a high falootin’ place.”

The Gobbler, 2016, before Starship concert. (D. Hoekstra photo)

The Gobbler, 2016, before Starship concert. (D. Hoekstra photo)

Original owner Hartwig died suddenly and his family could not keep the establishment going. Under different ownerships The Gobbler became a rib shack and a Mexican restaurant–the outside consists of Mexican lava rock. It reopened in 1996 for a brief period as The New Gobbler before closing again.

In recent years the Johnson Creek Village Board vetoed the idea of a small Gobbler casino. In my 2013 “The Supper Club Book (A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition)” [Chicago Review Press], former Gobbler owner Marvin Havill said, “It could have been a Gentleman’s Club many times over, but the village won’t tolerate that. It’s a perfect building for that. (It was going to be called ‘A Gobbler-A-Go-Go’.) There’s twenty inches of poured concrete. It’s like a bunker. There’s walls of petrified wood. Quartz crystal.”

The Gobbler is to the Midwest what Gilligan was to the island.

Thank goodness for Manesis.

“About two years ago my wife was across the street at the outlet mall buying a purse,” said Manesis, who now lives in Muskego, a suburb of Milwaukee. “I looked on the other side of the road and said, ‘Look! It’s the Gobbler!’ She kind of  slumped down and thought, ‘Oh no.’ So we drove over here and saw the sign that said, ‘Save the Gobbler, no reasonable offer refused.’ That was on a Saturday.”

The next day Manesis met with former owner Havill and his business partner. “I came in, looked at it for 15, 20 minutes and we made a deal with a handshake,” he said. “The only contingency was to get an occupancy permit from Johnson Creek. The village board asked, ‘What do you know about music?’ I said, ‘Nothing, but that I had people around me that would help me make this a success.”


New Gobbler Theater logo (D. Hoekstra photo)

Remodeling the old bird was an 18 month process and cost more than $2 million.

“The place was structurally sound but all the mechanicals in the building did not work,” Manesis explained. “We had to bring everything up to code. We wanted to do it right.”

A 70,000 pound Gobbler dance floor with a disco ball hung over the bar from the ceiling.

Manesis removed that.

“We had to be very careful,” he said. “We had to take it down in little bits, just like you put lugnuts on a tire. We had to keep rotating, otherwise we would have sprung the ceiling and the venue would have been junked. The dance floor was made of plywood, steel and tons of drywall and plaster. A two-story kitchen was where the stage is. That kitchen served the main floor and it was a way to bring food to people upstairs. All that had to be removed.”

The original Gobbler Supper Club dance floor

The original Gobbler Supper Club upstairs dance floor-note the George Burns portrait.

“I remember guys coming here in tuxedos and gals in evening gowns for dinner. But time has passed. I just looked at it as an auditorium because it is round. I never planned to serve food. It was not designed as a supper club, but as a theater. Our research showed Clarence (Hartwig) changed his mind to make it a supper club at the last minute.”

Located on 10 acres of land just off of I-94, the Gobbler hosted a couple of private events in February and Manesis donated the space to the Johnson Creek school system for a play. The Starship gig was the first event open to the public.


A recent video image with a supper club typo.

Although Mickey Thomas briefly referenced the spaceship feel of the venue, Manesis said the Starship booking was mere coincidence. “I liked them back in the day,” he said. “Mickey and Stephanie are great singers. The age of the people here were between 45 and 60. We have a state of the art sound and light system. The band was happy because it was so welcoming. There’s not a bad seat in the house. Players from the Milwaukee Bucks used to come here. It was a celebrity destination. We found pictures of John Glenn and other astronauts who came here.”

The Starship evening was cosmic.

The crowd pleaser was “We Built This City” where much of the audience stood up and clapped while blocking the views of rural Wisconsin from aquarium like windows. Wearing a sharp suit and tie that accented his beard and playful Jerry Garcia like face, Manesis watched from the side of the stage with the satisfied smile from a Thanksgiving day feast.

Earlier in the show Thomas put his foot on a monitor, looked to the retro skies and belted out the Starship hit “Find Your Way Back” as if he were at some arena show in Europe.

But he was at the Gobbler Theater.

Before the concert, I met Laura and Ron Oldenhofn of Lebanon , Wis. 

They honeymooned at the Gobbler Motel and Supper Club on Dec. 1, 1979.

“The bar, ceiling and windows are the same,” Laura she said as she looked around the theater with approval. “Dining tables were around the bar (where concert seating is now.) I don’t remember lights around the bar. We stayed here for three days. That was our honeymoon and that’s all we could afford.”

Ron and Laura, Gobbler honeymooners (D. Hoekstra photo)

Ron and Laura, Gobbler honeymooners (D. Hoekstra photo)

Ron added, “ I remember we had a water bed in our suite.” Ron is a retired welder and Laura is an office manager at a vet clinic. She reflected, “We came here tonight for the music, but it was fun to come for the memories We were laughing about it all.”

I loved the Gobbler experience so much, I’d come back to visit even without live music.

Manesis said that’s not in the cards.

He is looking at booking folk, country and legacy rock acts. No further public shows have been announced. “Tonight we have it rented for a corporate event,” he said on Monday, April 24. “It’s available for any type of commercial party. I’m putting a call into (the rock band ) Kansas. Bands want a nice place to play at between Chicago and Minneapolis and many places in Madison and Milwaukee are bigger than this.”

The B-52s would be perfect for this place.

“This idea really started about four or five years ago when my son played as a warm up to a band at the Rave in Milwaukee,” Manesis said. “It was sort of seedy and I asked a friend who was a ticket broker why there wasn’t a nice place in the Milwaukee or Madison area that could seat 400, 500 people. He told me if I had something like that I could get up and coming bands or established acts that were starting to slow down and they would fill a venue of that size. The hunt began. I originally looked at a vacant movie theater, but it didn’t have any personality.”

Personality struts its stuff at the Gobbler.

Grand entrance to the Gobbler (D. Hoekstra photo)

Grand entrance to the Gobbler (D. Hoekstra photo)

“The first year we are trying to establish the Gobbler as a going business,” he said.

“Making money is far behind giving folks a good time at an affordable price. I’m a living Jerry Garcia. We want to have fun.”


LOS ANGELES, Ca.—Merle Haggard was a friend of mine. And if you liked America’s back roads, honky-tonks and remembered to open car doors for women, he was a friend of yours too.

Haggard died April 6 on his 79th birthday.

He died at his home in Northern California,. which was poetic. Haggard is as essential to the California landscape as John Steinbeck or Cesar Chavez. No person was too small for this musical giant, whose reach went beyond country into jazz, swing, blues and pop.

Merle was an empathetic songwriter, a bandleader, a romantic and a huge slice of American history. He was a loyal friend of the downtrodden. This one hurts.

Merle, his long time road manager Frank Mull and publicist Tresa Redburn never turned down an interview request from me. The music business is fickle. I could always count on Merle Haggard.

We last talked to Merle a little over a year ago for the Springfield, Missouri music documentary we’ve been working on. Haggard was gracious with his time before a show with Marty Stuart in Springfield.

Here’s a link to Merle in our trailer:

On that spring afternoon Merle and I got to talking about transportation as we almost always did. Merle spoke of taking a bus to Springfield to try to get on the Ozark Jubilee television show but wound up getting some gigs at a strip club in Kansas City, Mo. Merle also worked his UFO theories into our conversations as he always did.

Bob Dylan is known for his never-ending tour, and indeed one of the great thrills of my life was seeing a few of the Dylan-Haggard shows (on Haggard’s birthday) at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. Haggard won over the Dylan fans.

Merle was never-ending America.

He got a kick out of my left field questions.

In the fall of 2000 I was sitting in his “Silver Chief” bus outside of St. Louis, the only place in America where the Mississippi River meets Old Route 66. I asked Merle which path he would choose.

“The road,” he answered with a smile and a sly pause. “Because the river goes to the ocean. And then you have to go around the world again to get back on the road.”

Merle lived a life of somewheres.

He liked to keep moving but he wasn’t a fan of change.

“Kern River” is one of the greatest songs about the fading American landscape ever composed. It moved me so much that I actually once drove to Bakersfield from Los Angeles just to see the dried up Kern River.

Merle grew up in a converted refrigerator boxcar in Oildale, Calif, just across the Kern River from Bakersfield. “I was at a truck stop in Bakersfield when I wrote that,” Haggard told me. “We had been there two days. It had been 22 years since I finished Kern River (in 1984). I woke up that morning. I didn’t know anybody in town. The whole place had changed. I wondered if I could finish Kern River again.”

Anybody who throws Merle under the tour bus for the tongue-in-cheek crowd pleaser “Okie From Muskogee” is stupid. Haggard wrote about the migratory paths down the Will Rogers Highway (Route 66),   the seeds of the Dust Bowl in the San Joaquin Valley, angels and silver wings in the sky. In “Kern River,” Haggard’s aching baritone declared:

I may drown in still water

But I’ll never swim Kern River again.”

“I was a stranger in my own hometown,” he said. “I’m a time traveler.”


Haggard then asked me where I got my brown cowboy boots (Alacala’s Western Wear in Ukranian Village) and then offered me a shot of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey. I’m a tequila guy but I did not turn this down.

I’m writing from the Best Western Sunset Plaza—which Jerry Buss sold to buy the L.A. Lakers—and the faux honky tonk Saddle Ranch Chop House is across the street. Probably will have a shot for Merle there tonight. Or maybe the Frolic Room,

Merle and I were talking and drinking under a full moon in 2000 when he was promoting his album “If I Could Only Fly.” Merle sang the Blaze Foley title track at Tammy Wynette’s funeral.

Merle recorded “If I Could Only Fly” in his Tally Studio at the foothills of Mt. Shasta near Redding in the Sacramento Valley. Merle had been making records out of his home studio since 1985.

“ I believe in trying to reproduce honesty, what really exists,” he told me. “I give them the bad with the good, which is against the grain of technology. Everybody’s temptation is to perfect everything, and that makes everything bland. It’s refined to the point it’s boring.

“Everything is controlled to where it can’t get out of line. Nobody can get too close to the mike. You’re not going to hear somebody’s lips pop. You won’t hear a guitar scratch, no human noises at all. If everybody’s 8 feet tall, then basketball don’t mean much anymore.

“There’s nothing as boring to me as perfection.”

This is why Merle and I got along.

More than 25 years ago before he appeared at a county fair in Elkhart, Ind., Merle told me about the night that he was booked on the first worldwide ‘Ed Sullivan’ telecast with country singers Jeannie C. Riley and Minnie Pearl.


He never appeared.

They had me in for the part of Curly in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s `Oklahoma!’ So
I learned all that stuff and sung all them songs,” Merle said, very seriously.
“As the week progressed and we got closer to the time of broadcast, they kept working these dance steps in for me. Now, I told them at the beginning, ‘I don’t dance, I don’t do choreography and I don’t want to. I might later on in my life, but not right now.”
Merle Haggard, 1961, Tally Records promotional photo

Merle Haggard, 1961, Tally Records photo

Merle tossed  out a crooked laugh.
“Well, they just kept shoving in a little more dance and a little more choreography and pretty soon I was dancing around this big set with each of those girls (Minnie and Jeannie) on my arms, when one of them fruiters (backup dancers) pinched me on the ass! That’s just the truth.
“I went around the circle and Fuzzy (Owen, his manager) was standing in the wings and I said, ‘Fuzzy, I’m heading for the bus after this next circle.’ So we went around the circle and I waltzed right behind the curtain on to the bus.
“Jeannie C. Riley came out to the bus and cried for the next three hours trying to get me to come back in, She said I was going to ruin my career, and I said, ‘Maybe so, but I’d rather do that than  embarrass myself in front of all the truck drivers and people I’ve built up over the years.’
About 10 years later I was on a talk show with Minnie Pearl and she said, ‘I’ve always loved you, but the thing I love the most was the night you walked out on Ed Sullivan.’ Ha! I’m not afraid of gay people or anything. I just didn’t want to dance.”
Johnny Mathis replaced Haggard.
Merle's beloved tour bus.

Merle’s beloved tour bus, a calming retreat..

Merle  had his first and most lasting success with Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson (Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, the Louvin Brothers) who basically left Haggard alone. “He sat there and diddled on a piece of paper while I recorded,” Haggard said. “He made me feel like I had some wisdom, some information to give. But he also wanted to make sure we didn’t offend anybody.

“One time he says, ‘Merrrrle, do you suppose we should say anything about this interracial love affair?.”  Nelson was referring to Haggard’s 1969 ballad “Irma Jackson.” Haggard wrote the song about society’s intolerance of interracial relationships at the same time he wrote “Okie From Muskogee.”

“I said, ‘You’re the publishing house’,” Merle recalled. “I’m just the writer. You make the call.’ So they didn’t put it out. I’m just giving the news. Don’t kill the messenger.” A few years later Capitol Records finally released the “Irma Jackson” ballad.

I traveled the country to see this American treasure: a smoky honky-tonk in Taylorville, Ill., Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Ok, the mountain wineries of Saratoga, Calif. and of course the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

And I saw him with Willie Nelson in Branson:

“I felt like I was under more scrutiny in Branson than when I was in San Quentin,” Haggard told me. “You couldn’t go anywhere. The traffic was so bad you couldn’t move. If you were sick, you’d have to puke in the parking lot. Willie and I agreed it was absolutely the worst year of our entertainment lives and we should have been given purple hearts for our contribution to Branson.”

Merle and Willie, Feb. 7, 2013

Merle and Willie, Feb. 7, 2013

One of our most meaningful conversations was outside a dance hall in Indianapolis where Merle spoke of his donations to the permanent “America on the Move” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In 1966 Merle had his first number one hit with “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and he pledged:

I’m on the run/the highway is my home.

In 1935 Merle’s parents, James and Flossie Haggard migrated down Route 66 from eastern Oklahoma to Oildale, Calif, near Bakersfield.

Merle and his sister Lillian Haggard Hoge donated nearly 30 objects the family saved from their migration. American history to the core. Lillian was 14 when the family left Oklahoma with her late brother James Lowell. (Merle was born in 1937).

“My family was of more fortunate nature than most,” Merle said in measured tones. He seemed to enjoy to be talking about something more than music, but this DNA informed his art. “My family didn’t come to California for the same reasons as others. They had a fire and got wiped out. They were doing all right in Oklahoma, as hard as the times were.”

James and Flossie Haggard were farmers, but the fire destroyed the barn, a 1933 Model A Ford, cows, horses and feed and seed grains. To make matters worse, a 1934 drought starched the Oklahoma plains and the family made no money from crops.

“In those days, insurance wasn’t around,” Merle said. “So they decided to go out to California to see if it was actually ‘The Promised Land.’ They told me about the trip.”

“They said it took them seven days to go from Checotah, Okla. south of Muskogee to Oildale, They had been out there before. They went in 1927, I believe and the roads weren’t even blacktopped, They crossed the desert on railroad ties. Sometimes the sand would blow across and you’d lose the road altogether. In 1935 my dad drove a 1926 Chevy and they had everything they owned in the cargo trailer.”

Country music will never again come from this point of view.

And there’s more. Merle continued: ‘There was a guy with a bicycle climbing this long hill. My family had stopped for water. My dad said to the bike rider, ‘Hey, throw that bicycle on top of the trailer.’ And the guy hung on the side of the car on what they called a running board in those days. Dad took him up that hill. And after he got him up that hill, he got the bike and rode along the back while holding onto the trailer. He pulled him nearly all the way to California.

Route 66, then and now: Tulsa, Ok. 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

Route 66, then and now: Tulsa, Ok. 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

The journey was full of surprises and self-reliance.

Haggard recalls, “My dad lost his transmission just as they started to cross the Colorado River in Needles, Calif. I remember him telling me how he worked on it all afternoon. Some bolts had broke He used wire from a nearby fence to wire it together. They left that night to start across the desert because it was so hot. And it was still 114 degrees at midnight in Needles.”

The Smithsonian received a metal trunk that held the Haggard’s family possessions during their journey and Flossie’s metal-box Empire camera. Flossie’s snapshots depict the 1926 Chevy, the cargo trailer and Route 66 scenes.

Merle was always fussy about awards and stuff but he was truly  touched that his legacy would be part of the Smithsonian. He wanted me to mention the gift of  gospel songbooks Celestial Joys (published in 1932) and Leading Light (published in 1935) from his father’s collection. James Haggard sang bass in a gospel quartet.

I did. And I will again.

Merle had a concert shtick that I never grew tired of. He would introduce his excellent band The Strangers to each other, The band would amble around the stage shaking hands with each other while Merle looked down with that wry, approving smile of his.

But Merle Haggard was no stranger to the American spirit.

His music and his emblem championed all that is good, hopeful and true. He was a friend to anyone who listened with an open mind.  I’m going to miss him being part of this world.





Jim and Pete’s  restaurant,  7806 West North Ave. in Elmwood Park opened in 1941 serving hand rolled, thin crust pizza on the gritty west side of Chicago. The restaurant has since expanded to feature risotto of the day,  steak vesuvio and baked clams drizzled with the house wine sauce.

Jim and Pete’s never closed, even to bust a union, like Berghoff’s did in Chicago.

Italian Village, 71 W. Monroe in Chicago (opened 1927) has a legitimate streak under its third generation.

Current Jim and Pete’s owners are Michael Bucchianeri and Jim Sorce, Jr. which gets a first time visitor to wondering why the swingin’ exterior signage still says “Jim & Pete’s.”


Present day Jim & Pete’s

“Pete (Pizzo) was my uncle,” Sorce explained during a recent Monday evening  conversation at the Italian bistro. “Two brother- in- laws started it. Then they broke up. The reason the sign still says Jim and Pete’s is that my father (Jim) couldn’t afford a new sign.”

To commemorate 75 years of Jim and Pete’s, throughout April customers will receive a gift card for an amount between $10 and $1,000 to be revealed upon a subsequent visit. The cards will expire at the end of  the year.

“We were going to roll back the prices,” Bucchianeri said.   “But it’s been so long we couldn’t find the prices.”

Jim and Pete’s seats about 160 people in a warm contemporary setting of exposed brick and dim lighting, There’s also comfortable seating at a large bar area. Bucchianeri calls the vibe “polished casual.”

The original Jim and Pete’s was a brick storefront restaurant/lounge at West Chicago Avenue and Pulaski in Chicago. It was the second pizza parlor in Chicago, according to Sorce. (Pizzeria Uno opened in 1943.)

The family grew up near the restaurant. Sorce said his father and uncle were taught their craft by a New York pizza maker.  “New York pizza is too thin,” he said with groan. “They don’t do the ingredients right. Ours is hand rolled. A machine flattens out the bubbles. And the bubbles make it a little more fluffy. My favorite is sausage, onion, mushroom and bacon. You’ve never had one like that. It’s a little thicker, although we do make a thin one, pan and stuffed. People call for everything.”

After leaving Chicago, Jim and Pete’s moved to 7315 W. North Avenue (at Harlem) in River Forest and  stayed in that location for 36 years.

Jim (left) and Michael Bucchianeri (D. Hoekstra photo)

Jim Sorce, Jr. (left) and Michael Bucchianeri (D. Hoekstra photo)

“That’s when I took over because my father got sick,” Sorce said. “We moved here in 1986 because we wanted liquor. River Forest was dry. But we never closed. We moved eight blocks away and we still put out orders. I don’t know how we did it.”

The Jim and Pete’s menu has subscribed to a blend of Northern and Southern Italian cooking. Scorce’s mother Edith was from Naples. 

“She was from the north and my father was from Sicily, south,” he said. “They mixed it up. They used to argue about the sauce (Northern Italian is known for more of a buttery cream sauce.) Our pasta is made fresh for us. We’re proud of that. My mother taught my cook when he was 15 years old. She worked with him for eight and a half years and he became pretty good.”

Edith’s bracciole recipe shows up on the Jim and Pete’s menu: thinly sliced flank steak rolled up in breadcrumbs, onions, garlic, parsley and panetta. Jim and Pete’s also makes more than 1,000 hand rolled meatballs every week.

The homemade salad dressing and marinade is a neighborhood staple. Created with red wine, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, oregano and lemon juice, 12-ounce bottles of the salad dressing are sold at the front of the restaurant.

Jim and Pete’s is a quintessential neighborhood joint.


Former Blackhawk Jerry Korab–a neighborhood guy.

It is a slice of old school Chicago without the high taxes. “We have second generation customers,” Bucchinaeri said. “We had a baby shower here last Sunday and it turned out they also had the mother’s shower here when she was a baby.”

Long time Chicago restauranteur Vic Giannotti (Giannotti’s, Nick’s Village, the North Star Inn) often pops in on Monday nights defending the virtues of classic Southern Italian cooking with dried pasta and olive oil. Popular Dean Martin-influenced singer Tony Ocean is a regular customer and tuxedoed vocalist Jimmy Nightclub has played Jim and Pete’s.

Sorce is a hockey fan and old school Blackhawks Bobby Hull, Moose Vasko and Stan Mikita used to visit Jim and Pete’s.

Many  1960s-70s era Blackhawks lived in the Elmwood Park-River Forest neighborhood, and in fact,  78th Avenue directly east of the restaurant recently was renamed Jerry Korab Way,

Korab played 16 years in the National Hockey League and Blackhawks fans knew him as “King Kong.” Korab has lived in Elmwood Park for more than 25 years.

Sorce asked, “Remember Paul Shmyr?”

Shmyr was a Blackhawks defenseman between 1968-71 before going on to star in the short lived World Hockey Association (WHA). He died of throat cancer in 2004 at the age of 58. “Paul was in the playoffs in New York so I brought his wife to the hospital to have their baby,” Sorce recalled. “I was in the hospital and they were calling me Mr. Shmyr.”

Jim and Petes’s features framed photographs of baseball great  Joe Di Maggio, and  Frank Sinatra. A large class picture of mob movie actors hangs near the bar. The restaurant even played into the 2007  Family Secrets trial that stung the Chicago mob.

Bucchianeri asked, “Would you call it a ‘salesman,’ Jimmy? He asked to buy like 17 (pizza delivery) boxes.” Sorce picked up the story, “I had my menu stapled on a box I gave him, Well, they killed the guy.”

He did not say what guy, nor did I ask.


Sorce continued, “They show it on the news, open the trunk and there’s Jim and Pete’s. You talk about hockey players, well we had the other guys. Then the FBI comes to interview me. They got my name. I’m sitting there having soup. My mother had mad me soup. She’s yelling, ‘My son is a good boy!’ They were all embarrassed.”

According to Jeff Coen’s “Family Secrets”  (The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob) [Chicago Review Press], outfit brothers Nick and Frank Calabrese, Sr. had moved to Elmwood Park after leaving Chicago. Nick testified against the mob, resulting in the conviction of his brother, Joey “The Clown” Lombardo and others.

Sorce bought the current Jim and Pete’s, which was a shuttered refrigerator store. The space was opened up and a wall was added, which creates down home intimacy

Bucchianeri said, “When Jimmy was in the River Forest location my uncle Vito and Jimmy were partners. That’s when they moved here.” Sorce said, “Vito was 10 years older than me. He wanted to get out, Michael worked for us a lot. He was managing the place so Vito sold his part to Michael.”

Bucchianeri reflected,  “The nice part is we could be slow in the dining room on a night and we’d have three caterings in the day and the day is made. You could be slow in the dining room and catering and be hot on deliveries. You have all these avenues to generate income which really helps the longevity of the restaurant.”


Vicki Shepherd camper van artwork

WARSAW, Ind.—The meaningful solitude of driving reaches a higher level by taking a trip in a camper van. I don’t mean an RV where you bring along friends and family, or even hitching up with an Airstream trailer. I mean a small camper van: where you are alone as a question mark, one bed, a workspace, a fridge and Greg Brown music about backroads and broken hearts.

And that’s where I’m going.

While driving around America for the past 30 years I’ve learned how the real American pastime feeds the imagination. Reflections in the campground river are unfiltered. Driving puts dreams in motion.

Vicki Shepherd and her younger brother Scott Wiley are examples of this pursuit of happiness.

I connected with Vicki through her whimsical art work of camper vans and RVs on a dark January afternoon. As I was researching my next book I saw a stack of her prints in the corner of the gift shop of the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind. 

I loved the bright colors and escapist nature of her self-taught work. Vicki draws on art paper with ink markers and sharpies. I bought a print of 16 campers on dual Ferris wheels. A carnival sign advertised “CAMPER RIDES.” I had to find out more about her. Like twinkling neon around a gloomy corner, I made an authentic discovery.

Vicki, Scott and Vicki’s husband Jeff Shepherd purchase old camper vans and trailers and restore them.

They call this “Camper Pickin’.”


Vicki and her brother Scott Wiley (D. Hoekstra photo, March, 2016)

This summer and fall I’ll be driving around America in my 20’ by 8’ Ford Transit conversion van. Ford did a similar job for the “American Pickers” television show from the new Ford plant in Kansas City, Mo.

Vicki will custom design the inside of any van, even mine. In the past, she has done baseball themes and Jimmy Buffett influenced campers.

Scott generally restores the exterior, although they also work separately on found vans. One of their jobs became a concession stand at the University of Notre Dame. Another restored camper is part of a Bed and Breakfast in Georgia. A Michigan photographer bought a reborn 1956 Vacationette to use as a studio.

Vicki has drawn 50 van/RV related pictures. She makes van drawings for friends, family and did one for Camping World. Vicki has restored about 55 camper vans and trailers. I’m asking her to do a subtle tiki motif for my van interior. Bamboo brings good luck.

During the late 1960s Vicki was a dancer (not a stripper) at the Cat’s Meow in Fort Wayne. Ind. In sort of a Hooserized version of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, she danced in white go-go boots along side music greats like Fats Domino, Brasil 66 and Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders. Little Richard headlined the downtown Fort Wayne club from April 21-26, 1969.

The Cat’s Meow was an upscale club with catwalks and an illuminated dance floor. In her later years, Vicki was a hospice nurse, so I guess that’s go-go to gone-gone. From 1984 to 1985 her brother was team chaplain for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. This is one remarkable family.

Vicki during her Cat's Meow years (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

Vicki during her Cat’s Meow years (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

Their father Don Wiley was an industrial engineer who was plant manager at Magnavox electronics in Fort Wayne. He was best friends with Fort Wayne legend Philo Farnsworth, who invented the television system.

“The first thing I ever played with was a slide rule,” Vicki cracked during a March afternoon conversation at Scott’s log home in Warsaw. “I took it out of Dad’s pocket.”

Their mother Maxine Wiley was a Justice of the Peace in Auburn, Ind. who also owned the Carnaby Square Dance Club in Warsaw, about 38 miles east of Fort Wayne. During the 1960s the Chicago-based Buckinghams played Carnaby Square.

Vicki's memories of Carnaby Square

Vicki’s memories of Carnaby Square

The kids lived large in Indiana’s wide open spaces.

“In 1995 there was a resort park down by Silver Lake,” Vicki said. “Friend of my husband’s. He had these old trailers, 1920s, 30s and 40s. Nobody wanted them. He couldn’t get lot rent. He said, ‘How bout if I give you the trailer, you fix it up, sell it, and that way I’ll get the rent.’ None of this was popular then. If I had known then what I know now, I would have bought every one of them.”

Vicki, Scott and Jeff restored them and sold them for $2,000 or $3,000.

She pointed out, “These weren’t canned hams (tiny trailers hitched to a truck.) They were things like Lucy and Ricky’s (1954 hit comedy) ‘Long, Long Trailer’.”

What is home? Where is sense of place? French psychoanalyst Oliver Marc spoke of how early man took possession of space. He wrote, “It is through self-expression that man sets out on the road back to unity. It is a road that passes through the exterior to reach interior unity.”

The quest is the most exciting part of Vicki and Scott’s self-expression.

“There’s a 1958 Mallard I’m trying to get,” Vicki said. “It’s a hoarder’s house. I mean it’s in ‘Deliverance’ down there by (rural) Laketon. I go up to the door. Jeff wouldn’t even get out of the car–he’s a chicken. Dogs are barking and there’s these great big geese. I didn’t know they stretched their necks way out like that. Garbage bags everywhere. They had their Venetian Blinds on the outside of their house! They didn’t answer. I left a note. I’ve been back there three times.”

One of the family's cute restorations

One of the family’s cute restorations

Vicki is retired and Scott has a full time job as Director of Development at Lakeland Christian Academy. His wife Debra is a 2nd grade teacher at the school and their daughter Baylee is a 10th grader at the school.

Scott keeps a vintage 1963 Trailerorboat” on his back porch that overlooks a small river and wooded area where blue heron, deer and a bald eagle can be seen. “There were only 18 Trailerorboats made,” he said. “It’s a little camper with a boat molded into the top. You take the top off when you arrive at the campground and use it as a boat.”

Trailer-or-boat—get it?

The Trailerorboat (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

The Trailerorboat (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

Scott’ collection also included the Camp’OTel (“For people who like going, not towing”), which he found, restored and sold. “It went on the top of your car,” he said. “It folded out into a place to sleep, shower, it had a picnic table built in, a gas stove and a sink too. It even had a little front porch.” The Camp O’ Tel was manufactured in the mid-1960s in Fort Worth, Tx. An advertisement ensures, “Fits on 98 per cent of all cars…A woman can set it up.

campotel 1

Camp O’ Tel. Some construction needed.

Vicki, 70,  recruited her brother who previously restored cars and motorcycles.

Scott’s showcase item is a 1964 Ford Fairlane four door called “The Spaceliner,” where he removed the top and added sleek white bucket seat and dual bubble tops.

“Campers are fun and cute,” said Scott, 55. “When we started getting into it people had no idea they were collectibles. We’d knock on doors and people would say, ‘If you can get that hunk of junk out of here, you can have it.’ People would give them to us. Or, we would get a camper for $200, put another $100 into it, clean it up and sell it for $3,000. It was a great profit margin. Now, it’s becoming real popular. People are into tiny living.”

Bamboo Headliner-2

Scott Wiley’s concept for my van (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

Vicki said that 90 percent of the 55 campers she has restored were made in the Elkhart area, an hour north of Warsaw.

Scott explained, “A lot of cars were made in Northern Indiana. (The Detroit Pistons began in 1941 as the Fort Wayne Zoller Pistons before moving to the Motor City in 1957.) Because of tax breaks it was cheaper to build stuff in Indiana.”

I learned that 85 per cent of America’s RVs are manufactured in the Elkhart area.

Vicki and Dave Hoekstra lost in The Spaceliner (Photo by Scott Wiley)

Vicki and Dave Hoekstra lost in The Spaceliner (Photo by Scott Wiley)

Scott Wiley attended Spring Arbor College in Jackson, Mich. where he majored in Business Administration and Sports Administration. During his senior year in 1984, he obtained an internship with the Pistons. Scott’s first job was editing highlight reels for halftime shows.

“I got to be friends with (Pistons center) Kent Benson,” he said. “Kent was a Christian, I was a Christian. When I was with the Pistons it was Kent, Isiah Thomas and Ray Tolbert–all Indiana graduates. Bill Laimbeer  and Kelly Tripucka were from Notre Dame. I felt at home and they were all my age. I got to know Larry Bird. His point guard at Indiana State was Steve Reed. They called him ‘The Bird Feeder’ and he was our neighbor here in Warsaw. But it was Kent who asked me to be chaplain.”

Sports lines run deep with Vicki and Scott. Their mother was a big Chicago Cubs fan. Their uncle Everett “Deacon” Scott  played in 1,307 consecutive major league games, a streak later broken by Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr. Everett Scott broke into the major leagues in 1914 with the Boston Red Sox when Babe Ruth was a fellow rookie teammate. Everett’s brother Walter Scott played for the St. Louis Browns.


“Everett’s roommate was Babe Ruth,” Vicki said. “I have the rocker that Babe Ruth rocked my Mom in.” Jeff added, “We had two (1923 Yankee World Champion) baseballs a long time ago. One was lost and never found.”

Vicki added, “We had another ball and it went down the storm sewer in Auburn. Uncle Skippy was playing with it.”

Uncle Skippy lived for the moment, just as you do in a camper van. 

When Mom Wiley was seven years old the Bambino gave her a necklace during a visit to Auburn. Scott recalled, “When her brother Skippy began dating, he gave it to his girlfriend!”

With an sigh, Vicki continued, “Now Uncle Everett suffered from carbuncles. Of all the things to suffer from. Carbuncles are like cysts. We in the family don’t call them boils. He had a big zit on his ear.”

Everett Scott was also an accomplished bowler, racking up 50 perfect games. Scott pointed out, “With a two finger bowling ball.” After Everett retired from baseball he opened Scott’s Bowling Alley in Fort Wayne. He sold that bowling alley to build Northcrest Lanes, in Fort Wayne, which in the 1950s was the biggest bowling alley in Indiana.

Everett died in November, 1960 in Fort Wayne. He was 67 years old.

 “Now this may be interesting to you, Dave,” Vicki said. “He had a Sealy Posturepedic mattress in his casket. And a satin robe. It scared the tar out of me when I saw him.”

Scott said, “Evidently he wanted to be comfortable.”

Evidently interior design is also part of this family’s DNA.


Vicki and Jeff Shepherd. I told him he reminded me of country singer Billy Joe Shaver.

The camping world calls interior van decorating “Glamping.” Vicki’s children Kip, Matt and Katrina also help out with camper design. Husband Jeff assists with woodwork.

Vicki admitted, “Some glamping is so over done and tacky. I do things with Hawaiian lights. Bamboo on the counter tops. I don’t do wallpaper unless I have to. If it looks good I keep what’s inside. I don’t keep the campers. Everybody thinks I’m this huge camper.

“Well, I’ve never gone camping in my life.”


Photos, Nov. 2015 by Dave Hoekstra unless noted.

RAPA NUI, CHILE–Some have fallen and some stand tall, which is the story of mankind.

Any pilgrimage to Easter Island, a.k.a. Rapa Nui, must begin at the Rano Raraku quarry where almost all the majestic moai (carvings) were made. Visitors can see nearly 400 of the island’s 887 moais in various stages of artistic endeavor on a healthy hike through Rano Raraku.

Some moai look out towards the ocean, others are horizontal on the ground. I saw one moai tucked in the crevice of a volcanic cliff. Scattered across the quarry, the moai look like pins hit by the strike of a bowling ball. The human form moai were moved from the quarry to locations across the 64 square mile island. Other moai were never intended to leave the quarry.

The moai are architectural wonders of power, wonder and mystery.

We can see ourselves in them.

We strive to stand tall. The Rapa Nui people sculpted the moai between the years of 1200 and 1500 A.D. The three-dimensional moai are set on stone platforms although in recent years archeologists have discovered bottoms. The large heads take up more than half of the statues, which average about 12  feet in height. The size of the statue denotes the amount of prestige, sort of a Donald Trump thing.

The bold but welcoming faces represent ancestors. In recent years a couple of moai have had the whites restored to their sunken eyes.  Moai were the focal point of ahu, ceremonial mortuary sites derived from the East Polynesian sacred place known as Marae, and their placement on  land links them to families.


Most of the figures were designed in the volcanic rock of Rano Raraku and then chipped away until the facial image remained.

Easter Island was formed by three separate volcanic rock eruptions from the ocean floor somewhere between 100,000 and 1 million years ago. All volcanos on the island are extinct.

Rano Raraku also contains a tree framed picnic area (and gift shop–they are everywhere) for visitors before they embark on a tour of the breathtaking quarry. On a clear day, sea birds, partridge and hawks fly around the grounds of the tiki gods. My late November visit to Easter Island was a trip of eternal summers with angels on my autumn wings. I will never forget this journey of spellbinding rebirth.

Easter Island is the most remote island in the Pacific. (Antarctica is the most isolated place in the world and the surfers told me their best swells come from Antarctica.) The heritage name Rapa Nui was adapted in the mid-1800s, roughly translated as Rapa (island), Nui (large.)

Easter Island was discovered by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeven on Easter day, 1722. 

The island is a five and a half hour flight from Santiago, Chile. My expectation delivered me faster than that. Easter Island is 2,150 miles from the west coast of Santiago and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. Where do you go to draw on spiritual energy? You rent a bicycle and ride around the  island terrain.  You soon learn how small you really are. The bigger moais weigh 90 tons.


High season in Easter Island is from October to April. Tourism is the number one draw. Only 5,000 people live on Easter Island and tourism numbers have climbed to 100,000 annually.

About 40 per cent of the residents are Rapa Nui, with the rest from mainland Chile and a smattering of British, French and German.

I was surprised that huge  LAN Boeing 787 Dreamliners fly into the tiny Easter Island airport twice a week. My stretch plane was filled with Chilean tourists. During my four days on Easter Island, I met a couple of Canadians, many Japanese tourists and lots of young visitors from Santiago. Easter Island is becoming their Key West.

The in-town airstrip was built in 1996 which launched the Easter Island tourism industry. If I wasn’t schlepping so many souvenir moai back home, I could have walked from my hotel to the airport. Cargo and food are also shipped to the airport on the large planes out of the capital city of Santiago.

The food on Easter Island was outstanding. More than 120 species of  fish, especially mahi-mahi and tuna, are fresh out of the ocean. Beef and chicken are imported from the mainland. I had a memorable breakfast at Tupana, a breakfast and lunch pop-up in a trippy Volkswagen bus. The bus was parked along the bay, which is a popular departure point for surfers. The fresh strawberries, ample bananas and chocolate served atop a warm waffle got me though until mid-afternoons. Internet service can be spotty on the island and Tupana was the only establishment I saw with a hash tag.


Sunset over the bay is a beautiful thing and can be experienced at the funky La Taverne Du Pecheur. Locals call the owner “The Angry Frenchman.” The two story restaurant features a small outdoor balcony overlooking the Hanga Roa bay.

The Angry Frenchman insisted that anyone on the porch ordered dinner. It is not a place to hang out with a beer. So I ordered dinner.

I enjoyed the ample serving of seafood ceviche appetizer, downed with a cold Escudo beer. The raw ceviche is Chile’s national dish.

Some of my first hotel choices were sold out, so I picked the Iorana hotel through Hotels.com. Iorana means welcome in Rapa Nui, although the mood was a bit frosty. Riva Riva is Rapa Nui for “very well.” The Riva Riva was that the owner/front desk woman spoke fluent English and spent some time in Destin, Fla.

The bad news is she pestered me on things I should have seen and things I should have done. But she never asked if I needed anything.

I staggered into the Iorana after nearly 25 hours of transit (Chicago to Miami, Miami to Santiago, six  hour layover in Santiago and to Easter Island.) As I was checking in the owner told me about a new radio station in Easter Island. This news brought me back to life. I heard zydeco-like music playing out from the station behind the front desk. Only a couple days later did a resident tell me it was the Iorana itself that opened that new station (100.5 FM). I did pick up a 2009 compilation of 19 hits from Radio Manukena (88.9 FM) CD. But the Iorana’s rooms were clean, the hotel has nice views of the ocean and hot water–which wasn’t the case with the accommodations of some other tourists I talked to.

My friend at the hotel was right about seeing the quarry first, which I did not do. The bike ride was my initial idea but I did know how difficult it would be to bike from moai to moai even in short distances. I rented a bike from Oceanic Rapa Nui, which also rents cars.

The quarry, where it all begins

The quarry, where it all begins

The terrain is choppy and rough for bicycle riding to the moai. The following day I ditched the bike and joined a half day group tour where I ran into two Chicagoans. The tour reminded me of the depressing confines of a junket, so on the third day I spent $150 for a private half day tour with Jorge’ Tepano of Tararaina Tours. It was money well spent.

A Rapa Nui native, Tepano took me to the two must-see attractions: 

Rano Raraku and Ahu Tongariki.

Ahu Tongariki is the island’s largest ceremonial display with 15 moai, all of which have been restored. It is where locals and tourists go for the spectacular sunrises. I finally made it to an island that Jimmy Buffett has yet to visit, although he told me he dreamed of playing a concert at Ahu Tongariki or a similar lineup of statues.

“I have a friend there named Jo Anne Van Tilburg who is an archeologist,” Buffett told me in late summer 2015 on my WGN-AM radio show in Chicago. “Through her and making the (2006) movie ‘Hoot,’ my driver in ‘Hoot’ married a woman from Easter Island. Cheech was my Teamster driver. So my music went back over there.

“I got word that the chief of the Rapa Nui tribe was a fan. Jo Anne said they wanted me to be a guest at their (annual February) cultural festival. They would let me sing amongst the statues. I was headed there to figure out if this was true when I fell off the stage in Australia (in January, 2011). I was going to fly there on my plane to check it out. I’ve never been able to do it, but I gotta get there.”

Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial structure in Polynesia. The University of Chile restored the moai between 1992 and 1996. The $2 million restoration project was funded by the Japanese government.

Ahu Tongariki (file pix)

Ahu Tongariki (file pix)

        *                                                *                                  *                                           *

After several phone calls and e-mails I discovered Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, not on Easter Island, but at the UCLA Rock Art Archive in Los Angeles. Rock art is the process of carving or painting on stone. Rock art is another part of the mysterious puzzle on Easter Island.

Van Tilburg is director of the Rock Art Archive. She is also director of the Easter Island Statue Project, which maps, excavates and archives Easter Island statues. Later this year UCLA will publish her atlas of Easter Island statues.

Van Tilburg, her husband and family are Buffett fans.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg at Rano Raraku (file pix)

Jo Anne Van Tilburg at Rano Raraku (Courtesy of Easter Island Statue Project)

“I love the way the man can turn a phrase,” she said in an engaging conversation from Malibu. “He’s a really fine writer. We live in Malibu and have a place in Aspen (Colo.) I have a Jimmy Buffett poster in my kitchen signed by all the guys in Aspen that were off  the wall in those days like Hunter Thompson. I actually met Jimmy through a mutual friend, a woman he knew in Tahiti. We had dinner and we hit it off. And he’s always said he wanted to go to Easter Island.

“It was something he didn’t want to lose.”

Van Tilburg sent Buffett native music and photographs in preparation for his 2011 visit. “When he fell off the stage he was two days landing on Rapa Nui,” she said. “I was there to meet him with the best flowers and prettiest girls I could find. We kept it as low key as possible. There was no performance scheduled. He wanted to do something for the islanders. I told him of his choices of places to stay, one place that is $1,000 a day in the middle of nowhere and run by Chileans–it is fabulous–and another place that is $300 a day, in the heart of the village and run by Rapa Nui people–he chose the latter. He really wanted to be part of the community.”

Stay tuned for further developments. Nothing is set in stone.

In 2003 Van Tilburg wrote “Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island” (Scribner, $27). Routledge died in 1935, institutionalized from schizophrenia. She was one of the first female graduates of Oxford University and between 1913 and 1915 conducted the first ever excavations of the island’s statues. She also interviewed the islanders, gathering information about Rapa Nui customs and rites.

 “She and I are one,” Van Tilburg said. “She worked on Easter Island  with (native) Juan Tepano and Juan Tepano is the great grandfather of the man with whom I work. It felt like something that was meant to be. Routledge used lit candles at her desk to keep herself focused. I found if she could stay on track with the problems she was dealing with, I felt it the best way to honor her work would be for me to stay on track as well. It’s very hard sometimes to be a woman as an archeologist and hard to be involved in other projects I am. If I’m gone too long I lose my north. She helped me understand you have to stay focused in order to make a contribution.”

Weekly market in the village center.

Weekly market in the Rapa Nui village center.

A very long time ago oral folklore was handed down at evening family gatherings on Easter Island. The late Uka Tepano kept 75 notebooks of the stories from her father, who was the son of Juan Tepano. Uka Tepano died in 2004 and she left behind the island’s most extensive written work in native language. The pages are as yellow as the Polynesian sun and just as precious.

Van Tilburg also leads yearly tours with the New York-based Archaeological  Tours. She conducts the tours because she is interested in what motivates people to make the effort in time and money to get to Easter Island.

“What moves them to want to visit this place, other than just another place to check off on a list–which a lot of people do,” she explained. “The people with Archaeological Tours are well read. We always start at the quarry. The (moai) artists were creating something that would speak to everybody equally. They represent an ideal. The statues we are excavating are set in actual holes carved in bedrock up to a meter deep. There is not a lot of leeway to move it. You have made a decision the statue was going to be there a long time.”


“The other important thing is that the statues on the ceremonial sites are smaller than the statues remaining along roads leading to those sites. So the debate has always been about the statues lying dispersed from the quarry: ‘What are they doing there?’ ‘Were they moving along roads?’ ‘Were they standing in place for some reason?’ Some in fact were meant to be standing in place between the quarry and the ahu. But we don’t know how they got there, how they erected them or why they did that. I think they moved them in primarily a horizontal position. They didn’t walk them, I can tell you that. I think they used rollers, ropes and sleds. I also think they moved them in rafts along the coastline.”

My tour guide Tepano explained, “The first archaeological restoration was in 1956 at Anakena by Thor  Heyerdahl. It was with the Rapa Nui group of people where they used stone, logs and rope.” Heyerdahl,  who died in 2002 at the age of 87 was the Norwegian anthropologist who wrote the landmark book “Kon-Tiki” about his 1947 voyage to the Polynesian islands on a balsa log raft launched from Peru.

Locals affectionately call Heyerdahl “Mr. Kon Tiki.”

In 1958 Heyerdahl wrote “Aku-Aku” about his effort in raising the statue Ahu Ature Huke at Anakena. Heyerdahl and his expedition team camped at Anakena in the mid-1950s and again in 1986. The archaeological site is the only sand beach on Easter Island.

Today, approximately 40 per cent of Easter Island is protected as a national park and you can buy park tickets as you enter the airport. It also took me a few days to discover the novelty passport stamp of moai statues you can get for free at the Napa Rui post office near the center of the village. Passports are stamped in Santiago, but the Easter Island addition is regarded as one of the top stamps in the world, along with Greenland and tiny San Marino, Italy, the oldest constitutional republic in the world.

My stamp and souvenir.

My stamp and souvenir.

In March, 1996 UNESCO designated Easter Island a World Heritage Site. Van Tilburg first visited the island in 1982. She now returns four times a year when she is excavating.

She still lives in a world of mystical discovery. Just last year her group unearthed an upright carved stone head in Rano Raraku.

“From a dreamland standpoint I went there because of Thor Heyerdahl,” she reflected. “As a child (in St. Paul, Mn.) I had read his material in National Geographic and had given reports about it in my grade school class.

“From a practical point of view I was invited by the University of  California Berkeley to record rock art. I had been doing that at UCLA since 1979. I wanted to go to Easter Island for a long time and then, there it was.”

Van Tilburg has witnessed dramatic change since her first trip to the island 34 years ago.

“Like all developing areas of the world they have been flung into the digital age in a way that was unexpected,” she said. “Economically their lives are immeasurably better than they were. From a socio-political point of view they are extremely tense because their economic situation, which is very good, has put them in a position where they wish to have more autonomy from Chile.”

The visitors are changing too–with people like me!!

There goes the neighborhood (Hoekstra photo by Jorge' Tepano)

There goes the neighborhood. (Hoekstra photo by Jorge’ Tepano)

“In 1982 it was a real trek to get there,” she said. “In those days you could sit in Santiago for a week or two weeks before they got a plane to go to the island that was half way full. But the people that came were on a quest.. 

“They were inspired. They knew a lot about the island at the time there wasn’t much to know. What’s ironic is now that there’s so much to know through the internet and published material, people know less than they did then. They pay less attention. The whole digital revolution has changed our attention spans and the way we are hard-wired mentally. The idea of being there and rushing to see everything is pretty much the state of the situation right now.”

Tepano was born in 1972. His parents were fishermen and farmers. “Many things have changed since I was born,” he said. “More resources have come to the island. More flights. More garbage. Until the 1990s there were not many cars here. Most of the people used horses. Some ate horses. There was not much money. Not many choices. Now we have big planes from China. We have a charter from the United States. Normally people stay here for a couple of days.”

I even saw a cruise ship docked outside of Easter Island and recruited a passenger from Hamburg, Germany to take my picture at the Tahai moai near the center of town. Tepano said that was one of two cruise ships that were visiting the island in high season. Tahai is the only moai on the island with a replica set of beady white eyes. Original eyes were made of white coral.

“Almost 600 moai eyes were destroyed during the civil war time,” Tepano said. “Why the eyes? Because they can see the spirit with their eyes. The spirits belonged to their tribes. The eyes projected the spirit of the tribe. The moai never belonged to the architect. They always belonged to the tribe.”

Easter Island airport, Thanksgiving Day, 2015

Easter Island airport departure, Thanksgiving Day, 2015

Tepano has been a tour guide since 1997. Why are people so fascinated with the moai?

“It is the mystery,” he answered. “The fable of the statues walking side by side. Why did aliens come to help them bury the moai? Of course that is not the real history. It is a very small island but contains so much history.”

Van Tilburg added, “The exciting thing is that it is not over until it is over. There is still a lot more to know.”

RAF Chicago Executive Director Joanie Bayhack delivering smiles. (Courtesy of RAF)

RAF Chicago Executive Director Joanie Bayhack delivering smiles. (Courtesy of RAF)

Life isn’t so daunting if you break it down into a series of small gestures.

The non-profit Random Act of Flowers recycles flowers from weddings, parties, funerals and grocery stores. Volunteers then deliver floral bouquets to Chicago area hospitals and long term health care facilities.

Knoxville, Tn.-based Random Acts of Flowers (RAF) has only been in the Chicago area for a little more than a year. From January to December of 2015, RAF delivered bouquets to 16,142 people in the Chicago area.


Located in a 3,000-square foot space in the Nature’s Perspective Landscaping building at 2000 Greenleaf St. in Evanston, the Chicago  branch is the fastest growing operation of the four Random Acts of  Flowers  (Knoxville, Pinellas County, Fla. and Silicon Valley).

After White Sox legend Minnie Minoso died on March 1, 2015, the organization recycled flowers from his funeral. The flowers were made into bouquets with black and white ribbons (the White Sox colors) and delivered to 62 people at Senior Suites of Bridgeport.


My parents passed away in the spring of 2015 and the passage of time showed me to pay it forward. They loved flowers. Dad raised roses in the backyard when we lived in Columbus, Ohio and I always saw my Mom’s face light up even through the darkness of dementia when I brought flowers to visit them in Naperville.

She loved her tulip magnolia in the front yard of her home.The buds turn into blooms, blossoms float off the tree and it happens so very fast.

“We create new bouquets and bring them to people in health care facilities who might be struggling in a very vulnerable point of their life,” said Andrea Lutz, Director of Mission Fulfilment at Chicago’s RAF. “We use flowers as a way to bring joy, life, beauty and nature to them. But they are hand delivered by a community member that cares about them. It’s that simple.”

Volunteers rescue flowers from grocery stores–9 Whole Foods, 2 Mariano’s and the Grand Food Center in Winnetka–wholesale businesses and wedding, funeral and special events. RAF also partners with FTD (Florists’ Transworld Delivery).

Flowers are brought to the Evanston location to be stored and deconstructed. Other volunteers meet at recipient facilities that range from Hines VA Hospital in Maywood to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Facility carts are pre-loaded with flowers. Hines, for example, serves 120 people in four carts. Volunteers visit recipients of all ages with staff members. Recipients are identified before the visit. Lutz said, “We don’t need to know or are not legally allowed to know who we will be serving.”

Periods of volunteer engagement can be longer in nursing homes. RAF serves nearly 100 assisted living facilities within a 45 minute radius of Evanston. Lutz explained, “In hospitals, many people have  been up all night, ‘Who are you, what?’ But in one nursing home a  gentleman told me in his older age he has learned to love flowers but he can’t afford them. Once a year he treats himself. And I walked in with calla lilies, part of this amazing bouquet. We deliver to new moms. Some hospitals are like, ‘These are new moms, they’re celebrating.’ We’ve gone into rooms and there’s nothing in there. The rooms are dark, they’re tired. We all have stories where people break down and start crying.”


More than  550 people from the Chicago area have volunteered for RAF in the past year. Joanie Bayhack,, Executive Director RAF Chicago  said, “The nice thing about our volunteer experience is that there is something for everyone. We have volunteers who like deconstructing, composting and others who like arranging. Then others like delivering and are comfortable in hospitals and hospice centers.”

That would be me.

Bayhack continued, “We have three volunteer cleaning queens who come in every Thursday. There’s no long  orientations and workshops. There’s music cranking, coffee brewing and snacks everywhere.”

“You hear laughter.”

Roses and chrysanthemums are the most common flowers that come through the Chicago RAF.  “But we never know what to expect,” Lutz  said with a smile. “We put together a volunteer guide that describes each flower we’ve ever received with helpful tips. There are 86 flowers in the guide, which we regularly update.”

Random Acts of Flowers was founded in 2008 by Adrian and Larsen Jay in Knoxville. Larsen Jay was an independent film and television producer who fell off his roof during a 2007 home repair. “Ironically in 2007, I climbed to the foot of Mount Everest and went helicopter skiing on another project,” Jay said in a mid-February interview. “I came back completely fine.  But on a DIY project, I stepped on the top of the ladder for the 15th or 16th time, the bottom kicked out and I fell face down on the concrete about a story and a half up.”

Jay, 41, broke his left arm, both wrists, right elbow, his nose and suffered 10 skull fractures. “My head hit the ladder, which is the only reason I’m talking to you,” he said. “It was a second lease on life. To be put back together orthopedically, physically and emotionally is pretty astounding.” Jay spent two days in ICU, ten days in a trauma floor recovery room and ten more days in a rehab facility. He has had more than 12 surgeries and is still being rearranged.

Larsen Jay on the way

Larsen Jay on the way

“One thing that changed my perspective was the generosity and support of the people around me,” Jay said.

“And that often came in the way of flowers. I had never been given a bouquet of flowers. Each day multiple deliveries started showing up. Our room was filled with 30 plus bouquets. It turned into this jungle of joy and happiness. It helped me focus on recovery, it changed the atmosphere of the room.

“When I got stir crazy and convinced my family and nurses to get me out in the hall I noticed how many rooms were barren. No flowers, no plants, no visitors. It was a jarring visual. We went back to my room, took the cards off my flowers and loaded them in my wheel chair. We didn’t ask for permission. We didn’t follow protocol. We just started giving them out down the hall and that was the genesis.”

A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Jay later sold his documentary production company and now runs RAF full time. His wife Adrian is a former Knoxville ABC television reporter and Northwestern University grad who interviewed Jay on a story. They were engaged six months after they met. Larsen’s father-in-law is Barry MacLean of the MacLean-Fogg manufacturing company. He serves on RAF’s National Board of Directors. Jay’s vision is to make RAF a national operation.

Empowered by flowers.


We’re blown away at what has happened,” he said. “We can barely keep up. We’re almost up t0 115,000 deliveries to people nationwide. All of last year we did almost 50,000. Our success is half by design and half by dumb luck in figuring it out. You can explain Random Acts of Flowers in a few seconds: everybody has been to a wedding, funeral, a special event and they’ve looked at all the flowers  and thought ‘What a waste’. Thirty years ago food banks didn’t exist, but if I told you Panera threw away all their bread tonight you would be appalled.

“We’re trying to build a whole new industry to think about flowers the same way. Everybody understands what we do really fast. What’s cool is the number of volunteers who work tirelessly on behalf of people they’ll never meet is fascinating to me. They understand it makes a difference and its part of the American spirit.”

Hospitals have found that a patient’s mood improves after receiving flowers, which in turn, helps with dialogue and rapport. Lutz said, “We have a volunteer nurse who talked about how it has made a huge difference in the way they can engage their patients who are scared or real sick. We’re escorted by nurse floor managers who are walking around with charts and not (hospital) volunteers.”

The RAF work week is designed around recipient partners. Visits are at 1 p.m. Tuesdays. “On Monday everyone is getting back from the weekend and figuring out scheduling,” Lutz explained. “Wednesday is when they do their procedures. And they’re wrapping things up on Thursday and Friday. Tuesday afternoon was the perfect day for when people are most relaxed. We arrange the flowers Tuesday morning and have them prepped the previous afternoon.”

Mission of Compassion (L to R) Andrea Lutz, driver David Oquendo, Sydney Wert (Courtesy of RAF)

Mission of Compassion (L to R) Andrea Lutz, driver David Oquendo, Sydney Werd (Courtesy of RAF)

The initiative is growing so fast in Chicago, RAF is hitting the road in March to teach the 70 person claim staff from Zurich Insurance how to make arrangements and Lutz and program assistant Sydney Werd will lead a bouquet demonstration at the Macy’s Spring Flower Show.

Lutz previously worked at the Northern Illinois Food Bank and the Food Bank for New York City. She sees similarities between the two venues. Lutz explained, “Taking something that ordinarily gets thrown out, repurposing it and bring it to people who need it. Logisitcal puzzles and maximizing limited resources. But I love the ownership here, starting from scratch and seeing that ‘a-ha’ moment with flowers and plants. And, we’re all big flower nerds.” 

Werd knows of the days of wine and roses. She was a bartender before joining RAF. “I graduated from college, bartended (at Union Pizzeria in Evanston) and was a florist (at Bloom 3 in Evanston),” she said. “I fell into the florist job 100 per cent. Random Acts of Flowers would come to the shop to get extra flowers, they would go away and we knew they were going somewhere cool.”

Bayhack’s previous skill sets include a stint as publicity manager at Playboy magazine in Chicago and VP & Senior Vice-President of Communications and Corporate Sponsorship for WTTW-Channel 11 and WFMT-FM. “The fun starts with how good everybody feels from the beginning,” said Bayhack, who also was an extra in the fun film “Animal House.” “Donating flowers that would have gone into the dumpster, so that feels good. The group comes in and they have fun sorting through it. The next shift comes and they love doing the arranging. I sit and watch. I hear the joy. And the end result is the presentation of flowers to some unsuspecting, physically confused person and they light up. They might say, ‘Was it my birthday?’ Or, ‘I’ve never had flowers before.’

Flowers are a bonding mechanism for sure.

Jay said, “Giving flowers is a gesture that cuts across races, religions, disabilities, income levels. The result is the same response across the board. There’s few things where that happens. In  essence, we’re focused on basic kindness. We’re not trying to cure cancer, build a building or change homelessness. That’s sometimes hard in non-profits to quanitfy. We sell air, we sell smiles. But at the end of the day, I know our world is a better place because of Random Acts of Flowers and our volunteers.

 “Kindness and compassion have to have value in our society.”

That bears repeating during these times of rage and rants.

Kindness and compassion have to have value in our society.

To volunteer,  visit www.RAFChicago.org, or call (847) 430-4751.