We Celebrate You with Cubans, Dad

by Fredrica Duke
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freddeanddukeWhen I think of my dad -- and if you know me, you know I always do think of him – it’s often Saturday morning and Duke is surrounded by his “crew” in his regular booth at Nate n’ Al’s. But next Sunday, Father’s Day, I’ll think of Duke as he was most Sundays – in his other regular booth at Matteo’s. What can I say, he liked to eat and he loved to schmooze.

I realize I write WAY too much about my dad. But, here is a story you haven’t heard. One night at Matty’s, as we called this trapped-in-a-time-warp, Rat Pack era, Italian bistro on Westwood Boulevard, my dad was eating in his regular red leather booth; first to the right as you walked into the “correct” (celebrity-filled) room.

I should mention that Sunday nights at Matteo’s was tradition among a certain show business crowd. It wasn’t unusual to see Sinatra dining with Steve & Eydie, or the Reagans, or even Clint Eastwood… but to me, Sunday at Matteo’s was mostly about the comedians.

On this night, Red Buttons walked in. My dad was always the first person anyone greeted. He was hard to miss. Short of stature, but big of mouth, and loudly holding court at a spot you had to pass to enter. Except for Shecky, my father called all comics he knew by their last name. It was just Dangerfield. Or Youngman. You get it.

redmiltonSo, Buttons walks in and turns to our table, kibitzes with my dad a moment, then in a big, showy gesture, hands him a long, fat cigar. He proudly points out it’s an expensive Cuban then moves on to his own table. My dad stuck it where he put all his cigars -- including his own cheap ones -- in the top jacket pocket he sometimes called a “pockcoat.” Don’t ask.

We proceeded with our family meal. About an hour passes when Buttons, in a panic, runs up to my dad. “Duke, I need that cigar back! Berle just came in and we haven’t spoken for a year -- and tonight I’m making up with him.” No problem. My dad graciously hands the Cuban back. It was understood that these old guys often had spats, fights that could last years. They probably didn’t remember what they’d first argued over.

Another hour goes by. Check is paid. We will leave shortly. I will be carting home my leftover clams linguini. Berle is working the room and does his perfunctory stop & chat with my dad. To put a big finish on the small talk, he pulls out -- what else? -– a cigar. Not just any cigar. The same one that just made the rounds from Buttons to my dad, back to Buttons, and on to Berle.

Without missing a beat, the cigar went back into the pockoat. When Berle was out of hearing range, I said to my dad, “I want that cigar!” I knew that my comedy writer husband would appreciate its part in a brand-new show business anecdote. And, once again, for the very last time, the cigar changed hands.

kidscigarsAt the end, when my dad was in Cedars, visitors would bring him a cigar as a gift. When he finally “took a cab” (his slang for dying), we buried him with those. When it would have been my father’s 100th birthday, we threw him a big party and in honor of their grandfather, the grandchildren took a few puffs.  

And each year on his birthday, my brother shows up at Forest Lawn with two Coronas -- one that Alan smokes, and one for the Duke.   My father has been gone 16 years. Yet, sometimes when I’m walking down the street I’ll catch a strong whiff of cigar smoke, and think that somewhere two comedians are making up.

Happy Father’s Day, dad.


Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.  


0 #12 Linda 2016-06-15 16:38
I'm so.glad we celebrate your dad all the time! My dad smoked a pipe, and while I rarely smell one now, when I do, I always linger to reminisce a moment longer.
0 #11 ArtsBeatLA 2014-05-02 16:35
What a wonderful story - well told, too!
0 #10 Laura Plotkin 2012-06-29 08:28
I just loved, this Fredde--though I am seeing it just now--a couple weeks late...another loving and wonderful tribute to your father! My dad and his father smoked cigars (my dad, kept a humidor of them at Dunhill's as more of a tribute to his dad, who really loved them). Whenever I pass a whiff of one one the street, I always think of those two wonderful men that I loved!
0 #9 Augie Duke 2012-06-12 17:49
So magical mom i just love it.. Thank you
0 #8 Jennifer Dudley arbs 2012-06-12 17:11
Ah, Matteo's. Memories abound. One night Ricky Taubman, Anne Reeves (rest her soul) Kiki, her peculiar sidekick with inverted eyelids and weenie her dachshund saw Lucille Ball drive up in her powder blue rolls.She exited and they jumped in and drove it to The Daisy. Lucille as u may recall, did not have a forgiving nature. Happy Fathers day to our Dukes. Xxxx Jenn in charlevoix.
0 #7 Toni Miller 2012-06-12 15:41
What a beautiful remembrance of your father. Mine on the other hand was known to one and all as "Cool Ray" and Sundays found us cruising in a '65 gold caddy with the top down listening to half the people who were in the room with you and your dad. We might even had taken a trip up into Westwood and passed right by Matteo's... you never know... xot
0 #6 Mumy 2012-06-12 14:44
Perfect, as always, Ms. Duke.

your mumy
0 #5 Carol Dudley 2012-06-12 07:10
I can just see it all - some memories just never go away - great story Fredde - I suspect all our guys are in the red booth in heaven having a great time. xoc
0 #4 Brenda Athanus 2012-06-11 20:07
Bravo, you hit all the high notes! The sweet view from the curvature of the earth that we are lucky enough to have a view. How lucky we were to have parents that were so "exciting" ...
Lots of good vibes for you this Father's day, I may even have a Cigar, just to smell the smoke!

My very best,
0 #3 simon 2012-06-11 14:57
love it

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