We Celebrate You with Cubans, Dad
When 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.
So, 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.
At 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.