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.
I was sitting with my husband in our sorry little kitchen. It’s small. Totally old school with a swinging hinged door that closes you in. No modern open floor plan where the kitchen blends into the family room. I love our little 1700-square foot Spanish Bungalow, but I’m never sure it’s where he feels most at home -- but that’s a whole other story that I may, or may not, get back to.
This night, I had thrown together a meal. I hate cooking. It’s not something I’m that great at. It’s always a struggle. And lately, I have gotten even lazier than the naturally lazy person I was when we had kids at home. So, I might make a “salad” of pre-washed lettuce that I throw in a bowl, and my husband will make fun of the little effort that went into it. I’ll serve it with a large potato that we share -- and he will inform me that for now we can still afford two potatoes – though with retirement looming, we may soon have to cut back to one.
He was deep in thought. We have five kids. We often worry about one or another or sometimes all, so I thought he must be brooding about a child. I love to communicate. I’m a woman. A communicator. So I asked.
“What are you thinking about?”
“My new coffeemaker.”
“Seriously? You’re that deep in thought about your COFFEEMAKER?”
I wish I could tell you exactly how many yards it was for me to get to Roxbury Park to give you the visual. A hop. Not even a skip and a jump. I walked two houses up, crossed Olympic and I was there.
That is where I spent my summers. Basically, doing absolutely nothing. Kind of like a Seinfeld episode. No sunblock. No checking in with my mother. I didn’t excel at anything in Roxbury Park. Not at caroms. Not the monkey bars. And certainly not the rings.
At the rings, I watched other kids adept at swinging quickly back and forth from one to the next. I stood high up one day, grabbed ahold and leapt off, but unable to catch the next ring, which seemed to move further and further away, I landed back where I started. I spent long days trying to push myself further until I did finally grab onto that second one, which was such a victory. Then I kept swinging back and forth, trying to gain the momentum I would need to get to the next, but failed and dropped to the ground. Again I tried, over and over, all summer until I was finally able to go back and forth, leaving the other kids waiting in line, drumming their fingers. And like a monkey, I would copy what the other ring junkies would do just before taking over the set for their performance. They would dig their hands into the sand and rub some of it between their palms for better friction. Or use chalk. It never seemed to work for me, but I did it to look cool, like them. Inevitably all us monkeys ended up with blisters.
I once went to the most spectacular Hollywood funeral ever. And the love that poured out was well deserved. We knew her by one name, kind of like Cher or Madonna. Kaye. Do you all know whom I’m talking about? You do if you were lucky enough to grow up in Beverly Hills at that time. It’s Kaye Coleman, beloved Nate ‘n Al’s waitress of 38 years and star of our collective childhoods.
Although Kaye had a daughter, Sheri, and a son, Michael, she was the unofficial surrogate mother to some of the biggest mothers in Hollywood. And her “sons” looked after her well. I’d run into Kaye at the priciest restaurants, sometimes on Sunday at Matteo’s, in the booth near Sinatra, dining with her posse of waitress friends, the tab picked up by Lew Wasserman or Bernie Brillstein. Those two moguls would also send her on European vacations and Mediterranean cruises. At times, Kaye lived a fancier life than many of her Beverly Hills customers.
At the deli, she was on a first name basis with everyone, including the big agents and the bigger stars, but there was only one “Mr. Wasserman.” She’d be kibitzing with you, then spot Mr. Wasserman walk in and say, “Gotta go, there’s my twenty dollar tip!” Kaye would hit and run with her insults and barbs. She’d give you a tidbit, not finish the story, then walk away quickly leaving you wondering and wanting more. Later on, she’d circle back, finally giving you the punch line. And then she was off again to pick up the next order of Matzoh Brei.
by Nancy Ellison