In Search of the Real Lounge Scene – And My Father

(Somewhat dated article about my Dad, originally published in cameo magazine.)

When my father passed away, I was on the road between Philadelphia and Los Angeles, travelling in the entrepreneurial wake of my mother and stepfather. Up to this time I had lived in Calgary with my father for seven years, but when it became evident that the Cancer had mined its way through his entire body, it was necessary for me to join my mother in Philadelphia. The lifestyle was different — less predictable — and soon after we moved to L.A.. They told me his fate in Santa Barbara.

Because circumstance supplanted my environment, and because I needed to re-acquaint myself with my mother, the memory of my father eventually dwindled to a few nostalgic strands of sentiment. I went for years without even seeing a photograph of the man. Psychologists? Not then.

They said his turbulent deterioration was symptomatic of Cancer; however, I would attest the Cancer was symptomatic of something infinitely more turbulent: the life of the showman, and with it the reckless accoutrements of smoke, drink, and chance. So when I stumbled out of one of Calgary’s neo-Martini bars, thirteen years and a wealth of depression and drink later, sensuously enrapt by the redolent scent of cigars and the dreamlike haze of a dozen martinis, I began to remember.

DadThis novel scene, as it were, of Martinis, cigars, and hounds-tooth jackets, seemed like vestiges of a time when it wasn’t such an ‘event’, when the ‘lounge’ atmosphere permeated things. Back then, the lounge scene was a ballast by which people’s lives were punctuated — my parent’s lives certainly were, and so were most of their friends’. I was about six the last time my parents were together, and the memory becomes fragmented, but certain symbols endure: ashtrays, faces, parties, horse races (‘the track’) — bottles, bars, bookies, and booze. This I remember, and that somehow my father — George Sarantis, the bartender — was near, or part of, the vortex.

These images, triggered by those talismans I encountered in that bar not long ago, necessitated my ethnography, the search for my father…

…“In those days,” began Jim, my eldest brother, “you didn’t have neighborhood pubs; you didn’t have little sports-lounges. Back then, a lounge was a lounge.” He describes the lounge in Hy’s Steakhouse, where my father worked in the late sixties and early seventies: “There was carved wood, there were antiques, there were wrought iron candelabras on the wall. It was like something out of Shakespeare.” Hy’s lounge was the lounge to go to then, and my mother worked alongside my father. “Mom used to run around with a tray with nineteen drinks on it, and put every drink that was ordered in front of who ordered it. There was none of this ‘let’s go to the table and ask who had what’,” recounts my brother.

Today, people don’t remember when you forget what they’re drinking. It’s not expected anymore; standards have gone down. There is much more latitude for social lapse…social lapse has become social convention. Thirty years ago, expectations were different. “It was a profession in those days,” explains my brother. “You could not work in that business without one hell of a lot of personality. Dad would have the ultimate insult, the most incredible jokes, the most gentlemanly praise for women.”

Before I left my brother’s house, he broke out the photo albums. There was the clothing: mini-skirts, high heels, gaudy jewellery and bright, bright clothing — the ‘I Dream of Genie’ look. For the men: dress-shirts with cufflinks, dress-shirts with big collars (a little bit later on), dress-shirts unbuttoned half-way (later still). The men wore Bally’s or Florsheims, and adorned themselves with big rings and heavy necklaces, the volume of which increased proportionately with the size of the collars.

There were the cars: a 1964 Olds Starfire, a 1965 Mercury Park Lane Convertible, a 1968 T-Bird, a 1964 Buick Wildcat Convertible — endowments of what was once a respected, lucrative profession. There was the furniture (which, I think, bespeaks most strongly today’s essence of the swingin’-ultra-lounge-style atmosphere): star-shaped wall clocks, console television (not ‘TV’) sets, uncomfortable chesterfields (not ‘sofas’) with interesting upholstery, fish nets on the walls, star-fish in the fish nets, glass-top coffee tables, ashtrays — the likes of which could support the ashen lading of any regional AA convention. And there was my father, the most interesting characteristic of which were the permanent emblems he carried: a drink in one hand; a smoke in the other.

One of the last photos I passed pictured my father around a piano with Sammy Davis Jr.. The photo was old. Severely yellowed, cracked, faded, precariously fused under the cellophane of the album, the photo invoked distant tales of my father and his association with Sammy Davis Jr.. This goes far back. My uncle could tell me about that time…

On the way to his house I made a few stops…

…My father worked at Wellington’s Lounge in the late seventies and early eighties. I rolled in there — it was quiet — and ordered a drink. Inside I found Roy Corbett, the Maitre’D, who tended bar in the early days. He told me: “If you went to his bar, Hy’ Steakhouse, on any given night — guaranteed if your father was on shift, the stools were all full…it was well worth the price of admission to have a drink and be entertained at the same time.” I asked Roy about the nature of my father’s performance. “He could abuse you, swear at you, and mumble at you, and you’d always come back for more because you loved the guy. That’s something you have to achieve. That’s respect; it takes talent,” he said.

No account of my father, it seems, comes without droll and poignant tales of his gambling though. “We would sit around and play blackjack,” explains Roy, “and if George was going broke, and he had IOU’s all over the table and they wouldn’t accept any more, he’d go and find 50 dollars someplace. It was amazing; he never had any money in his pocket but he had all kinds of money. His word was better than a handshake.” Roy left me with one memorable anecdote: “A lot of times a guy — any guy — would come in to (your father’s) bar, but before the guy ordered a drink your father would say something like ‘Michael, you mind tipping me now because I got the seventh horse running in the fifth, and I gotta have the money.’”

Oh yes. The track brings back memories. After my parent’s divorced, circa ‘77, I lived with my father, and accompanied him everywhere, including the horse-races. Three times a week, without fail, we went. He’d usually place two dollars for me on the daily double. If I won, the money was mine — an eight year old with sixty dollars in his pocket. My father’s luck was not consistent though (luck? consistent?), and everyone could gauge how it went at the track by where we went for dinner that night. If my father and I went to Nick’s Steak House or something, he came out ahead; if we went to McDonald’s, well…

And the good nights didn’t end at the Steak House usually. Having passed out from the glass of wine my father would give me, and the subsequent sips I’d take for myself from his, I would often wake up in strange, smoke-filled apartment buildings downtown, where a table of men, unshaven, clad in dress-pants, undershirts, and sweat, would be playing poker (was that Scorcese in the background?). My father was one of them; it was nine in the morning…

Onward, it’s coming back to me.

…My brother directed me to The Cat & Fiddle Pub. Here, I was told I could find a bartender by the name of Gord Coleman. I went in and ordered a drink. Gord, in the early days, was known as ‘the kid’ (really), because he was the youngest bartender of the pack. Gord was busy, so we didn’t have much time to talk. I asked Gord what everyone was drinking back then: Seagram’s V.O.–straight. Whiskey sours, sidecars, and rum — rum, I remember now, was the first drink I ever poured for my father, in somebody’s basement where he was playing cards. The good with the bad…

Drinks were a lot less corrupted back then, it seems. Sure, there were all kinds of concoctions: Velvet Hammers, Golden Cadillacs, Harvey Wallbangers–they all had their time. But there were also straight drinks: Stingers, Beautifuls, Martinis — and Martinis were Martinis. Today, Martinis, an icon of the neo-lounge culture, often taste like slightly turbo-charged Kool-aid; many don’t even have gin or vodka. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was the omnipresence of the alcohol and its convention that characterized the austerity of the drinks. Drinking was much more socially accepted, and alcohol pervaded every party and every excuse for one. Three Martini lunches were commonplace among the business elite, and liquor cabinets were always full. It was a lifestyle, not a fashion, so drink it straight, it’s okay…

… “Nobody was wittier or quicker with one-liners than your father,” said Gord, before I left his bar, “Of all the bartenders, I liked working with your father the best. He was special.”

Dad1…It’s 1944; Vancouver is a young metropolis. The air is cool, and the streets are wet, but the night sky is clearing. There is a delicate mist in the air, and on this mist floats a provocative evening stimulus, mantling those who negotiate its passage: different scents — of the ocean, of perfumes, of excitement — drift on currents of anticipation; the images — jewellery shops, restaurants, the dark sky — illuminate the imagination; and the sounds — a ship’s horn in the distance, the whisperings of a passing couple, the eventide croon from a nearby dwelling — foretell the occasion with enchanted symphony.

A young man waits expectantly outside of the Cave Cabaret on Hornby Street, a two-story establishment with a large stage and an 18 piece band. The sounds of Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan emanate from within. Someone emerges from the club, approaches the young man, exchanges with him a generous amount of money for a bottle of liquor, and returns to the club.

This was a time when liquor was rationed, and you couldn’t buy it in the cabarets — a person was only allowed one mickey of liquor a month. The young man’s father had friends and relatives that didn’t drink, so he would pay them five dollars — twice the price of a mickey back then — and they would buy their alcohol and give it to him. He, in turn, would sell it, or get his son George to sell it, to certain patrons of the Cave Cabaret for seven dollars. Inside, the waiters and waitresses would furnish these patrons with ‘set-ups’: a bowl of ice and whatever mix they wanted: coke, ginger ale, seven up, etc. The patrons kept the bottles under the table.

Dad2

George eventually sold straight out of the Cabaret’s office. During this time, the Cabaret saw many performers, and George knew most of them: The Mills Brothers, Frankie Valley, Frankie Lane, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, The Ink Spots, and others. The Wil Maston Trio played frequently at the Cabaret. Their act consisted of comedy, tap-dancing, and singing. The youngest member was Sammy Davis Jr.. George, about the same age, became friends with Sammy Davis Jr., and they stayed together whenever the Trio was in town.

FullSizeRenderOne Saturday morning, George said to his brother Al, “let’s drive down and see Sammy.” Sammy was performing at the Magic Carpet Club in Seattle. So George and Al rented a car and drove down to the Camlin Hotel where he was staying. They asked the clerk what room he was in, but the clerk warned them that Sammy didn’t want to be disturbed, so they checked-in and left their room number for Sammy.

Later on — George had fallen asleep — there was a knock at their door. Al opened the door a little and saw Sammy. Sammy looked at him and said, “who the hell are you”? Al opened the door a little wider and Sammy noticed that George was on the bed, at which point he ran into the room and in one motion flipped off his overcoat and jumped onto the bed, almost directly on top of George, waking him, groggy and confused. That night the three of them cruised the clubs in downtown Seattle.

On another night, back in Vancouver, Al went looking for George. It was around midnight and every place had been closed for an hour. He asked Max King (he and his father owned the Cave Cabaret) if he had seen George. King said the last time he had seen George he was with Lena Horne. So Al went down to the Devonshire Hotel where she was staying, and found the room number. He knocked on the door. Lena answered and said, “Yeah? What do you want?”

“I’m looking for my brother.”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” she responded.

George came to the door, saw who it was, and said to Al, “get lost will ya, we’re having a game of gin-rummy.”…

…Al, cigarette in hand and healthier than I, tells these tales with the animation of someone half his age. It appears that Al was the responsible one, and his younger brother was the black-sheep of the family. History repeating itself?

By 1960, both of them were in Calgary. For a short time they ran a semi-legal banquet room on the third (top) floor of a building owned by Cliff Harris. The Harris Skyroom, as it was called, was part of the building certain Calgarians may remember a few years back as the Electric Avenue Bar­, including its top floor: The Skyroom.

At this time there were no bars in town. There were only beer parlours in a few of the main hotels such as the Regis and the Wales, and these places closed at eleven. Where could people go to drink? Well, if you knew someone who knew someone, you’d eventually find one of the after-hours clubs. Back then they were called ‘bottle clubs’ because it was up to you to bring your own bottle. At this time there was, among others, The Isle of Capri, Genes Villa, and The Cellar, which Al opened in ‘61.

Now, all the waiters, waitresses, and bartenders would finish work around 11 or 12 at night, so they’d bring their mickeys to these bottle clubs, and they’d drink and dance until three or four in the morning. My father, when he’d finish his shift at the Wales Hotel where he was working at the time, would tell some of the customers to go down to The Cellar at 709 1st Street. Customers would descend a set of stairs that opened on to a room which had a jukebox, a small bar (sans alcohol) with about seven stools, a small dance floor, and seating for about 90 people. And of course, The Cellar — all of these ‘bottle clubs,’ in fact — were subject to raids from time to time. Interestingly though, it was the customers who felt the heat because they had the booze. Today, the after hours clubs provide the booze.

…I left my uncle’s house just in time to get to work. That night the bar looked different to me, and it has ever since. There’s a feeling of loneliness to it now. Perhaps it’s my ridiculous, overblown sense of nostalgia and sentiment, but everything seems cold and unknown. The bottles, the customers, the shaker tin — everything, it’s all foreign. Even on the busiest nights, I feel like a reluctant ghost, afraid to admit that it’s over. The profession is no longer a profession, because it is no longer a lifestyle. I am simply a participant in an event: I’ll play bartender; you play customer. I have this notion that someday I’ll walk into some small, lost resort in the Catskills or someplace and find my father, and my father’s customers. I’ll never leave. I’m twenty-six, and already I’m starting to feel too old for the profession; it belongs to a younger, transient generation. How many years before I’m relegated to the ranks of the superannuated? My father blazed ground until he was fifty-six, the year he died. Well, the portrait is almost clear…

…My mother is, without a doubt, the kindest, most thoughtful, most down-to-earth person I know. People spend five minutes talking with her and they love her. Naturally, it was difficult for me to ask certain questions because I thought it would be difficult for her. She lived in a turbulent environment — physically, mentally, and verbally — with my father. It turned out, though, to be one of the most candid, yet most humorous conversations, I’ve ever had with her.

She picked up where Al left off: the late 60’s and early 70’s: The Hy’s Steakhouse days. “Everybody was drinking doubles. (They) started at lunch. Double martinis on the rocks or straight up — very dry, meaning ‘don’t get anywhere near the bottle of vermouth.’” It was a different time, a different way of life. It was “when the million-dollar deals for new companies were made on bar napkins and scrap paper,” she said, “A handshake was good enough; it stood up.” Again, it was a lifestyle. And bartending was a profession. “There wasn’t such a thing as (shot glasses). You just poured it and it was on…each and every time you did it.”

And the revelry didn’t stay at the lounge either. “Everybody had a liquor cabinet at home. Even if you went on a picnic you had more goddamn booze than the average bar carried; it was normal. Just because it was the third Sunday of the month, that was a good enough excuse to have a party,” she said.

In 1967, my mother became the first female bar manager in Alberta at the Calgary Steak House, which is long since gone. I knew my mother waitressed at Hy’s, but I didn’t know if she ever worked behind the bar. “At Hy’s,” she said, “I only bartended when they were stuck.”

“Stuck?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she responded matter-of-factly, “like all of a sudden they (my father; the other bartenders) pulled a disappearing act because some God-forsaken playoff game was on. They were watching a goddamn TV screen either over at the International or at the Calgary Inn, and we had a full lounge.” The gambling was always going on. “He made good money, but he owed more than he was ever making because of his gambling,” she said. It seems, however, that he could always get away with it because gambling was part of his nature. Everyone accepted it. “Anytime there were private parties,” she said, “they always wanted Dad to be the bartender…he was one of the fastest things going. And he always had the jokes–everybody loved him — that was his personality.” Unfortunately though, this rollercoaster couldn’t carry a family. “We had a lot of good times together,” she said, “He loved you guys dearly, (but) he fell into a bottle; he fell into the easy life.”

I hung up the phone knowing that this was the first time my mother and I had talked person to person, not mother to son, where many of the details are veiled behind a screen of discretion.

…My father’s best friend was Jerry Ward. They worked behind the bar together in many places, including Hy’s. I asked him to complete the picture for me. “It was a laugh a minute when we worked together,” Jerry said, and he added (oh, here it comes): “He sure liked horse racing.”

He and my father went to the track one Sunday. Jerry says to him, “George, I hate these fucking harness horses,”

“Well that’s all we got to bet (on),” says George. The daily double comes up, and they both like the same horse in the first half, but they each like different horses in the second half. So they make a deal. They’ll each bet a $100 double, and they’ll split it if either of them wins.

In the first half of the double their horse wins. “In the second half,” Jerry says, “turning for home, each of our horses are in front. One of them is gonna win because they’re going head in head. They’re five (lengths) in front of the field, so your Dad looks at me and says ‘Oh fuck! How much, how much?’ as he looks at the (payoff) board. Just before they hit the wire they lock wheels and fuckin’ tip over. He looks at me; I look at him, and I say ‘That’s the last time I bet those fucking harness horses. You and your stupid fucking ideas.’ We were fightin’ all the way home. Broke, flat fucking broke.”

One Christmas party at Hy’s, everybody got bonus checks “Of course we’re gonna play cards,” Jerry says, “(George) and I ended up with all the goddamn waiters’ bonus checks. We played ‘till six in the morning; we got all the money; the game was over.”

Jerry was one of the last people to see my father. “I remember saying ‘Jeez, I hope this isn’t goodbye,’ and he (George) says ‘ah fuck, they’ll never get me with that chemosabe (i.e., chemotherapy). He always had a laugh; he still had a sense of humour,” Jerry said.

My father’s last words to Jerry were, “I’m looking forward to seeing Mom and Dad again. I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t wanna die. When it really comes down to it, a guy don’t wanna go.”

And that was it. A day later he passed on. “He was his own worst enemy,” Jerry said. “He was a good hearted guy. He would give you the shirt off his back…most of the time he gambled it away.”

…So there. My odyssey complete, I realized, slowly, reluctantly, what I may have known all along: I have to look no further than myself to find my father. I’m a walking anachronism of him and his time. I’m the prodigal son, the black-sheep. My passion for drink is dangerous; I prefer Sarah Vaughan to Sarah McLachlan. Relationships? Forget it. I’m out of place.

My father left on the last caravan. The profession ended, and I was left alone. I remember the time I called my mother and told her I’d got my first bartending job. She put her hand over the phone (not very effectively), and said to my step-father, “Oh shit, he’s turning into his father.” But my mother doesn’t have to worry, because the road ended long ago, and I’m on borrowed time.

Today, there are two museums in Calgary. One is the Glenbow; the other is Hy’s. I went in there a few weeks back. It was just like everybody said; nothing has changed. An old, old man (one of five customers in there) was sitting quietly — it was so quiet in there — at the bar. I took a seat a few stools away from him. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him pondering me. After a few moments he hailed me, his voice harsh and rusty from disuse: “Excuse me sir, do you mind if I sit with you.” I told him I didn’t, so he came over with his cigarettes and his drink: Matinee Kings, and a gin and…well…just gin. I asked him where he was from. This is — I swear to God — what he said to me: “From a long time ago.”

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