I was showing up at the Nestle Inn whenever Stan was playing there, and we got to be great pals. Between sets I’d show him all the cool places to eat in Astoria—it was my neighborhood, after all—and once we double-dated with a couple of nice local girls. A few months later Stan got an offer to go back on the road with Elliot Lawrence’s band. I was sorry to see him go, but happy for him, because Elliot had a fine band.
I met quite a few lifelong friends in those years after the war. There were a lot of showbiz bars around midtown and Greenwich Village where I’d hang out and socialize with theguys. Right near the Winter Garden Theater, on Seventh Avenue between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth, there was a place called B-G Bottomless Coffee, where I spent many happy hours. Right next door was Hanson’s, where all the comics hung out, and across the street were Hector’s and Charlie’s Tavern, It was an all-star line-up of hangout joints all along Seventh Avenue between Fifty-first and the legendary Fifty-second Street, I met John Cholakis at one of these clubs. He was a struggling bass player and I was a struggling singer, so we hit it off right away, John had inherited a resort hotel in Far Rockaway Beach, all the way at the end of Queens, practically in Long Island, and in the summer we opened up the place and got it ready for the guests. We fixed up any broken-down furniture, aired out mattresses, did any odd job that needed doing, and in exchange I got to stay at the hotel all summer. It could have been a Neil Simon play, two kids spending the summer on the beach, dreaming of stardom.
John and I used to go to Fifty-second Street to hear great jazz: swing, bop, and Dixieland, in one little funky club after another. It was incredible. John had a friend named Billy Verlin who played trumpet and ran a rehearsal studio. All the musicians hung out and jammed there, but Billy was in no better shape than the rest of us, so he asked each of the guys to cough up a dollar to help with the rent. It worked out great for everybody. Marlon Brando, who was then on Broadway in
A Streetcar Named Desire
, often came down and hung around with the musicians at Verlin’s studio on his matinee days. This was long before the general public knew who he was. Billy didn’t recognize him and was about to tell him to split until one of the guys said that he was an actor. That was okay with Billy. Brando always had a pretty girl on his arm and strolled into the studio wearing his trademark T-shirt.
John later made it himself, not as a bassist but as a television director, and his wife, Betty Frasier, a wonderful woman, is one of the country’s leading illustrators of children’s books.
I was living on a dime a day, literally. I’d get up and go into the city every morning and start my door-to-door rounds. My mom always left me a dollar’s worth of change on the table before she went to work, but I never took more than ten cents. She was still working as a seamstress and I couldn’t bear to take her money. I still dreamed about being a successful singer so that she wouldn’t have to work anymore, and in the meantime I wasn’t going to take more than I had to.
What really struck me as strange was the fact that, after all the positive stories about show business my uncle Dick had told me, he now gave me a hard time about pursuing my dream of getting into the business instead of getting a “steady job” to help support my family. I guess he felt it was his duty to read me the riot act. He’d say things like, “You’re just a bum! You’re not going to make it, so you might as well just get a regular job. Help your mother out! Don’t be a gigolo!” He was really rough on me, and he made me feel like I was talentless. But at the time Uncle Dick’s ridicule only made me more determined to succeed. I know now that he was just telling me what he thought I should hear, what the upstanding Italian uncle should say to the son of a
Breena Wilde, !2 NAs of Christmas