I’m getting to know my dad again through movies and music. Two tickets, please
Janet sees us coming. The line at the Suncoast theaters in Summerlin is only about five deep, and she smiles before we hit the counter. “Jersey Boys,” I say, laying down two Boyd Gaming Rewards cards, one visibly more worn than the other. “Here they are again,” she says with her Long Island accent. “The senior father and son. How you fellas doing today? I hear this is a good one. Clint Eastwood directed. He’s still delivering, must be in his 80s.”
The man behind the biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons has something in common with the white-haired fellow making a beeline for the refreshment counter. Like Dirty Harry, Donald Friend — my father, a Chicago-born piano player — is still delivering in his 80s, performing for the golden souls in assisted-living centers across the valley. To the residents of Mira Loma, Desert Springs, Seville Terrace, Aegis, Sunlake Terrace and Las Ventanas, my dad’s name evokes absolute joy, because when he shows up to sing and play the classics, time stands still, illnesses abate and, for one melodic hour, a semblance of youth is restored.
At 85 (14 months Clint’s senior) my dad’s been crooning through retirement since he and my stepmom moved to the desert in the mid-’90s. It doesn’t just keep him busy; it keeps him alive. “I feel better behind the piano,” he says. “My aches and pains disappear. And when I see the faces of the people I’m playing for, most of whom are sick and disabled — when they sing along to the songs they remember — that makes me feel young again.”
So does going to movies, as he learned a year or two ago. When his weekly pinochle game broke up, “I started going to movies every week, by myself.” Until last January, when his pilgrim son, following the death of his mother, decided the city of angels was getting devilishly difficult to afford and returned to the land of his father. Sitting in the dark for two hours was about to get enlightening.
As a 16-year student of Kundalini yoga, I’m all about reflection. When I exiled myself here for divorce and self-exploration in 2003, I was 47. My dad was 74. Now I’m back, age 58, and my dad is 85. He taps keys; I tap keys. It’s senior dementia, Vegas-style, where, when you hit 50, you’re officially old and eligible for discounts galore. So we go to the movies.
As irony would have it, the first film we caught together was Alexander Payne’s brilliant and brutal father-son drama, Nebraska. Bruce Dern’s character got him thinking about how getting old is rough on the body and mind, especially when you factor in the booze. “I’m glad I never drank,” Pop mused.
But we do eat. Windy City Beefs ’N Dogs on West Lake Mead Boulevard is packed tighter than a fat ass into a Cubs’ season seat. This place has become part of our routine. “This is the best hot dog in Las Vegas, real Chicago-style,” my dad proclaims. “Right down to the poppy-seed bun and celery salt.” Pop orders one, I order two. He’s right; they’re awesome. They snap when you bite ’em. The skies are monsoon-threatening and we’re seeing, I kid you not, Noah at 2. I bring up the flood synchronicity over lunch as the windshield on my dad’s little red Chevy welcomes droplets from above. “Well, the Bible is just a story, you know?” says the Hebrew son of Polish immigrants to his mystically inclined offspring. The dialogue after the Christian-tinged Heaven is for Real ignites a similar debate. “People believe in what they believe, Lonn.” Hallelujah and pass the mustard. Such is the essence of our Wednesdays — tales are told and ancient truths barked as I savor new insights into my old man.
“When I was 3 years old, I had an ear infection,” he says between bites. “Pus was coming out, so my mother took me to the doctor, who accidentally punctured my left eardrum while trying to drain it. The other ear was good so I never thought much about being deaf on one side. It never affected my music. Didn’t need a hearing aid until about 10 years ago. I know I miss a lot of things people say, the words get muddled sometimes. It’s getting worse, but that’s one of the things I love about going to these modern theaters with their big, bright screens and loud sound systems. It’s beautiful. I can hear everything.”
Beyond summer trips to the East Coast to visit him and his new family during the ’70s, I didn’t know my father well. We didn’t speak often on the phone, even during the peak of my professional run as a writer, when I was trekking the globe with rock stars and seeing places he’d never been.
That is, until my own divorce in 2003, when I landed on his Summerlin doorstep and spent the first two bleeding weeks of separation on his sofa. Before I moved back to L.A. in ’06, I saw a lot of my dad, made up for decades of lost time and shared thoughts over dinners at the Lakes Lounge. But we rarely went deep.
There’s something different now, a sharper view and a willingness to be more transparent and blunt about his legacy, his aches, his heritage, his successes and failures, and how many notes he’s got left to play.
On June 11, we catch a superb picture starring Joaquin Phoenix and the intoxicating Marion Cotillard called The Immigrant, which inspires a conversation about origins. His. Mine. Directed by James Gray, it depicts the plight of two sisters arriving at Ellis Island in the 1920s, same time period my relatives escaped post-World War I Poland. “My mother’s family in Poland had nine children,” he says. Both my dad’s older brother, Sol, founder of the On-Cor frozen food empire in Chicago, and younger brother, Larry, a successful stockbroker and co-owner of the original Phoenix Suns, are gone. They were rich, but my father’s the only one with the million-dollar voice. “My cousin Sid lived the last 25 years of his life here in Vegas,” Pop says. “He died at 89. Like in the movie, Sid’s father was standing in line at Ellis Island. He didn’t speak good English, so he changed his name after hearing someone behind him in line say the name ‘Bloom.’”
On July 2, the day before my dad’s 85th birthday, he’s in the mood for a comedy, so we see his girl Melissa McCarthy’s new feature, Tammy. My dad’s review is succinct: “Boy, that was terrible.” But given the day’s significance, I think a discussion of musical DNA is fitting. “My grandfather was a very respected rabbi in Poland,” Pop said. “He was musically inclined, had a beautiful voice. My father bought an upright piano, sat down one day and just start playing, by ear. During the First World War, they gave him a clarinet, he blew into it and a song came out. That talent kept him off the battlefield. I guess I inherited the same gift.”
After urging my dad to see a film outside his comfort zone, the edgy, futuristic Lucy, we get into a rap about fame and substance abuse. Lucy’s an unwitting drug mule who turns into a telekinetic super-chick when a bag of synthetic newfangled ecstasy bursts open in her belly. In 1953, my dad teamed up with a performer named Mike Riley, who wrote the novelty hit, “The Music Goes Round and Round.” It was his first glimpse of the entertainer’s kingdom. “I played the Golden Nugget with Riley when it was just a casino and bar,” he says. “I remember Mike putting away this bottle of wine before our set, and I thought, ‘Hey, I gotta become one of the boys, can’t just sit here.’ I’d never drank before. I tasted it and it was awful. Never took a liking to alcohol.” Or any other mood-altering substance — kinda reminds me of another clean-living Hebrew musician, Gene Simmons, though that’s where the similarity ends.
Pop reminds me that in 1960, he and his new partner, Herbie Tepper, did two weeks at the El Cortez. “We set up behind the bar and played to drunks and half-asleep locals every night,” he smiles. “Tepper was frustrated, couldn’t get any laughs. So one night he jokes, ‘They don’t bury the dead in Las Vegas. They seat ’em at the bar at the El Cortez.’” A couple years later, Tepper and Friend knocked ’em dead at The Fremont. Pop’s last Sin City casino appearance was at the Mint in 1968 with his band The Five Chords, a Four Freshman-type vocal ensemble that recorded one LP and had humble touring success.
Not long before The Beatles debuted on Ed Sullivan — the night my musical heart began beating — Don and Barbara Friend were divorced. In 1969, my dad met Sherry, his 21-year-old bride-to-be, and has been in a good mood ever since. They relocated to the South; he went to work as a salesman for a national hardware company to keep food on the table while moonlighting in local clubs. He retired from selling nuts and bolts in 1994, grabbed the missus and headed for the sands of Summerlin. Might not make a blockbuster, but my dad’s life could translate to a pretty sweet indie flick.
It’s Tuesday night at the Las Ventanas assisted-living community in Summerlin. A placard in the lobby reads, “Don Friend 4:30 to 5:30 pm in the dining room.”
“Mr. Entertainment,” the receptionist beams as we enter the spotless facility. Celebrity may have escaped my father, but in the eyes and hearts of these small, fragile audiences, he is bigger than Frank, with pipes that rival The Chairman’s. Beethoven didn’t need to hear the notes. He felt them. So does my dad. Bet the money line he’ll be pitch perfect till the curtain falls.
The room gently pulses with nurses, wheelchairs, waiters and caregivers. Residents dig into Yankee pot roast and scalloped potatoes as the piano man opens with an Irving Berlin medley before sidling smoothly into Doris Day’s “Sentimental Journey.” Iced teas refill as the maestro asks the crowd the first of many rhetorical questions that all begin with, “Remember this one?” His fingers glide across the keyboard he’s known since his mother commissioned piano lessons when he was 5, a million miles and million songs from here. “Show me the way to go home/I’m tired and I wanna go to bed.” The ones who can sing along do. The ones who can’t are reminded of a time they could. I watch him as he watches them, his eyes, their eyes — reflections of gratitude.
We discuss Jersey Boys on the ride home. “You know, ‘Sherry’ was the Four Seasons' first number one hit,” shines the man who 45 years ago wooed a girl with the same name to come, come, come out tonight. “I really liked that movie, especially the music. We picked a good one this week. Bob Gaudio wrote great songs and Frankie was a fantastic vocalist. I used to do, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.’ Terrific ballad. But you know, all that pain and drama, I wonder if it was worth it?”
One more rhetorical question for the road.
It’s all about mortality these days — how many more senior matinees have we got left? I just renewed my lease for another six months. We’ve seen some very promising trailers.