Stories 2

 

 
 
Memories of Fidel
by
Henry F. Mazel
 
Now that Fidel is nearing death’s door, I feel liberated in discussing the long friendship we shared. It was in the early '50's that I first met Fidel, and looking back on it now, I must admit, honestly, that I did play a role, quite innocuously really, in the revolutionary events that swept Cuba just a few, short years later. In those days I was working for the old New York Herald Tribune as the weekend restaurant critic. Fidel had come to my attention, not as a revolutionary or intellectual, but as budding chef, who had come to New York to realize his life-long dream . 
 
One night at Norman Mailer's, I was introduced to this intense young man. We spent the better part of the evening getting to know one another and debating our favorite subjects: food, baseball, and especially, politics.  I recall at one point Fidel asked if I knew the difference between capitalism and communism. The old joke came to mind: “Under capitalism,” I told him, “Man oppresses Man; and under Communism, it's the other way around.”  Fidel stared at me for a moment, and then laughed and laughed before he tapped me in the skull with the baseball bat he was carrying.  After that, we became fast friends. His appreciation of cuisine—French, German, Spanish of course, even Japanese—was phenomenal, and it came as no surprise that he wished to pursue a career as a chef. 
 
My inclination was to discourage him and I cautioned that it would take years to become a master, even with his enthusiasm and expertise. Besides, at that time I felt the trend in food was moving toward the concept of one giant tuna fish on rye that everyone would share [later of course, I was proven correct].          
 
To my surprise a few months later, Fidel telephoned and asked if I might dine at his new restaurant in the theatre district. Never for an instant did I dream that the bwhich came out of that evening's repast and is reprinted here would have the most profound geopolitical consequences:            
 
                                                                         Full Course Dither
         
    Two blocks west of Broadway and just down the street from Wizzo's Puppet Theatre, El Restaurante Fidel is humming softly. Its magenta neon sign and mock Carrara marble facade achieve a peculiar synthesis that beckons diners. And at the door, beaming, with cigar in hand and crouton crumbs sprinkled through a wiry beard, stands a relaxed and gregarious Chef Fidel. It is an attitude though he has failed to impart to his staff. With its stark and minimalist style, the decor of El Restaurante Fidel is the antithesis of its rich and complex cuisine. Scattered among pieces of patio furniture and the occasional Che's lounge are glass-topped tables awash in the glare of massive flood lights (which appear to have been purloined from the set of ‘Stalag 17’). Ignoring this minor inconvenience, and the regular party of bandoleer-clad men in green fatigues who increase the decibel level a notch higher than a mahjong party at the Haddasah, the setting provides a unique background for a palatable dinner.   
 
Chef Fidel, who worked briefly with Marcel at Restaurant Leslie before striking out on his own, often comes to the table to engage patrons in lively conversation. With his billowy white chef's hat worn slightly askew and a finger waving in the air for emphasis, Fidel will good-naturedly respond to diners' questions for hours on end, generally from a prepared text.  Just as we think this delightfully large gnome of a man will never stop his incessant bantering and we are ready to faint straight away, out from the kitchen pour cadres of waiters with delicious cream puffs filled with buttery liver mousse.  Only the most self-disciplined of us could avoid asking for seconds of this appetizer, or for that matter the chewy policastro rolls that accompanied them.  
 
Most of the entrees were as reliable as the appetizers. With few exceptions the restaurant uses the finest ingredients, and when a dish does not quite measure up, it is because Chef Fidel is preoccupied with his other duties: teaching the intricacies of Samba to troops of Girl Scouts from Bayonne, New Jersey, or committing to memory the complete works of Mickey Spillane.  
 
One night for instance, while the strains of Cugat wafted rhythmically from the kitchen, Bertrand Russell stopped by and ordered lobster. When the entree should have been served, Raoul, the head waiter, appeared and announced somberly that Chef Fidel had burned all the crustaceans.  Russell was disconsolate but eventually settled on the schnitzel.  Raoul, puffing on a giant Havana, shook his head disapprovingly and whispered, “Try the halibut.” After some thought, Lord Russell shouted,  “Yes, but I am already wearing a bib!”  Raoul was shaken by this elegant bit of logic and soon found another lobster—although it was short and squat and appeared to have feathers.  
 
Desserts, with the exception of a flaccid Banana meringue cake, were luscious and extravagant, particularly the creme brulee prepared by Chef Fidel himself. Not until we asked for Kaiserschmarren and Salzburger nockerl were we told they had to be ordered in advance, and then only if we brought Humphrey Bogart’s hat.   
 
In the end, sadly, a brilliant chef is defeated by the shortcomings of a surly dining room staff. The service is unprofessional and rude, even when the restaurant is not full. One waiter insisted that it was our responsibility to tell him what was wrong with the food we left on our plate, “down to the very last fig.” And had Chef not intervened, we were prepared to leave the premises after two waiters appeared in zookeepers' uniforms and threw us mackerel from a bucket. While admiration abounds for our charming host, an evening at El Restaurante Fidel is and ‘iffy’ affair at best.
 
                                                                                                    —New York Herald Tribune (1954)  
 
Naturally, Fidel understood there was nothing personal in my review. Actually, he was quite gracious about it and laughed and laughed before he tapped me in the skull with the baseball bat he was carrying. Almost immediately he set about to improve the restaurant. Fidel announced he would go to the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba—there he could find first-rate macaroons with which to prepare a russe that, in his words, "would change the way we view dessert." Fidel wrote me many times from those mountains. In the months that followed he was to grow increasingly morose, gradually abandoning his idea of ‘El Russe Grande.’     
 
In the autumn of 1955 I received a last letter. Fidel had come full circle. He now rejected the notion of haute cuisine entirely, dismissing it as a bourgeois fantasy. In a final, bitter irony, he wrote: "How can I think of sumptuous desserts when the peasants are forced to eat ginger snaps from a can. Yes my friend, it is only now that I come to recognize the dialectic nature of your review. I shall always be grateful to you for pointing the way."  
 
The months have now turned to years. That little bistro two blocks west of Broadway has become Flo's Body Rub and Internet Cafe. And the truth of it is, in all that time I never heard from Fidel again.
 
###
 

:BIO:  Henry F. Mazel has written for The New York Times, and has published numerous stories and articles in his twenty-year career. His latest novel, Red Chrysanthemum is now in release, and his award-winning short story, The Principal of Rivington Street is available at   Barnes and Noble and Amazon. He is a member of the Writers Guild of America and The Mystery Writers of America. This is his third   appearance in Green Silk Journal.

 

 

 

Backstage @  Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas

     by Glenda Glayzer

 

A show is just a show.

 

I mean, you rehearse for long hours, sometimes for months, grinding out dance steps, learning vocals and lines, trying on costumes and wigs. By the time you get to performance, it's just "The Show." The same thing happens every night from the first note of the overture until the last curtain call. It's what happens before and after and backstage which stands out in my memory.

 

Beach Blanket Babylon is the world's longest-running musical revue, still running today. In 1974, The Show took the stage at the Savoy Tivoli in the North Beach district of San Francisco. In 1975, it moved to what was then known as Fugazi Hall and became Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas, the bedrock upon which Steve Silver built his fortune.

 

The streets of North Beach are littered with the ghosts of performers who gave their sweat, tears, ideas and bad comedy on behalf of the "team" ...... believing that's what we were. Upon his own talent for using others to get what he wanted, and the brilliance of those others, Steve Silver built his dynasty. I was cast in the role of "the short girl singer who wears black wigs."

 

My audition for the part took place in the basement of a club in North Beach and was attended by Steve Silver, the accompanist, his star performer and her sister. At the time, I was working in the kitchen of a health food store on 19th and Castro, owned by a school chum of my husband, John. He and my daughter and I lived in a tiny apartment upstairs above the place.

 

How did we get to that time and place? We had been living in Europe for the past ten years, when John got the itch to relocate. We were scraping along on his unemployment and my $2 an hour when John saw the classified ad in the Chronicle: "Auditions for Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas."

 

Imagine this. My last singing gig had been as Maria in the German language production of West Side Story at the Volksoper in Vienna. My head was spinning from abandoning a successful career, coming back to the United States, taking care of a three-year-old and working as a cook. I'm pretty sure I said something rude to John about my auditioning for a show called, of all things, Beach Blanket Babylon!

 

I signed a six-week contract to perform in seven shows a week for a percentage of the gross. Pretty smart of Steve, right? If nobody came, it wouldn't cost him anything in salaries, and it still wouldn't cost him very much to pay us if people DID come.

 

I was so excited to be performing again that it didn't worry me to be paid next to nothing. That was better than $2 per hour at the restaurant and, who knew; maybe The Show would catch on.

 

We rehearsed zillions of hours; rewrites were a daily event. Costumes, hats and props were being built by someone, somewhere. I didn't know or care because I had enough to worry about. Collaboration was the name of the game. When we hit a snag, when something wasn't funny enough, when a song wasn't working or the dance steps were too hard, we would brainstorm until Steve decided what might work best. When one of the costumes arrived which was supposed to be a tumbleweed and looked like a giant gray potato, my idea was to glue  excelsior packing material all over it. My solution was adopted and mitigated the "gray potato" look, but didn't go over well with the backstage crew, since the tumbleweed shed, and all the debris had to be swept up between numbers.

 

Backstage at Fugazi was tiny and there were no bathrooms for the cast to use on that floor.  The solution was for us to run upstairs and use the ones on the third floor. Anybody who ever saw BBB Goes Bananas knows that there was just enough time between scenes to change wigs and costumes. There wasn't any extra time to make the bathroom sprint. But we did. I don't know how, but we did.

 

In the beginning, there were chairs in the hall around tiny round cafe tables, and a shallow balcony on two sides.  Of the 300 seats, none were reserved. Steve was a nightly fixture in the stage left balcony, from which he studied the audience with great concentration. This was his way of deciding whether or not a number was working. If the response wasn't big enough, it would be changed before the next performance.  He never watched the stage.

 

Bananas had no Sunday matinees, so nobody under 18 was allowed because we sold wine and beer. Keeping minors out was never because The Show was risqué, it was squeaky clean. The costuming was very conservative and the language was pristine. The dialogue (what there was of it) held nary a swear word. One thing I have to say on his behalf, I was never embarrassed to be in Steve's show.

 

Those tiny round tables, people stuffed into every spare inch of floor, cigarette smoke making it look like the audience was behind a scrim - this is what we saw when we took turns peeking through the small hole cut in the wall stage right next to the prop table.

 

It was time. Opening night - June 27, 1975.

 

Naturally, we were crowding around that small hole in the wall, looking at the row where Steve had decided to put special guests. We wanted to see if there were any celebrities in our audience. Since this was the first public showing, all the "special" seats were filled with locals. Nobody had foreseen the future of The Show, but from word of mouth, the Gay Community was there to support us, regardless of how good or bad we turned out to be.

 

We were Camp. We were a Happening.

 

The rest, as they say, is history.  We couldn't have paid for better reviews. Word raged throughout The City.  Lines outside the tiny box office curved around the corner and circled the block.  It became almost impossible to get tickets to The Hottest Show in Town. The Show has been sold out every night since then.  Over the years, Steve became a very wealthy man.

 

And the Cast? We were such a success that when our original contracts ran out, Steve and his lawyer presented us with an alternative: sign new contracts for a flat salary or leave the show. We all signed. The next day he raised the ticket prices.

 

That first year was phenomenal.

 

Throughout the year, I peeked out at Celebrity Row and saw many famous people in our audience, among them:

 

Mary Martin

Loretta Young

Larry Hagman

Mikhail Baryshnikov

The entire cast of Happy Days

Carol Channing

Michael Douglas

Brenda Vaccaro

And the list goes on and on.

 

Some of them I remember with particular fondness. Brenda Vaccaro took the time to wait outside for me, and there between the parked cars she took my hand and encouraged me, "Just keep on singing."

 

Carol Channing was there, all shining in white, looking like a caricature of herself.

 

Rock Hudson was there one night, wearing his white shirt and red cardigan, and when I finished my big number (Am I Blue), he sprang out of his seat to give me a standing ovation.  He waited so that I could meet him and to encourage me, too. He returned to see us many times.

 

I remember standing in place behind the flats,  waiting for my solo, knowing that I was about to sing for the amazing Beverly Sills, thinking, "Maybe she can't do THIS."

 

At least once a week, Cyril Magnin, "Chief of Protocol" for the City of San Francisco, was ensconced in his seat, the only one which was ever labeled. Cyril was a huge fan and supporter.

 

In 1976 the local union began to hound The Show. I didn't belong to any American unions, but several of our cast members, including the star, were union members. They were forced to resign or lose their standing.

 

So that was the end of Bananas, but certainly not the end of the franchise. Those of us left went to work on a new concept built around the Disney character Snow White,  in which Snow was in search of her Prince in Hollywood.

 

Next chapter:  Beach Blanket Babylon Goes to the Stars.

 

Bio: Born Glenda Bell in July of 1945, Glenda Glayzer spent her early years as a musical prodigy. She made her first vinyl record at the age of 13, singing with her parents and siblings (The Bell Family Gospel Singers). Married at 18 to John Glayzer, she moved with him to Europe in 1965. There she began her professional stage career in the Nuremberg and Vienna opera houses, doing American Musicals in the German Language. Returning to the United States in 1974, she became an original cast member of the longest running musical review in the world, Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco, California. Over the years, she has added many skills to her career bag including sculpting, painting, photography, location sound recording, writing, and culinary arts certification. For the past decade, she has been designing and building websites while continuing to write articles and fiction for various online sites, including three previously published here in The Greensilk Journal.