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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

Today is the 15th anniversary of the passing of my father, Milt Bernhart.

My mother Martie died in April of 1993. At the time we lost her, my dad had already agreed to emcee a Stan Kenton tribute concert in July at Centrum, the Port Townsend, Wash., arts center of which Bud Shank served as artistic director. I'm pretty sure my dad didn't want to go. It's hard enough to be engaging and funny and "up" on a stage in the city where you live, let alone a thousand miles from home. And you've just been widowed after 35 years of marriage.

But my dad kept his commitment. Getting out of town for a little while would be his grief therapy. The loving embrace of dozens of colleagues and friends could only help as he worked through his loss. However, when it came to the method by which he would get to Port Townsend from L.A., he went his own way, as usual. Instead of a plane or a train, he chose an automobile. He rented a car at Burbank Airport and was gone for the next two weeks: three days of driving each way between Southern California and the Olympic Peninsula, plus the week he spent at Centrum itself. I would have gladly accompanied him, but from the moment he told me the plan, it was clear he wanted to do it alone. Time to think, time to reflect, time to come up with jokes for the concert.

When he returned, my dad mentioned that he had narrowly avoided an accident with a truck on the next-to-last day of his drive back to the Southland. He was on Interstate 5 somewhere around Los Banos and decided he'd like to spend the night at the coast. Santa Cruz or Monterey it may have been, about a hundred miles to the west. And it was already getting dark. The only road linking that portion of I-5 with the coast offers just a single lane in each direction for stretches and is notorious for its head-on collisions. My dad never elaborated on the details; all I could do was feel grateful that I had no reason to regret not having insisted on going along.

Miss you, Hon.

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

Laurie and I recently saw "Bohemian Rhapsody," the biographical film about the band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury. Rock-and-rollers are supposed to break rules, not follow them. Yet for all the differences in content and tone, biopics of today are fundamentally the same as those of the 1930s and '40s:

  • Hero shows promise.

  • Hero struggles to succeed.

  • Hero has groundbreaking ideas.

  • Hero is told "You can't do that."

  • Hero is vindicated.

  • Hero finds love.

  • Hero loses love.

  • If already deceased at the time of production, hero dies a noble death.

  • And of course, the movie's title must be drawn from one of the hero's best-known works.

In my younger years, I had difficulty accepting the liberties that filmmakers have always taken in portraying the lives of real people. I was offended by composite characters, made-up characters, telescoped timelines and events presented out of their actual chronological order, to mention only a few of my grievances. Instead of making a movie based on a version of a suggestion of a hint, why not just tell the truth?

My feelings began to change after I saw 1938's "Marie Antoinette," with Norma Shearer in the title role. I went to the screening knowing little about the picture and not expecting to like it. To my surprise, I got caught up in the drama with the rest of the audience as though we all didn't know how the story would end. And my appreciation of the film remained undiminished when I read later about its many examples of dramatic license. Yes, Marie still dies on the guillotine; otherwise her life is streamlined in the cause of plot advancement. But it works.

A further stepping stone for me was seeing "Rhapsody in Blue," the 1945 biopic of George Gershwin starring Robert Alda, resenting its fictional aspects, then reading a standard Gershwin biography. In his last days, the composer tried to push his chauffeur out of a moving car and later crushed chocolates that had been sent to him as a gift and smeared them all over his body. Mores of the times made their decision easier, but I realized the makers of the film still deserved credit for not pairing Gershwin's glorious music with an attempt at realistically depicting the effects of the brain tumor that killed him.

I'm happily reconciled to the fact that feature films will never be a place to learn the truth, despite movie trailers continuing to promise "the untold true story." Since coming around to this reality, I enjoy biographical pictures for the things they do well. The musical performances captured in "Rhapsody in Blue" more than make up for its historical inaccuracies, as does Rami Malek's portrayal of Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody." And if I want to know what really happened, that's what books are for.

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

The recent and unlikely controversy surrounding Frank Loesser's 1949 Academy Award-winner "Baby, It's Cold Outside" got me reflecting on other songs that aren't about Christmas itself but have an association with the holiday season just the same. My favorite of these is Tom Waits' "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," from Tom's 1978 album "Blue Valentine."

Tom takes the 32-bar format of the pop standard, elongates it, then superimposes on it some very non-standard-like subject matter and imagery:

Hey Charley, I'm pregnant, living on 9th Street

Right above a dirty bookstore off Euclid Avenue

I stopped takin' dope and I quit drinkin' whiskey

My old man plays the trombone and works out at the track

He says that he loves me, even though it's not his baby

He says that he'll raise him up like he would his own son

He gave me a ring that was worn by his mother

And he takes me out dancin' every Saturday night

And hey Charley, I think about you every time I pass a fillin' station

On account of all the grease you used to wear in your hair

I still have that record, Little Anthony and the Imperials

But someone stole my record player, well now how do you like that?

And hey Charley, I almost went crazy after Mario got busted

I went back to Omaha to live with my folks

But everyone I used to know was either dead or in prison

So I came back to Minneapolis, this time I think I'm gonna stay

Hey Charley, I think I'm happy for the first time since my accident

I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope

I'd buy me a used car lot and I wouldn't sell any of 'em

I'd just drive a different car every day dependin' on how I feel

Hey Charley, for Chrissake, if you want to know the truth of it

I don't have a husband, he don't play the trombone

I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer, and Charley, hey

I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day

It's a minor masterpiece. And I still wonder if Charley ever sent her the money.

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