Sammy Davis Jr. was the greatest entertainer I have ever seen perform live—bar none. Not only could Sammy act, sing, and dance, but he could also play the hell out of the drums, bass, piano, sax, trumpet, vibes, violin, and guitar. It was astonishing to witness this seeming sleight of hand. But this is what I saw Sammy do at the tender age of 14 while living in Miami Beach.
One day, in the late 70s, my mother rounded up the kids and told us she was taking us all to a special dinner theater show featuring one of her old-time pals. We asked who we were going to see, but she was unusually tight-lipped about it. I guess she wanted to surprise us. So we all crammed into her cream-colored late-60s vintage finned Cadillac, which always embarrassed me to be seen in as I thought it was a jalopy, and headed up Collins Avenue to The Diplomat Resort in Hollywood. For years, this ritzy oceanfront hotel played host to some of the greatest entertainers in show business like Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Joan Rivers, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Peggy Lee, Don Rickles, and Buddy Hackett. It was then owned by Food Fair grocery store magnate Samuel Friedland whose son-in-law, Irving Cowan, gave it the much-needed glossy glitz that its Miami Beach competitors like the Deauville, Carillon, Eden Roc, and Fontainebleau had enjoyed for years. (I would often see Cowan years later dining at Piero’s, a bustling Italian restaurant I was working at in Bay Harbour, Florida in the early 80s.)
When we got there, my mother handed her car keys to the valet, and we headed into Cafe Cristal—the Diplomat’s supper club—to check in with the maitre d’ so we could be seated. We were five—mom, sister, brother, cousin, and me. I was the oldest of the bunch. When we got to our table, I noticed passing the Mayor of Miami Beach’s table who at the time was Leonard Haber. In fact, we were seated dead center in the second row in front of him. I mentioned this to my mom, and she said, “Shut up and mind your own business. We’re here to enjoy ourselves.“
As we waited for service, I began glancing at the menu and was more concerned about the prices than what to eat. In fact, I was reading the menu from right to left—prices to food—and got worried. My mom worked two, sometimes three, jobs to keep us all from wanting. She gave us whatever we wanted but never spoiled us. Our birthday parties were always the envy of the neighborhood, as my mom would hire clowns, ponies, jump castles, and mini-carnival rides for all our friends to enjoy with us. She was the bomb! So, it was not lost on me the sacrifices she made for us. And even more so today as a parent myself, I wonder how she did it all as a single mother in the 70s.
When the captain or head server arrived to take our order, my mom said to us, “Order whatever you want.” And I replied, “Are you sure?” She said, “Yes.” And then I looked at my sister, and we shrugged our shoulders. We then ordered steaks and lobsters with all the accompanying side dishes, like baked potatoes, pasta, salads, and vegetables. When the food arrived, we went to town and ate to our heart’s content.
While midway through our meals, Sammy took the stage and delivered a tour de force performance, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Over the course of two hours, Sammy sang some of his biggest hits like Mr. Bojangles, The Candy Man, That Old Black Magic, and What Kind of Fool Am I, and—interspersed between these songs—he tap-danced, played drums, vibes, trumpet, and piano. It was completely mind-blowing. I kept looking at my mom with utter amazement, and she was just beaming—proud that she could give us such a wonderful experience.
After his performance, they turned on the house lights while the servers were preparing to deliver checks to each table. As our captain approached us, he told my mom, “Mr. Davis has taken your check care of, and he would like to see you in his dressing room when you’re ready.” My sister and I were stunned. I asked my mom, “How do you know Sammy?“ And she said, “You’ll see in a minute.”
When we collected our things and headed to Sammy’s dressing room, we noticed we weren’t the only ones waiting to see him. A long line had formed—that included the Miami Beach Mayor—and we were on the tail end. As we waited for what felt like 10 or 15 minutes, I noticed the door to Sammy’s dressing room open, and his valet came out and uttered, ”Mrs. Ida Puente (Sammy knew my mom through her relationship with Latin bandleader, Tito Puente, with whom she had one son, Richard), please come in?” Again, my sister and I stared at each other with amazement. We skipped to the front of the line, as Sammy wanted to see our mom first.
When we got in, Sammy and my mom hugged and kissed like they hadn’t seen each other in years—they looked like two long-lost friends. My mom introduced us to Sammy, and he shook our hands and asked us all sorts of questions that felt truly genuine. He was such a magnetic person. During my mom’s conversation with Sammy, I learned that he was not only black (which we all knew) but also half Puerto Rican on his mother’s side. My mom used to visit Sammy’s mother and help her prepare some of her Spanish dishes. Watching them both reminisce about their good old times was such a joy to behold; we were all smiling from ear to ear.
After a while, I felt a little uneasy, as I was concerned about all the people who had piled up outside Sammy’s dressing room, waiting to see him. So I mentioned to my mom that we should go soon, as Sammy has many other people to see. When Sammy overheard that, he snapped and said, “Hey kid, if I want to be here all night with your mom, that’s the way it’s going to be. Don’t worry about them outside; they can wait.” Again, I was utterly amazed.
We then snapped pictures with our throwaway Kodak camera, conversed some more, and then my mom thanked Sammy for his gracious generosity, and we all bid him farewell. That evening became one of my fondest close encounters with a celebrity ever.
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.