Sunday, January 02, 2011
Just Another Much-Needed Fan
At the upstairs bar at Sardi's, Dan Langan walked in. I never did figure out, exactly, what Langan's game was, except that he seemed to be a music promoter who placed acts at various bars and clubs around Manhattan. He had an Irish singer, who was his girlfriend and might have become his wife, and she was appearing at Langan's on West 47th Street, and wasn't that a coincidence, because Dan Langan, as far as I knew, had no financial interest in Langan's the bar and restaurant.
There are a lot of characters like Langan who people Sardi's and fit this non-description description. But Langan was good company, so what the hell. I even sympathized with him the night they took his topcoat off the coat-rack in the corner and hid it someplace in the bar. It was around this time of the year, and it was like Valley Forge outside. Langan was frantic, and really frantic when some of them insisted that he had never come in with a topcoat in the first place. Someone even suggested where Langan might buy a good topcoat at a reasonable price. Langan threw down what might have been his eighth toddy. He came in a cab, but left in a huff, sans topcoat, which showed up, mysteriously, on the coat-rack the next day.
All of this came rushing back the other day when I learned that Lina Romay, 91, had died in a hospital in Pasadena. I hadn't spoken to Lina in a long time, but back in the day, when this onetime Hollywood glamour girl was working at Hollywood Park, we chatted almost every day I came to the track. Not about Hollywood Park, but Hollywood. The chats were nice--what movie buff wouldn't relish inside glimpses of some of the biggest names in movies--but what was nicer was Lina Romay, supporting racing not for any selfish interests, but just because she liked the track, liked the people in the game and wanted to see the game flourish. She was racing's unvarnished booster, the kind the game has too few of. Sending out results to Spanish-language radio stations, she didn't need the money (and how much could they have been paying her?), she was long past the time when she needed the notoriety; it was just a labor of love, pure and simple.
I went back to some of her old movies. To begin with, she had been a kid singer with the Xavier Cugat orchestra. "I was the only kid singer that Cugie didn't sleep with," she once told me. There was an irony about the Cugat connection. She had been discovered by MGM while singing with the orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. A couple of years later, they made "Week-end at the Waldorf," one of her first pictures. Backed by Cugat and company, she was all over the stage and the ballroom, a Mexicali rose in full bloom. Her routine went on for several minutes. Van Johnson, playing a U.S. serviceman, was among those in the audience who marveled. I couldn't wait to get back to Hollywood Park. "Oh, baby," I said when I saw Lina. "'Week-end at the Waldorf.' Oh, baby." She beamed.
My wife at the time was a psychiatric nurse, one of her patients being the superb character actor Edmond O'Brien. "Give me some of his best movies," Dianne said. "I need something to pep him up." Lina Romay knew O'Brien. Between us, we came up with "D.O.A.," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Seven Days in May," and, of course, his smarmy, Oscar-winning turn in "The Barefoot Contessa."
My wife told O'Brien, who was ravaged by Alzheimer's, that her husband had been a longtime fan and named the films. "Yeah, that Contessa picture," O'Brien muttered. "I won some kind of a (effing) prize for that one."
I reported back to Lina with the story. "We went to their house many times," she said. "Eddy could drink. He wasn't always that nice to Olga." That would be his wife, Olga San Juan, whom they called the "Puerto Rican Pepperpot."
Lina was very active with the Southern California Broadcasters Association, an organization that, if I have it right, threw racing a crumb every blue moon. But Lina reminded them from time to time that the game was still alive, and once, for want of a speaker, they invited me to talk about the Kentucky Derby at one of their luncheons. Afterwards, Lina said I had done well, but she would. That might have been the day she gave me her phone number. The one I surprised Dan Langan with, that night he wouldn't part with his topcoat at Sardi's.