My father was a physician of exceptional skill, intelligence, and compassion. And until his death, he was also a beacon of wisdom to which his six children were inexorably drawn time and time again.
I was recently reminded of a particular piece of advice my father gave me when I was 16 years old and a senior at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, N.Y. It was the spring of 1963. Walking the halls between classes, I was spotted by Brother Arthur Hannaway, a chain-smoking English teacher whose course I had aced the previous year. He crooked his index finger and beckoned me to him. “I will be directing the spring musical this year,” he said, “and I want you to be in it.”
“You heard me, Bonventre,” Brother Arthur said in his deep, no-nonsense voice. “I have a part for you. We start rehearsals next week.”
“That’s not possible, Brother,” I said, hoping to talk some sense into a man who didn’t suffer students gladly. “You probably don’t know this, but I throw the shot put on the track team, and I’m also on the tennis team.”
“So how am I gonna find the time to be in the musical?”
“You’ll think of something.”
“But I can’t sing,” I said, my voice coated with desperation.
“You don’t have to sing.”
“I can’t dance.”
“You don’t have to dance.”
“I can’t act.”
“You don’t have to act,” he said. “Not really.”
Thoroughly confused, I said, “What the heck kind of musical are you doing, Brother?”
“Annie Get Your Gun, and you’re Chief Sitting Bull,” he said, and walked away.
I had only one card left to play. “Dad, you just gotta help me out,” I pleaded when my father arrived home from another long day at the hospital. He listened patiently as I explained my predicament, and I wondered if he could call Brother Arthur and intercede on my behalf. When I was done, he looked at me for a few seconds, and then said, “Let me ask you a question: Do you think that one day you’ll be throwing the shot put in the Olympics?”
He had me there. “No.”
“Then why don’t you give up the shot put? Try something new. Work it out so you can play tennis and do the play. By the way, your mother and I saw Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway on our honeymoon. It’s great.”
My father had a fine tenor voice, and he treated me to snippets of some of the show’s classic songs: “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “The Girl That I Marry,” “Doin’ What Comes Naturally.”
“Trust me, babe, you’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Within a few days of rehearsal, I knew my father was right. As Holy Cross was an all-boys school, the female roles were filled with girls from other Catholic high schools in the area. Brother Arthur could not have cast a more talented, enthusiastic, and generous bunch of students to populate Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and sing Irving Berlin’s terrific songs. The leading lady, who played the sharp-shooting Annie Oakley, was a revelation. Her name was Kathy Sillaway, a willowy, strawberry-blonde junior at St. Mary’s in Manhasset, N.Y. I haven’t seen her since, but I’ll never forget her and her performance.
As for me, the role of Chief Sitting Bull wasn’t exactly designed to unleash my inner Brando, what with scintillating dialogue like, “Sitting Bull no put money in show business” and “Sitting Bull go to see Great White Father about Indian Territory.” The portrayal of Sitting Bull was eventually deemed racially insensitive, and has since been revised to lend the Chief a more dignified presence. But all those years ago, what the hell did I know? I was a kid, and having the time of my life: The girls! The costumes! The makeup! The girls! The music! The applause! And though I was tone-deaf and couldn’t carry a tune (still can’t), I unabashedly belted out that rousing closing number—“There’s No Business Like Show Business”—with the rest of the cast and thrilled each night to the cheers of the audience.
My father judged the play a huge success. He thought young Ms. Sillaway was beyond-her-years sensational, and he said I did a helluva job too. “I didn’t know you were such a ham,” he said. He was right—I chewed up the scenery pretty good.
If you’ve hung around till now, perhaps you’d like to know what sparked the memory of my father’s wise counsel. Well, several weeks ago my wife and I visited our son Martin in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, where he’s appearing in the musical Sister Act at the Fireside Theatre. He plays Joey, a singing-and-dancing gangster, and his talent is a wonder to me.
Martin often thanks his mother and me for supporting him in his dream of making a life on stage. I often think of my father when I’m doling out advice and steering Martin in what I pray is the right direction. Early on, we hooked him up with a voice coach, and when he graduated from high school, where he performed in every musical, he ended up attending the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan, N.Y. We’d be in his corner all the way, I told him, as long as he worked hard and never gave up on himself. While writing this essay, I happened to ask, what was the best piece of advice I had given him? His answer surprised me. “You warned me that the theater was like high school on steroids,” he said, “and I had to be prepared to deal with all kinds of personalities.”
Martin just turned 25. He was named after the grandfather he never knew. But I’m certain my father would’ve gotten a big kick out of his namesake’s budding career in the theater.