Life Is That Strange
It was a cold winter’s evening in a small town in the Rockies. The year was
1959, and television was still fairly new to this small community. But in a tiny,
two-room apartment in the back of Hickey’s Motel in Ennis, Montana, a 15
year-old boy was sitting on the floor in front of his family’s new TV set, oblivious
to the cold and the howling wind just outside the door. The show he was ready
to see was not a western… was not one of the popular new evening shows like
Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke… no, the show
he was settling in to see was his favorite, the best show on TV… Peter Gunn!
He loved Peter Gunn, everything about it. Pete was cool and tough; his girlfriend,
Edie, was beautiful and a good singer, It was the big city guy, knowing his town,
always getting the criminals… but what it was, what it really really was,
was the music! It was all jazz!
Yes, the boy loved jazz, and the Peter Gunn show was his only access to it back
then. He noticed that a guy named Henry Mancini composed the music, and
began looking for Henry Mancini music in the Butte record stores. The following
Spring he found one, a new Peter Gunn album. He brought it back to the
apartment and played it to death for the next few months, memorizing every
song, every solo. Little did he know that he’d meet Henry Mancini and play
piano for him in a 5-concert tour 17 years later!
Yes, life can be that strange, even stranger sometimes. And yes, I was the
boy who loved jazz. These memories came rushing back to me in a flash
a few nights ago. I had found a Peter Gunn episode on some remote channel
and had to watch it, for old time’s sake. Well, it was an eye-opener, for several
reasons. Pete was still cool, his girlfriend, Edie, was still beautiful, and the
music hadn’t aged a day! There were some elements, however, I had not
noticed back then. For one thing, in virtually every episode, Pete got hit over
the head with a variety of things, always knocking him out while the perpetrator
of some dastardly deed escaped. Well, he actually got shot a few times, always
minor wounds… hell, even Edie was held hostage and got shot once. Now I
admit I might have entertained the thought of holding Edie hostage for a bit.
But shooting her?? Oh god, never! Ridiculous concept…
The show had a strong, repetitive formula… a murder of some sort takes place
in the beginning, Pete is at Mother’s jazz club kissing on Edie in the back room,
he gets a call, goes somewhere and gets hit over the head, then commercial
break. After the break, he runs into Lieutenant Jacoby, who tells him to “stay
out of this one, Pete.” – which Pete doesn’t, of course. Pete then meets up with
a bizarre variety of contacts to get the info he needs to find the guilty party. He
finds them, they fight, Pete wins, justice is done and Pete ends up back at
Mother’s, coolly asking Edie’s forgiveness for having to run out on that last
kiss. One wouldn’t think you could tell the same story for 3 seasons, with the
same result and still keep it interesting. But that’s what happened.
I noticed several interesting details in the show that didn’t hit me back then.
For one thing, Pete drove a ’59 Plymouth convertible, which today looks
fairly stupid. The car was long, two-toned paint job, with these huge fins in
the back. Eh, not cool, Pete. But those were the times back then, and those
were the cool cars, I guess. And another thing… every time Pete’s jacket
came open, the end of his tie was tucked into his pants! Would my favorite
hero tuck his tie into his pants?? Well, yes, he would and he did. Perhaps
that was okay back then as well. Quite frankly I don’t remember, not wearing
many ties in high school. But it sure looked dumb when I saw it the other
And there were some elements that stood out, albeit the show is 50 years old now. For one thing, over half the men in the show still wore fedoras. The commercial airplanes still had props. Every vehicle in the show was a Plymouth or Chrysler, and there were no day scenes… all the action took place at night, and all the scenes were dark. Several of the apartment scenes (all dark, of course) had the light reflection of a blinking neon light outside… probably an indicator that Pete was snooping around in a sleazy neighborhood…
As I said earlier, however, the music hadn’t aged a day. Good jazz is like a
good wine. Turns out the ’50’s through the ’70’s were pretty much the golden
age of jazz anyway. The Peter Gunn theme won two grammys and was
nominated for an Emmy. Needless to say, the Peter Gunn music shot Henry
Mancini’s career sky high, and it wasn’t long before he was scoring for
movies such as Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Days Of Wine And Roses, The
Pink Panther and over twenty others. Mancini had an incredible career,
traveling around the country in his later years, playing and conducting
concerts featuring his own movie hits. I was lucky enough to play a small
part of one of them.
When he was conducting the larger, more energetic pieces, I would play
the piano part. When he did Moon River, for instance, I would sit off to
the side while Henry slid in and played the piano part. Occasionally he
would wink at me and smile… I was always thrilled, simply to be in his
presence. And being able to hear much of his music that I had loved so
much as a kid, and to hear it played live, by big orchestras, and to actually
play on a few of them…? I was in total heaven, the whole time!
And that’s why I write some of this stuff down. These memories are so
precious to me, and occasionally I think of them and find it hard to believe
that they actually happened. But life is truly that strange, and they did
really happen. The fabulous music of Henry Mancini lit a fire in one boy’s
musical heart on a cold winter’s night in Montana, coming full circle 17 years
later… with a smile and a wink.
One Reply to “You Just Never Know”
GREAT STUFF MAN! HOW COOL IS THAT?