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Al Martinez

A Man and His Dreams

October 16, 1986|AL MARTINEZ

I doubt that you will ever see the name of Arnnie Stevens in lights or hear his music in the top 40, but he's special nonetheless. For Arnnie, which he spells with two Ns, is one of those people who just won't quit.

I like that.

Men and women who, despite great odds, will not abandon their dreams are among those I admire most, because I know how easily goals are relinquished in the face of economic realities.

And I know how difficult it is to remain true to a vision when all others mock your best effort.

Shelley called it "the desire of the moth for the star."

Most of us don't have that drive. We forsake our quests for the most trivial of reasons then, years later, recall them like lovers from the past and wonder at the things that might have been.

But not Arnnie.

He telephoned me one day because he'd written a song about Los Angeles and wanted publicity. It's one of those bouncy, up-tempo tunes that fourth-graders sing while bobbing their heads from side to side.

Arnnie performed it for me in the kitchen of his tiny Encino apartment. The whole room seemed to bounce in rhythm. I felt like I was in a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

It isn't often that someone like Arnnie comes along, served up with an apple in his mouth at a columnist's table.

Here was a guy in his 50s with funny copper-colored hair and squinty eyes, a city parks worker who wrote hokey little tunes about L.A. and young love, then hustled them with all the desperate sincerity of an evangelist.

Here was a decent but unimposing half-talent who could either drain you with questions in his quest for approval or smother you with sweetness in his effort to uplift--an effort, by the way, intended more to bolster his own flagging spirits than yours.

Here was a caricature, a sitcom clown, the role model for a 1943 movie about a songwriter who can't quite put it all together, whose suspenders break and pants fall down in the middle of a romantic ballad.

Here was Arnnie.

"Isn't this terrific?" he kept saying as he played the L.A. song for me over and over on a cassette player. "Doesn't it make you feel good? People have said to me it makes them glad to be alive. You betcha. I feel good just singing it. Isn't this terrific?"

He must have used the word terrific 40 times in 35 minutes, but it didn't even take that to make me realize in Arnnie I had the perfect subject for an essay that could easily walk the thin line between humor and mockery that is essential to satire.

Arnnie, as Robert Benchley might have said, was a perfect victim.

He was open, trusting, uninhibited and eager, and craved the attention public exposure would offer.

Divorced and living alone, a park employee for 30 years, he has written the words to maybe 75 songs, including the one about L.A.

This is the city, the city of bright lights, exciting L.A. by day and by night . . . .

He doesn't read music so he hums a melody into a tape recorder and sends it to his brother in Boston who writes the notes in proper form.

"L.A. is a song that could be played in Latin America or Sweden, even Russia. It's terrific. Sometimes I give the music to pianists in restaurants or night clubs. I say 'This is my little baby.' I call it my little baby.

"They play it and say 'This is terrific, Arnnie. It makes you feel good.' All I need is for a music producer to say 'Hey, this is it, let's try it, let's give Arnnie a break."

He speaks not in casual conversational tones but with the strained freneticism of someone who might at any moment jump into your arms and break into tears.

There is more to this man than the smile he offers, painted like a clown's grin on a sad face, and more to him than the cloying nature of his pep club attitude.

Arnnie wants to be heard.

I understand that. For every man willing to forsake his dreams, there is, thank God, an Arnnie Stevens struggling at the edge of the stage.

He picks up the mike when the sound goes dead. He starts singing at the precise moment the producer leaves the theater. But he doesn't give up. Not ever.

At best, part-time artists perform for anyone willing to listen. At worst, they dress up in monkey suits, stuff their mouths with bananas and appear on the Gong Show.

Not all of them crave a spotlight. Some write scripts or books or short stories. Some are poets. Some paint.

Some want more than anything in the world to take the perfect picture or dance the perfect dance or build the world's highest castle out of toothpicks.

What I admire about them all is what I admire in Arnnie. They believe so damned hard that they're going to make it.

"Someday," Arnnie said, "someone is going to come along and hear my song and say 'Hey, that's really terrific, Arnnie. Is it from a movie? From a Broadway show? I want to hear that again, Arnnie."'


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