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Strings Attached : There Are Few Places Ukuleles Won't Take This Charismatic Pair

August 19, 1992|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — "Oh, sorry," says Don Wilson, apologizing to an old friend he's just knocked into a wooden chair. That friend is his 1930s Martin baritone ukulele, which isn't as likely to gripe as his other friend present, Travis Harrelson.

Harrelson is in his 60s, while Wilson only admits to "70-plus," and neither have quite gotten the idea yet that they're in their golden years, and that silence is golden.

Wilson still has an excess of thick wavy hair. Harrelson would probably like some of it. While too in love with life to be seriously cantankerous, they do enjoy it as a pastime, making merciless fun of the expectations of old age. Making light of the low-respect jobs to which the aged are often relegated, for example, Harrelson described how they survive: "Well, Don here repairs key chains."

The pair are far from harmless, at least when it comes to their ukuleles. They used to bill themselves as Don and Travis, but they recently have taken to calling themselves as the DTs. I invited them and their ukes--instruments not known for their robust power or sexual allure--to a barbecue I had once, where my own heavily amplified R&B band was also playing. We, as a band, think competition has no place in the creative arts, unless the odds are overwhelmingly in our favor.

We were loud. We were manly. Our vintage-cool amps barked like cheese-steak-fed Rottweilers. But Wilson and Harrelson, with their unamplified little ukes, tunes about Hilo Hattie doing the Hilo Hop, and secret weapons such as talent and charisma, stole the day from us.

They may never get past my door again, but there are few places their ukuleles don't take them. They play in the houses of Newport's rich, at trailer park potlucks, in convalescent homes and senior centers, on boats, buses and beaches. They performed at the festivities for the new Huntington Beach Pier, and go "troubadouring" through the Sawdust Festival.

"We like performing at wakes," Harrelson says, "because the host never complains."

Earlier this month they serenaded their close friend, 96-year-old Jack Toon, in a room at Hoag Hospital, two days before he passed away. They played his favorite songs, and he told them he loved them one last time. Toon, who composed the hit "Minnie the Mermaid" in the '20s, was a ukulele advocate who led a class at Newport's Oasis Senior Center. It was there Harrelson and Wilson met and began playing together eight years ago.

"I was very sorry, among many other reasons, to lose Jack Toon, because with him here at least somebody was older than I was," Wilson lamented. They played at a memorial service for their friend Monday.

Sitting around Harrelson's small Costa Mesa home--where he has some 130 ukes in various states of repair--the pair talked and quipped about the lives that drove them to play the ukulele.

After raising five children, Harrelson decided to get back into playing a decade ago. Wilson had recently lost his wive, Ivy, and was similarly reacquainting himself with the uke when they met.

Harrelson said: "I think the ukulele saved his life, not to be melodramatic, but I mean it. He almost passed away because he and his wife were so close."

Wilson concurred: "Like most people who lose a spouse, you do an awful lot of brooding. When I lost her I kind of lost the interest in everything for a while. I thought I had to do something to keep my mind together."

The pair quickly found they got along musically and as friends. "Our minds meshed," Harrelson said, with Wilson adding, "When we play we never do songs quite the same way twice, and even on songs we've never done before, we can always feel what the other one is going to do."

Wilson grew up in a small town in Illinois--"They had to scrape like the dickens to find the 350 population to put on the sign"--and got a uke from Sears while in high school in the 1920s. "I used it all through college. It was of great advantage in the rumble seat of a car," he said. Taking a year off from college, he and some acquaintances hitchhiked through several states, performing at parties, radio shows and wherever they could.

The uke also came in handy while wooing his wife. Once together, they became marionette puppeteers, who performed at Laguna's Festival of Arts from 1939 to 1954, and later spent eight years doing shows at Santa's Village.

Harrelson grew up in Long Beach and came to play ukulele because his mother loved all things Hawaiian, even naming his sisters Lei Lani, Aloha Lee and Geneva Luana. "I'm lucky I wasn't named Uku Uku," he said.

During the Korean War he was an aerial photographer stationed on the aircraft carrier Princeton. "That was the second one," he noted of the ship, "It was too hard to use the first one after it sank."

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