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She's Still Tooting Her Father's Horn

Entertainment* Louis Prima's daughter, Lena, carries nostalgic audiences back to a simpler age.

July 10, 2002|RON GROSSMAN | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO — On a warm summer evening, Lena Prima sat on one of the lower rungs of show biz and reminisced about her father, who dwelt at the very top of the ladder. "When you're the child of a celebrity, you think other kids' lives are like yours," Prima said. "You take it for granted that, at a posh place like Scoma's in San Francisco or Dante's down in Florida, headwaiters whisk you around a line of people waiting for tables."

Her dressing room on this evening was a construction trailer parked behind a temporary stage set up in the middle of South Oakley Avenue, the main artery of a tiny Italian American enclave on Chicago's Southwest Side. She was stitching a seam in her costume that split the last time she performed her act--a reprise of the life and times of her father, Louis Prima. In the 1940s and '50s, the exuberant trumpet player with the raspy, street-corner singing voice was a top recording star and perennial headliner in Las Vegas and on television.

For this street fair on Oakley Avenue, folding chairs had been set up, curb to curb. The rows stretched back past Miceli's Deli and Food Mart and underneath a storefront marquee announcing the offices of Maurice D. Russo, DDS. The last vacant seat was taken long before Lena Prima was scheduled to go on. The audience, mainly older folks who live or used to live nearby, gave polite attention to a miscellany of other acts. But clearly most people were patiently waiting for Lena. More precisely, they were waiting for her to temporarily transform herself into him--and transport them, their old neighborhood and America back to a simpler age.

Lena Prima belongs to a special cadre of performers who are the children of performers. A few, such as Liza Minnelli or Michael Douglas, escape their parents' shadow to become headliners in their own right. Others--such as Frank Sinatra Jr. or Mercer Ellington, who kept his late father Duke Ellington's jazz band alive--carry onstage the burden of their parents' accomplishments.

Lena considers that load an equitable deal between herself and her father, who died in 1978. She gets work. His songs get played again. Now 38, she has been performing since her father took her onstage at the age of 5. She went on to sing with the rock group Spiral Staircase, but her share of show business was shrinking before she got the idea to make his act hers, about four years ago. "Dad went directly from the Tropicana Hotel, where he was appearing, to a hospital with the brain tumor that killed him," Lena said. "This is a way for him to come back."

Posthumous Renaissance

In fact, Louis Prima has been enjoying something of a posthumous renaissance. His song "Jump, Jive and Wail" was featured in a Gap television commercial exploiting a younger generation's new-found interest in swing dancing. He was an offstage presence in the 1996 movie "Big Night," the story of a failing restaurant whose owners hope to be saved by his celebrity rubbing off on them: They've heard, falsely as it turns out, that Prima is coming to dine. Judging by the reaction of the Oakley Avenue audience, he still enjoys that demi-god status in certain precincts.

During Lena's re-creation of his act, one older woman stood transfixed directly in front of the stage. At the end of a number, she would bring her hands to her lips, palms joined, as if saying a novena. Her reaction wasn't atypical, noted Ron Onesti, the Chicago-based promoter who books Lena's appearances.

"We've had people break down crying," Onesti said. "Their vision is black and white, from before color TV. Watch how they'll line up to tell her where they saw her father." As if on cue, Ray Biamonte trailed Lena back to the dressing room after her standing ovation at the end of the show.

"There's a picture of your father and me, must be from the '50s, maybe at the Chicago Theater," he told her. "I don't know where I put it." In the 1950s, Prima was a serious jazzman turned consummate entertainer. Earlier, he had written "Sing, Sing, Sing!," which Benny Goodman's recording made into a swing anthem. But Prima was looking for a wider audience. He found it by musically treading a fine line between celebrating and satirizing his Italian American heritage with songs like "Please No Squeeza Da Banana" and "Josephina, Please No Leana on the Bell." He also found a perfect counterpoint in Keely Smith, his singing partner and wife, whose bell-clear phrasing and deadpan expression set off his gravelly voice and madcap antics. She was also the foil for sexual-innuendo byplay. Mild by today's standards, it took the form of a bug-eyed Prima looking her up and down, then turning to the audience with a look on his face that said: "Hey, guys--see what I got going for me!"

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