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Hail, Caesar

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"It was around 1951 and the Korean War was going crazy, and I knew I was going to get drafted. I just knew it," Vic says. "My uncles had been in the Army, and I didn't like the way they looked when they came out, and I didn't want to live in a foxhole, and I didn't want to eat that shit they feed you.

"So one afternoon I had nothing to do, and I went to see Anchors Aweigh primarily because Sinatra was in it. If you're Italian and you're a singer, you automatically love Sinatra.

"I saw it, walked out of the theatre and saw a sign for Navy, Army, Marine recruiting--whatever it was. The guy watches me walk in like a fuckin' vulture on a tree. He had a sharp uniform on, red hair cropped really short, neck was red, he was a Marine. Looked like a martinet, and I didn't want to be with no martinet. I wanted Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra. I said, 'Oh, shit, I don't wanna join that fuckin' outfit.'

"I said, 'Where's the Navy guy?' 'Oh, I can help you,' he said. 'You don't look like Navy to me!' 'I'm not!' he says. I mean, the anchors on his collar looked like a skull and crossbones. That whole fuckin' uniform looked like Gestapo. And the Navy had that collar opened up with that white shirt and that sissy little fuckin' tie that I really liked.

"Just then the Navy guy walked in, and the Marine says, 'I got a customer for ya.' And I says, 'I'm not a customer, I'm a volunteer.' I had a great sense of humor in those days--I thought I did, then I found out you better not have a sense of humor in boot camp. So that's how I joined the Navy."

Despite a boot camp not filled with laughs, Vic wound up as a dental technician happily stationed in Iwakuni, a tiny Japanese town. Once he "accidentally stole" a general's Jeep to go buy Christmas decorations, stopped off at a whorehouse "for 15 minutes and got lucky. It doesn't take long when you're young." Vic got in trouble, but what the hell? And when he wasn't working on molars, he was pounding the ivories, performing at the officers' club, the enlisted men's club and a Japanese nightclub in town.

Now here's a good one:
"I heard Marilyn Monroe was coming into town and I said, 'Yeah, yeah, why would she be coming to this little dump of a town?' 'Because she's on her way to Korea,' the commander said. 'Anyone wants to go to the airport and see Monroe, she's landing here in half an hour.' So I go. She's with [Joe] Di Maggio, and he gets out, and the crowd roars. Then she comes out, and it's like the king and queen of America. Everybody's camera went crazy.

"So I went back to the dental clinic, and I get a call from the special-services officer. He says, 'Vic, can you play a couple tunes on piano? Come on over here.' It was a special room on the base he was talking about. I go over, he takes me into the room and he says, 'Vic, this is Marilyn Monroe.'

"God, my fucking knees were shaking. She says, 'Can you do 'It Had to Be You' and 'Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend'? I knew 'It Had to Be You,' and I kinda knew 'Diamonds,' 'cause I'd seen the movie. So everybody left us alone to rehearse, and I said, 'Miss Monroe, can I take your picture?' She says, 'Okay. You realize you've got the only picture of me in a babushka with my hair in curlers and a cigarette?' Anyway, I played for her, and she let me take the picture. You don't think much about taking pictures, they're going to live forever, right? Who the hell knew?"

I ask Vic what kind of cigarettes she was smoking.
"Who was looking at the cigarettes?" he asks back.

Vic got home in one piece. Figured he'd become a dentist. It was not to be.
"I thought, 'No, I don't want to look into people's mouths.'" The stage could not be denied, and he began working Chicago clubs on drums and piano and stopping by for early-morning breakfasts at Hef's Chicago lair. A happening place to be in the late '50s. Next came gigs in Reno and Vegas.

Speaking of Vegas . . .
"One night at the Sands Hotel, I was playing drums for the Chet McIntyre Quartet, and I sang maybe two songs in the set. One night, after we finished our show, I walked around to the bar, got a drink and walked over to some friends. Just then somebody grabbed me by the ass, and almost ripped my pants--it was a mohair suit and that stuff rips easily--and I turned around and said, 'Hey, man!' It was Frank Sinatra.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap