|Words and photo by F LoBuono|
First, it should be understood that the Casino was not really a casino - gambling was illegal at the time. Rather, it was more of a nightclub with a bar, a dining area, a dance floor, and fairly sizable stage. Located not too far from the main entrance to the Park, it was right next to The World's Largest Outdoor Saltwater Pool. There was regular entertainment nightly, and weekends usually had some pretty impressive headliners. Since it was an AMUSEMENT PARK, and the world in general was a safer place for kids, my father would bring me with him when he went to work on the weekends. For a nine or ten-year old kid, it was like being in Shangrila. I mean, come on! I was unleashed in an AMUSEMENT PARK - could have died and went to heaven right there. Of course, money was tight then and, so, unfortunately, I could not avail myself of all the delights that were presented to me. But that was OK, there was still plenty to do and see to keep me occupied. And that included hanging out with my dad at the Casino to check out the great acts who performed there. I can still conjure the aroma of the cheap perfume and stale whiskey odor that permeated the bar area. It was a great atmosphere for a ten-year old kid!
On of those great acts I got to witness was Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. In my minds eye, it seemed like he performed there every other weekend. I must have seen him about a half dozen times one summer. His music provided, as they say, the soundtrack of my life. He was so cool - so well dressed - so soulful - so professional. He's become a legend and rightly so. And I was there to witness it near the beginning; nearly 50 years ago. That image has never left me.
Who would have known that, all these years later, our paths would cross again - and more then once? In my role as a news photographer, I have had the privilege of shooting Smokey on a number of occasions. In 50 years, he has hardly changed! He is still straight as an arrow. Fit and trim. He is ALWAYS dressed immaculately - the consummate professional and cool dude. And he is a gentlemen in the truest sense of the word. He is open, honest, and approachable. But the thing I remember about him most and still find striking, to this day, are his incredible eyes; they are clear as the night sky and piercing green. The light up with everyone of his frequent smiles. In many ways, he reminds me, physically, of my father. Smokey has wavy hair, very near in appearance to my father's. And my father had similar, striking eyes. My father's were a paler green, almost grey, but were just as unique, especially considering their complexions.
Once again, I had the good fortune of photographing Mr. Robinson during an interview at the recent Song Writers Hall of Fame Gala in NYC. Smokey has already been inducted and was there to honor the induction of his friend Berry Gordy. Of course, Smokey was his gracious self, giving us his undivided attention during our interview. At the end, I did something that I virtually never do: I called him closer to my camera so that I might speak with him personally. Seeing him on this particular night, so close to Father's Day, brought me a powerful memory of my youth and a time when my father was not only still alive, but at the height of his power. My father is gone more than 25 years now, but, of course, I still think of him. Something will trigger a memory and I'm transported, even for just a moment, to a place where I can feel his presence. This was one of those times. I felt so strongly that I wanted to share it with Smokey. As a professional, I feel it anathema to inject personal moments into these particular situations. It's generally not appropriate. However, this time, I felt it necessary to make an exception. The feeling was that strong. Besides, this was Smokey! Certainly, such a cool cat would understand. I called him over: Smokey! I have to share something with you. Not to disappoint, he came closer. I instinctively grabbed him by the shoulder with my left hand (my camera was on my right shoulder). Afterwards, I thought that this might have been rude. But I felt compelled to touch him somehow -as if that physical connection would solidify the more ethereal one. In a sense, I was reaching across the void of time and space. He never recoiled or seemed to mind at all. Smokey, I must have seen you a half-dozen times as a kid with my old man at Palisades Amusement Park! He smiled and said, no kidding? That so? I gave him a very brief history of my time there and told him that seeing him gave me such a strong, positive feeling of my father's presence. He responded as I knew he would: That's great! That's what it's all about. I smiled back. He turned and left, leaving me content with a strong connection to a happy, innocent time shared with my father.
HAPPY FATHER'S DAY to all fathers, past, present, and future.