Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines

Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines
The Laughing Cherub

Friday, July 18, 2014


by Mary Elizabeth Raines

I blame it on the Contessa. She started it all when she serenaded us by singing Tiny Bubbles. A TV show called the Gong Show also figured prominently in this love affair, because, yes, it was a love affair. Sigh. It all began on a November evening long ago…

First, let me tell you about the Contessa. When I knew her, she was probably in her 70s, and insisted, rather haughtily, that people address her by her title: Contessa. I don’t know her real name. There were rumors that she and her husband were actually royalty from some obscure European country. (I kind of suspect that she herself was responsible for starting those rumors, but then, what do I know about royalty in obscure European countries?)

The Contessa was not tall, but I remember her as a woman of substance. She possessed a heaving bosom, a double chin and a fleshy waist. Her ample midsection was offset by numerous stiff layers of ruffles in the skirt of the faded, green ball gown she always wore, a dress that looked as though it could have belonged to a cast member of Gone With the Wind, or maybe a character from a Dickens’ novel. Dancing slippers completed the outfit. She didn’t really walk; instead she tiptoed and waltzed around the room in little, silly, prancing steps. I think she was trying to be delicate. Perhaps she hoped that people would envision her as floating across the floor like a sailing ship, which was something women of her generation thought admirable, although, sadly, her movements were more like those of a tugboat on choppy waters.

The Contessa’s heavily powered face had arching eyebrows that had been artfully drawn onto her forehead with eyebrow pencil, and her sagging cheeks were flushed with dainty circles of pink rouge. You are probably ascertaining that she fit a certain type, and as a member of that type, it goes without saying that her lipstick was smudged high up over her lips in exaggerated, I-Love-Lucy cupid’s bows.

Please understand that I am not criticizing the Contessa for this. As I age, I have grown fleshier, too. And I recognize the irresistible urge to wear the same outfits and makeup that made me look cute as heck when I was 19; unfortunately, now having passed a certain age, whenever I do that, I wind up looking more like a goofy clown than a precious young thing. Even so, sometimes I can’t help myself; I cave in and go for it. At such times, I wear far too much makeup and stand around saying smart things like, “That’s groovy, man.” So I understand perfectly the mindset of this elderly woman in her green ball gown. I really look like THAT?!
To accessorize the gown, our Contessa wore just about every piece of jewelry she owned, and all at the same time, too. Her chest was blinding, covered with flashing brooches and glittering layers of necklaces, and her pudgy, aging arms jingled with bands of bracelets.

She was, if not exactly a flirt, quite coquettish, fluttering from table to table, sometimes leaning down and pressing her withered rouged cheek near to that of some youthful fellow, as though teasing him to kiss her. Again, I get it completely.

But now let’s go back to the very beginning. I was a young single woman who, at 10:30 p.m. on a November night, had just left my comfy bed with reluctance, and had driven to Sarno’s Caffe dell'Opera on Vermont Street in Los Feliz, a section of Los Angeles that borders Hollywood. The area was relatively safe in those days. Sarno’s served Italian food and they had a pastry shop.

In the evenings, Sarno’s Cafe became magical. Strangers would be seated at marble tables next to other strangers, and everyone drank wine and espresso, and anyone who wanted could get up and sing. There was an excellent pianist accompanying the singers. Most folks sang opera, but a few people, like the Contessa, preferred to sing pop songs. Like Tiny Bubbles. Some of the singers were very good. Some were not. In its heydey, Sarno’s was frequented by the likes of Tony Bennett, Sophia Loren, and even old blue eyes, Sinatra himself.

Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library-posted with permission
There were plenty of less-famous regulars who hung out at Sarno’s. It was all new to me. I had only recently moved to Los Angeles, and had discovered the place just a few days before.

On the night in question, I’d been crying somewhat melodramatically to my best friend, a vivacious gay man, about my desperately lonely state and my inability to meet men. (Ye gods, my situation was appalling. Nearly 24 hours had passed since my last date! What was I to do?!) My friend sagely suggested that if I wanted to meet someone new, it wasn’t likely to happen if I remained in my bed, complaining. He prodded me to get up, get dressed, and go out someplace…anyplace.

I did. Where else could I go at 10:30 on a Saturday night but to Sarno’s? I lived nearby. After I arrived, since all the tables were shared, the first thing I did was look around for someone safe and comfortable to sit next to. I found the perfect someone, an elderly, harmless-looking guy whose name was Miguel. He was one of the regulars. Miguel wore a cheap, obvious toupee, and he told me that he was an artist. Some of his paintings were displayed high on the walls of Sarno’s. They looked a little clumsy to me, not unlike Miguel himself. My new friend proudly added that he was also a singer.

Here is where the Gong Show comes in. A few years after the Sarno’s incident, I was killing time one day by watching the Gong Show. If you’re not familiar with it, this mind-numbing TV nonsense from the late 1970s-early 80s was hosted by a wired and weird guy named Chuck Barris. Here’s how it worked: assorted guests would perform—play music, sing, dance, juggle, tell jokes, you name it. There were three hip judges and a gigantic gong on the set. If any one of the judges disliked someone’s performance, they would jump up out of their seat, rush over and hit the gong. The interrupted performer would have to stop. The show was sometimes funny, and sometimes cruel.

And as I watched, who should appear as a guest but Miguel—yes, my very own Miguel from Sarno’s, still wearing the same toupee! He sang an aria. He was promptly gonged and also ridiculed, although he didn’t look as though he minded very much. I saw him again on two subsequent Gong Show reruns, and he got gonged on each of those, too. The gong-strikers were right. He really didn’t sing very well.

My connection to the Gong Show is even stranger than that. About 25 years after my fated visit to Sarno’s Caffe dell'Opera, I became friends with a woman who happened to be a world-famous stripper, porn star, and cult figure. She had gigantic breasts the size of human heads. For the sake of anonymity, I will call her Lotsa Lotty (although when one has shown the world all the parts that she has displayed on the giant silver screen—in close-up yet!—I don’t think anonymity would really be in question).

Anyway. Lotsa Lotty, I discovered, had also been on the Gong Show! She told me, giggling, that she had played a French maid who came onstage wearing high heels, a short, short skirt, and a low, low blouse. Her “talent” was dusting. She bent wa-a-ay down over various objects, dusting them with a feather duster. She, like Miguel, ended up being gonged.

In fact, dusting wasn’t far from the truth of who she really was. She loved to clean, you see. With her hair up in curlers, she would wear glasses and an old frumpy housecoat, and sweep her patio ceaselessly while she talked on her phone to customers, for when I knew her, she was earning a living doing phone sex.

I remember passing Lotsa Lotty while she was sweeping outdoors one day, wearing big fuzzy slippers and a shapeless bathrobe. From behind the thick lenses of her glasses, she looked over at me and gave me a bright smile and a wave, dustpan in hand. At the same time, in a low panting voice, while adjusting a curler, she was saying to her caller, “Oh yeah, baby, I can taste it. Yeah, I can taste it….”

Sometimes when I passed her place, I would hear screaming. It would momentarily frighten me. Then I would realize that Lotsa was just paying her bills. (Certain customers, she later revealed, insisted that she scream at pertinent points in their, um, conversation.)

But I digress. Lotsa Lotty told me that when she had been on the Gong Show, a very handsome and famous movie star—someone you would know!—saw her, got a little crush on her, and wangled an introduction. They dated.

Now, Lotsa had dated plenty of famous Hollywood actors, but this particular guy was different. She confided in me that not only was he extraordinarily endowed; he was the best lover she’d ever had. And of course, I don’t know for sure, but I strongly suspect that Lotsa had entertained SCADS more lovers than most of us!

It wasn’t just that Handsome Movie Star was her best lover ever. He also treated her beautifully. He was unfailingly courteous, romantic, and kind—everything a woman could want. He actually even opened car doors for her! Guys, take note: we women really like that.

“So what happened with him?” I asked, after she revealed all of this to me.

“Oh, he wanted me to take a vacation with him, sorta like a honeymoon, at this tropical paradise," she said. "But I didn’t go.” She returned to her sweeping.

“Did you have to work? You couldn’t get the time off?” I asked excitedly.

“No, not that,” she said. “I could’ve gone. But I said no.” She attacked some dust in a corner.

“Lotsa!” I exclaimed, “This famous movie star was the best lover you ever had in your life, he treated you like a queen, he absolutely adored you, he invited you to a tropical paradise for a little honeymoon…and you didn’t go?! Why not?!!?”

You have to understand the absolutely humorless, matter-of-fact way in which Lotsa Lotty replied to my question. Her answer, to me, exemplifies Hollywood.

“I couldn’t go,” she said, “because MY HUSBAND WOULDN’T LET ME.” (Emphasis mine.)

Back to Sarno’s. As I sat next to Miguel, of Gong Show fame, I said to him, “Listen, Miguel, you know the characters who come in here, and I want to be careful. If I start talking with some guy who’s a bad sort, would you let me know? Just nudge me with your elbow, okay?”

Miguel liked that, the role of being my protector. He leaned back in his seat and smiled.

And then I saw Him. He was standing in line, waiting for a place at a table to open up. (Sarno’s had lines.) He was sooo handsome and hunky—dark hair, dark beard, dark brooding eyes—a real Latin Lover Man. When he was finally seated, it was at the table next to ours. I noticed that he ordered a bottle of wine and kept to himself, not conversing with the other people around him.

After a while, everyone at his table left. He sat alone. And there was an empty chair next to me. Seizing my chance, I called over to Latin Lover Man, trying to sound delightfully casual, while my heart thumped with embarrassment.

“Why don’t you join us?” I crowed in a chipper falsetto. “No one should be alone on a Saturday night!”

An elbow suddenly dug into my side. Miguel hissed into my ear, “Watch out! He’s one of them!”

Ignoring Miguel’s furiously insistent elbow, I continued to plead with Latin Lover Man.

The object of my affection glanced up at me and muttered, “I’m a loner.”

I didn’t understand him. His Spanish accent was so thick that I had to ask him twice what he’d just said. Somehow, if you have to keep repeating the phrase, “I’m a loner,” it doesn’t have quite the same intensity the third time around. With his bubble of isolation popped, to my immense joy Latin Lover Man picked up his bottle of wine and came to sit next to me.

Miguel nudged me more violently, whispering ever-louder warnings, until I became annoyed. I told him, sotto voce, to stop. “All right,” he shrugged. “Whatever you want. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.”

Here’s where the Contessa comes in. Did you think I’d forgotten about the Contessa? Not a chance! In her green ball gown, she placed some sheet music in front of the pianist, then pranced over to our table and serenaded us. Her aged voice was wobbly with an out-of-control tremulo. The Contessa sang Tiny Bubbles. She sang it quite badly. It was the start of my greatest romance.

The Latin Lover Man’s name was Juan. I learned that after making him repeat his name four times. In the beginning, my half of our conversations consisted mostly of me saying, “What? Hunh?” Eventually I figured out how to decipher his accent. He became my husband, and the father of our child, and then my ex-husband. But always my good friend.

My Latin Lover and Me
Here’s something weird. When I first came to Los Angeles, without knowing anything at all of the city, I was driving up and down random streets looking for a place to rent when I spotted a charming Victorian house tucked away with a sign on the lawn that said ROOMS. I was drawn to this house almost as if I had been magnetized. The man who answered the door said, “Oh honey, you seem very sweet, but I’m sorry; we only rent to men.” As I left, I felt strangely disappointed.

Later, I discovered that of all the places I could have chosen in this immense megapolis with its population of millions, the first property that attracted me happened to be the very same house where my future husband was living!

Juan also revealed something fascinating, or perhaps fated. Earlier on the night we'd met, he had been exhausted and was driving home to his room in the Victorian house, ready to climb into bed. Suddenly, he said, it was as if a hand reached down and stopped him. Then and there, without thinking, he did a sharp U-turn in the middle of the road and headed towards Sarno’s, because something told him he had to stop there that night. That happened right around the same time I'd pulled myself out of bed and, from the other direction, was also dragging myself to Sarno’s.

By the way, Juan wasn’t really a loner. And Miguel was wrong.

As for the Caffe dell'Opera, the devoted owner, Alberto Sarno, was tragically murdered a few years later and not long afterwards they closed their doors for good. I never found out what happened to the Contessa.

(c) 2010, Mary Elizabeth Raines
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See Mary Elizabeth Raines' novel UNA, now available on Amazon

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