Gilded Serpent presents...
of Town in
Nights restaurant in Fresno became my second home. It was
a real family restaurant with delicious food, a friendly clientele,
and, most of all, a good owner. It was owned by Becky Harootunian,
a middle-aged Armenian woman with a very good heart. As a side
advantage, her being a woman meant that the issue of my sleeping
with her didn't arise - most of the places we danced were owned
by men - usually foreign men - who felt that all their dancers
should sleep with them, as a sort of "thank you for the
job", I guess. I know that I lost some offered jobs because
I declined the honor. It was an ongoing problem, though not
in Fresno. Becky's husband, Bob, owned a plumbing business,
and didn't take much part in the running of the restaurant.
They had a young daughter, Beverly, and a teenaged son named
Bobby, who was very smitten with the dancers in general, but
wasn't a problem.
sister, Marian, who did some opera singing, sometimes came
around and got bossy ("You can't wear that vest on
stage - we're not running a Sunday school here!")
but was mostly not in evidence.
I was, of course,
a little nervous about going to a new, unknown place, only my
second out of town gig, so my second brother, Bill, who was just
eighteen at that time in 1967, went with me to keep me company
and keep me safe. We stayed at the California Hotel, a place
which, I swear, must have been the inspiration for the Eagles'
song "Hotel California"! It was huge, old, and gloomy,
with an impressive lobby. It turned out that the drummer, Louie
Sayegh, was staying there, too, which was reassuring. When
Bill and I first went to our room, it was so musty that we opened
a window and lit some incense, and very soon the manager was
knocking on the door to find out if we had any of those "marijuana
reefers" in there - which we did not.
We went over
to the restaurant, where I was to audition. I introduced myself
to Becky, who introduced me to the aforementioned Louie, and
then to the oudist, Guy Chookoorian. He had a terrifying
scowl on his face, and someone whispered to me that he was a
very mean, bad-tempered man, and that I had better watch myself!
Well, that was just fine - how would I survive? However, the
facade soon fell away, and Guy and Louie were pretty delighted
that they had suckered me. Guy turned out to be a very sweet-tempered,
supportive, enjoyable man, with an odd sense of humor that exactly
matched my own - we became good friends and remain so, to this
day. He had his wife, Louise, and his children, Arshag and Arazie,
there, too. Those children are now married, with children of
their own! Yikes! The audition went well, and I was hired. It
was the start of a work relationship and friendships that lasted
for years. I worked on and off at the Nights for a long time.
front door was done with purple tuck-and-roll upholstery. It
still is, though the building now houses the Armenian Social
Club and Cultural Center. The restaurarant was quite large,
with a fancy bar down one side. On one end of the room was a
stage big enough to hold the musicians, set to one side of a
dance floor, and then we - the dancers - climbed up a few steps
to a long central runway, where we did our show for the most
part. The runway had extensions which could make it a little
wider when a duet was performing. The space really was pretty
narrow - once I fell off of the side onto a table, right into
a man's shishkabob! From the dressing room, we entered the dining
room through the service area of the kitchen. Unlike that of
the Athens West in Portland, this kitchen was kept spotless.
Over the years,
there was a variety of cooks, but the one I remember best (and
whose food I remember most fondly) was a very large man named Sam,
who later left to open his own restaurant. they served all the
classic Armenian dishes, and, from that beginning, several dishes
have become regulars on my table at home. There was a big walk-in
freezer, and, on particularly hot evenings, I would go into it
in my assiut dress and stand there while all the metal bits got
really icy, and then I could go out for a while and be much more
When Guy worked
there, the music alternated with comedy routines that Guy performed.
I can still remember a lot of those routines, ones performed
by "Chuck O'Ryan" or "Hassan ben Sober." Hairy
old jokes and silly songs had the audience gleefully cackling
in their seats. There was a lot of time devoted to Armenian folk
dance music, intended for audience participation. A large group
of young people came in several nights a week to dance, and I
was able to join in as I learned most of the dances. What nice
people they were! I was often invited to their family homes for
dinner or just visiting.
One of the
musicians that worked there most often was Richard Hagopian,
a master oudist and singer. His singing used to give me chills!
He would work with a local drummer most of the time, but occasionally,
for something special, Becky would bring in to play with him Hachig
Kazarian on the clarinet, Buddy Sarkissian on the
drums, and Jack Chalikian on the kanoun, and then the
place would really rock! (This team, with Manny Petro,
made several "Kef Time" records.) Wayne Bedrosian sometimes
played piano with them, too.
celebrities or actors came in for dinner. The sister of the Shah
of Iran spent an evening there, and was very gracious to us. Michael
Connors, of"Mannix" fame came in fairly often,
and he was usually very rude. It was always fun when there was
someone of note in the audience. The news would fly through the
employees like wildfire. Some of our favorite visitors were the
people from the Circus. Barnum and Bailey set up in the
Convention Center, right across the street, and all the folks,
from the high wire acts to the dwarf clowns to the animal wranglers
came in almost every night and ate. We became friendly with them,
and got to attend the circus free whenever we wanted to. Sitting
right up in front, where the parade came in through the flap,
fueled a great desire in me to ride an elephant sitting behind
its ears, rather than in a howdah. (I felt that this was one
life ambition that I would never be able to fulfill, but, a couple
of years ago, my sweet husband, Marc, took the considerable trouble
necessary to arrange such a ride for me! But where were my spangles?)
Once I was looking with Louie at the animals in their pens, and
when we came to the camels, Louie started shouting at them in
Arabic. The camels got very agitated, and started rushing about
their corral, and so we supposed that they were either raised
in the Middle East or by Arabs.
When the circus
left town, my brother Bill left with them. He could see that
I was safe and at home at the Nights, and he had always had the
rather old-fashioned desire to run away with the circus. He didn't
stay with them long. He had to sleep in the car with the elephants,
preferring to deal with their fleas rather than the gay predators
who were after him in the regular sleeping cars. Such an adventure!
time I was working in Fresno, I woke up one morning to a sensation
like a dull knife being turned in my side. Zenouba was
working there then, and I managed to wake her (it was very early)
to drive me to the hospital, where, when they finally looked
at me in the emergency room after Zenouba stood up and cried
with much drama and rolling of rs, "This girl is dying here,
and nobody is coming to take care of her!" it turned out
that I had a kidney stone. We didn't know at that time that kidney
stones could be caused by lots of hot, sweaty work without enough
water intake. We were athletes, definitely doing lots of hot,
sweaty work, with three 45 minute shows a night, not to speak
of all the folk dancing...
At the Nights
I worked with some very good dancers. Becky was particular.
I worked quite a bit with Jonnie, a red-haired girl who
had studied with Rikko and Tita, a brother and sister
team out of Las Vegas. You could always tell someone out of Rikko
and Tita's stable (so to speak) because they always had a coin
costume with big artificial coins sewed on very loosely, to make
lots of noise, and with rhinestone banding around the top of
the bra and belt. Jonnie had lots of energy and a wonderful smile,
and was a thoroughly nice girl. I also worked quite a bit with Helena
Vlahos, a Greek woman who had an amazingly active belly -
in fact, she had appeared on the tv show "That's Incredible" because
of a feat she performed every time on stage. She was able to
put three coins across her middle and made them, one at a time,
flip over up and down her belly. She could also crease paper
money with that amazing muscle control! She was a most enjoyable
person, and she came home to Berkeley to visit me sometimes.
I heard that she eventually married a Greek guy from Texas and
tried to quit dancing, but that it didn't take and she's back
at it somewhere in Southern California. While there, I also worked
with Achmed (Russell Jarjour) and Saida,
a team with whom I first worked in San Francisco at the Bagdad.
They were a striking couple, both tall and slender. They wore
coordinating costumes - whatever her theme was, he would wear
a similar belt and a long-sleeved bolero jacket to match, always
with black leggings and tall black boots. They did a wonderful
show. Saida Asmar eventually married Jalal Takesh,
had some children, and opened the Pasha
Restaurant in San Francisco. When she was pregnant with
their first child, Saida used to come into the Bagdad on the
nights Jalal was playing there, and she would bring their huge
golden Afghan hound, Pasha (was the restaurant named for him?).
She was so slim that her pregnancy made her look like a toothpick
with an olive on it, and with that huge, furry dog reclining
next to her on the banquette, it made quite a picture! She has
always been a classy lady.
Becky had a
gallery of photos of her dancers in the restaurant, and there
was one dancer pictured that I have never met. Her name was Kari
Noven, and, according to both Becky and Guy, she was a fantastic
dancer who could and did do anything - not only belly dancing,
but show dancing, singing, etc. She is the only dancer who ever
made me feel intimidated - and I never even met her!
After the first
couple of stints in a hotel, I used to find an apartment to rent
while I worked in Fresno. The first one was very cute, but the
heater didn't really work and it was winter! I used to turn on
all the burners and oven of the electric stove, and huddle near
it for warmth - and then the circuit breaker would get overloaded
and go out, and I would have to start all over. While I was in
that apartment, my divorce from my first husband became final.
The judge, without being requested to do so by anyone, took our
son away from me and gave him to his father, saying in effect
that "any belly dancer surely is a whore and a bad mother.
I eventually got my son back (he is Adam, whom many of you have
met), but it was most traumatic. Thank goodness times have changed!
Another time, I had a much better place - it was Christmastime,
and I had a tree and Adam came and stayed with me for a while
- he was the pet of the restaurant, and he loved it!
was most enjoyable at the Arabian Nights. Great music, great
food and good friends - what more could I ask?!
10-20-01 Dancers I Have Known
Over the course of my approximately thirty-year professional career, I have
known and worked with some of the most interesting dancers in the business
CARAVAN 2001, Scottish Rite Center, July 28 & 29,
2000 by Susie Poulelis
beautiful photo spread by Susie
9-26-01 "RETRO-TRIEVING" by
remember those days back in the '70s when ethnic stylizing was
the only "true" way to dance.
Latest addition to our North