Robb’s Post, Part One: Hulas and History

April 13th, 2011

This is the first of two posts by my normally reliable friend, Robb Royer.

Robb and I met each other in the early sixties, when we were both still sopranos.  We formed an all-soprano rock band and wrote, performed, lived, and (arguably) matured in tandem.

We’ve just had a terrifically entertaining three days together here in LA, a flurry of activity that included the world premiere of a brilliant piece of concert music by our former bandmate, Stephen Cohn, and a lengthy reunion dinner in a somewhat dodgy Indian restaurant with the most attractive member of the Pleasure Fair, Michele Cochrane.  More of all that later.

This is Robb’s account of how his Mom, her love of the hula, and life aboard cruise ships conspired to put the two of us in a brand-new condominium in the San Fernando Valley, way back in the days when pangolins ruled the earth.

The Condo

The story of how Tim and I became roommates begins with my mother, Cora Carmen Nimelstein Royer. A common name to be sure, but a very uncommon woman. Mom liked to be gay, not in the current context of the word but in the one they had back in the thirties. In fact when the present context came into practice, I remember Mom, (albeit a socially progressive Democrat) saying to me “the only thing I have against homosexuals, Robert, is that they’ve ruined the word ‘gay’. It used to be gay Paree, our hearts were young and gay. Now it’s…’

To Mom, the ultimate place to be gay was aboard an ocean liner. Mom loved to cruise. We weren’t wealthy in those days, but Dad made a nice living and sending her off on a yearly voyage was de rigueur in our family. Beside the joy it afforded Mom, it bought Dad and me a little quietude around the house.

Once the blessed event was booked, Mom would start sewing. With a vengeance. She would plan the trip in detail: parties, dances, ports of call etc. and then construct an ensemble for each and every day from the bare threads upward. The dining room would be off limits for those preparatory months, it being co-opted as her construction area, which was fine with the rest of us because we usually ate in the kitchen anyway. The resulting frocks tended to be colorful, to say the least.

Neither Napoleon nor Patton ever planned a campaign with more care. For Mom, going aboard a ship was not simply an opportunity to relax, quite the opposite. There was a strategy, a goal, a task at hand. Success or failure could be succinctly measured by the events that transpired on board. The first goal was…

Getting seated at the captain’s table.

Such an important goal was never left to chance. She had a method. You see Mom was an excellent dancer. One of the legends around our household was the story of how an impresario had seen her dance as a teenager and was ready to sweep her off to Paris to study ballet when my maternal grandmother, the infamous Red Rose of Senior City (who deserves a few chapters of her own) cruelly vetoed the idea because she wanted Mom to waitress at her struggling business: The Samovar Tea Room.

The rest of Mom’s life was pretty much spent compensating for this tragic Missed Opportunity. She danced, oh how she danced. Ballroom, Waltz, Foxtrot whatever that is, Tango and most notably… the Hula.

Now we all have stories about how our parents embarrassed us as teenagers, but I want you to picture yourself coming home from junior high school with a scruffy friend, opening the door – and there’s Mom in a grass skirt and three leis doing the hula to Don Ho’s ‘Lovely Hula Hands’ blaring from the Philco.

Once you got over the initial shock, she was actually quite good. She had it down. She would even slap her butt when the line “this Wahini is a girl of parts” would come up in ‘Little Brown Gal.’

I heard these Hulas so many times I can sing you several of them. I could even do a couple if I could dance at all.

How does all this pertain, you ask? I’m getting to that.

Y’see, immediately upon boarding the ship, Mom would go around recruiting the fattest, most carb-allergic Midwestern insurance salesmen she could find, dress them up in grass skirts, half-shell cocoanut tits, and wigs that she had secreted on board and proceeded to teach them a hula.

Naturally, when it was performed it bought the house down every time and BOOM! she was at the Captain’s table. Upon Mom’s return, Dad and I would always reserve an evening for the ineluctable slide show which photographically documented her triumphs.

Next time, how these events landed Tim and me at the Condo.

12 Responses to “Robb’s Post, Part One: Hulas and History”

  1. Stephen Cohn Says:

    I’m disappointed that I never got to see your mom in action. Had she retired her hula skirt by the time we started our artistic endeavors?

  2. EverettK Says:

    Isn’t it amazing? There seems to be SOMETHING wired into us genetically, that forces this mother-child embarrassment dynamic into being. There’s gotta be a great novel in that somewhere (Tim).

    Thanks for the Great Tale, Robb! Really looking forward to the next part!!!

  3. John Lindquist Says:

    Fascinating. One just cannot make this stuff up. Ah, life.

  4. Larissa Says:

    brilliantly awesome post. I just recently learned, because I am somewhat of a mental invalid at times, that hula dance was used in place of a spoken storytelling language in Hawaiian culture. (You should have seen the looks I got when it came out I didn’t know this… I alone?) Anyway-really really cool. So a story about your hula-dancing and otherwise extraordinary sounding mother seems very appropriate. (c:

    All my mom ever did was the dishes…while singing Frank Sinatra songs but still…dishes…

    Makes me want to leave an interesting story behind for people to tell (c:

  5. micael hallinan Says:

    Hi Robb, Our moms were quite alike. My mom had taken the Lurline to Honolulu in the 1930s. We had the old Hawaii Calls Radio programs on lp albums that I thought were pure cornball. I now collect them. Anyway the Lurline trip was central to my mom’s youth and Tim and I grew with stories of the trip and pre War Hawaii. We have old home movies of mom taking hulu lessons under the banyan tree at the old and wonderful Moana Hotel in Waikiki. Your mom sounds like a delight. I’m sorry that I never got to meet her. Hope you had a good time at your reunion. Mike

  6. Robb Royer Says:

    Wow, thanx everybody. I thought I was going to get a firestorm of protest for mom-abuse. I woke up in a cold sweat the night I wrote it and almost deleted it. Tim talked me into posting it. I’m glad her charm-in-spite-of-everything comes through.

  7. Robb Royer Says:

    By the way… Stephen… no she never retired the grass skirt. She pretty much hula’d her way off the planet. You just weren’t in the right place at the right time.

  8. Usman Says:

    What a wonderful story, and great way of telling us about your Mom.
    I’m really looking forward to the escapades of Robb and Tim.

  9. Suzanna Says:

    Hi, Robb

    Great story and really wonderfully written. Looking forward to the next part.

  10. Laren Bright Says:

    With two guys like Robb & Tim on the loose I think our planet is in great peril.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, look at this. I bust my butt day after day and people sit on their hands, and Robb comes along and suddenly it’s Judy Garland at the Hollywood Bowl, packed with delirious fans. From now on, I’m focusing on reasons to go vegan. Why even try to entertain?

    I knew Robb’s mother, of course, and she was a woman with an enormous personality, great good humor, virtually unlimited energy, and an IQ that probably topped the charts. I always had the impression that Robb’s dad, who had a scholarly air, was somewhat bemused by his wife and son. It was a brainy household, and one of the things that made it so much fun was that the brains were so different from each other. They were kind enough to let me stay there for a while (a little longer than they’d anticipated) when I was essentially homeless — I was, after all, far too exotic a being to get a job — and I remember the whole family with affection and gratitude.

    As my bro mice points out, our mom had her Hawaiian moments, too, and often when her sister came to visit and the vodka had had time to warm to room temperature, the Rommell Sisters would do their Tandem Hula routine. I remember being excruciatingly embarrassed by it then, but I’d give anything to be able to see it now. I really don’t understand why more parents don’t just kill their children.

    Part Two will be up in a day or two. And thanks, Robb.

  12. Malcolm Searles Says:

    Indeed, thanks Robb for a wonderful tale (part one) …
    You never mentioned any of this during our conversations together … and certainly kept quiet on the subject during your recent BB Radio interview !!
    Looking forward to Part Two

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