Try a little tenderness.
- Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Three Dog Night and a whole bunch of other people
BEMUS POINT - In the summer and on into the fall, Thursday night is karaoke night at the Village Casino.
The Casino isn't a casino at all. It's a restaurant and bar on the spit of land where the ferry runs, connecting Bemus Point and Stow. For centuries, the Seneca, the Iroquois and other tribes of the Five Nations met on this point, before a Pittsburgh steel magnate purchased it in the early 1900s.
Built in 1930, the basic structure of the Village Casino is still the same. A large dock with boat slips faces Stow, and boaters can walk from their boats to the big deck, filled with tables, umbrellas and colorful planters. Duck nests are buried in the flowers that run along the railings. Inside is a large, terraced room with tables and chairs, a bar, ice cream and take-out counter, bandstand and pinball arcade. The owners recently remodeled the main level, replacing the old wood flooring and carving out a gift shop. Off the main room, doors open onto a little city park with swings, playground and basketball court, and upstairs is the dancehall.
Today, they occasionally have dances upstairs, mainly for teens and tweens, but in its heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, the joint was jumpin'. All the big bands played there: Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Harry James, Count Basie, Benny Goodman. Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway played there, too, and Frank Sinatra, when he was doing his Catskills gigs in the early days and meandered west toward Buffalo and Cleveland. Tickets were $2 or $3 a couple, and sometimes were marked $1.50 a person, or men, $1.60, ladies, $1.40. Some newer bands started at the Casino before they hit the big time, too: Rusted Root and 10,000 Maniacs - whose lead singer, Natalie Merchant, hails from Jamestown.
As a rule, I hate karaoke. Before the Casino, I'd only experienced it reluctantly, when I was dragged into a bar by acquaintances during a business trip in Atlanta. Confronted by techno music and strobe lights, I felt assaulted by the screeching voices of young people who had obviously had too much to drink. I don't understand people who are into karaoke, and am a little suspicious of them, like I'm suspicious of people who are into line dancing or scrapbooking. In this place, though, even the karaoke is tinged with nostalgia, infused with a bit of tenderness.
We discovered karaoke night accidentally. I had driven to the lake with our girls, and we arranged to meet my husband Jeff at the Casino for a late dinner when he was able break away from work to make the drive from Delaware to join us. He called me from his cellphone when he was getting close so I could order his food, and arrived just as the waitress was serving our dinners. We'd just begun to catch up when the music started. We were captivated as people, alone or in groups, took the stage and sang. Some people were terrible, most were average, and some were quite good. But it was Henry, an older gentleman who sang Sinatra, who hooked us and, after that, we went to karaoke night as often as we could.
Not long ago, Jeff and I arrived at the Casino a little late, and the place was packed. We put our name in with the hostess, but the chances of our getting a table looked hopeless. The menu consists of adequate bar food, including a wide variety of sauces to accompany the Buffalo wings. In 1985, the Casino made the Guinness Book of World Records for serving the most wings in a 24-hour period. The hostess finally signaled us. Just as we settled into our seats and got ready to order our food, the music started.
A couple of people went on stage, and they were too unremarkable even to laugh at. We sipped our beer and suffered through; after all these years, we knew that Henry was worth the wait.
Finally, the karaoke guy called for Henry, and helped him climb the steps up to the stage. Henry was in his 70s; maybe even 80. With white hair and glasses, dressed in a polo shirt, khaki slacks and boat shoes, he looked like a retired middle manager, or teacher. He modestly made his way to center stage, adjusted the mic, and the music started.
As soon as he hit that first note, though, Henry became Frank Sinatra. He snapped his fingers and moved with ease as he came in off the beat, a little early or a little late, and every note, every lyric, was perfect. The phrasing and the tone rang true. He does Perry Como and Tony Bennett perfectly, too, but when it's ''The Summer Wind,'' or ''I've Got You Under My Skin,'' he's simply Frank. He looked at the crowd openly, with no airs, and never glanced at the monitor that flashed the words, follow-the-bouncing-ball-style, to both the singer and the audience. He didn't embellish or change things. Henry was Frank Sinatra. He hit it, nailed it and was pure understatement, perfection and grace.
When Henry sings, the summer tourists are recognizable by their raised eyebrows, open mouths and general looks of astonishment. If they're with someone who knows him, they get an elbow jab, a look and maybe a whispered I-told-you-so. The rest of us, the regulars, are Henry's fan club. We chitter before he goes onstage, and clap or stand up and clap an ovation when he's finished. On a typical night, Henry does three or four songs, perfectly, with Frank's inimitable elegance and style.
A REMINDER OF A SIMPLER PLACE
Years before, when she was still healthy and able to travel, we brought Jeff's mother to karaoke night. The place was packed. Large tables were occupied by families: little kids, teenagers, parents and grandparents, talking, laughing, eating. Adults drank beer and kids had Cokes, waiting for the music to start. The mood was festive and raucous, and when the music started, people danced. Fathers danced with toddlers, sisters danced with each other, and a shy boy, about 14, reluctantly hit the dance floor with his grandma. He learned something that night about rhythm, grace and the movement of women's bodies.
''This place reminds me of Montana,'' Jeff's mom said, a big grin on her face.
I remembered fiddlers' contests in Montana, where generations gathered for the party, to dance and listen to homegrown music. Informal gatherings, where the normal rules of society were relaxed, and everyone acted all right anyway. Jeff's mom tapped her feet and clapped her hands in time with the music, but when Henry launched into ''The Lady is a Tramp,'' her eyes misted over. The Casino itself had thrown her back to Montana, where she'd lived for a time when Jeff was a young adult, but Henry threw her back further, perhaps to when she was a young woman, wearing fancy shoes, dancing and working in New York City before she married.
My own mother, visiting with one of her girlfriends, reluctantly agreed to a karaoke night, too. Once the music started, they both caught the spirit of the place. When Henry sang, the audience was riveted, and as he concluded his song, my mother let out a loud whoop, barely audible over the wild applause. Afterward, she talked about Henry as if he were her own. She claimed Henry as she claimed Sinatra, an icon of her generation. His voice was in the background during pivotal moments when these women were young. Sinatra played as they learned to drive, learned to dance and fell in love. Henry's singing brought her back to that place and time.
Mostly, Jeff and I tolerate the other singers while we wait for Henry, but that night, after Henry sang, some old cowboy dressed in a flannel shirt and scuffed boots shuffled shyly to the stage. He surprised us with a great Merle Haggard, when we'd never have guessed he was an Okie from Muskogee. A peripheral member of a rough-looking group climbed the stage, dressed in camo and combat boots, with a shaved head and shifty, unfathomable eyes. He looked like a survivalist, an escapee from a mental hospital, or a serial killer, but when the music started, he did a wonderful rendition of ''Blue Suede Shoes.''
Henry took the stage one more time that evening. He looked at the crowd, his eyes slightly magnified by his glasses, and motioned to the karaoke man that he was ready. Once the music started, he was transformed, and carried us with him as he flew us to the moon. After the song, he gingerly descended the steps to the floor and returned to his life as a retired middle manager, or teacher. On Sunday, Henry will take his place with the rest of the baritones in his church choir. He'll pass the time doing yard work, cleaning the garage, or maybe watching a ball game or two on TV until Thursday rolls around again when, for a few more minutes, he'll be Frank Sinatra.
There is something that is difficult to convey about karaoke night at the Casino. In the middle of the sunburned girls who scramble off their boat to do a rendition of ''It's Raining Men,'' complete with hand movements, the boys who are hoping to get lucky in their ''Love Shack,'' and the fat bartender in his tight T-shirt, which he pulls up to show his belly as he mugs and struts and does Jagger, a kind of gentle love sometimes comes poking through. Something sweet, a tiny miracle.
Perhaps it's the old-fashioned sensibility at the lake that lets this happen. There is a lack of cynicism here, an underlying warmth that gently radiates like the soft summer light. It's a pull that makes sullen teenagers come awake and stop being snotty when they're fishing off the dock, skiing or tubing, and later, when they forget themselves and their cellphones, enjoying the firepit or simply walking the lanes in Maple Springs. It's what makes children, tethered tightly and perhaps overly managed at home, become regular kids again. Here they play pirates and unorganized ball, they shoot hoops, ride bikes, find shells, walk creek beds, explore. They decorate their bikes for the Maple Springs Fourth of July Parade; they make brownies for the Labor Day picnic. If they're lucky, they go to karaoke night at the Casino with their parents and grandparents.
People, including me, are a little tenderer here. It's in this place, on this beautiful lake, that Jeff and I are learning to live our lives with more openness, reverence and grace. Henry represents something of this to me. The spirit of the lake somehow seems to draw us in and wash over us. In this lovely place our veneer is stripped and our varnish softens, just like the old boats.