My dad had two names. His given name was James William Bunn. But for his career in show business, he used the name Jimmy Blaine.
I am prompted to write this with two days in mind. Today, which is Father’s Day, and the day that he died.
I was just seven years old. March 18, 1967. It was a Saturday morning. I sat perched in my father’s big leather chair. In the TV room. Next to the table which had all of his smelly pipes on a circular stand. One was a corncob. The others traditional with black curved mouthpieces attached to dark, rich satiny wood bowls. The room was above the garage at the top of the stairs with a birds eye view of the kitchen. We met there every Saturday morning. For a date with Bugs Bunny and Sylvester and Tweety.
My dad was nowhere to be found. As I looked down the stairwell into the kitchen below, I saw one of our neighbors there. And I knew. Something was terribly wrong. This neighbor was not a fan of my father. At just seven years old, I had the awareness that at some point, she had been angry with him for driving her daughter home from babysitting after having a lot to drink.
The next thing I remember is seeing my mother and our minister coming up those stairs. I loved my mom, but that was not the planned meeting I had in mind. “Your father has gone away in an airplane. And he won’t be coming back.” The message the minister delivered to me. Not “Your father has died.” Or passed away. Instead, I was lied to.
Two years later, my grief reared its head. Watching the movie “Love Story” in Oklahoma City where my brother and sister were in college and I had gone to visit. In the movie, when Ali McGraw’s character died, all of my pain came to the surface in a rush of tears. A hysterical episode. But not like from Seinfeld. It was the first time in my nine year life that I had ever cried so hard that I can still remember it today. 51 years later.
Since my father died, I have known over fifty fatherless Father’s days. It has been my norm. And over that time, until recently, I have all but forgotten him. My best friend of my life. I had written him off because of things he had said and done to members of my family. And I regret that.
So today, this Father’s Day, June 21, 2020, in this year of perfect vision I honor both of you. James William Bunn and Jimmy Blaine.
Jimmy Blaine supported a family of five. With a brilliant talent. His voice. And his words. He made a fine living from both. We lived in privilege in Larchmont, New York. Complete with a membership to the Larchmont Yacht Club. The kind where really big yachts come to play. Then on to bigger and better as his career was burgeoning. Building a dream home on two acres in Wilton, Connecticut. We had four collies and a pony at one time there.
A singer, radio and television announcer, my dad was the voice of Nescafe coffee. And what Ed McMahon was to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, my father was to Jackie Gleason on the show of the same name. The one with The Honeymooners. He once filled in for Buffalo Bob on Howdy Doody. Went by the name of Jersey Jim. He performed Vaudeville style with Bert Parks. The man who I watched sing “Here she is, Miss America” all throughout my childhood. It is surreal to see that my dad has an IMDB page. And to search his name on Youtube, only to find sharings of recording he made on 78 records of children’s songs in the 50’s.
His last career venture wise was to record all of the Curious George books. Complete with him reading and singing, backed by a chorus and full MGM orchestra. The first of the series was an album that I still have. One one side the first book. “Curious George.” On the other, “Curious George Takes A Job.”
James William Bunn fought in World War II. He had dropped out of college to enlist. He became a pilot and was a Lieutenant in the Eighth Army Air Corp, known as the Mighty Eighth. There was no Air Force at the time. He was stationed in England as a B-17 bomber pilot. He saw combat, flying missions over Nazi Germany when he was just 20 years old and lost several crewmen when his plane was hit by enemy fire.
James William Bunn was attacked again. This time, on his home soil of New York City. Manhattan to be precise. Someone had mugged him. Left him for dead in a stairwell in 1952 with a fractured skull. Today’s terms call it a traumatic brain injury. A trauma that spilled over.
The doctors put two steel plates in his skull. He was prone to grand mal seizures. That means big ones. The stories my mother told about him having a seizure where she kept a tongue depressor at the ready so she would not lose a finger if she put her hand in his mouth still resonate with me. He was just 27 years old. Lying at one end of a hospital trying not to die while at the other end, my mother was giving birth to my sister. I was not born for another eight years.
Jimmy Blaine was “The Man With The Big Yellow Hat.” It was his last gig. In this picture, he was wearing a felt hat that he had spray painted yellow. This was a big party, complete with a live monkey on a leash, upon the release of the album. I believe we were at Tavern On The Green in Central Park. That’s me in the bottom left with my mom and I both eating BBBats toffee on a stick. Chocolate. And it is likely the drink I had was a Shirley Temple. With lots of cherries.
Today, as I look at this picture of my father just months before his untimely death, I am filled with warmth that he is looking. At me. With what appears to be an expression of love. From a father to his child.
On March 18, 1967, my father walked past my door at the top of the stairs, turned the corner to complete the walk past the white spindle railing topped with a dark stained wooden banister. Into my parents room. Where he would have the last of the grand mal seizures. This time stopping his heart. And breaking mine at the same time. He was only 42 years old.
So Happy Father’s Day. To my two dads. While I miss you both, I am grateful that I can honor your memory today. And every day. I am so grateful for the gifts you gave me. My voice. My words. My sense of humor. My passion for an audience.
One last thing. James William Bunn also got his Master’s degree from Columbia University, where he did his master’s thesis on the works of Mark Twain. He was a big fan. This was the quote from Mark Twain on his headstone:
“Green Sod Above
Lie Light, Lie Light
Good Night, Dear Heart
Good Night, Good Night.”