SPECIAL: YOUNG AT HEART
STAR-BULLETIN / 2004
Art Todd had a regular gig with swing bandsman Del Courtney.
What a wonderful world
Art Todd, the banjo playing singer, is 92 years old and still going strong
Add it up.
"When I was 10 years old in Baltimore, Md., I made an ukulele out of a cigar box, a broom handle and four pieces of wire," Art Todd recalls. "When my father saw that, he went downtown and bought me the best banjo money could buy. And that's the same banjo I'm playing now!"
So, how old is the banjo?
"Eighty-two years old. And it still sounds the same."
Which makes Art Todd ...
"Ninety-two!" he laughs, delightedly. "I just had a birthday, the best birthday I ever had, thanks to my friend Pierre Grill. He must have had 200 people there. Goodness."
Yes, this is the same Art Todd whose seminal record "I Love a Banjo" was a hit half a century ago, whose musical and personal partnership with his late wife Dotty spanned 58 years -- "And we were 28 when we met in 1942!" -- numerous club, radio and television appearances, a double-platinum song called "Chanson d'Amour," a regular gig well into what he thought was retirement age playing with swing bandsman Del Courtney, and now, a popular jam session every Sunday afternoon at the Waikiki Elks Club with Grill. A busy life that seems not to be slowing down.
"The first time I saw Pierre, he was playing the piano with the left hand, organ bass with his stocking feet and a trumpet with the right hand," marveled Todd, who actually has seen it all. After all, in school he played on the radio with "Red Godfrey the Warbling Banjoist," known later as Arthur Godfrey. "This is on the level!"
His current collaboration, with Grill, comes naturally, he says. "Pierre is such a lovely, nice man, a musician exactly like me. He can fake anything, and do it well. We never have to ask each other what key we're in. Imagine that!"
"In those days, high-school boys used to dress very sharp -- including me -- and I was a nice-looking kid.
The managing director of the Rainbow Room saw me standing there and asked if I was in show business.
'Of course,' I said. He asked, 'What types of songs do you sing?' I said, 'I sing the semi-classics, and, by God, that's exactly what they had in mind for the Rainbow Room."
On getting his start in show business
The Art Todd story, as he tells it: "My mother was a very fine pianist, so I guess I got some of it from her. In fact, I think I got it all from her. I just had a feeling for music. When I was 14, I thought I'd better learn to read music, so I did. When I graduated from high school, I played banjo and sang in the school play, and two agents heard me. They did the most wonderful thing -- they took me to New York and had me sing for, of all people, Irving Berlin. His big song at that time was 'How Deep Is the Ocean,' so that's what I sang.
"Looking back, my life has been amazing. Those agents were auditioning an accordion player for the Rainbow Room Lounge, in those days the No. 1 club in the country. In those days, high-school boys used to dress very sharp -- including me -- and I was a nice-looking kid. The managing director of the Rainbow Room saw me standing there and asked if I was in show business. 'Of course,' I said. He asked, 'What types of songs do you sing?' I said, 'I sing the semi-classics,' and, by God, that's exactly what they had in mind for the Rainbow Room.
"Get this, I'm only 18, and those agents had a guitar for me there VERY quickly. I sang 'Sylvia' and 'Trees.' I went to work the next night and stayed there for 14 weeks."
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
From the Cover:
Art Todd celebrated his 92nd birthday on March 12 by performing with Pierre Grill at the Honolulu Elks Club in Waikiki.
His act was set: solo music using banjo, singing with guitar. Asked if he was able to make a living at it, Todd laughed so hard he coughed. "My God, that was the No. 1 room in the country! I'm making $500 a week! As a teen! In the meantime, the folks from the Essex House booked me when I finished the Rainbow Room, for another 14 weeks."
A decade later, a touring musician during the opening months of the war, Todd was booked into the Providence Biltmore Hotel in Rhode Island for six months. Also in the band was "a very beautiful girl pianist" called Dotty, and somehow, while they managed to avoid dating, they were falling in love.
"I went down to her room one day, and said to her, 'I don't know whether you know it or not, but I'm in love with you.' She said, 'That can't be.' I said, 'Yes, it is.' And she said, 'That's enough, go. Go back to your room.'
"Ten minutes later, she called and said, 'I love you, too!' Isn't that strange?"
A doctor friend treated them to a trip to Hawaii in 1978 and the couple also fell in love with the islands. Ready to retire, they sold their house and bought an apartment in Waikiki. Other than an occasional gig promoting public radio, they stuck to the retirement.
"Dotty died four years ago. She was 87 years old. Married 58 years. We had the most wonderful marriage of any marriage that ever lived. We appreciated each other every day.
"After Dotty died, I could not sleep at night. The doctors said that unless I had a woman sleeping in that other bed, I was going to go into the hospital for a very long time. Isn't that something? When I got a roommate, I was able to start sleeping."
But Todd's other love, music, kept his strings tuned.
"Keeping active is very important. I've been playing music for 82 years. Because I love it. I love it. I get around fine. I get out every day. I drive my own car. I fell into the most wonderful group of friends, mostly girls in their 40s. When Del (Courtney) was sick in bed, we'd go over there every Wednesday and we'd tell stories and have community sings and have a wonderful afternoon.
"When Del died recently, we decided to start going to each other's homes. It can't end. We're out for fun! I love music and I love to play!"
YOUNG AT HEART
ONLINE EDITION / APRIL 2006
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"Young at Heart" is our guide for Hawaii's 50-plus population. As you can see, we have stories on a variety of subjects -- some with specific information and advice on topics important to you, and others to open your minds to new ideas and possibilities.