Lester Lanin is nervous.
He is on the road to destiny but he is nervous. There are too many people in the car for comfort and he is afraid the air conditioning will give him pneumonia, and he is sitting on a board so he won't hurt his back and he isn't sure the driver has taken the right route and he's afraid he may be late.
Also, he's worried that his tuxedo pants in the truck have slipped to the bottom of the clothes bay and will get wrinkled.
Also: will there be enough gas in the tank to get back?
And that's not all. Earlier, back at his apartment, he misplaced his credit card and had to report it missing. Later, he will misplace he wallet and glasses [fortunately they will quickly be returned to him].
Now, if only, somehow, someway, Lester Lanin can contrive to escape all the traps and pitfalls awaiting him out there, and reach Southampton, that reservation for the rich, he may achieve his rendezvous with destiny:
His 10,000th wedding reception.
Alright, so maybe it isn't exactly his 10,000th. But let's not quibble. Lanin has been at this since age 15 1/2, he's been sending out five, 10, sometimes 30 Lester Lanin bands a week. (Not all starring Lester Lanin, but guaranteed to have that perky Lester Lanin beat.)
His accountant sat down and totaled it up and decided by now he's got to have totaled 10,000 wedding receptions.
[And that's not even mentioning all the debutante parties, charity balls, conventions, presidential inaugurals, college proms, anniversary parties . . .]
Hey, give the man a break. He's 67. He works hard. He's made 28 albums. He's got 11 Lester Lanin bands out playing today alone. We're calling it 10,000 weddings and that's it. You don't like it, quit reading.
"i hate to talk immodestly, or like an old-timer," says Lester Lanin. "but I am the dean of society orchestras in this country. I'm talking facts, not like a wise guy."
The dean is in the back of a rented Thunderbird sotto voice so the other guys in the car won't here. The other guys are members of his orchestra. There is Artie the trumpet driving, Jeff the bass, talking, and Julie the sax asleep. There's no need having other people know his business, says Lester. He plays it close to the vest. These society bandleaders, they're competitive.Lester doesn't even want to describe his style too fully. Someone may copy it. And let's not talk money either.
But he will tell us his success secret.
"I attribute our success to our adaptability to the specific requirements of each occasion and you can quote me."
Or to put it another way: Give 'em what they want.
"I'm like a grocery store," says Lester. "you want oranges, I got it. Apples, got it." He keeps up with trends. In 1956 or some such year, Lester heard "rock Around the Clock," by Bill Haley and the Comets."i said, Lester, this is it.' I'm always abreast of the times. I immediately got my men together. I said: 'let's play rock.'"
And rock they will. You want disco? The boys will play "YMCA." They'll do Bee Gees. You're old-fashioned? Lester can oblige: "i have a record out, 'Forty Beatles Hits.' Epstein gave me permission." You're antediluvian? He'll give you every show tune ever written. Lerner and loewe. Rodgers and everybody. Porter, Gershwin, "tomorrow" till it's coming out your nose. You're reincarnated? How about
"Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life?" You're Jewish? Hava Some Nagilla, You're Cornelius "vanderbilt Whitney? Lester can start that obscure Rodgers and Hammerstein tune you like as you walk into the room. He's played for everyone, remembers their favorites and accedes to all requests, instantly. Bananas? Yes, he has no.
Society hums right along with him. "I very seldom fail to play the wedding of a girl whose coming-out party we've played. Then she becomes chairman of a charity ball and engages us. They're loyal, the social element of this country."
But no matter how much they adore him, he never gets complacement. "in society, you can't do anything wrong in philadelphia that they won't know about in Seattle later," he says. "It's one family."
He's a small wiry man, Lester Lanin, with a thin, bony face, high forehead, large ears. He's very polite and eager to please. He has lots of nervous energy. He's wearing a gray checked sportscoat over his tuxedo shirt and black tie. "I got half dressed so I'll save time when I get there," he explains. He owns at least a dozen tuxes.
And he's uncomfortable. "i know Henry Ford, personally," he says. "I'm gonna call him. They make the seats too soft." The Thunderbird has been on the road over two hours and Lester is sweaty and cramped. He suggests stopping at a diner. Little is consumed, however. Lanin is nervous about missing a scheduled radio interview in honor of his 10,000th and makes sure the car is quickly away, still insisting it's on the wong road. It arrives at its destination around 2:30. The reception is due to start at 4:00.
The Meadow Club, Southampton. Scene of the impending event. A Mr. Schwenk ["a lovely man"] called four months ago and said, "my daughter's getting married, Lester. How about you coming out?" Lester said fine and sent out a contract. "I'm almost certain I played his daughter's deb party," says Lanin, who is unsure of too many details about the family but knows Mr. Schwenk was "very big in the Republican party" and engaged him for a lot of affairs.
The Meadow Club: all grass courts. Whites only allowed. Uh. White tennis clothes, that is.
"I think this is the oldest tennis club in the country," says Lanin. "you could check it". In the men's locker room, he opens a small suitcases containing a bottle of Perrier water in a sock, a sweater, a pair of maracas, some witch hazel, the sheet music from "annie," and a package of Rolaids tablets, one of which he eats. He sprinkles some Old Spice on his hands and inside his jacket. He will inadvertently leave his money and his glasses in the locker room.
A woman accosts him in the club house. She wants him to play at her daughter's wddding in East Hampton. She wants him in preson. "She won't have me unless it's it's personal service," he says. He'll check his schedule and see.
Ah, wedding, a work that on this memorable occzasion reminds us of two sad ironies:
There was no music at Lester Lanin's own wedding. He was hurrying to a job and had to wed fast.
And, secondly: the man of 10,000 weddings in himself divorced.
But enought bridge. Back to the chorus and out.
The guests arrive from church about 20 minutes early and a few band members are still missing, making Lanin unhappy. Clarinet and bass strike up "If I Loved You," as the room fills. Julie the sax noodles on the piano until the real pianist arrives. He sits down and Julie gets up in one motion, the two of them not missing a note.
With all nine of his men present [three reeds, trumpet, trombone, guitar-vocalist, bass, piano, drum] Lanin takes his stand up front and goes into a full-fledged upbest "Night and Day," his traditional opener. Dancing commences. This is not the April in Paris Ball crowd, not high society, just upper-middle class. "just nice people," says Lester. Just a wedding, not big or fancy. He bounces up and down, giving them both hands. No batons for Lanin. The music is up tempo. The musicians have no sheet music before them. Most have been with Lanin for years and know his play list, extensive as it is. He calls out the next song, sometimes by title, sometimes just a little bop-bop-wop-a-doo, and they know what is means. He dances around, he jiggles, he checks the room. Occasionally, he smilles. On rock songs, he bangs away on a cow bell. The band plays on and on. When they attempt to break during a natural lull, Lanin is soon herding them back to face the music. "let's get back in," he exhorts. "We'd better play."
They play. After a time, a family member announces that this is Lester Lanin's 10,000th reception. There is applause and congratulations. Lanin starts passing out brightly colored hats with his name stitched on them. A trademark of his. He orders them in lots of 5,000. "They're a collector's item," he says. "They're all over the world. 1the president of France has one."
The dancers dance in their Lester Lanin hats. The bride has one on over her tiara. She asks Lanin for some "fast music." He goes into the disco stuff. The hard-core dancers are revealed. Sounds of revelry and merriment fill the air, subdued, of course, since this is a Southampton Republican Epicopalian enterprise. There is no food at this wedding reception. There is only drinking or dancing. And only the young and intrepid dare hack it when the band assaults the Village Pople and the works of Chuck 1berry and charges full ahead into the ethnic swamp, the horas, the polkas, the Irish jigs. The old folks have fallen away. It's all "very peppy," as Lanin would say later, triumphant after five hours on his feet.
After chalking up the big No. 10,000, more or less, he is immediately ready for the next one. In three days, he would be in Winnetka, Ill., at yet another country club, making yet more music, worrying over yet smaller details.
"I want to please," says Lester Lanin. "I'll do anything in the world to please. With dignity, of course." CAPTION: Picture 1, Band leader Lester Lanin, by Donal F. Holway for Washington Post; Picture 2, Lester Lanin by Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post