Saturday, May 22nd was my mother's 96th birthday. She received her corsage and balloons at noon.
Then Penn and the Penn & Teller extended family joined us for a late afternoon dinner at Circo,
a posh Italian joint at the Bellagio with a view of the dancing fountain show.
Our friend Cathe, rat-wrangler, artist, and all around sweetheart, arranged for Bill Fayne
from the Clint Holmes show to sing "O Solo Mio" to my mother during her birthday dinner at the Bellagio.
After we ordered, he sang.
There is nobody better than my mother -- even in the creaky fog of age and all the attendant discomforts -- at
appreciating the good and the beautiful. She sat next to me as Bill sang. She lowered her eyes and soaked in
the rich, earnest voice. At first she seemed to be straining to understand the lyrics; she has hearing problems
and often doesn't catch words the first time. But when Bill launched into the "O solo mio," refrain, she realized
that Bill was singing in Italian, so of course she wouldn't understand, and that the song was an old friend.
At the end everyone applauded and she thanked Bill almost regally (she's so tiny that's not exactly the right world).
As Bill sat down, she turned to me with poised approval and said, "He's very good, isn't he?."
I should mention that while Bill was singing, Pad started to sing along softly, in his off-pitch howl,
rather like an alley dog responding to the sound of opera drifting out the window of a tenement.
Bill later told me that he knew he was doing it right when Pad joined in.
Later when Irene's saffron risotto and shrimp arrived, I helped her cut the two giant shrimp and she ate slowly, deliberately -- Pad
loves the quiet, thoughtful way she eats. You could see she was pleased with the company, particularly Penn, whom she regards as bordering
on the supernatural, and who always treats her with such respect. But she was also fascinated to recognize and talk with Jonesy,
whose playing sends her into spasms of foot-tapping; Gene who sat next to her and made little jokes just tricky enough to make her
think twice, then laugh; Celestia, our caricaturist friend who sat drawing portraits right at the table; Cathe, who had arranged
the music and who presented her with a beautiful little bracelet; and Emily, Mam's new friend who has captivated both my parents
with her ability to solve seemingly any problem and infuse any situation with energy and fun. Mam kept looking around the table and
absorbing the pleasant notion that she was being celebrated by so many nice people. She is so tiny that she couldn't see the surface
of the lake outside, but when the fountains began to leap, she realized that she was in a real showplace. I think Mam even enjoyed being
a bit of a rebel as she sipped at the dainty crystal glass of port wine she had been bold enough to order for herself at a table full of
Meanwhile Joe, initially uneasy about such a big party, was eating (and sharing with me) a bowl
of stupendous peasant-style vegetable soup. Then when my entree arrived, I shared my halibut with him.
He loves great food and it transformed his mood. He watched and admired Celestia as she drew.
He reminisced about doing his superb painting of a burlap bag. He made gorilla faces and flirted with Emily.
The whole table was happy.
The birthday cake that sat in the middle of the table as a centerpiece is worth describing. It was a
round pale green cake about 14 inches in diameter, and filled with cream, pears, and blueberries. On top was
an intricate showpiece about 16 inches high, sculpted out of white chocolate and airbrushed a warm yellow. It
was an abstract entwining of hands, paintbrushes, pallettes, and a frame, all made from chocolate. On it were
perfect white carnations -- also somehow sculpted out of snow white chocolate. The cake had taken many hours of
a chef named Vincent Pilon, in the Rio's amazing pastry department.
At the end of the meal, when it was time to cut the cake, our waiter took it behind the scenes.
As soon as the waiter was out of sight, his assistant quipped, "He doesn't even work here." They "plated" the
cake in the kitchen and returned with it with the plates decorative with dainty dollops of tasty blue stuff.
Leftover birthday cake and chocolate carnations made their way to Mam and Pad and their friends at the assisted-living cottages.
And in her room, Mam listened to the personalized CD Jonesy had made for her: "Happy Birthday" followed by a leisurely,
oozing-with- virtuosity-and-charm version of "Young at Heart." And to give it a place in history, on the following morning Mam
opened her local newspaper and found that the celebrity-sighting column mentioned Bill's "O Solo Mio" performance for Irene Teller, 96.
"That's the best birthday you've ever had," declared Pad at the dinner table the next night, and Mam said she guessed he was right.
For the gossip column, go
Here's the text.
... John Stamos and Bob Saget, in Tabu (MGM Grand) Friday night. ... Bill Fayne, musical director for
Clint Holmes' show at Harrah's, belting out "O Solo Mio" as a birthday surprise for the 96-year-old mother (Irene)
of Teller of Penn & Teller at Osteria del Circo (Bellagio). ...