Monday, January 18, 2016

That Time Paul Shaffer Went Swimming With Martin Luther King Jr.

You sometimes find poignant stories about major historical figures in unexpected places. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I'm reminded of a passage from Paul Shaffer's highly entertaining memoir, We'll Be Here For the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Showbiz Saga.

When Paul was a young boy, his Canadian parents enjoyed taking the family to warmer climes on vacation. One year, they ended up in The Bahamas, at the Royal Victoria Hotel in Nassau. Shaffer speaks of arriving, of his father taking him to a jazz club "on the wrong side of the tracks," and relates this story:

The next day Dad spotted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by the pool. The great leader was in matching shirt-and-bathing-suit cabana attire. My father approached him and said, "My family and I greatly admire you and would be honored if we could take your picture."

"With pleasure," said Dr. King.

Dad snapped the photo. We all shook hands and went to the lounge chairs. A few minutes later Dr. King entered the pool from the deep end while I entered from the shallow.

Just like that, the dozen or so vacationers, white people all, who were in the pool suddenly got out, as if the water had been contaminated. Dr. King and I stayed in and swam for the next 20 minutes or so.

When I got out, my father took me aside and said, "We're changing hotels. I'm not staying anywhere the guests display this kind of racist behavior."

... When I told this story to my son, Will, who was nine at the time and studying the civil rights movement in school, he was puzzled and said, "Dad, how could Dr. King stay at that hotel when there were segregation laws?"

"Those laws were in the United States, son," I said. "That's why to vacation comfortably, he had to leave his own country."

(Where the ellipsis appears above: Before the modern conclusion of the MLK story, Shaffer told about his family running into Harry Belafonte and daugher Shari the following day, and taking a photo with Belafonte. Decades later Shaffer was musical director at a charity concert, and Belafonte was appearing. Shaffer told Belafonte about meeting him as a child. Belafonte replied, "Impossible, I've never been to Nassua, you must be thinking of Sidney Poitier." Then admitted, a few seconds later, he was pulling Shaffer's leg.)

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