By Connie Zuñiga
After three days of heavy rain, the sun came shining through January 8 for a very important day, our farewell to Benny. On December 12 2015, beloved musician and bandleader Benny Hollman lost his years-long struggle with cancer, surrounded by family at his home in Mira Mesa.
We would say our goodbye to Benny at Our Lady of Guadalupe church. It was still decorated for the Christmas season, in place until January 10th, the Baptism of Jesus. The altar was banked with huge poinsettia plants, the Christmas trees awash in tiny white lights, with small pictures of families instead of ornaments. The floor to ceiling columns were festooned with greenery between them. Guadalupe was ready for its former altar boy.
Music dominated the day. Classical Strings played before Mass began, beautiful classical selections: Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn. The Choral Strings had played with Benny’s Orchestra many times.
The church is blessed with wonderful acoustics. Built in 1935, the church has plaster walls and ceiling which enhances the sound of music throughout the church.
My last contribution to Benny’s memory was to play the organ for his Mass, along with my soloist, Irene Manzano, who I have accompanied since high school. Irene’s family lived in the neighborhood and we both attended Our Lady of Angels grammar school and were in the school choir, the start of my organ-playing days.
Fr. Henry Rodriguez, Benny’s cousin, was the Mass celebrant. Fr. Henry was formerly the pastor at St. Jude’s in Shelltown, a community adjacent to Logan Heights. He is now the chaplain at Mercy Hospital and University Hospital and also continues to be the chaplain for the San Diego Police Department. Father’s homily outlined Benny’s road to his career in music, his dedication and the hard work that went into becoming a successful professional musician.
Benny’s son, Mark, gave a very moving and humorous eulogy. Benny had a very unique sense of humor. He always started his jokes with: “This is a true story,” which of course it wasn’t.
Whenever Mark was out with his dad, someone would invariably ask if Benny was his older brother. Benny retained a very youthful appearance long into middle age. A dazzling smile, dimples, and a cleft chin helped.
The church was filled to capacity, not one empty pew. People were even standing against the side walls and lingering outside. They came from near and far. I saw one gentlemen who I vaguely recognized and was certain was a musician. At the reception I introduced myself. It was Jessie Davis, who spent years as “the singing act” in Mission Valley and later spent time in Europe where he was well received.
Joe Fos was at the church service. Joe is an accomplished pianist who played at all the finest venues in San Diego. Joe lived a block over from Benny and they both started their careers around the same time. Joe and his wife flew in for the day to attend Benny’s service.
Leroy Kenniston came to honor his childhood buddy. As children, Leroy and Benny ran around the neighborhood together getting into mischief. When they were teenagers, Leroy played the guitar and was the leader of the Gayniters, Benny’s Velvetones rival in the Battle of the Bands.
After the Mass I immediately headed for the reception to help serve the food. The musicians were already playing. Many of Benny’s Charger Band members were there. The music went on almost nonstop for the next 4 1/2 hours. Musicians rotated seamlessly all afternoon, keyboard, guitar, sax, trombone, drums, congas, singers, etc. It was a symphony of music all afternoon that we were privileged to be part of.
It was very special to see and hear all of these accomplished musicians. Tony Ortega, who played in the Charger Band in the early years, came down from Los Angeles. Tony is now 93 years old but still playing. They say that musicians live a long life; Tony is certainly an example of that premise. Tony played the sax and sang a duet with one of the woman singers. Someone eventually brought him a chair and he sat down and continued to play.
The musicians were organized by Robert Lanuza, an outstanding keyboardist. It was a tremendous job coordinating all the musicians that wanted to participate. Robert began his musical career when he was 16. Benny took him under his wing and let him play in the orchestra, although initially he did not read music well. Robert said he practiced extra hard to play up to the standards of Benny’s orchestra. Robert looked at Benny as a father figure and was very close to him to the end.
The preparation and serving of the food at the reception was a labor of love. We called the family and said the ladies of Logan Heights wanted to do this as our last tribute to Benny, to his music, to his never forgetting his Logan Heights roots. The majority of us had left the neighborhood as young adults, but we still shared this affinity to our childhood neighborhood and to this wonderful man who always took a minute to talk to you when you ran into him. Benny made you feel that seeing you was the highlight of his day.
Another labor of love was the beautiful brochure of Benny’s life given out at the church and at the reception. It was painstakingly put together by Jack Houghton, a musician who played with Benny over the years.
Leroy Kenniston gave the eulogy at the reception, uproarious episodes of their childhood shenanigans and playing together as young musicians. One hilarious story involved their playing at a hotel in Las Vegas during lunch. Leroy said the patrons were more interested in eating than in listening to music. As a result, the musicians had fun on the stage entertaining themselves. Benny always announced the band intermission and he mischievously convinced the hotel sound man to emulate the sound of a toilet flushing as he announced the band’s break. Needless to say, there were more than a few complaints from the patrons and the house manager was not at all happy.
At one point in the afternoon, Jimmy Marino asked everyone to stand up, raise their arms to the heavens and salute Benny. We roared in unison.
Jimmy Marino, a high school friend and a TV, Film, and Music producer, collaborated with Benny to support all of Frankie Laine’s work until the singer’s death in 2007. This included concerts, personal appearances, a documentary, “An American,” and a web site.
It was interesting to take inventory of the close to 400 people at the reception. There were the relatives, family friends, the Logan Heights neighborhood friends, the classmates from Our Lady of Guadalupe, Memorial Jr. High, San Diego High, numerous fellow musicians, many who at one time or another had played in Benny’s orchestra, his Caliente Brass Latin group, and even his teenage band, the Velvetones.
We are all aware of the tremendous effort Benny made to bring music to the students in his old neighborhood. Without his music programs at Sherman Elementary, Caesar Chavez and Memorial Academy, these children would very likely never have had the chance to learn to play and own an instrument. They will one day be cognizant of the fact that their teacher was a very famous musician and that they were fortunate to have been given the opportunity to learn music at the hands of a master musician.
We Catholics no longer say that we are going to a funeral. It is now called A Celebration of Life, a final spiritual ritual of farewell. I do not expect any time soon, if ever, to attend another celebration of a man’s life that was filled with such an outpouring of love.
It has been said that a measure of a man’s life is counted by the number of people who go to his funeral. They came; they all came.
There are musical tributes to Benny in the works. On Friday evening, February 26th, the San Diego Symphony dedicated its program at Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla in memory of Benny.
Another tribute to Benny will be at the Caesar Chavez Clubs Annual 7:00-9:00 AM breakfast on Friday, March 28, at the Convention Center.
Later in the spring there will be a Logan Heights Tribune to Benny at the Logan Heights Branch Library in the Community Room. This will be a wonderful Sunday afternoon of music and dancing to honor a man who gave of himself at every turn and who for years contributed to the musical enrichment of neighborhood children.
As details of this tribute are finalized, they will be posted on-line.
Connie Zuñiga is a retired General Dynamics employee, community activist, member of the Logan Heights Historical Society and Vice President of the Friends of the Logan Heights Library.