The Chez Paree is gone. The Blue Note is gone. Mister Kelly’s, Le Bistro, Birdhouse: gone, gone, gone, and forgotten, mostly.
The performers who played there? Mickey Brant and Peggy King and Enzo Stuarti? Also gone.
But Milt Trenier is not gone. Having played everywhere and known everybody — Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett — he’s right here, where he’s been for the past 40 years, living happily with his wife, Bea, in Skokie.
“It’s been a very good life, a wonderful life,” said Tenier, 86, unleashing a rich, baritone “ha-ha-ha” laugh that comes to him as easily as breathing and almost as frequently. “I’m feeling good.”
You may not remember his group, The Treniers. Their lone Top 10 hit, “Go, Go, Go” was in 1951. They were certainly famous: cameos in classic rock movies — “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Don’t Knock the Rock” — and guest spots on the top TV shows: Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson.
Still, time passes. It’s more likely you remember his club, Milt Trenier’s Lounge, a cabaret he opened in 1977. Sammy Davis Jr. would stop by. Muhammad Ali once played the piano there. Dennis Farina was the bouncer. But Trenier closed the place in 1997.
“It got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore,” Trenier said.
And fun is the operative word in Trenier’s life. He’s a happy man, without a bad word to say about anybody, now as always.
“Friendly as a puppy,” the Sun-Times’ Bentley Stegner said in 1962. “A natural prankster with a winning sense of humor.”
Though it was not a life without struggle.
He was born in Mobile, Alabama, the youngest of 10 children, in a musical family. His father played French horn in a band; his mother taught piano.
“I don’t know where she found the time,” laughed Trenier, who remembers the switch on the wall to keep those 10 kids in line.
In the late 1940s, his older brothers, twins Claude and Cliff, formed a duet, which became a trio when brother Buddy came aboard and a quartet when Milt got out of the Army in 1953. You can see them in grainy kinescopes on YouTube, dressed in matching tuxes, rocking out and performing synchronized dance moves, years before the Temptations. Bill Haley was a cowboy singer before he saw The Treniers.
Ask Milt Trenier about the stars he’s known. Tony Bennett? “One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.” Elvis Presley was “a jokester.” Frank Sinatra? When his brother checked out of Sloan-Kettering after a struggle with cancer, he found “Sinatra had picked up the tab for the whole bill.”
Even Jerry Lee Lewis. The Treniers were the opening act for the notorious “Great Balls of Fire” singer when he started his infamous tour of England in 1958, bringing along his 13-year-old cousin/bride.
“A nice guy,” Trenier recalls. “We played cards.”
Really? “The Killer”? A nice guy? Didn’t he ever meet anybody he didn’t like?
“You know what? Come to think of it, I can’t think of anybody I really didn’t like,” Trenier said. “I’m the luckiest guy in show business, to meet all these people.”
Which might explain why Trenier survived while so many of them didn’t.
I feel pretty lucky to have met Milt Trenier and his wife, Bea, at a booth in the back of the Bagel in Skokie. They met at an Oak Street club called Punchinello’s in the 1970s. The piano player called Trenier up to sing and he sang, “When I Fall in Love.”
“That was it,” she said.
Trenier leaned over and sang, his voice rich and smokey, still.
“When I fall in love …,” he crooned. “It will be forever. Or I’ll neeeever … fall in love.”
That’s when it struck me. Stars shine and stars dim. Fame passes and money gets spent. But a good marriage — they’ll be married 40 years in May. Now that’s worth something.