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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Out of Town in
by Aziza

The Arabian Nights restaurant in Fresno became my second home. It was a real family restaurant with delicious food, a friendly clientele, and, most of all, a good owner. It was owned by Becky Harootunian, a middle-aged Armenian woman with a very good heart. As a side advantage, her being a woman meant that the issue of my sleeping with her didn't arise - most of the places we danced were owned by men - usually foreign men - who felt that all their dancers should sleep with them, as a sort of "thank you for the job", I guess. I know that I lost some offered jobs because I declined the honor. It was an ongoing problem, though not in Fresno. Becky's husband, Bob, owned a plumbing business, and didn't take much part in the running of the restaurant. They had a young daughter, Beverly, and a teenaged son named Bobby, who was very smitten with the dancers in general, but wasn't a problem.

Becky's sister, Marian, who did some opera singing, sometimes came around and got bossy ("You can't wear that vest on stage - we're not running a Sunday school here!") but was mostly not in evidence.

I was, of course, a little nervous about going to a new, unknown place, only my second out of town gig, so my second brother, Bill, who was just eighteen at that time in 1967, went with me to keep me company and keep me safe. We stayed at the California Hotel, a place which, I swear, must have been the inspiration for the Eagles' song "Hotel California"! It was huge, old, and gloomy, with an impressive lobby. It turned out that the drummer, Louie Sayegh, was staying there, too, which was reassuring. When Bill and I first went to our room, it was so musty that we opened a window and lit some incense, and very soon the manager was knocking on the door to find out if we had any of those "marijuana reefers" in there - which we did not.

We went over to the restaurant, where I was to audition. I introduced myself to Becky, who introduced me to the aforementioned Louie, and then to the oudist, Guy Chookoorian. He had a terrifying scowl on his face, and someone whispered to me that he was a very mean, bad-tempered man, and that I had better watch myself! Well, that was just fine - how would I survive? However, the facade soon fell away, and Guy and Louie were pretty delighted that they had suckered me. Guy turned out to be a very sweet-tempered, supportive, enjoyable man, with an odd sense of humor that exactly matched my own - we became good friends and remain so, to this day. He had his wife, Louise, and his children, Arshag and Arazie, there, too. Those children are now married, with children of their own! Yikes! The audition went well, and I was hired. It was the start of a work relationship and friendships that lasted for years. I worked on and off at the Nights for a long time.

The front door was done with purple tuck-and-roll upholstery. It still is, though the building now houses the Armenian Social Club and Cultural Center. The restaurarant was quite large, with a fancy bar down one side. On one end of the room was a stage big enough to hold the musicians, set to one side of a dance floor, and then we - the dancers - climbed up a few steps to a long central runway, where we did our show for the most part. The runway had extensions which could make it a little wider when a duet was performing. The space really was pretty narrow - once I fell off of the side onto a table, right into a man's shishkabob! From the dressing room, we entered the dining room through the service area of the kitchen. Unlike that of the Athens West in Portland, this kitchen was kept spotless.

Over the years, there was a variety of cooks, but the one I remember best (and whose food I remember most fondly) was a very large man named Sam, who later left to open his own restaurant. they served all the classic Armenian dishes, and, from that beginning, several dishes have become regulars on my table at home. There was a big walk-in freezer, and, on particularly hot evenings, I would go into it in my assiut dress and stand there while all the metal bits got really icy, and then I could go out for a while and be much more comfortable.

When Guy worked there, the music alternated with comedy routines that Guy performed. I can still remember a lot of those routines, ones performed by "Chuck O'Ryan" or "Hassan ben Sober." Hairy old jokes and silly songs had the audience gleefully cackling in their seats. There was a lot of time devoted to Armenian folk dance music, intended for audience participation. A large group of young people came in several nights a week to dance, and I was able to join in as I learned most of the dances. What nice people they were! I was often invited to their family homes for dinner or just visiting.

One of the musicians that worked there most often was Richard Hagopian, a master oudist and singer. His singing used to give me chills! He would work with a local drummer most of the time, but occasionally, for something special, Becky would bring in to play with him Hachig Kazarian on the clarinet, Buddy Sarkissian on the drums, and Jack Chalikian on the kanoun, and then the place would really rock! (This team, with Manny Petro, made several "Kef Time" records.) Wayne Bedrosian sometimes played piano with them, too.

Fairly often, celebrities or actors came in for dinner. The sister of the Shah of Iran spent an evening there, and was very gracious to us. Michael Connors, of"Mannix" fame came in fairly often, and he was usually very rude. It was always fun when there was someone of note in the audience. The news would fly through the employees like wildfire. Some of our favorite visitors were the people from the Circus. Barnum and Bailey set up in the Convention Center, right across the street, and all the folks, from the high wire acts to the dwarf clowns to the animal wranglers came in almost every night and ate. We became friendly with them, and got to attend the circus free whenever we wanted to. Sitting right up in front, where the parade came in through the flap, fueled a great desire in me to ride an elephant sitting behind its ears, rather than in a howdah. (I felt that this was one life ambition that I would never be able to fulfill, but, a couple of years ago, my sweet husband, Marc, took the considerable trouble necessary to arrange such a ride for me! But where were my spangles?) Once I was looking with Louie at the animals in their pens, and when we came to the camels, Louie started shouting at them in Arabic. The camels got very agitated, and started rushing about their corral, and so we supposed that they were either raised in the Middle East or by Arabs.

When the circus left town, my brother Bill left with them. He could see that I was safe and at home at the Nights, and he had always had the rather old-fashioned desire to run away with the circus. He didn't stay with them long. He had to sleep in the car with the elephants, preferring to deal with their fleas rather than the gay predators who were after him in the regular sleeping cars. Such an adventure!

The second time I was working in Fresno, I woke up one morning to a sensation like a dull knife being turned in my side. Zenouba was working there then, and I managed to wake her (it was very early) to drive me to the hospital, where, when they finally looked at me in the emergency room after Zenouba stood up and cried with much drama and rolling of rs, "This girl is dying here, and nobody is coming to take care of her!" it turned out that I had a kidney stone. We didn't know at that time that kidney stones could be caused by lots of hot, sweaty work without enough water intake. We were athletes, definitely doing lots of hot, sweaty work, with three 45 minute shows a night, not to speak of all the folk dancing...

At the Nights I worked with some very good dancers. Becky was particular. I worked quite a bit with Jonnie, a red-haired girl who had studied with Rikko and Tita, a brother and sister team out of Las Vegas. You could always tell someone out of Rikko and Tita's stable (so to speak) because they always had a coin costume with big artificial coins sewed on very loosely, to make lots of noise, and with rhinestone banding around the top of the bra and belt. Jonnie had lots of energy and a wonderful smile, and was a thoroughly nice girl. I also worked quite a bit with Helena Vlahos, a Greek woman who had an amazingly active belly - in fact, she had appeared on the tv show "That's Incredible" because of a feat she performed every time on stage. She was able to put three coins across her middle and made them, one at a time, flip over up and down her belly. She could also crease paper money with that amazing muscle control! She was a most enjoyable person, and she came home to Berkeley to visit me sometimes. I heard that she eventually married a Greek guy from Texas and tried to quit dancing, but that it didn't take and she's back at it somewhere in Southern California. While there, I also worked with Achmed (Russell Jarjour) and Saida, a team with whom I first worked in San Francisco at the Bagdad. They were a striking couple, both tall and slender. They wore coordinating costumes - whatever her theme was, he would wear a similar belt and a long-sleeved bolero jacket to match, always with black leggings and tall black boots. They did a wonderful show. Saida Asmar eventually married Jalal Takesh, had some children, and opened the Pasha Restaurant in San Francisco. When she was pregnant with their first child, Saida used to come into the Bagdad on the nights Jalal was playing there, and she would bring their huge golden Afghan hound, Pasha (was the restaurant named for him?). She was so slim that her pregnancy made her look like a toothpick with an olive on it, and with that huge, furry dog reclining next to her on the banquette, it made quite a picture! She has always been a classy lady.

Becky had a gallery of photos of her dancers in the restaurant, and there was one dancer pictured that I have never met. Her name was Kari Noven, and, according to both Becky and Guy, she was a fantastic dancer who could and did do anything - not only belly dancing, but show dancing, singing, etc. She is the only dancer who ever made me feel intimidated - and I never even met her!

After the first couple of stints in a hotel, I used to find an apartment to rent while I worked in Fresno. The first one was very cute, but the heater didn't really work and it was winter! I used to turn on all the burners and oven of the electric stove, and huddle near it for warmth - and then the circuit breaker would get overloaded and go out, and I would have to start all over. While I was in that apartment, my divorce from my first husband became final. The judge, without being requested to do so by anyone, took our son away from me and gave him to his father, saying in effect that "any belly dancer surely is a whore and a bad mother. I eventually got my son back (he is Adam, whom many of you have met), but it was most traumatic. Thank goodness times have changed! Another time, I had a much better place - it was Christmastime, and I had a tree and Adam came and stayed with me for a while - he was the pet of the restaurant, and he loved it!

Well, life was most enjoyable at the Arabian Nights. Great music, great food and good friends - what more could I ask?!


Ready for more?
10-20-01 Dancers I Have Known by Aziza!

Over the course of my approximately thirty-year professional career, I have known and worked with some of the most interesting dancers in the business

11-12-01 SUMMER CARAVAN 2001, Scottish Rite Center, July 28 & 29, 2000 by Susie Poulelis
another beautiful photo spread by Susie

9-26-01 "RETRO-TRIEVING" by Sadira
I remember those days back in the '70s when ethnic stylizing was the only "true" way to dance.
Latest addition to our North Beach Memories!


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