A CURIOUS VIEW: YESTERDAY’S TWILIGHT: IN MEMORY OF MY DEAR FRIEND MORENO TOMLJENOVIC

A CURIOUS VIEW: YESTERDAY’S TWILIGHT: IN MEMORY OF MY DEAR FRIEND MORENO TOMLJENOVIC’

In the spring of 1983, I sat at the bar at The Palm Restaurant with a relatively new acquaintance, Moreno. He was a handsome gentleman, in his late twenties, with a near oval face, and long wavy black hair. One of his eyes was slightly crooked, but it only added to his attractive features. He was about 5 feet, 7 inches tall with very broad shoulders and he always appeared taller.

The bar was dimly lit, and the restaurant area was nearly empty and the two of us were the only ones sitting at the bar. I had been in Los Angeles for only about year, and Moreno and his wife had been living there since 1980. He was quite excited, because the very next day he was going to start a five-week shoot on Walter Hill’s movie, ‘Streets of Fire.’

A five-week shoot for a struggling actor on a major motion picture is a big deal and literally could change the course of your life in a matter of no time. Moreno had been in a few beer commercials that ran for a long time, and he had made good money from those adventures, but nothing that would drastically change his lifestyle.

I remarked, “Five weeks…that should give you quite bit of screen time.”

“I know, unless am completely cut out of the film,” He laughingly replied.

“I doubt that’s going to happen. They wouldn’t give you five weeks unless you had a fairly sizable role.

”He nodded as he took a sip of his beer and then quoted a famous philosopher who said, “Wouldn’t it be crime to be on your deathbed, and find out you never lived.” He continued, “That is a crime I never want to be guilty of, and so regardless what happens on this movie, it will never dampen my desire to live life to the fullest.”

That night was the beginning of a long and cherished friendship. Moreno and I had quite a few things in common: We were both raised very Catholic, and whereas I came from the Bronx and Moreno from St. Louis (by way of Croatia) we never lost touch with our families. We loved old movies and would stay up all night looking at them while enjoying a few adult beverages. He was a wonderful storyteller and I love hearing great stories. He was one of the funniest and wittiest individuals I have ever come across, and I always used to tell him he should have been a comedy writer for Johnny Carson. He was a great mimic, and at the same time he was impersonating you, he could sketch a perfect caricature of you and hand it to you as a gift.

After the five-week shoot was over and I asked him how it went, he replied, “It was great. How wonderful it would be to make a living at it…to be a working actor. The days are long, but when you’re not shooting, you get to stay in an air-conditioned trailer with a bunch of other actors, telling stories… learning what everyone does while in-between movies, and making connections and friendships that will hopefully last and be beneficial to everyone.”

“So you had a great time?”

“The best. Now, I just have to hope I’m not completely cut out of it. At least I won’t have to worry about that for another nine months or more when the movie is finally released.”

Nine months later, we sat at a table eating lunch in a Studio City restaurant. That night was the premiere of the movie, and naturally he was all excited. He was taking his lovely wife, Danni, who, by that time, I had met a number of times. She was prettier than any actress I have ever seen on or off screen, and she worked at CBS right there in Studio City. After lunch, we each had a celebratory shot of Jack Daniels at the bar and split a beer. Naturally, he didn’t want to drink too much, and then have to run to the bathroom during the movie. (Besides, he could make up for it at the party afterwards.) He left to get ready for the big night, and I stayed at the bar and enjoyed a few more beers.

The following afternoon we met at the same restaurant. I got there a little early and sat at the bar. A few minutes later, Moreno walked in wearing dark sunglasses that he didn’t take off as he took a seat at the bar next to me. I thought to myself, it must have been some type of party afterwards, either that or he got into some type of street fight before getting here. He ordered two shots of Jack Daniels, which we shot down with beers.

“So how was it? You didn’t get cut out of the movie, right?

”He moved closer to me, as though he didn’t want anyone to hear; even though there was no one else at the bar and the bartender was busy looking at the T.V. He replied, “Worse, I was in one scene with fifty other actors in which we’re all pointing our rifles at the bad guys. I doubt I was on screen for more than a second. I would have been better off being completely cut out. Do you know how many people I have told to go see this movie because I was in it? I’m going to look like the biggest idiot ever.”

“Well, would it make you feel any better if I told you that I read a bunch of reviews and the movie got seriously panned?”

“Great! So I was in the one Walter Hill movie that got panned.”

“The lead actors, the director, and the writers really got panned.”

“I wasn’t mentioned, was I?”“

No!”

“Was I listed in the credits?”

“No!”

“Wow! Something to celebrate.” He ordered two more shots and finally took off his glasses as we both laughed.

Moreno never really made it as a screen actor, but a little later in life he did a lot of voice-over work that paid handsomely.

Moreno only might have been in Los Angeles for a few years more than I, but he knew all the places I needed to see. He became sort of my own personal tour guide. We visited all the “must see” cemeteries where famous actors, actresses, directors, and musicians were buried. Our favorite was the Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery, a place where more famous people per square foot may be buried than any place in the United States. After visiting five or six graves of famous people, occasionally having a shot of whiskey from a flask we had with us in their honor, we would go sit up top of Forest Lawn. There is a beautiful park there with huge murals of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World Wars I and II, as well as monuments to Presidents Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and heroes like Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene. It is truly one of my favorite places in Los Angeles, and I have never been there without thinking of Moreno.

Among our many adventures there were visits to many restaurants and bars, many that only a real enthusiast and historian of the city would know. We frequented one famous restaurant, Musso and Frank’s, on two consecutive occasions that will forever stand out in my mind. It is located, just off Hollywood Boulevard and dates back to 1919.

The history of the restaurant is legendary. From its very beginning, it was a favorite among Hollywood’s A-list…Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks were regulars. In the thirties and forties, Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Clark Cable, and the list goes on and on through successive decades.

The restaurant is large with plush leather booths, tables and a beautiful long bar with red leather stools. Moreno and I walked in just about three o’clock, after the lunch crowd was gone, and the place was empty. It was the first time I had been in the famous eatery, and Moreno gave me a quick history and then we sat down at the bar and Moreno said, “Just imagine, we might be sitting on the very stools that Errol Flynn and Bogart sat on. We have to order martinis. It’s what they’re famous for and I’m sure Bogart and Flynn would never start off with anything but a martini.”

So we ordered two of the famous martinis, and after we made a toast to the legends that came before us we each took a sip, and I nearly spit it up and Moreno’s expression after his first sip wasn’t one of pleasure, either.

“Holy shit!” I exclaimed and continued, “It’s the real thing, gin, vermouth, and an olive. Gin is the one drink I can’t stand. I don’t know why but I was expecting vodka.”

“That’s because we’re a bunch of wimps. Real men like Flynn and Bogart probably could drink rubbing alcohol like it was a club soda.”

“I don’t know about Bogart, but am sure Flynn probably did.”

We paid the bartender, took our drinks and followed the only waiter on the floor to a table. Our waiter’s name was Jose and he was kind of old. How old Jose really was is kind of hard to say because he had olive skin and a completely bald head. He looked like he was about to fall asleep, but he didn’t have any wrinkles. We ordered two beers, and like two wimps put the martinis to the side.

Jose came back with our beers, and it was like a light was suddenly turned on upstairs, and the waiter became a beacon of delight and insight into this famous restaurant. He became the type of waiter you see in the movies, but only occasionally appears at your table when you go out and eat at an actual restaurant. He guided us through every detail of our meal and made spot on recommendations on what we should have for appetizers, our main course (lamb chops that were simply amazing) and dessert. He helped us choose a bottle of red wine that was reasonably priced and was better than ninety percent of the higher priced bottles. By the time we ordered a second bottle, we had him sit down with us and enjoy a glass himself, which he did.

He then took us on a tour of the restaurant, and told us stories about the once famous ‘back room’ that was no longer the property of the restaurant. It was a private room where many of the celebrities of the twenties and thirties would sit, and where many of a starlet and a star actor engaged in what might be considered the ‘naughty’ right there on the tables.

By the time we were ready to leave we were hugging each other as though we were all part of one happy family. It was simply a wonderful and joyous time.

Naturally, Moreno and I had to go back the very next week, same day of the week, and at three o’clock. Like previously, the restaurant was empty and we sat at the bar and ordered ‘two beers.’ Better to be a wimp, than take another whiff of that gin. The bartender was the same and he remembered us, probably because of the very generous tip we left him and because Jose took us behind the bar and showed us a trap door that was used during prohibition to escape raids by the police.

We asked if Jose was working, and the bartender hesitantly said, “yes.” He called out to Jose, who showed up a few minutes later and as we went to embrace him it was like he didn’t recognize us. The bartender said, “Jose, these two gentlemen would like to sit with you.”

He picked up two menus and sat us at a table. We started with a little small talk, hoping to refresh his memory but that didn’t work. We ordered two beers and when he went to pick them up, I asked Moreno, “Is it possible he doesn’t recognize or remember us?”

“I don’t see how. It’s not like he was waiting on any other customers that day. Maybe, he wasn’t happy with the tip?”

“We left him a fifty percent tip on a two hundred dollar tap.”

“Who knows, maybe he’s a seventy percent waiter,” Moreno replied and we both laughed.

Jose placed the two beers down and asked if we were ready to order. We said, “yeah,” and ordered the same dishes as the last time. It was like the guy had been lobotomized, and did not show any signs at all that he recognized us. He was like a robot. He brought the dinner out in a timely fashioned, opened the wine correctly, and placed the check down with a less than empathetic, “Thank you.

”We paid the check, but this time we didn’t leave a fifty percent tip. We left a thirty-five percent tip. After all, he did bring the food out in a timely fashion.

We then went up to the bartender and asked him about Jose. The bartender explained that Jose was near ninety years old, and all that he had left in his life was this restaurant. The owner allowed him to wait on one table each shift between three and five and never on more than two customers. The last time we were in, the ‘Jose of old’ showed up and we got a real treat because when he was in his prime he was the most asked for waiter. He continued, “That happens like once every three months, when the lights come on, and he’s like his old self. Other than that, he’s like a robot programed to do his job and nothing else.”

Needless to say, we continued to go to Musso and Frank’s, just not between three and five.

Moreno and I undertook another adventure in the fall of 1986 when we took a ride to Westwood Village to look at a National League Championship game between The New York Mets and the Houston Astros. Unbeknown to us, there was an outdoor festival going on and after watching the first 5 innings of the game, we decided to take a walk and look at the booths.

At one of the booths, there was a life-size statue of a gentleman dressed in a tuxedo who could be one of three things: a waiter, a butler, or a bartender. Moreno was fascinated with the statue, and after a few thoughtful minutes he decided that he just had to have it and so he bought the statue that he quickly named ‘Lloyd,’ after the ghostly bartender in the horror movie, “The Shining,” starring Jack Nicholson. It was one of our favorite movies and Moreno was constantly impersonating and mimicking Jack Nicholson’s character.

In the movie, Nicholson’s character talks to the ghost. “Hi, Lloyd, little slow tonight, isn’t it?” Jack’s says as he sits at the bar and laughs like a maniac.

“Yes, it is, Mr. Torrance,” Lloyd replies in an eerie monotone.

Lloyd, the statue, was a mainstay in Moreno’s life. He was like the gifted child you never allowed out, but when visitors came over you simply had to meet him. Every time I went to visit Moreno, Lloyd would greet me at the door, holding an ice-cold beer on his tray, especially for me. You simply cannot beat service like that.

In the early to mid-nineties, Moreno picked me up and we drove a quarter mile to a house that was originally owned by the actress Rita Hayworth. We parked in front of the house that was for sale, and walked in the front door. The place was completely empty, except for a framed picture of Ms. Hayworth over a mantle.

It wasn’t exceptionally big, at most two thousand square feet, and it needed a lot of work. It looked like an abandoned house. He opened the back door and, without any exaggeration, the back yard was easily the size of a football field. A dirt field, but nevertheless very large.

“They’re asking one hundred and sixty thousand dollars for it? What do you think?”

“The property alone is probably worth two hundred thousand, but if you plan on living here you and Danni are going to have to put in a lot of work.”

They bought the house, and in what seemed like overnight, they turned it into one of the most beautiful homes I have ever seen. So beautiful that I would go over to watch a game and find myself staying over for two nights. That dirt yard was transformed into a paradise, complete with a Grande size swimming pool, hot tub, cabana, and pool house.

The interior was unrecognizable from the first time I saw it. The only thing still there was the framed picture of Ms. Hayworth. It was a breathtaking makeover, and since Danni and Moreno loved playing host and hostess, they threw Super Bowl parties, Christmas parties, and had huge Thanksgiving dinners.

Around ten years after they bought the Hayworth house, they sold it. The profit provided them with the means to move to Croatia and buy a house overlooking the beautiful Adriatic Sea and directly across from Venice, Italy.

When Moreno was seven years old, his family fled Croatia. At that time, Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, and was under the control of the dictator Tito. They eventually settled in St. Louis, but it was always Moreno’s dream and his parents’ dream to go back to Croatia.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, hostiles erupted in Yugoslavia. Six republics that, against their wishes, made up the country. The region declared its independence to no longer be under the rule of the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic’ who had replaced Tito in Belgrade. Over the next five years, Milosevic’ would go on a genocidal rampage that would have made the likes of Hitler and Stalin proud.

The United States, which under the Clinton administration often was unable to make foreign policy decisions on just about anything, allowed the slaughter to continue. The reasoning was they didn’t want another Vietnam. When the administration finally was forced to do something after three years, the US air force brought Milosevic’ to his knees and he was forced to sign a peace treaty.

Undeterred after two years, Milosevic’ went on another genocidal rampage against the breakaway republic of Kosovo. Once again, the Clinton administration took nearly a year to respond, but this time our Air Force attacked Belgrade with such precision that it destroyed Milosevic’ hold on power and the Serbian people tossed him aside.

Croatia became a member of the European Union (EU), United Nations (UN), the Council of Europe, NATO, and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Finally, Moreno and his father once again were able to return to their homeland. Sadly, his mother passed away before the reality of an independent Croatia came true.The day before Moreno and Danni were to move to Croatia my wife, Melissa, and I went over to visit them. While the ladies were out front talking, Moreno and I went out back and stood beside the pool.

I asked, “So are you going to miss any of this?”

“Of course, but the way I see it I am giving up a pool for an ocean.”The next day they were gone.

Moreno and I kept in touch throughout the next fifteen years. He constantly was sending me funny clips and articles, and lovely pictures of Croatia. He was travelling throughout Europe with his wife. I was always going to visit, but never did.

Around the holidays that just passed, we talked about the Thanksgiving dinner at his house under the cabana back in the late nineties.

He then asked me, “So do you think that we finally achieved that one dream we had in common?

”I replied, “I definitely think we achieved that dream.”“Yes, I think so, too.” He remarked.

A little over a week ago, I woke up to the news that my friend had died suddenly the night before. I was in shock.

I have told other friends, if I were to make a newsreel of my life in Los Angeles, Moreno would have been in more scenes than anyone.

Over the last few days, I have thought back to the quote he told me when we had first become acquainted, “Wouldn’t it be a crime to be on your deathbed and realize you never lived.” I definitely can say that was not the case with my dear friend. The only crime he was guilty of was leaving us way too soon. Rest in Peace, my friend.

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One thought on “A CURIOUS VIEW: YESTERDAY’S TWILIGHT: IN MEMORY OF MY DEAR FRIEND MORENO TOMLJENOVIC

  1. Dear Dennis:

    Thank you very much for the kind words. Moreno talked quite a bit about playing soccer and his love for the game and about his many friendships back in St. Louis. I’m happy the team has got a chance to read the piece because in many ways it was Moreno writing the piece and me simply putting down his memories. Today, Palm Sunday, I have thought about him even more than usual. Occasionally, on Good Firday we used to stop by Saint Charles’ Chruch and kiss the feet of Christ and then kneel down in a row and pray. And Moreno and Danni hosted a number of Easter Day celebrations that were quite memorable and fun. I was greatly shocked by his death, but I thank God he played such a large and caring part in my life.

    Thank you,
    God Bless,
    Joe

    Like

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