De­spite down mo­ments, drum­mer still up­beat

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - STEVE LOPEZ

Steve Hideg moves through his small East Hol­ly­wood apart­ment with tiny shuf­fle steps, as if to avoid a fall. His slacks are creased, his shirt pressed. It doesn’t cost money, he says, to hold your head high.

Hideg, al­most 86, is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. He’s car­ried that bur­den since a child­hood in­jury, when he and his fam­ily took cover in the cel­lar of their home as bombs thun­dered down on Bu­dapest. Lately the good eye isn’t so good, so he keeps a big mag­ni­fy­ing glass handy, but Hideg has big­ger chal­lenges than that.

His rent is roughly $1,000 a month, and his So­cial Se­cu­rity in­come is about $900 a month.

“It’s a to­tal mir­a­cle how he ex­ists,” says one friend.

The se­cret is dis­ci­plined aus­ter­ity, oc­ca­sional help from bud­dies, and a on­ce­weekly job as a jazz drum­mer — a job that feeds Hideg’s soul. When the DWP shut off his power briefly, Hideg bor­rowed a camp­ing light from a friend. A $300 gas bill gath­ered dust un­til a buddy cov­ered it.

“Hello, my an­gel,” Hideg called out one day to a wo­man who knocked at his door and de­liv­ered a tray of food from St. Vin­cent Meals on Wheels.

Some­times, that’s his only food in a day.

Cal­i­for­nia is ro­bust in count­less ways, its econ­omy ranked among those of the rich­est nations in the world, and yet mil­lions strug­gle to sur­vive the dou­ble blow of flat wages and high hous­ing costs. It’s the great Golden

State para­dox, an es­ca­lat­ing calamity and pub­lic pol­icy fail­ure with no fixes on the near hori­zon as the re­tiree pop­u­la­tion ex­plodes.

And yet Hideg, un­bowed, has risen above it all by re­main­ing faith­ful to a dream and hon­or­ing a dif­fer­ent mea­sure of pros­per­ity. As one friend of his put it, in his mind, he’s a rich man. ::

Ist­van “Steve” Hideg was hun­gry, shoe­less, scared, brave, a child of war. He was a just boy in 1943, when his fa­ther was killed on mil­i­tary duty. Hideg and his mother, brother and sis­ter strug­gled through bleak, lean years of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal up­heaval, and a meal of­ten was noth­ing more than a smear of lard on a scrap of bread.

“We put a lit­tle salt and pa­prika on it,” Hideg says. “I kind of learned how to sur­vive.”

It’s a skill, or maybe a frame of mind, that has en­dured.

“Even when I have only one meal in a day,” Hideg says, “I’m never hun­gry.”

As a teen, Hideg worked at the con­ces­sion stand of a Bu­dapest movie theater and ducked in, at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, to catch a glimpse of the films. There, in black and white, was a world he’d never imag­ined.

“I saw Louie Arm­strong!” Hideg says of the jazz gi­ant. “He sang ‘Jeep­ers Creep­ers’ to a horse!”

That was in the 1938 movie “Going Places.” An­other Amer­i­can clas­sic, the 1941 hit “Sun Val­ley Ser­e­nade,” made Hideg ache with de­sire to be­come a mu­si­cian and to es­cape iron-fisted post­war Hun­gary. In “Ser­e­nade,” the Glenn Miller Or­ches­tra played “Chat­tanooga Choo-Choo” and the swing­ing “In the Mood.”

“Whewwwww, that did it for me,” Hideg says, still jazzed 70 years later. “I fell in love with this whole coun­try and its mu­sic. To me, it was the sound of free­dom.”

His brother bought him a snare drum like the one Hideg had seen in the vil­lage his par­ents grew up in. There, with no news­pa­pers and scant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the out­side world, the drum was a siren call to vil­lagers who gath­ered to hear the messenger de­liver the news of the day.

Hideg stud­ied the moves of drum­mers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, got a job in an elec­tron­ics fac­tory and joined all three of the com­pany bands. He later be­came a full-time mu­si­cian and worked with a cir­cus band for a while, but the song­book wasn’t to his lik­ing and the gov­ern­ment deemed Western mu­sic the enemy of the peo­ple.

In 1956, blood spilled as Hun­gar­i­ans re­volted against Soviet con­trol. Hideg and his wife, a pi­anist, risked ex­e­cu­tion as they fled Bu­dapest un­der cover of dark­ness. They sneaked past Rus­sian in­fantry and es­caped first to Aus­tria and then New York City in early 1957. Hideg got a job as a jan­i­tor, and af­ter work he’d race to Bird­land and other Man­hat­tan jazz clubs to see his he­roes.

In 1961, he and his wife loaded up their old DeSoto and headed west, flat broke, stop­ping at bars along the way to play for food and gas money, Hol­ly­wood or bust. ::

He hus­tled, schmoozed, hung out at the mu­si­cians’ union, started at the bot­tom. And he made it. A young man who had grown up with so many re­stric­tions was play­ing a kind of mu­sic with no rules.

In the good years, there was the Steve Hideg big band and Steve Hideg and The Con­ti­nen­tals. When TV game shows had live mu­sic, Hideg played in the “Truth or Con­se­quences” band. He toured for sev­eral years with Pat Collins, a hyp­no­tist with a pop­u­lar show. He played in Florida and put in sev­eral years in Ve­gas.

He never made great money or played with big stars. But to his own as­ton­ish­ment, Hideg was liv­ing out his fan­tasy in the city that had man­u­fac­tured the dream. He de­vel­oped a tal­ent as a con­trac­tor, string­ing to­gether bands for all oc­ca­sions. In his scrap­book is a copy of a check he got af­ter play­ing a birth­day party for Dustin Hoff­man.

There were strug­gles along the way — no mu­si­cian gets through the grinder un­scathed. When Hideg’s wife be­came ill and they couldn’t af­ford to pay for her care, she went back to Europe to live with fam­ily in Aus­tria, where she died young. Hideg him­self fought through can­cer and now bat­tles mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion.

He never mar­ried again, which made it eas­ier to grab road jobs when they came up and he was young enough to han­dle the toll. He has lived in the same apart­ment now for 25 years, a time in which the mar­ket for live mu­sic — es­pe­cially big band and straigh­ta­head jazz — has with­ered. Hideg was get­ting by just fine when he served as livein man­ager at his apart­ment build­ing, but he got too old for the job a few years back, and the bills keep com­ing.

But his pride is undi­min­ished.

“I did not come to this coun­try to be a bur­den on the state,” says Hideg, who has re­sisted sign­ing up for many en­ti­tle­ments avail­able to se­niors.

He chose the mu­si­cian’s life, he says, and has no re­grets. If he has a mes­sage for oth­ers, Hideg tells me, it’s that do­ing some­thing you love will serve you well. And an­other thing: Don’t hes­i­tate to ask friends for help if you need it.

“He’s not a shy guy, but it’s not easy for him” to ac­cept money, says Hideg’s long­time buddy Laszlo Cser, a re­tired mu­si­cian and L.A. City Col­lege pro­fes­sor. “Lately he’s more will­ing to go along.”

Louis Kabok, a lo­cal bass player who knew Hideg in Hun­gary, fled at about the same time. He says his friend’s high spir­its in the face of hard­ship and ad­vanc­ing age don’t ap­pear to be an act.

“To tell you the truth, I never met an­other per­son in my life who has his kind of at­ti­tude,” says Kabok. “He just has an idea of the way he wants to live his life, and he’s do­ing it.”

In­deed, for all his trou­bles, Hideg glows. His sil­ver hair is as thick as his Hun­gar­ian ac­cent. His grin is young, time­less and broad, the grin of a man who’s in on a se­cret.

What­ever day it is, the week­end is com­ing soon, and Hideg lives for Fri­day and Satur­day.

He can’t bang the skins in the quiet en­vi­rons of his apart­ment build­ing, so ev­ery Satur­day, he stays drum­mer fit with a twohour work­out at Stein on Vine in Hol­ly­wood, the leg­endary mu­sic shop where he jams with gray-bearded bud­dies and it’s the 1950s all over again.

Bet­ter yet, Hideg’s Fri­day night gig is com­ing up, and he knows, without doubt, that the mu­sic he loves will live for­ever. ::

Phillip Wil­liams, a pi­anist and singer, met Hideg at a party eight years ago and asked if he wanted to sit in with his band on Fri­day nights at Cal­len­der’s Grill. That’s a high-end, mid-city Marie Cal­len­der’s with live jazz sev­eral nights a week.

Hideg has been with Wil­liams ever since.

The Hun­gar­ian oc­to­ge­nar­ian they call “Cool Cat” is old school in his re­spect for the art and the au­di­ence. Be­fore his gig, Hideg showers and shaves, puts on a suit, cinches the tie and ar­ranges the pocket square hanky just right, like one of the pros in the big bands he once saw in the movies.

“I love get­ting ready, I love car­ry­ing the drums, I love set­ting them up, I love ev­ery­thing about it,” Hideg tells me.

He drives to work in a 1992 Mazda van that Wil­liams gave him when his old Aerostar conked out, and he is smil­ing when he walks into the restau­rant and be­gins set­ting up.

Typ­i­cally, sev­eral ter­rific lo­cal mu­si­cians drop by and sit in with the band. Wil­liams knows the lyrics and mu­sic to hun­dreds of songs and plays what strikes him, from pop to se­ri­ous jazz, and he gen­er­ously fea­tures each of his side­men. He likes call­ing “Satin Doll” be­cause there’s a short solo in it for Hideg, who is twice the age of the oth­ers in the band and al­ways seems to be hav­ing twice the fun.

On an up-tempo num­ber, Wil­liams mo­tions for me to cir­cle be­hind the pi­ano so he can whis­per me some­thing.

“Look at this guy go,” Wil­liams says as Hideg taps out an el­e­gant pat­ter, never loud, never showy, rid­ing the groove just right and al­ways in the ser­vice of band­mates and the mu­sic.

“This is adding min­utes to his life,” says Wil­liams. “I feel like I’m his doctor.”

In the quiet of his apart­ment, I had asked Hideg if he wor­ries about any­thing. What if the rent goes up? What if his good eye can’t be saved? What if he can’t drive much longer?

“I live my life by three prin­ci­ples I learned as a Boy Scout. Faith, hope and love,” he said be­fore re­mind­ing me he has ev­ery­thing he ever wanted.

“And I can’t be­lieve I’m still do­ing what I love.”

His strug­gle is real, said Hideg.

“But it’s a beau­ti­ful strug­gle.” steve.lopez@la­times.com

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

DRUM­MER Steve Hideg, 85, blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, gets dressed in his East Hol­ly­wood apart­ment. “It’s a to­tal mir­a­cle how he ex­ists,” says one friend.

Pho­to­graphs by Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

JAZZ DRUM­MER Steve Hideg, left, joins bas­sist Tom Pedrini at a Satur­day morn­ing mu­sic work­shop in Hol­ly­wood. Be­fore they know it, it’s the 1950s all over again.

“I CAN’T be­lieve I’m still do­ing what I love,” says Hideg, car­ry­ing his drums out of his apart­ment as he heads to a gig. He lives for Fri­days and Satur­days.

HIDEG LOOKS through pa­pers in his apart­ment. He gets by on dis­ci­plined aus­ter­ity, oc­ca­sional help from friends and his once-weekly job as a drum­mer.

SOME­TIMES, a tray from St. Vin­cent Meals on Wheels is his only food for the day. But Hideg has stayed faith­ful to a dif­fer­ent mea­sure of pros­per­ity.

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