Arne Becker's sad journey took him from Las Vegas to Prevatt Funeral Home in Bayonet Point where the director asked him to fill out some forms.
He came to "occupation" and paused. Then he smiled.
"I was going to write musician, but he was an entertainer — in every sense of the word."
Arne's father, Arnold W. Becker, died March 22 at age 84 after an illness. The obituary in the paper was small, mentioning only the basics. It didn't include the name he used at his popular nightclub, Arnie Aka-Nui. It gave no hint of this man's enormous heart. Nor did it describe how he could cheer up a lonely widow with a song and a smile.
For 25 years, Arne Becker had the best seat in the house to witness his father's magic. Arne was the drummer in the nightclubs that Arnold and Nelma Becker founded in Palm Harbor and Port Richey. Dad was the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, slide-guitar-playing crooner who knew everyone's name and their favorite song. He could work a room with the best of them.
"He made people feel special," said his son, now in the construction business in Vegas. "He remembered your favorite song."
And Arnie Becker's favorite? The one that would rank right up there is also the one that made his special story worth telling many times over the years.
You may recall that in the early 1970s, Tony Orlando had a hit song called Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree. A patron at Arnie's Lounge and Shipwreck Bar on Alt. U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor carried a small oak branch inside and another customer who sold shoelaces tied 100 yellow laces on it. Somebody else suggested the "tree'' needed some green, so customers tacked on dollar bills.
It became a fun tradition for patrons to decorate the tree for birthdays and anniversaries, especially after Arnie decided the money would go to charity, starting with the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens. In 1978, Orlando visited UPARC as the honorary chairman of the National Association for Retarded Citizens and accepted one of Arnie's money trees and $1,200 for the local chapter. The two men sang Orlando's famous song.
Over the next two decades, the money trees netted more than $155,000 for the disabled in Pinellas and Pasco and the SPCA.
Arnie and Nel raised four boys and a daughter in tiny Lewiston, N.Y., where Arnie built his own home by hand, owned a gas station, worked for a power company and as a building inspector. They moved to Clearwater in 1972 and eventually opened the lounge in Palm Harbor. Later they would move to Port Richey, where Arnie Aka-Nui's Supper Club became a standing-room-only venue for a dozen years until 1997.
Aka-Nui was Nel's idea. Arnie learned to play guitar when he was 15, taking lessons from a Hawaiian. Aka means "laugh and be happy" and nui means "very much or great," she explained.
Arnie didn't perform much after the club sold. He worked part time at a golf course in Bayonet Point but had to be careful because of heart problems.
For all his celebrity in his nightclubs, Arnie was what you would call a local talent. Then one night, in the final minutes of 2002, he and Nel sat at a table at the Cafe Michelle in Las Vegas. Their daughter-in-law, Brenda, asked the band members if they would mind if Arnie sang a song.
He was surprised when the leader announced the special guest all the way from Florida. With Nel, Arne and Brenda beaming at their table, Arnie took the microphone and easily flowed into his old act. He stared into the eyes of single women and made them feel special. One song turned into four, and Arnie Becker left them standing and cheering.
His proud daughter-in-law hugged his neck and said, "You finally did Vegas."
Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast editor of the Times and supervises news coverage in Pasco and Hernando counties.