Sammy Arena, one of singing Tampa twins, dies at 81

Twins Andy Arena, left, and Sammy Arena grew up in Ybor City and sang together at venues in Miami, Las Vegas and the Catskills.

AMY SCHERZER | Times

Twins Andy Arena, left, and Sammy Arena grew up in Ybor City and sang together at venues in Miami, Las Vegas and the Catskills.

TAMPA — Sammy and Andy Arena were together even before birth. As 81-year-old men, they shared a home.

The singing twins seemed inseparable, their bond unbroken by war, marriage or illness.

On Wednesday, illness won out.

Sammy Arena died at 3:44 a.m. in Tampa General Hospital, after weeks of hospitalization for heart problems and two decades of fighting to stay alive.

Twice a day, his brother would go to his bedside.

"It's going to be a new type of life," Andy Arena said.

•••

The Arena children, three boys and a girl, grew up in Ybor City in a cauldron of Cuban, Spaniard and Sicilian culture, the birthplace of enduring friendships.

At George Washington Junior High, the twins met Jack Espinosa, then a budding comedian. Espinosa, now 82, remembers doing Al Jolson imitations while putting on shows at the Arena family house.

Later, the talent moved to theaters at clubs such as Centro Español. The brothers gave him plenty of material.

"One boy takes a drink of Pepsi-Cola and the other burps," Espinosa would point out.

Both twins joined the Army and went to Korea. They sang for the USO overseas and for civic club benefits back home.

Music bookings led them to Miami, Las Vegas and the Catskills, where they put their own spin on songs like My Way and New York. They played weddings, festivals and concert halls, singing pop and ethnic folk tunes in English, Spanish, Italian and Yiddish.

"I think he was a little better singer than I was," Andy Arena said. "In his prime, he was a phenomenal entertainer."

But even their mannerisms were the same.

Sammy Arena's eldest son, who shares the given name of Salvatore, said he and his siblings couldn't always tell their father from their uncle.

"We always hoped one would grow a mustache," said the son, 44.

Fuzzy lips came, but in pairs. A Times columnist once described the Arena twins as "diminutive Tampa bananas with scrub brush hair and matching mini-mustaches."

•••

It wasn't the first time Sammy Arena died. His heart stopped once in the early 1990s in the Tampa General cafeteria.

He survived a 1994 kidney transplant that brought him a decade of good health followed by bad.

His heart had been failing for a long time. Family had come to recognize that his days were nearing an end. They wondered if he was holding on for the sake of his twin, and if this was causing too much suffering.

"If you don't tell him it's okay to let go," Andy Arena remembers hearing, "he's not going to do it."

So he sat one day beside his dying brother and started saying things he hadn't said before.

"I want you to say hello to Mom and Pop," he said. "And to my wife and to Anthony's wife. And I want you to know that you're the first of our group to go, but I'll be following you soon. And so will the rest of us."

Andy Arena isn't sure what to expect of life without his brother.

He still has a surviving brother and sister, a daughter and two sons, grandchildren, more family and countless friends. They came Wednesday bringing lasagna, shrimp cocktail, chicken and yellow rice, sausages, pastries and beer.

The first time Sammy Arena faced death, he adopted a mantra. His words wound up in a newspaper story in 1996.

"People don't realize how precious life is until this kind of thing happens," he said.

On Wednesday, the surviving twin spoke of the beauty of living on earth, with family and friends, and his words included these:

"People don't realize how precious life is every day."

Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

Memorial service

A memorial service for Sammy Arena is scheduled for noon to 1:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, 5225 N Himes Ave., Tampa. The public is invited.

Memorial service

A memorial service for Sammy Arena is scheduled for noon to 1:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, 5225 N Himes Ave., Tampa. The public is invited.

Sammy Arena, one of singing Tampa twins, dies at 81 12/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 11:34pm]

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