Advertisement
  1. News

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.
Twins Andy Arena, left, and Sammy Arena grew up in Ybor City and sang together at venues in Miami, Las Vegas and the Catskills.
Published Dec. 6, 2012

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Jesse Michael Chester, 40, was arrested on 20 counts of possession of child pornography and two counts of video voyeurism, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    A child porn investigation led to secretly recorded videos of adults using the bathroom, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
  2. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, left, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody were appointed to the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice by Attorney General Bob Barr. [Tampa Bay Times]
    Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody will also join a commission that will “explore modern issues affecting law enforcement," according to the Department of Justice.
  3. Clockwise from left: Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites, Piña Colada Candy Apple, Candy Corn and Cheeseburger-On-A-Stick [Courtesy of the Florida State Fair]
    Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites, Piña Colada Candy Apples and more are coming to the Florida State Fair.
  4. Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputy Alton Smith helps recover items Wednesday from Lake Twitt in Odessa during a dive team practice. Divers used the drill to search for evidence of a forgotten African American cemetery nearby. [CHRIS URSO   |  Times]
    Keystone Memorial Cemetery was established by a freed slave and disappeared in the 1950s. The dive team chose Lake Twitt to do its monthly practice.
  5. In this Aug. 28, 2013, file photo, Joseph Maldonado answers a question during an interview at the zoo he runs in Wynnewood, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File) [SUE OGROCKI  |  AP]
    A federal judge sentenced Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage to 22 years in prison for trying to arrange the killing of Carole Baskin.
  6. St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, left, and U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez announce the creation of the regional Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    A six-county task force from Hernando to Polk to Sarasota will band together thanks to a $742,000 Justice Department grant.
  7. In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday. (Senate Television via AP) [AP]
    After late-night deliberations over the rules almost ensured no new witnesses will be heard, the trial picked up speed
  8. More than 44 percent of people who searched on ApartmentList.com for the Tampa Bay area from June to December were outside the region, according to a report from Apartment List. Percentages in the “Top Three Sources” box represent the share of searches coming from outside the metro area. (Apartment List map) [Apartment List]
    The region trails only Denver, Baltimore and San Diego for the percentage of people from outside the area searching for apartments on Apartment List.
  9. To accommodate the swelling numbers of aging baby boomers, experts say we will need to make transportation more readily available, build more affordable housing, modify homes and apartments to help seniors age in place, and create programs to bring young and old people together. [Times (2011)]
    “There’s never been a time like this,” one expert says. Solutions include more health aides, taming long-term care costs and just healthier living.
  10. The northbound lanes of I-275 were closed for more than four hours early Tuesday morning as troopers investigated a deadly crash. [Florida Highway Patrol]
    Police pulled over their vehicle for driving the wrong way on Fifth Avenue S, but the driver took off and crashed shortly after.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement