Hap Saams is still a showman at 98. The former big-band musician and star of a one-man nightclub act is still going strong these days at lunchtime at the Royal Palm Retirement Centre in Port Charlotte, Fla..
“Stardust,” “Autumn Leaves” and the “Godfather’s Theme” flowed from his fingers when he tinkles the ivories on the well-worn piano in the center’s dining room. In 1938, he began playing piano with big bands around New York City. Along the way, he also picked up clarinet and guitar, all self-taught.
“When I joined the Navy in 1942, I was 32. My age saved my life a couple of times during the war,” he recalled. “I didn’t tell them I was a musician because I didn’t want to cop out.
“They were going to send me to Pensacola Naval Air Station and train me to be an aerial photographer.”
At the last minute, Saams was pulled from the group because of his age. He had to return to his naval base in New Port, R.I.
“All my buddies went on to photographic school in Florida. Later the whole bunch of them got shot down over Japanese-held islands in the Pacific during the war,” he said. “My age saved me.”
He was then reassigned to a four-stacker destroyer escort, DE-135, and sent to the North Atlantic.
After sustaining damage during a winter storm, his ship arrived at an American naval base at Argentia, Newfoundland, for repairs.
“The captain put me ashore when he found out I was a musician. I spent the next two years of the war playing in a big band on base,” Saams said. “Big band leader Lt. Eddy Duchin showed up at the base in Argentia aboard a destroyer and played for us while he was in port.”
At one point in his military odyssey, Saams was going to be assigned to a submarine because he was a good swimmer and had been a lifeguard before the war. But his age kept him on land once more.
Saams completed his military service in WWII at the University of Georgia, teaching 22 college girls vocal harmony.
“It was fun. We put on a couple of good shows, the college girls and I,” he said.
There was more to the University of Georgia than college girls. The Navy used the college to teach preflight training to potential Naval aviators.
By war’s end, he met and married his first wife, Laura, who had a home in the Washington, D.C., area.
“I spent the next two years playing my piano in nightclubs around the Washington area,” he said. “Then I took my act, which by this time had become known as ‘Hap Happy the Showman of the Stars,’ to Florida.”
It was a little bit of everything: straight piano playing, parodies, impersonations and lots of well-known songs of the day that he sang in his baritone voice. He packed them in first in Miami and then in the Florida Keys.
Saams was appearing at the Bamboo Room in the Tahitian Lounge in Key West, filling the place every night.
“In those days, it was run by hoods. The Godfather from Cleveland, who had an interest in the bar, came in, saw all the people and told me, ‘Get these people out of here.’ He apparently didn’t want the police to start cracking down because of the crowd.
“My manager tried to get me out of the lounge twice, and each time the Godfather told me, ‘I’ll tell you when you can quit.’ Finally the club’s manager fired me, that’s how I got out of there.”
In the early 1960s, Saams was tooling down the “Overseas Highway,” connecting the Keys with a red-headed, green-eyed stripper in the seat beside him. Saams was driving a Corvette in excess of 100 mph when he was finally stopped at a police roadblock. A police officer he knew was manning the barricade.
“He told me he would have to give me a $25 ticket for speeding. I told him, ‘No problem, just bring it by the club tonight and I’ll pay you,'” Saams said.
“When the cop showed up with my ticket, I told the audience what happened to me. The audience immediately put up the fine and then some. I paid the ticket and pocketed $75 extra that night, thanks to the audience.”
A dozen years after he married his first wife, she died in the 1970s. In 1976, Saams married June, his second wife, who lived until 2005 after struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years.
Three years ago, Saams moved into Royal Palm after coming to Port Charlotte with a couple of longtime friends he and his late second wife met decades ago in the Keys.
“I never did” retire, he said as he glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to play for the lunch crowd downstairs at 12:30.”
Name: Hap Saams
D.O.B: 15 April 1909
D.O.D.: 22 April 2011
Entered Service: 2942
Rank: Musician 2nd Class
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, May 13, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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His obit simply read
Harry Saams was born on April 15, 1909 and passed away on Friday, April 22, 2011.
Harry was a resident of Punta Gorda, Florida.