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Few entertainers can match the length of Juanita Cohen-Smith's life-long musical gig.
Her public career began at age four, when she accompanied her opera-singer mother on the piano. Today, 'Juanita' - who prefers the use of her stage name - admits to being "over 70," and she's still touring. She just returned from a Swiss concert series, and after a short break will leave her Eilat home for yet another piano tour.
"Musically, I've done it all," Juanita says. She's performed as a concert pianist, a singer, a nightclub performer and 'opened' for such stars as Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne. In Israel, her fans recall her days as the sultry piano player at Eilat's Neptune Hotel during its heyday.
There's only one thing she wanted to do but never did: "I never danced on Broadway," she says. "I did shows, but I turned down a part that was mostly dancing - it would have shocked my parents too much. It wasn't that I didn't dance. In our nightclub act, we had one number - "I Wish I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate" - and I danced every night, and the audience loved it. But dancing in a Broadway show seemed like too much - we were very respectable people. We were Orthodox, we had very strict rules. So I turned the role down. I didn't want to shame my parents."
"Later, I went to Las Vegas, and I danced there, too. But by then, I was known as an artist, and it wasn't a shock anymore. By that time, the world had changed, too."
Of Spanish, Jamaican and Syrian descent, Juanita's Syrian grandmother worked for years to bring her family to America. "My grandmother worked for a shipping line, and brought the whole family, one by one, to North America on the ships, sailing through the Caribbean to America. Because of the quota system, some of my uncles went first to South America and later came to the US through Canada. I had two sisters and one brother. My father, Leopold, went from being a laborer in New York to owning his own construction company, specializing in restoring homes, which gave him an opportunity to hire many immigrant Jews. He was a wise man, but not well educated. He didn't speak English well - I remember seeing him sitting at the kitchen table, struggling to learn. But he had a colorful way of explaining things, drawing mental pictures so it would stick in your mind."
Juanita's career began with her mother, but before long she was out on her own. "Right after the War (WWII), all the musicians were back from Europe and groups were performing all over. I'd go straight from music class to the places they used for rehearsals. Mama would dress me up fancy with bows in my hair. So there I was, this skinny little girl, her hair in ribbons, and I'd walk up to them and say, 'Please can I play with your group?' Sometimes they'd say yes, so I'd get a chance to practice with a group. In the beginning I played only classics, but there was a different style of music beginning then, a mix of jazz, rhythm and blues, the very early days of rock and roll."
In the 1950's Juanita's career took off when she met Jimmie Butts, a popular jazz bass player whose 78 rpm recordings can still be found in classic collections. "In those days, everyone was writing music. Jimmie's partner was a wonderful writer, but he was doing it all over the telephone. So he'd be on the phone all night, writing, and was too tired to play. I wanted in, so they gave me the whole book of the music they performed. I memorized the whole thing, and stepped in when his partner left. We were performing in supper clubs with Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, opening shows for all the big names.
"Jimmie's agent said it was the best thing he'd done - we were a girl and a boy, which was unusual in those days, and we brought in more money than just a single performer. We called ourselves 'the biggest little opening act in America.'
"I stayed with Jimmie 15 years, then went off on my own, playing piano and singing with just a drummer. It was easier to get gigs in Canada in those days, so I toured Canada, back and forth across the country, for a long time."
Juanita first visited Israel in the early 1950's. "My family came for a Bar Mitzvah," she says. "Afterward, we toured all over, saw everything. I loved Israel, and worked to meet all the entertainment people I could. From then on, I always carried Israel on my shoulder."
It wasn't long before the Neptune Hotel beckoned. "At the time, Eilat was very cosmopolitan, with an international flair. It was a favorite recreation spot for Europeans, Asians, people from all over the world. The best hotel in Eilat was the Neptune - ladies dressed in elegant gowns and jewelry. I played the piano in the lobby, every kind of music anyone wanted to hear. My own preference was for Gershwin, doing my own interpretations of his music. I had a nine-year contract with the Neptune."
It was Juanita's versatility that gave her an edge. "I integrated my music. I can play anything, if they wanted a gospel singer, I could do that. On radio, I sounded just like a fine singer. But when I began to appear in person, they'd say I offered the 'black sound.' Whatever they wanted, I could do."
Juanita met and married her husband, Walter Cohen, through her future in-laws. "I was doing a concert, and met my future father-in-law," she says. "He was the ones to suggest the shidduch to his son. We married, and had a wonderful life until he passed away in 1983. We were quite a pair - I'm Spanish, Jamaican and Syrian, and my husband was German, Russian and Polish. Our friends' grandchildren called me 'Savta Chocolate' and my husband was 'Saba Vanilla.' After my husband passed away, I bought my first home in Eilat."
In many ways, Juanita was ahead of her time. "My husband was well to do," she says, "but I insisted on keeping my career going - it gave me a chance to express myself. It was also important to have my own accounts, to be able to put something away for the future. When I had to begin life on my own again, I was able to do so."
Both her grandmother and her parents greatly influenced her life, Juanita says. "I admired my grandmother for all her courage and strength. And my father taught me my most important lessons - to always be positive, to be humble, and accept life's problems as God's way of keeping you humble.
"I've run up against all sorts of barriers in my life, situations that weren't easy to overcome, but my father always encouraged me. 'You can accomplish anything you want,' he'd say. 'But be who you are. If you are what you are, you can't fail.' I think that's the reason I was able to adapt to so many different styles, in so many different places. Under it all, I had confidence in who and what I was."
What would her parents think of her success? "I think my father would have been proud of me. He paid for all my lessons, he was always supportive. I'm not so sure about my mother. She taught me everything, she started it all. Later, I always included her as my guest artist. But she kept me humble, too."
"I'm from the old school," she says. "I don't look like everyone else - I am Juanita! I've always worked hard, I've always been positive, I've always made the most of what I had."
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