Al Lewis, aka Grandpa Munster, has died. If it were not for a trip to Cuba I made with an old girlfriend in the early 90s to see the International Film Festival, do some music writing, and see the country before the embargo was lifted and it became an American tourist destination, Al Lewis wouldn’t mean much to me. But at the end of that festival, we were invited to Fidel Castro’s palace to sip mojitos and consort with other attendees. And, in one of the more accidental/surreal confluences of my life, I ended up in a circle of people talking to Fidel Castro about the potential for hemp products to boost the Cuban economy, with Al Lewis standing across the circle from me, interjecting crazy talk into the conversation. Never watched much Munsters, but will never forget that moment. Have included here a pre-weblog journal entry from that day. Farewell Grandpa Munster!
Personal journal, December 12, 1993
The Presidential Palace was huge and spacious, but humble and tasteful. No chandeliers, no crystal; just tasteful grey marble floors and chiseled concrete columns, giant tropical plants, and an immense expressionist mural of hand-sculpted and painted tiles, perhaps 150 ft. long and 30 ft. high running the length of an entire wall. The best food we had seen in Cuba was laid out for us: roasted chicken and rice, a deliciously spicy corn mash, fried bananas, cold salads, deserts, coffee, and of course the ubiquitous mojitos (rum, lemon, sugar and mint leaves) in abundance.
Conversations rolled, tumbled and tangled across the room and through the swirl of guests. Vigilant non-uniformed guards kept a close eye on things, making sure we didn’t wander into the wrong section, stood in relaxed poses in the wings, looking comfortable. Fidel and Grandpa Munster made their appearances at about the same time. “The Man” (also known colloquially as El Maximo, mi amigo Coco, the President, el Hefe, and by his official title, “President Fidel Castro Ruz, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba) was immediately surrounded by guests. Unlike other leaders, he does not hustle through the crowd shaking hands and kissing babies. He has conversations with anyone, picking their brains, remembering everything, asking active and pertinent questions. One person in our group is on a mission to aid Cuba’s economy by introducing hemp as a crop for energy, fiber, oil, protein, paper, etc. Bringing this up to an American President would get you ignored fast. Fidel hammered him with questions. How much yield? How much manpower? What crop rotation? What fertilizers are needed? Another in our group brought a message from her grandparents. Fidel assured her that her family had been very important to the revolution, and sent back his regards. The Man stood in one spot for over an hour, physically and mentally intent on meeting everyone he could, with absolutely no interest in superficial politics or social “How do you do’s.”
Meanwhile, Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster) strutted around looking like the eccentric, egotistic has-been he is, shouting “Not Fidel… me!” Shocks of wiry white hair shot out horizontally from beneath his blue denim cap. A slobbery cigar dangled from his mouth. A bola tie made of deer antler stood out like a big calcified sore from his shirt. He claimed to have 40 of them, all by the same “master craftsman.” He also claimed that Fidel had asked for it as a gift, and that he had refused the request. The presence of two of the greatest minds of our century together in one room at the same time proved too overwhelming for me, and I sat on a leather hassock underneath an elephant’s ear and gazed into the tile mural, looking for some hidden meaning to this surreal assemblage of events and elements. I didn’t find any, but I did get handed another mojito, which only served to make the tiles swirl, and the bizarre setting seem somehow natural, as if I attended parties like this every week.