I have, in a series of columns, let my mind and keyboard wander across some of the destinations in which I’ve experienced some situational sweetness.
Before there are destination weddings, there are dramatic proposals. New York’s Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The top of the Eiffel Tower overlooking the City of Light. The beach in Cabo at sunset. A ring at the bottom of a champagne glass at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami. Flying a “Will You Marry Me?” banner over Dodger Stadium. Or a man on bended-knee at a Las Vegas nightclub near one of those cheesy wedding chapels. These are some of the time-honored options.
I love hearing engagement stories. I had a few, myself. One proposal was in a vineyard at Frog’s Leap Winery in Sonoma. Another was a twilight affair in a lakefront in a gazebo with roses, candles…and a three-piece orchestra from the Lansing Symphony Orchestra.
But my first and most significant personal engagement story involves one of the entertainment industry’s most successful singer-songwriters: Paul Anka.
Who Is This “Paulanka?”
Anka is best known for writing the song “My Way” for Frank Sinatra. He also penned “Johnny’s Theme” for Carson’s legendary “Tonight Show.” Tom Jones’ hit “She’s a Lady” was a creation of Anka. And the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson’s posthumously released song “This Is It” was a collaboration with Anka. He also had a hit with the group Chicago called “Hold Me ‘Till the Morning Comes.”
Anka, for decades, has been an amazingly energetic and likable singing star. He performs his own hits, including “Diana,” “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Lonely Boy,” and “Having My Baby.” His sentimental song “The Times of Your Life” turned a Kodak commercial into one of the most enduring television advertisements of all time.
I first met Anka after his terrific concert at Pine Knob Music Theater, a famed outdoor venue, in Clarkston, Michigan, north of Detroit, in 1989. I was producing WJR Radio’s afternoon drive show with Joel Alexander, and we held a ticket giveaway promotion with the theater.
The public relations woman, Marylin Desjardins, took my parents and I backstage for a short “meet and greet” with the famed singer after his killer performance. Anka was friendly and very lively and gracious when my father Arthur complimented him on the fact that Anka had five daughters.
A couple of years later, on a summer morning, Anka phoned into the J.P. McCarthy radio show one morning. He was promoting another appearance that upcoming Sunday night back at Pine Knob. As McCarthy’s producer, I took the call and therefore briefly chatted with him again on the telephone before the interview. Anka was friendly, even though he told me he just stepped off an overnight flight from Paris. Born in Ottawa, Canada of Lebanese heritage, Anka performs worldwide and even released songs in Italian.
Desjardins kindly set me up with two front-row tickets to the concert, so I made plans to attend the Sunday show. What happened next, I did not plan.
It was warm in the twilight when I made my way into the show with my girlfriend Vera Ambrose, a vivacious celebrity chef whom I had met through the J.P. McCarthy Show. She hosted a culinary television show called “Now You’re Cooking” and was very popular amongst the Bloomfield glitterati. Vera was a blonde who resembled actress Mariel Hemingway. Ironically, Vera had been college roommates with Mariel’s sister Joan Hemingway. Joan, Mariel and their sister Margaux were granddaughters of Ernest Hemingway.
When I picked up the tickets left for us at the theater “will call” window, I secretly slipped the attendant an envelope.
“I am a radio producer. Mr. Anka asked me to get this to him backstage,” I fibbed. I used the “assumed close” by not asking whether he was capable of getting the envelope backstage or not.
Inside the envelope was a note with a request for Anka. The note listed our seat locations in the front row. I was completely uncertain as to whether the note would reach the star. In fact, considered it unlikely, but I was nevertheless prepared. This uncertainty heightened the drama of the surprise for me, too.
Vera sat down in our seats and Anka’s high-energy show unfolded.
Then…nature called me.
About 30 minutes into the performance, I really had to go to the bathroom. Of course, I could not dare to get up just in case Anka had received the note and deigned to honor my request. I sat tight with my feet below my seat moving faster than Anka’s.
And Anka is always on the move. By now his fans know he enters any venue singing his opening number “Diana” from the back of the theater. Anka surprises the crowds, who hear him singing before they figure out where he is and see him, by walking up the aisle singing into a wireless microphone, his black suit bathed in the spotlight that follows him. And during his show Anka paces across the stage only rarely standing still.
At one point, though, just after the sun set behind the grass hill behind the seats, Anka, in the middle of a song, not only crossed the stage but came down off it. Without ceasing to sing, he glided down between the stage and the front row of seats until he reached…us.
It was surreal when, between verses, Anka asked:
“Are you Vera?”
To say Vera was surprised would be an understatement. But managed to answer “Yes?!”
“He wants to marry you,” Anka quickly told her, pointing to me.
Vera turned my way to see I had pulled a ring box from my pocket and had it open to present the diamond to her.
And just like that, Anka sang and danced his way back onto the stage, while Vera and I hugged.
Occasionally, throughout the rest of his show, Anka would, during a song, come over to our way and sing words of congratulations or encouragement by incorporating them into the lyrics of the songs he was performing from the stage. “Marry him!” he shouted with a smile.
The anticipation I experienced sitting through the first half of that show, wondering whether I would leave the theater an engaged man, was intense. Once I sent that note back to Anka, the matter was out of my hands. The engagement that night, in a way, was a surprise to me, too.
Flash forward 16 years.
By 2008 I moved from being a radio producer to being a radio host. I found myself interviewing Paul Anka via telephone on my radio show to promote an appearance he was making in at Caesar’s, in Windsor, Ontario. After I introduced Anka, the star said:
Anka: Hi Michael, how are you?
Shiels: Great to hear your voice again! Now, you and I have an interesting history, you know.
Anka: I remember. I think that was the first time that had ever happened to me. But you tell the listeners.
Shiels: It was 1992 at Pine Knob. I was in the front row. You came off the stage, walked through the front row, and told my girlfriend I would like to marry her. That was such a generous thing to do.
Anka: Oh, I remember the set up. Obviously, I was informed. That was the first time it had happened. I have done it about six times since then. May I ask, are you still married?
Shiels: Uh, I’ve been married two more times since then.
Anka: I don’t mean to laugh, but I should have been there for the other two!
I told Anka he would be meeting my latest wife, a brunette dentist, that night backstage after his Caesar’s show in Windsor. Anka was in a dark, post-show sweatsuit by the time he received us, and we chatted for a bit before standing for a photograph with him.
Take Two…They Are Small
Paul Anka, as fate would have it, met yet another of my wives, a blonde therapist, a few years later, in 2015. Ironically, she bought me the concert tickets as a Christmas surprise – but mistakenly purchased very good seats for Neil Diamond. Imagine my look of bewildered surprise and feigned gratitude when I opened Neil Diamond tickets on Christmas morning. She could tell something was amiss, and I gently explained she may have mistaken Paul Anka for Neil Diamond. (I found people sometimes also confused Anka with Neil Sedaka.)
We scalped the Neil Diamond tickets and my industrious little wife, being a self-described “seat snob,” replaced them with a fantastic pair of tickets in Sarasota – which meant a Valentine’s Day trip to Florida.
The waterfront Hyatt Regency Hotel adjacent to Sarasota’s very purple Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, is where we stayed. This also happened to be where Anka and his band were staying. We got ourselves backstage after the show and I introduced her to Paul Anka. After chatting, once again another wife and I posed for a photo with Anka.
It may sound terrible, but once back home I just layered the latest photo on top of the other one in the same frame. Eventually, that photo also came down when the curtain came down on that marriage, too.
Reach Back for the Joy and the Sorrow
By 2021 I had managed to stay single for more than six years. I noticed Paul Anka was coming to perform at the showroom of Andiamo, an Italian banquet venue in Warren, Michigan.
But I was finished with taking wives to see Paul…and done with wives in general.
Paul Anka, though, still meant a lot to me, and I was feeling nostalgic. When I heard his music, especially his tune, “Times of Your Life,” the mental slideshow flashing through my mind was vivid.
“Reach back for the joy and the sorrow – put them away in your mind. The memories are time that you borrow to spend when you get to tomorrow…Gather moments while you may. Collect the dreams you dream today. Will you remember the times of your life?”
The “joys and sorrows” Anka sang about – the shadows of misty yesteryears – played on my mind. I bought some expensive tickets to Anka’s concert and reached back to invite my parents Art and Gladys, who had accompanied me to my first Paul Anka show over 30 years previous. My father was in declining health and it turned out to be the last concert he’d attend before passing months later.
Times of My Life
Then, not knowing how she would react, I dared to invite Vera, my first wife and the mother of my son Harrison. The same Vera who, decades earlier, received my front-row proposal courtesy of Paul Anka himself. I was not sure how Vera would respond to the prospect of such an invitation or whether she would be sensitive to being in Anka’s audience again – especially with me.
To this day I feel guilt for the end of the marriage. Anka’s lyrics for Sinatra’s anthem “My Way” begin with the words “Regrets, I’ve had a few…” I can say allowing that marriage to end is the biggest of my life’s regrets.
But gracious as ever, and without hesitation, Vera was game to come along. I thought it was very, very magnanimous of her. It was a way for me to express my appreciation to Vera her for all she’d done to raise Harrison in her happy, vibrant, creative home and to impress upon her that I remember and value the meaningful moments she created in the “Times of My Life.”
My father always said Vera was his favorite, so he was perhaps even more pleased than I that she would attend the show.
Showtime in Warren, Michigan
In the days leading up to the concert, since I am a travel writer, I had been on a tour more furious than Anka surely had. In the span of just over a month, I had been consecutively to Mackinac Island; Zion National Park near St. George, Utah; Los Angeles; San Diego; Casa de Campo Resort in the Dominican Republic; the Saxony Region of Germany; Asheville, North Carolina; and Mazatlan, Mexico before arriving in Detroit on the day of the concert and heading straight from the airport to the venue.
I was road-weary but ready to see Anka, the teen idol who was now an 80-year-old dynamo, light up the stage and my heart.
The four of us, who arrived separately, hacked our way through the thick crowd to take our seats – stage left – two tables back from the stage.
When I entered the venue, as I originally had at Pine Knob a lifetime ago, I asked a staff member to take an envelope backstage to “Mr. Anka.” The note inside let him know I was there if he wanted to meet backstage again and letting him know where Vera and I were sitting.
Just as before, I waited…
Just before “curtain,” I snuck a peek at an incoming text from a number I didn’t recognize:
“Hi this is Eliza, Paul Anka’s violinist….”
Anka asked Eliza James to send me a message from backstage. “From PA: ‘Sorry we couldn’t get together this time. Hope you enjoy the show!’”
I appreciated the gesture and chalked it up to the pandemic restrictions much of the socially-distanced show business operated under at that time.
As is his tradition, when the house lights dimmed and the music struck up, the most energetic octogenarian in the house turned up with a spotlight on him in the center of the room, wireless microphone in hand, singing and weaving his way between the tables. Anka was dressed in a black suit with a black tie over a white shirt and had let his hair grow a little longer in the back.
Sure enough, instead of a beeline to center stage, Anka took a real “left turn” to his right with his eyes scanning the gathered up and down. He was headed straight toward the area of our table. When Anka’s one-man parade reached us, he wide-eyed smiled broadly at Vera and me mid-song…and then sashayed to the stage. Paul Anka sprinkled his stardust upon us once again.
An Accidental Encore
In February of 2023, I was having drinks at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. It is not unusual to see notable people dropping in on any given night. Paul Anka, on this evening, came through the door and sat at a corner table with a couple of guests, one of whom was the celebrity attorney Robert Shapiro, who was wearing a fedora. Shapiro became nationally famous by being a member of O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” of attorneys.
Anka, who lives in the greater Los Angeles area, had just finished performing at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills. It must have been nice to perform, for once, near his home, so he settled into the Polo Lounge after his show for a late bite and a nightcap. I knew he was on his way to Florida for the customary Sunshine State stops of his winter tour.
When I could tell dinner was winding down, I re-introduced myself to Anka, reminded him of our “history,” and greeted his friends. I thanked him for the memories. “Pine Knob,” he said, nodding and smiling.
As we all walked out of the Polo Lounge at the same time, I said goodbye by saying: “Break a leg back in Sarasota at the Ven Wezel.”
Anka stopped and smiled. “I will.”
Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected]