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DOWNEY – Memo Bernabei, a resident of Downey for more than 40 years, died Oct. 22 at the age of 94.
Born March 24, 1917, his life as a musician began at the age of 10 when his older brother handed down his Wurlitzer saxophone. One of his grade school teachers took 15 minutes to show him some fingering and sent him off with a thick instruction book.
“Within a week, I went through the whole book,” Memo had said.
At 12, he played in the Pittsburgh Orchestra. By the age of 14, he was playing on the radio and at age 17, he embarked on a six-year adventure, traveling and playing with the Ray Pearl Orchestra.
He entered the U.S. Army in 1942, where he was a drum major and also had a USO dance band before becoming a radio operator and B-29 mechanic at U.S. bases. The war ended before he was sent overseas.
From 1945 to 1955, he was the lead saxophone player in the Jan Garber Orchestra, traveling around the country from ballroom to ballroom. He eventually settled down in Los Angeles and started his own orchestra in 1958.
He spent three years at the Chateau Ballroom in Los Angeles where he broke all attendance records before heading to the Aragon Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier to take over when Lawrence Welk moved to the Hollywood Palladium.
He was the house band at the Golden West Ballroom in Norwalk for more than 14 years, proving to be a favorite with the dancers. In 1979, when the Golden West was sold, he took a young bride, 33 years his junior, to be his wife. She was by his side, along with his daughter, when he died at home.
Bernabei and his orchestra performed at many of the annual summer concerts at Furman Park. He retired at age 89 and moved with his wife to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lived his final years.
He is survived by his wife of 32 years, Connie Bernabei; daughter, Dana Brown of Long Beach; grandson, Chris Brown, who resides in Brazil; stepchildren, Kacy Rufener of Long Beach, and Kelly Smith of Joshua Tree; step-grandchildren, Zoe Rufener, Doug Rufener, Alex Rufener and Kelly Vidal Smith; and great-granddaughters, Natalie and Kylie Smith.
Published: November 17, 2011 – Volume 10 – Issue 31