Harry Brabec, Humorist
“Anything for a Laugh” could have been Harry’s motto
HARRY’S FRIEND AND FORMER STUDENT, Rich Sherrill, got it exactly right when he said, “Harry had the ability to move freely from one subject to another as easily as he could move from playing a circus one day to performing in the symphony the next. What he was really good at was making some smartass remark that fit the exact situation we were in at the time. His brain always seemed to be running a hundred miles a minute, and every conversation would have some humor in it because he would immediately take all the data, the environment, and the people there at the time, process it faster than the fastest computer, and spit out a humorous quip. ”How true! As his wife, I never knew when the next one was coming because Harry could process any ordinary bit of information and spit out a funny in an instant.”
I’ve been a professional writer since 1971, but I’ve also been writing for my own amusement all my life, keeping a variety of notebooks and personal journals. When I realized that I had married a man who could deliver humorous quips without a moment’s hesitation, I began to record Harry’s original humor in a journal I called “My Happy Book.” I figured that if his utterings could make me laugh once, they’d make me laugh again later. I was right. As it turned out, when Harry will very ill and I began to read some of his funny comments from years earlier, he couldn’t help but laugh at himself, once saying, “I was pretty funny, wasn’t I?”
A Few “Harryisms”
“The world is round, but I am square.”
“I have a weight problem. When it comes to eating, I can hardly wait.”
Of himself, he said, “He was always difficult, but he never was a bore.”
“Until we meet again . . . just remember . . . must we?”
HARRY GREATLY APPRECIATED the humor of others and had several humorous books on his bookshelves. An ardent keeper of scrapbooks, he had several of his life and career, musicians he new and worked with, circus clippings and memorabilia, and several scrapbooks of cartoons that made him laugh. One by one, I paged through all of them after he died, and seeing cartoons that made him laugh made me laugh too as I remembered the sound of his laughter every time he read something funny and shared it with me.
His favorite cartoons often related to his two passions: food and music. “Hagar the Horrible” was a favorite, and one he especially liked was where Hagar’s wife is questioning him about all the food he’s putting away.
“What about your diet?” she asks. Hagar replies, “It’s too late for me—save yourself!”
One day Harry called me into his office to show me the latest cartoon he had clipped and glued to his humor scrapbook. I loved it because it was so appropriate to both of our lives:
Wife: “I’ve had an interesting life. I could write a book.”
Husband I’ve had such ringing in my ears I could write a symphony.”
(And ringing in his ears was just one of Harry’s many medical issues.)
I could almost hear Harry laughing when I turned up the cartoon below. It was stuffed in one of the letters he’d sent to his friend, Doug, a fellow percussionist he’d corresponded with for twenty years—a dear man who gave all of Harry’s letters back to me after he died. Harry’s reference to it in the letter read: “You might like this cartoon. It just broke me up when I saw it, but of course I do have a warped sense of humor.”
There is no copyright notice on the drawing, but it appears to have come from a Polish magazine. (In case you’re not a musician, the name of Dvorak’s beautiful composition is Humoresque.)
HARRY DIED IN 2005, but he left me a wonderful legacy of remembered humor, the best of which has been generously sprinkled in nearly every chapter of my memoir, The Drummer Drives! Everybody Else Rides. The following excerpt from the book’s “Encore! Encore!” chapter shows how Harry’s mind worked to turn any situation into something we could laugh about:
ONE YEAR AFTER a quiet Christmas vacation at home, Harry decided to end his holiday with a bang—literally. On the last day, a Sunday, he got up early to get the papers in the driveway because it had started to rain. I was still sound asleep, and the first thing I heard at 7 a.m. was, “Barb, I’m in trouble.”
Even without my contact lens, I could see that Harry’s head and clothes were covered with blood that was still pouring from some unknown spot. It took awhile for me to stop the flow and get the story of what happened because Harry was in quite a daze. He hadn’t realized that the driveway was coated with ice until his slippers hit it, and when he fell, his head hit a broken section of concrete where the garage door butts the driveway. He cut a deep gash in his scalp that soon after put him in the emergency ward for four hours and seven stitches.
I was pretty calm while I was working to stop the bleeding, but when I went to retrieve his slippers—which had flown off during the fall—and saw all that blood on the sidewalk, on the garage floor, and all over the wall by the kitchen stairs (which he had apparently leaned against on his way up—he never did remember how he got from the driveway to the bedroom), I got weak in the knees. Later, when Harry was feeling better, I really gave him the devil for going out without me knowing it.
“You don’t know how lucky you are,” I said, suddenly realizing the possibilities. Harry sat there meekly as I continued to scold him. “You could have broken your hip or had a heart attack from the shock. You could have been knocked unconscious and bled to death—or froze to death—while I was peacefully snoring away. Harry, you could have DIED!”
Without missing a beat, my ever-lovin’ quietly quipped “. . . and I could have sent YOU for the papers.”
HARRY’S ABILITY to always find the humor in any situation was just what the doctor ordered. I collapsed in a fit of laughter, which released all my stress, and soon we were both laughing and hugging and reflecting on how lucky we were. Aside from a big headache and lots of aching muscles, Harry was okay. I discovered that I had a cool head in a medical emergency, and we both learned how efficient our 9-1-1 service was. Best of all, we had a guaranteed laugh every Sunday morning for weeks afterward as soon as one of us said “get the papers.”
CRACKING WISE was as natural to Harry as smiling, and everyone he knew regularly heard funny things come from his mouth. But Harry often did things in the privacy of our home to make me laugh, and sometimes his humorous public performances hit a new note with onlookers, as the following pictures and comments illustrate.
Here, Harry is “hamming it up” for orchestra members of the Milwaukee Symphony during a rehearsal. This photo was taken by Harry’s friend and fellow percussionist, Joel Cohen.
“This was in 1976 or 1977 when the Symphony was performing one of those ‘bird’ pieces by Messiaen,” he said. “I think it was Et Exspecto Resurrectionem. Among the ‘exotic’ instruments were a set of chromatically tuned gongs and the five-foot one that Harry is pictured with. I remember that one of Tele’s former students (‘Ding’ Lorenz) played the tuned gong part. He took the rented gongs home to practice, and he hit them so hard that by the time we got around to performing the piece, some of them were way out of tune.”
This picture was taken on or about Halloween sometime in the mid-sixties when Harry was performing with the Chicago Symphony. He ruined the point on one of my perfectly shaped lipsticks by painting his mouth with “dripping blood” and then gave me this Dracula-pose so I could snap a picture for our photo album. And then he went out for a drink at his favorite bar in the neighborhood and scared a few little kids on the way over who were out trick-or-treating.
Harry couldn’t resist making me laugh when we visited Golden Gate Park while the Chicago Symphony was on a western tour with some lovely time off in San Francisco. He had a passion for good food, as his belly in those days proved.
BELOW . . . a memory of visiting the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI. Harry took this opportunity to amuse me when no one else was around the area where the stuffed gorilla was hanging out in his cage. He probably broke some rules here, but then I was the only one who saw what he was doing.
AS THE ABOVE PICTURES ILLUSTRATE, Harry was a man who could be ridiculously funny around his friends and family, but he was by no means a clown. As a lover of the circus and clowns, however, he certainly would have appreciated this remark from the famous clown, Lou Jacobs:
“If we learn to laugh at ourselves, we’ll be more comfortable with the person we are, as well as with others around us.”
As is evident in this photo-article, Harry had a unique sense of humor. Since he died, I have often recalled the day many years ago when we were driving in Chicago and passed a tombstone factory and began to muse about what our own headstones might say about us. I remember how hard Harry laughed when, in a rare flash of genius, I said to him, “If you should precede me to the great beyond, I know exactly what I’ll have inscribed on your stone:
“Here lies Harry Brabec.
He finally took his drum and beat it.”
As it turned out, Harry chose to be cremated, so I sent him off with a pair of old drumsticks in his hands.
This article was adapted from a post on The Drummer Drives website, which was closed in 2014. Copyright © 2010-2021 by Barbara Brabec.
The Handwriting and Humor of Harry Brabec. Illustrates the importance of preserving copies of the letters and emails you are sending and receiving from family member and friends.