PLAY IT AGAIN, SHIRLEY
The San Diego UNION-TRIBUNE newspaper.
Sunday, February 27, 2005 Obituaries J-3.
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Shirley Allen refuses to let life take her out with a whimper. Her story is one of a baffler.
The 73-year-old survivor of the Great Depression has cancer — small cell lung cancer — that has now spread to her brain. It’s inoperable.
“Who knows? I may kick the bucket next week,” she says, “there’s nothing I can do about it; so no sense getting all stressed out. The doctors tell me I could live for three to six months. Whatever, I’m just going one day at a time and trying to enjoy each one of them. And if something happens, it happens — end of story.”
Shirley, a well-known and beloved piano player and singer at the venerable Red Fox Steak House in University Heights, brought this indomitable spirit to the stage last weekend.
Being behind the piano is like home to her, a place that brings her comfort.
She’s been at the Red Fox for 15 years. She’s played professionally throughout San Diego for 55 years. Shirley says the landmark establishment has always been one of her favorite places to work.
So, soon after she first learned of her condition eight months ago, she decided to hold a couple of final performances there, she says, “as a last hurrah to just let customers know that I love them.”
Friday night, Feb. 18: Dinner time at the Red Fox and the crowd keeps rolling in, a mixture of folks ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s.
Most come with plans to eat and then stay for the piano, drum and clarinet jam session that’s always part of the atmosphere at the little joint, a fixture where it’s stood on El Cajon Boulevard for nearly a half century.
Quickly. the place is at its capacity of 125. This is the first of the two nights Shirley has chosen for her last official performances at the Red Fox.
Folks cram, several rows deep, around the piano in the bar section . And they give Shirley a standing ovation when she arrives shortly after 8 p.m.
The North Park native is in pain. Even the heavy doses of cancer drugs can’t take all of it away.
Yet you wouldn’t know that from the look on her face and from the way she just smoothly launches into the crowd’s singing along favorites, a mixture of big band era standards and Dixieland tunes.
The room is electric. And it’s exactly what Shirley had envisioned. “I’ve played piano since I was 4 and I love it,” says Shirley . “It’s been like therapy for me. Anytime something was bugging me when I was a kid, I’d play the piano and it would take my mind off (the bad) things. “And I’ve always loved using it to help make people happy.”
John Demos, one of Red Fox’s two co-owners for 39 of its years, is one of the people she made happy that special night. “She is something,” he says., “She plays well and she’s reilly’ good with people. She’s really a tough old bird, I’ll say that. about her, too.
“I don’t know what I would do if doctors told me what they told her. But she just keeps right on — if she’d like to come back for more (than the two days), I’d have no problem with that . She’s great.”
John, also 73, grew into adulthood around Shirley’s North Park neighborhood after his family moved to San Diego from Chicago when he was 16.
The two never knew each other until she came to work for him.
Now, John says, he feels as if he’s known her forever.
Incredibly, Shirley plays until 1 a.m. and goes home from the Red Fox even more sore than she is upon arrival. She awakens the next day — Saturday— in yet even more pain’ but still vowing to make it back to the piano bar for her final hurrah.
On that evening, however, pain in Shirley’s back becomes so excruciating, she bows out of her performance. She goes home early after tearfully assuring the crowd: “I’m so sorry for letting you down.”
But on Monday, Shirley’s spirit once again soars.
She says she feels much better, mainly because she’s in a lot less pain and doctors have determined that the problem with her back is not related to the cancer.
‘That makes me happy,” she says . “It tells me that maybe after some more rest, I’ll get to go back and make up for Saturday.”
Something tells you that Shirley likely never knew the meaning of last hurrah.
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