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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Dick Van Dyke's Daughter

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

*occasional adult language*

That's me. Didn't you know? On ships, rumors evolve at back breaking speeds, but this was one rumor I made absolutely no effort to correct.

At this point, I'd been at sea for over 13 months, and had obtained the employee benefit of bringing friends and family on board for dirt cheap rates. I thought maybe my parents would like to take advantage of the opportunity and see what my new life was like. My musician's lifestyle was totally foreign to them, and experiencing it first hand might ease their anxieties. Our ship was in Alaska, so airfare would be doable, and culture shock wouldn't be so much of an issue.

I made the suggestion gently over the phone at the beginning of the Alaska season, and I had gotten the response I anticipated: "No thanks Jess, we really don't have that kind of money right now."

I dunno who you think you're fooling, but you're sitting pretty enough, I thought. Just tell your financial advisor and he'll make it work. Besides, you go visit your sons all the time...

I went home for five days for a work break required by maritime law, and brought the DVD's of my self-produced cabarets with me. My parents were delighted to watch, and tickled (and maybe surprised?) to find the product I produced was entertaining.

"Oh, it would be so fun to see this live," they lamented.

"You can. Pick a voyage to visit, and they'll schedule my cabaret for when you're there," I suggested.

"They will?" Dad asked.

"Yes, we always do that for visiting friends and family."

"I didn't realize it could be negotiated," he said.

So we spent the rest of the evening looking at my ship's itinerary to find a voyage that wouldn't require outrageously expensive airfare. They decided on the 12 day cruise that began in Vancouver on September 12th and went up through small Canadian ports into Alaska.

"Now before you go making reservations, let Mom and me check with our bosses," Dad instructed. Ever cautious.

I rejoined the ship, and a few days later got my reply: "We just can't make it, it's not possible with our work demands." I was disappointed, but not surprised.

September 12th rolled around. My cabaret was scheduled to be performed on this voyage after all. I was a bit tired from running about, writing charts and leading rehearsals, but it was a happy kind of tired.

I'd spent the morning fetching coffee and wifi in Vancouver, wondering what it would be like if I were instead meeting my parents and herding them onto the ship.

My embarkation shift for the afternoon ended at last, and the ship's horn sounded the start of our safety drill. We grabbed our lifejackets and manned our posts -- singers stood on the outside walkway of Deck 5 to muster the passengers, lining them up according to their predetermined lifeboats. The cruise director (or CD) read a long statement over the ship's intercom explaining policies and procedures. Guests on my port side muster station stood facing the sun, dripping sweat in pseudo rapt attention. I was beginning to perspire through my jacket, myself -- this was the least enjoyable part of every cruise.

Beside me stood Richard, our ship's personal shopping guide. His high rank didn't require any such safety duties, yet he joined us entertainers at our stations anyway, to help out and begin to chat up the guests for his own business purposes.

"In the event of a fire..." the CD droned on.

"Hey," Richard elbowed me, speaking barely louder than his breath. "Don't look now, but 15 feet to your left is Dick Van Dyke."

Dick Van Dyke, my mind processed. Dick Van Dyke...? Oh! The DICK VAN DYKE?! My mouth fell open as realization dawned upon me and I looked at Richard, who was more than tickled to be the bearer of sensational news.

Dick Van Dyke is in my lifeboat? Not that I hope we sink... I thought. I flickered my eyes to the left, discreetly behind my sunglasses. I wasn't sure what to look for, but I guessed he'd look similar to his character from Night at the Museum.

Wait, Dick Van Dyke is sailing with us during the voyage that my parents almost sailed on?! MY CABARET IS SCHEDULED FOR WHEN DICK VAN DYKE IS ABOARD!?! My mind raced as I scanned inconspicuously.

Then there he was, my eyes found him. His thick white hair neatly parted above his sharp eyes darting around, sizing up the scene. He was shorter than I'd expected, having appeared on the silver screen with such tremendous charisma and presence for more than twice the duration of my life. But it was unmistakably him -- even if the flustered excitement of the other guests around him, who unexpectedly found themselves rubbing elbows with one of Hollywood's Golden Age legends, wasn't enough to blow his cover.

He seemed used to it, like he'd accepted peoples' reactions to him as completely natural. He didn't seem stuck up about it, but instead was graciously aware of what his work has meant to millions of people worldwide.

It certainly proved overwhelming to me! My eyes filled with tears as my throat choked. Holy SHIT, it's Dick Van DYKE! Oh my GOD...

" put on your lifejackets, first pull it over your head..." the poor CD continued dully.

I almost missed my cue! Crew on the muster stations were to demonstrate the correct wearing of the lifejackets (surprisingly, many people find this insanely challenging...), but there I was, swooning over Dick Van Dyke, wheezing through my tears, hardly paying attention to the task at hand.

" the long strap around your waist..." the announcement droned.

I scrambled to catch up. Richard watched from the corner of his eye and had a good chuckle over my fluster.

"...plug your nose with one hand, and reach your other arm across your chest and grip the opposite side of the life vest, to prevent it from riding up as you enter the water..."

The crew demonstrated in choreographed unison.

"...before jumping into the water, look below to see that the water is clear. Step off into the water. Do. Not. Jump."

And with that, my first "performance" for Dick Van Dyke was complete. The ship's intercom clicked off for dramatic effect, and dazed guests looked around like lost sheep. The CD turned the sound back on, and guests and crew relaxed when we were finally dismissed from the drill.

We entertainers had to hustle to change into dress code and make it to the pool deck on time for the Welcome Aboard party, where we always presented a short preview of attractions to come. Each time, we performed the Brindisi from Verdi's La Traviata, and I sang the lead role of 'Violetta'. Would Dick Van Dyke and his wife attend?

Breathlessly excited, a few of us decided to take the elevator to the running track, where you could walk around the perimeter of the pool from above and look down at the gathering crowd.

"DVD sighting!" our cast supervisor Sierra exclaimed.

Sure enough, there he was, sitting on the ledge by the pool showers with his wife. And the phrase 'DVD sighting', we nonverbally decided as a cast, was going to be a term that stuck for the rest of that cruise.

Music was playing while the CD waited for people to trickle in. Hors d'oeuvres and Prosecco were being passed around by the wait staff. More guests were in attendance than usual, probably because word had spread and everyone wanted their own DVD sighting -- or bettter yet, a DVD conversation or a DVD selfie. It was a small ship of 300 crew and 380 guests when at maximum capacity, so the chances of running into him were good. Excitement buzzed contagiously.

HE BEGAN DANCING! We gasped and grabbed each other's hands in emotional support. That unmistakably authentic, unpolished movement of reckless abandon and unrestrained joy we'd all seen on television and the big screen since childhood -- was happening in person, right before our eyes! How could we be so lucky? Perhaps he sensed everyone's reaction, and just like that, he stopped.

The Welcome Aboard presentation began. It was always long and dull, and the crummy sound system on the pool deck never allowed the presenters to be understood clearly. Often our elderly guests, who were frequently hard of hearing, would get frustrated and leave. Slowly but surely, that's what started to happen...and our hearts dropped to see DVD and his wife leave with them.

Disappointed as we were, when our turn to sing the Brindisi came, we sung with extra gusto anyway -- maybe his cabin was within earshot of the pool deck and we'd provide incentive for him to check out a show.

The entire ship was out socializing that night, and most especially the cast. We normally needed a bit of coercion to get us in guest areas without having been scheduled for a specific duty, but we were electrified with excitement. With my cabaret coming up, it behooved me especially to make connections with the guests to better my show's chances of a high approval rating, so I was already planning on establishing a large presence this voyage.

But now DVD was could I subtly pay tribute to his contribution to entertainment in the show I was producing, without being too contrived or disrespecting his privacy?

I know! My parents were supposed to be here, and one of my dad's favorite songs of all time is "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins. I could sing that, play the orchestra interlude on the violin, and use it as my encore! And I could dedicate it to my parents, even though it didn't work out for them to be sailing with us. It came together perfectly! I needed to quickly write a new chart and let the band know.

Socializing got old pretty quickly. Jetlagged guests wanted to turn in early, and DVD didn't make an appearance, so disappointment hung in the air. I decided to check if I could use the internet on the stage manager's computer, just to (admittedly, borderline spitefully) keep my parents informed of what they were missing. My cabaret was scheduled anyway AND we were sailing with Dick Van Dyke? They both could've been here for the price of $200 a night, and had chosen the wrong time to sit out!

The next day was our first full show, our tribute to ABBA called "Fabbalicious". Our skirts hardly covered our butt cheeks and our go-go boots came above our knees, while the men wore overalls with capes. The house was packed, with overflow people standing in the aisles and dancing outside the main entrance of the theater. Our show slayed it, our tipsy guests were delirious with disco fever -- but DVD was nowhere to be seen.

This happened again for the opera show. The voyage dragged on with the occasional success story of people who managed to be on the same shore excursion as DVD, or catch him on the gangway and get a photo. But the constant anticipation was wearing on our nerves, and rendering us jaded. Understandably, DVD didn't seem to want to be anywhere that he'd have to make small talk about his celebrity -- he was on vacation and perhaps desired the same kind of anonymity that everyone else inherently had, just by virtue of not being famous.

I held out hope for my show, since it was a different form of entertainment from what was offered on the other nights: a novelty act of violin playing combined with singing. It happened to be well advertised because of my camaraderie with the officer who published the ship's daily newsletter, so it was publicized as very unique.

At band rehearsal, I handed out the new chart and explained why I needed to impose it on them at the last minute. Our band was from the Philippines and the significance of DVD on American culture was lost on them. I was hoping their excitement would match mine, because the stakes could potentially be high -- but no such luck.

The show went moderately well. Attendance was good and audience enjoyment was decent. I kept squinting through the spotlight for a glimpse of glossy white hair or maybe a million-dollar showbiz smile, but neither was there. The CD brought me back on for my encore, and I began dedicating the following tune to my parents, who had planned to be sailing with us during this voyage, but at the last minute were unable to make it. I then paid an indirect, but obvious, tribute to the "legendary entertainers who paved the way before us", and started the song.

The next morning at rehearsal for our Motown show, Sierra looked at me sideways and said, "Girl, these guests be sayin' Dick Van Dyke's your father."

"What? Why?"

"I have no idea. Someone asked me at Coffee Chat this morning," she snickered.

"But why would they think that?"

She shrugged. "I'm surprised nobody's asked you about it."

"I mean, they can think that if they want to..." I trailed off as the stage manager pressed play on our rehearsal tracks, and we hustled to our places.

But all through rehearsal I was distracted. If he were my father, wouldn't people have seen us spending time together by now? Maybe, since he'd hardly been seen out and about, they figured perhaps I was hanging in his guest suite? Then it dawned on me: I had mentioned my father and referenced DVD in the same dedication speech last night -- and now we had a ship full of passengers thinking I was his daughter. Will wonders never cease?

Once your cabaret is over, the rest of the voyage feels like a let down. People ask you general questions about your musical background and inspirations, and tell you what they wished you'd play more of; but that's less fun than putting new charts together with the musicians and building up hype -- at least for me.

Guests and crew alike still bragged about their DVD sightings, and selfies with him showed up from my colleagues all over social media. I very much wanted my own photo with him, but felt bad for the constant attention he was receiving. I knew he was used to it, but this was his daily reality that couldn't be escaped even on vacation, and I didn't want to be one more person imposing myself on him. Yet after the adoring barrage of millions of fans, what was just one more? I wrestled with myself every time our paths crossed, but all I allowed myself to do was smile, say hello, and keep walking.

My roommate and I were fast asleep in our cabin while the ship peacefully rocked on the waves, en route to the last port where our guests would disembark.

The phone rang!

My bunk was the closest, so I grabbed it.

"Jessika, where are you guys?!" Sierra shouted into the receiver.

"Was I supposed to do Coffee Chat?" I said groggily.

"The Bacharach Songbook rehearsal started 15 minutes ago!" she exclaimed. "We can't hold the band any longer, so we just started!"

"Oh my GOD, I'm so sorry!" I wailed.

"But Jessika, that's not all -- DICK VAN DYKE WALKED INTO OUR REHEARSAL!!!"



"Rob! Get up, we gotta go!" I woke my roommate while putting a bra on, washing my face, and grabbing a bottle of water.

Great -- NOW he shows up -- when I'm still in my pajamas with no make-up, hair tied out of the way, not warmed up, no breakfast, no coffee, late as hell to rehearsal (which NEVER happens) -- in general, just looking as unprofessional as can be.

We scrambled up the staircases to the backstage area and sprinted to our places.

The cast had decided to run the tunes out of order, so we could be present for the group numbers. Randy was running his solo number as we arrived, while we whispered our apologies to everyone else. As we got settled, we could see a lone figure sitting two-thirds of the way back in the auditorium, with the tell-tale sleek white hair on top of analytical eyes, shadowed over his sharp cheekbones. It was unmistakably Dick Van Dyke.

At the usual Bacharach rehearsals, we would only start each song, and not finish it -- just enough to touch base with the band about tempos and refresh our harmonies. But this time, with DVD in the house, watching us sing for the first time since he didn't like coming to shows, we ran through each song in its entirety.

I sat on my stool and warmed my vocal chords under my breath. My solo arrangement was thin, high, soft, and extremely exposed, and made me very vulnerable. There was zero margin for error -- one tiny, unintentional quiver would ruin the intensity of the entire song.

Suddenly it was my turn to rehearse. It took every ounce of mental energy to control my body and have the clarity to navigate the song. Thus far, DVD had only seen me act like a slacker, and every fiber of my being needed to redeem myself by at least not sucking ass at my main event. I was singing Burt Bacharach's and Hal David's killer ballad-turned-jazz-standard "Alfie", in a key much higher than women usually sing it. It's an achingly beautiful song with a life-changing lesson crammed brilliantly into the lyrics. At each show I would pray I'd be worthy of delivering a message so profound, to do it the justice it deserves. "Alfie" was difficult enough to sing when I was warmed up, caffeinated, and dressed. On that day, it felt like I didn't even have my legs under me.

The bandleader glissando-ed my opening chord, and I inhaled.

Evidently some divine higher power took over, because if I'd ever come close to doing right by "Alfie", it was at that moment. And the morning sleep that hadn't yet flushed from my body seemed to add a gentle huskiness to my normally thin and bright timbre -- yet I hit every pitch solidly in tune, and never wavered whatsoever. The band followed my phrasing like a hawk, it was one of the few times where the stars must've aligned, because the music ebbed and flowed as if coming from one body.

Until you find the love you've missed, you're nothing Alfie... The fermata on the high note shimmered over silence after the band dropped out. We inhaled in unison and came back subito piano with, When you walk, let your heart lead the way...

I felt magnificent. I still don't know where that breath control came from, an almost effortless mastery of my craft that rarely graces me with its presence to this day, try as I might. When my last note faded through the reverb, I was just as stunned as anyone else in the room. I thanked the band and walked numbly back to my stool. I saw DVD leaning forward in his seat.

And it occurred to me -- DVD likely knew a Bacharach tune or two, and there we were with the band. It seemed silly to have someone like him be a mere spectator.

"Would you like to join us for a tune?" I asked cheekily over my microphone. "The band has a whole Bacharach book, chances are there's one you know."

He laughed enduringly, and shook his head with the palms of his hands facing me.

"Alright, well if you change your mind..."

DVD nodded, and I sat back down. It was worth a try.

"That song just takes you right to church," my colleague Becca smiled.

The rest of rehearsal passed me by as if in a blurry dream, then the band was dismissed to grab lunch before their next set. The cast lingered around the stage, awkwardly wondering what to do next.

To our delight, DVD stood up and walked towards the stage. We clambered down the semi-circle flight of steps to shake his hand.

"So! What'd you think?" giggled Sierra, clearly starstruck and letting it get the better of her.

"That was great guys, nice song selection."

Everyone started talking at once. Dick shoved his hands in his pockets and closed his mouth, not wanting to even try following the conversations.

I stood there, quietly contrite, somewhat ashamed to be meeting DVD in my PJ's -- after having been late for rehearsal, no less.

He shifted his weight and leaned his shoulder towards me.

"I enjoyed your rendition of 'Alfie'," he said.

He chose to single me out!? He liked the interpretation of a little pipsqueak singer on a ship? Pinch me! What a tremendous honor. What about the others? I blinked in surprise.

"Thank you!" I replied. Whaaaaa...! my mind screamed.

"You do that quite well," he said with a nod while chewing his gum.

The others realized Dick was speaking and began to quiet down.

"You know," I said matter-of-factly. "There's a rumor going around the ship that you're my father. Have you heard?"

"There is?" Dick raised an eyebrow. "Grandfather maybe..." He shrugged and said with a grin, "No, I haven't heard that."

We began asking him questions about his experiences on the sets of our favorite films, about what he'd thought of Saving Mr. Banks, which had recently been released and was now playing on our ship once a voyage. He graciously indulged us.

"Oh, she was such a curmudgeon. She hated me, and she hated Julie, but Walt persisted, and on many points ignored her demands to have his way, more than that film portrays. She hated the color red, she did not want Mary Poppins wearing any red in the slightest, but we all know how that turned out..."

Just refer to two of the world's most famous people by their first names, why don't you.

He told us he was into a cappella arrangements and barbershop quartets, and that he performed with his own group to this day. He patiently watched us perform the a cappella version of "Ooh Baby Baby" from our Motown show, and told us how he felt like his fellow passengers on this ship acted like they were so old, compared with the cruise line he and his wife preferred, where passengers had more get up and go, and the ships offered more things to do. When he seemed ready to move on, we asked him if we could have a quick cast photo with him before he left.

"Oh, absolutely." He was such a gentleman.

Rob had the foresight to bring his nice camera with him despite leaving our cabin in a rush, and he handed it off to our stage manager, who posed us on the stairs with DVD in the center, and me standing to his left. In my pajamas. The shutter clicked.

"Thank you so much, sir!" we all chimed in, talking over each other.

"My pleasure guys, my pleasure," he said.

"I'd be happy to send you a copy of the photo if you'd like," offered Rob.

"Sure, sure, that'd be great," Dick indulged him patiently.

"If you give me your email address, I'll send it over," continued Rob.

Everyone stopped talking, and turned to glare at him. What the fuck was he thinking? Who was he to ask for Dick Van Dyke's email as if he had a legit reason? As if he'd be interested in keeping in touch with Rob. But that was Rob for you: a sense of entitlement that knew no bounds. Always pushing the limits, always looking to one-up everyone else, always thinking he deserved the VIP pass when he did absolutely nothing to earn it. I hung my head, ashamed to be so closely associated with him. How rude. And what if he did get DVD's personal email? Rob would hover that over our heads for weeks. Whenever the cast had a good thing going, Rob would come up with something that would throw a wrench in it. This happened all contract long, and we were sick of it. I glanced sideways to see how DVD would react.

"Uh, perhaps you should send it through my website?" Dick put his foot down with a stern gaze.

"Oh! Oh, ok, I'll be sure to do that then," stated Rob importantly, without showing whether his feathers had been ruffled.

An uncomfortable pregnant pause ensued. It was such an honor that Dick Van Dyke chose to spend more than an hour of his afternoon observing our rehearsal and speaking with us -- but Rob's pushy request somehow made us all look bad. No one wanted to start a scene and confront Rob in front of DVD, but it seemed like we all were trying hard not to kill him. I can at least speak for myself in saying that I didn't want to speak with Dick because of his fame; I wanted to speak with him because he knew better than me how to be what I want to become -- his fame was simply a byproduct of his success. But now, we all looked like shallow, selfish social climbers, all because of the the actions of Rob.

"Alright, well thanks for letting me sit in on your rehearsal," he bowed out gracefully. "It was a pleasure to meet all of you."

And with that, he left. He did not attend the Bacharach Songbook show that night, and the next day we were ported in Vancouver, to disembark this round of guests and embark a new batch. That was our last DVD sighting.

A stripped-down version of my interpretation of "Alfie" was recorded for a benefit album by Get Better Records, raising funds for the victims of the August 2017 Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, and for relief from the hurricanes that followed. To purchase this album and help the cause, click here. "Alfie" is track 85.

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