Steve Hideg moves through his small East Hollywood apartment with tiny shuffle steps, as if to avoid a fall. His slacks are creased, his shirt pressed. It doesn’t cost money, he says, to hold your head high.
Hideg, almost 86, is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. He’s carried that burden since a childhood injury, when he and his family took cover in the cellar of their home as bombs thundered down on Budapest. Lately the good eye isn’t so good, so he keeps a big magnifying glass handy, but Hideg has bigger challenges than that.
His rent is roughly $1,000 a month, and his Social Security income is about $900 a month.
“It’s a total miracle how he exists,” says one friend.
The secret is disciplined austerity, occasional help from buddies, and a once-weekly job as a jazz drummer — a job that feeds Hideg’s soul. When the DWP shut off his power briefly, Hideg borrowed a camping light from a friend. A $300 gas bill gathered dust until a buddy covered it.
“Hello, my angel,” Hideg called out one day to a woman who knocked at his door and delivered a tray of food from St. Vincent Meals on Wheels.
Sometimes, that’s his only food in a day.
California is robust in countless ways, its economy ranked among those of the richest nations in the world, and yet millions struggle to survive the double blow of flat wages and high housing costs. It’s the great Golden State paradox, an escalating calamity and public policy failure with no fixes on the near horizon as the retiree population explodes.
And yet Hideg, unbowed, has risen above it all by remaining faithful to a dream and honoring a different measure of prosperity. As one friend of his put it, in his mind, he’s a rich man.
Istvan “Steve” Hideg was hungry, shoeless, scared, brave, a child of war. He was just a boy in 1943, when his father was killed on military duty. Hideg and his mother, brother and sister struggled through bleak, lean years of economic and political upheaval, and a meal often was nothing more than a smear of lard on a scrap of bread.
“We put a little salt and paprika on it,” Hideg says. “I kind of learned how to survive.”
It’s a skill, or maybe a frame of mind, that has endured.
“Even when I have only one meal in a day,” Hideg says, “I’m never hungry.”
As a teen, Hideg worked at the concession stand of a Budapest movie theater and ducked in, at every opportunity, to catch a glimpse of the films. There, in black and white, was a world he’d never imagined.
“I saw Louie Armstrong!” Hideg says of the jazz giant. “He sang ‘Jeepers Creepers’ to a horse!”
That was in the 1938 movie “Going Places.” Another American classic, the 1941 hit “Sun Valley Serenade,” made Hideg ache with desire to become a musician and to escape iron-fisted postwar Hungary. In “Serenade,” the Glenn Miller Orchestra played “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and the swinging “In the Mood.”
“Whewwwww, that did it for me,” Hideg says, still jazzed 70 years later. “I fell in love with this whole country and its music. To me, it was the sound of freedom.”
His brother bought him a snare drum like the one Hideg had seen in the village his parents grew up in. There, with no newspapers and scant communication with the outside world, the drum was a siren call to villagers who gathered to hear the messenger deliver the news of the day.
Hideg studied the moves of drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, got a job in an electronics factory and joined all three of the company bands. He later became a full-time musician and worked with a circus band for a while, but the songbook wasn’t to his liking and the government deemed Western music the enemy of the people.
In 1956, blood spilled as Hungarians revolted against Soviet control. Hideg and his wife, a pianist, risked execution as they fled Budapest under cover of darkness. They sneaked past Russian infantry and escaped first to Austria and then New York City in early 1957. Hideg got a job as a janitor, and after work he’d race to Birdland and other Manhattan jazz clubs to see his heroes.
In 1961, he and his wife loaded up their old DeSoto and headed west, flat broke, stopping at bars along the way to play for food and gas money, Hollywood or bust.
He hustled, schmoozed, hung out at the musicians’ union, started at the bottom.
And he made it.
A young man who had grown up with so many restrictions was playing a kind of music with no rules.
In the good years, there was the Steve Hideg big band and Steve Hideg and The Continentals. When TV game shows had live music, Hideg played in the “Truth or Consequences” band. He toured for several years with Pat Collins, a hypnotist with a popular show. He played in Florida and put in several years in Vegas.
He never made great money or played with big stars. But to his own astonishment, Hideg was living out his fantasy in the city that had manufactured the dream. He developed a talent as a contractor, stringing together bands for all occasions. In his scrapbook is a copy of a check he got after playing a birthday party for Dustin Hoffman.
There were struggles along the way — no musician gets through the grinder unscathed. When Hideg’s wife became ill and they couldn’t afford to pay for her care, she went back to Europe to live with family in Austria, where she died young. Hideg himself fought through cancer and now battles macular degeneration.
He never married again, which made it easier to grab road jobs when they came up and he was young enough to handle the toll. He has lived in the same apartment now for 25 years, a time in which the market for live music — especially big band and straight-ahead jazz — has withered. Hideg was getting by just fine when he served as live-in manager at his apartment building, but he got too old for the job a few years back, and the bills keep coming.
But his pride is undiminished.
“I did not come to this country to be a burden on the state,” says Hideg, who has resisted signing up for many entitlements available to seniors.
He chose the musician’s life, he says, and has no regrets. If he has a message for others, Hideg tells me, it’s that doing something you love will serve you well. And another thing: Don’t hesitate to ask friends for help if you need it.
“He’s not a shy guy, but it’s not easy for him” to accept money, says Hideg’s longtime buddy Laszlo Cser, a retired musician and L.A. City College professor. “Lately he’s more willing to go along.”
Louis Kabok, a local bass player who knew Hideg in Hungary, fled at about the same time. He says his friend’s high spirits in the face of hardship and advancing age don’t appear to be an act.
“To tell you the truth, I never met another person in my life who has his kind of attitude,” says Kabok. “He just has an idea of the way he wants to live his life, and he’s doing it.”
Indeed, for all his troubles, Hideg glows. His silver hair is as thick as his Hungarian accent. His grin is young, timeless and broad, the grin of a man who’s in on a secret.
Whatever day it is, the weekend is coming soon, and Hideg lives for Friday and Saturday.
He can’t bang the skins in the quiet environs of his apartment building, so every Saturday, he stays drummer fit with a two-hour workout at Stein on Vine in Hollywood, the legendary music shop where he jams with gray-bearded buddies and it’s the 1950s all over again.
Better yet, Hideg’s Friday night gig is coming up, and he knows, without doubt, that the music he loves will live forever.
Phillip Williams, a pianist and singer, met Hideg at a party eight years ago and asked if he wanted to sit in with his band on Friday nights at Callender’s Grill. That’s a high-end, mid-city Marie Callender’s with live jazz several nights a week.
Hideg has been with Williams ever since.
The Hungarian octogenarian they call “Cool Cat” is old school in his respect for the art and the audience. Before his gig, Hideg showers and shaves, puts on a suit, cinches the tie and arranges the pocket square hanky just right, like one of the pros in the big bands he once saw in the movies.
“I love getting ready, I love carrying the drums, I love setting them up, I love everything about it,” Hideg tells me.
He drives to work in a 1992 Mazda van that Williams gave him when his old Aerostar conked out, and he is smiling when he walks into the restaurant and begins setting up.
Typically, several terrific local musicians drop by and sit in with the band. Williams knows the lyrics and music to hundreds of songs and plays what strikes him, from pop to serious jazz, and he generously features each of his sidemen. He likes calling “Satin Doll” because there’s a short solo in it for Hideg, who is twice the age of the others in the band and always seems to be having twice the fun.
On an up-tempo number, Williams motions for me to circle behind the piano so he can whisper me something.
“Look at this guy go,” Williams says as Hideg taps out an elegant patter, never loud, never showy, riding the groove just right and always in the service of bandmates and the music.
“This is adding minutes to his life,” says Williams. “I feel like I’m his doctor.”
In the quiet of his apartment, I had asked Hideg if he worries about anything. What if the rent goes up? What if his good eye can’t be saved? What if he can’t drive much longer?
“I live my life by three principles I learned as a Boy Scout. Faith, hope and love,” he said before reminding me he has everything he ever wanted.
“And I can’t believe I’m still doing what I love.”
His struggle is real, said Hideg.
“But it’s a beautiful struggle.”