Sonny Bono Memorial Park

Sonny Bono Memorial Park

In 1994 Salvatore Phillip “Sonny” Bono was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from California’s 44th Congressional District.  A conservative Republican, Bono was swept into office as part of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican “revolution” that year, and was re-elected in 1996.  However, Bono’s Congressional career and life were tragically cut short when he died in January of 1998, of injuries sustained when he hit a tree while skiing in Lake Tahoe.

At the height of his musical career, if you had made a friendly wager as to which recent or current popular singer might go on to serve in Congress two decades later, you might have picked someone with an apparent political agenda, like Joan Baez, or at least one who was associated with some kind of cause, like nature-lover John Denver.  You almost certainly wouldn’t have placed your bet on Bono, a singer of arguably limited talents who appeared content to stand, literally and figuratively, in the shadow of his far more popular wife, Cherilyn Sarkisian, better known as, simply, Cher.

Two decades before being elected to Congress, Bono’s entertainment career was coming to an end, with the cancellation of the popular television variety show, The Sonny and Cher Show, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1974.  As part of an attempted comeback, the couple returned to performing together and revived The Sonny and Cher Show in 1976, despite being divorced the previous year. That effort failed to generate strong ratings and was also cancelled.  Their last appearance together was on Late Night with David Letterman on November 14, 1987.

After parting ways with Cher, Bono’s music and acting career faded and he fell almost completely out of the public eye.  Bono soon found a new vocation after leaving show business, however, and became a very successful businessman and restaurateur. Later, he became interested in politics when he decided he wanted a bigger sign for a restaurant he’d opened and ran straight into bureaucratic red tape, dealing with the city government. Bono had never voted or registered before, but resolved to change things by running for mayor.  He won the election, served a successful four-year term, and wound up pursuing a whole new career as a politician.  Following a failed run in the California Republican Senatorial primary in 1992, Bono turned his attention to the 44th District’s Congressional seat, which he won in 1994.  After being elected, Bono was quoted as saying, “The last thing in the world I thought I would be is a U.S. Congressman, given all the bobcat vests and Eskimo boots I used to wear.”

During his time in office, Bono did not treat his fellow lawmakers to any singing performances, but the man behind the hits “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On” did trade on his public persona as a good-natured, non-threatening nice guy.   He had a reputation for being self-deprecating, and prided himself on not taking himself — or being taken — too seriously.  This served him well in his political career.  As The Washington Post noted in its obituary following his death, “Bono brought to Congress a rare skill: He could make lawmakers—even the most pompous among them—laugh at themselves.”  Or as President Bill Clinton said, “His joyful entertainment of millions earned him celebrity, but in Washington he earned respect by being a witty and wise participant in policymaking processes that often seem ponderous to the American people.”

In remembrance of Bono’s election to his first term in Congress, on one of my bike rides I went to Sonny Bono Memorial Park in Northwest D.C., located at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue, 20th Street, and O Street (MAP) near DuPont Circle.  The small park was established in 1998 after Bono’s death by a friend named Geary Simon, who is a D.C. real estate developer.  Simon approached the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation’s Park Partners Program, and using his own money, revitalized an unused 800-square-foot triangle of grass.  His improvements included installing an underground sprinkler system, planting new Kentucky bluegrass and a Japanese maple, as well as benches and a wrought-iron fence.

The park also features a buried vault of Sonny Bono memorabilia that was donated by family and friends.  Items in the vault included his official Congressional cufflinks, and a coffee mug from his string of Bono’s Restaurants.  Adding a little mystery to the vault, it is reported that two sealed envelopes that were given to Simon were included in the vault and buried without being opened.  The vault also includes the sheet music for “The Beat Goes On.”  And so it does.

SonnyBonoPark0b     SonnyBonoPark0c     Bono1
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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