Whimsical Wonders and Stellar Surprises: Mixing and Mingling with a Constellation of Fantasy and Sci-Fi Celebrities
Editor’s Note: “The Traveling Troubadour” will once again be sharing some of the rare archival selections from the dusted-off volumes of his insightful and introspective memoirs. He will be reflecting on some of his out-of-the-ordinary experiences and adventures that occurred on his divinely appointed mission and journey to the stars in a whimsical locale called Hollywood-land, USA. He was directed by a Providential Voice to go to the eye of the camera and uplift hearts as part of a song and comedy Vaudeville duo.
As a result, he and his sidekick were given the privilege of performing for a countless variety of special events and meeting scores of colorful characters. They were continually crossing paths with universally famous personalities, including many of the larger-than-life legends of the Golden Age of movie and television along with numerous notables of the radio, musical, historical, political, and sports worlds. And so it was that they became known as “The Entertainer’s Entertainers”!
“Little Miss E.T.” Meets “The Entertainer’s Entertainers”
In a previous article, I had reflected on the experience of befriending Gene and Majel Roddenberry, the Creator/Producer and First Lady of the original Star Trek series, and their 8-year-old son “Rod” who wanted to hit the road with us as a fellow “Traveling Troubadour.” That was on July19, 1982. He has since altered his career choice, and now in his forties, is the Executive Director of the entire S.T. Enterprises!
The following year, we met another sci-fi child of a famous film and theater family. Her name was Drew Blythe Barrymore, who was also 8 years old and had much in common with little “Rod,” both having the privilege and the responsibility to continue the legacy of a legendary cinematic lineage! She was of an acting dynasty that initially had to overcome the stigma imposed on them for their Catholicism, and became known as “Hollywood’s Royal Family.”
They were highly esteemed in many circles, acting like heads of state with profiles of distinction, yet they also shared similarities with many of us simple court jesters who had their human frailties. At times some of their clan were infamously known to participate in a bit too much merriment and had taken a few detours off the straight and narrow road, as we all have done in one way or another, and following suit, Drew wound up having her moments of trial of the burden of fame.
She began her camera debuts at a very early age just out of the cradle, and by the time she was seven, she was featured in a pop culture science fiction family film called E.T. It was released on June 11, 1982 and became an epic blockbuster surpassing Star Wars as the highest grossing and most successful motion picture of all time, considered to be an icon of film history worldwide with its universal fantasy appeal.
Through hitching a ride in this stellar production, she sky-rocketed to fame in her role as a little girl with pigtails named “Gertie” who secretly shared a strange sort of fur-less pet with her siblings. There were many somewhat humorous and potentially touching turns of events in the storyline, while they earnestly tried to hide this “thing” from their melancholy mom who had her own problems as a product of the true-to-life 1980’s marital Splitsville, USA. At the same time, the authorities were on their trail in a desperate search of the elusive missing passenger of the UFO.
In the latter segments near the conclusion, it was as if someone had emptied a truckload of pealed onions into the theater as the bug- eyed mini-beast almost bit the dust and became a biology experiment under the cutting edge of the S. A.F. (“Scalpel and Formaldehyde”) Society. This chapter was clearly the calculated tear-jerker clincher administered effectively by the puppeteer producers and double indemnity director to pull the heartstrings of the emotionally fragile audience. They had counted on it to bring an overwhelming element of empathy into the picture, eventually generating the desired response and causing them to take out their Kleenex and handkerchiefs in a show of solidarity for the helpless, hopeless, funny-looking little fellow!
Earlier in the script, Gertie had added a touch of innocence as she taught some basic lingo lessons to the student creature, which planted a seed of humanization in the storyline. Then in the final farewell scene, she presented the beloved creature with Chrysanthemum flowers as a going-away present before it boarded a spaceship and embarked on its journey home to the outer limits, leaving a memorable rainbow in its wake in a show of intergalactic appreciation!
As a result of all the fanfare, little Drew Barrymore became a mini-superstar and a literally overnight sensation as she was sent on a whirlwind publicity tour around the globe, charming everyone everywhere she went, rising into the higher atmosphere of the Extra Terrestrial movie scene, and endearing her to millions of people on the planet earth…and possibly elsewhere! It universally established her as one of Hollywood’s most well-known and recognized child actresses and earned her a star on the Walk of Fame, a nomination for The Young Artists Award, and numerous other tributes. She considered that stretch of time to be the best experience of her life.
Although she was successful in various other fantasy pictures, such as playing in the Cinderella Renaissance reimagining, Ever After, she will always be inseparably associated with that iconic image of her curious brother Elliot on a bicycle passing by a full moon with a strange passenger wrapped in a blanket in its basket, as well as with one of the most popularized slogans in modern motion picture history: “E.T. Phone Home!”
We happened to be there in La-La land (L.A.) when E.T. was first released fresh off the production line, and we were given free tickets by the Bob Hope USO Director as a token of appreciation for our entertaining at their events and serving as their Ambassadors of Goodwill. Our act was a throwback from the Silent Films Era (circa early 1900’s), and we usually were involved with vintage movie stars and footage of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Hence, the genre of the film was a bit beyond our usual range.
But we didn’t want to seem ungrateful to the presenter, and we figured the price was right, so we casually decided to check out the fictional futuristic fiasco. We hadn’t a clue as to what this promotionally hyped-up extraterrestrial extravaganza was all about except for a few posters around town, and had no desire or inspiration to view the panoply of other new-fangled modern motion pictures that needed all the special effects stuff to make them box office hits.
After soaring high in the sky of anticipation for a short ride, many would then splash-land or plunge into the sea of over-pumped publicity before washing up on the sands of the forgotten shores of Never- Never Land! That was our perspective when approaching the theater that night. To avoid having to stand in the eternally long line of entry with all of the uber-excited groupies and groupettes, we waited until they had all filed in and stocked up on popcorn, soda, and candy and exited the brightly lit lobby before making our appearance.
When the lights were already dimmed, we entered undetected and made our way up the royal red-carpeted stairs of the updated theater and tip-toed through the dark aisles of the full house to the balcony with the aid of our trusty mini flashlight. We then miraculously managed to secure ourselves two of the last available cushiony folding seats in the back row against the wall where the cameras were flickering out of a slot and nobody would be breathing down our necks.
We found ourselves among what seemed to be a zillion screeching seagulls that had just come in for a landing, anxiously stirring about in an ocean of commotion while getting their footing on the churning surf’s coastline. As the picture progressed they became immersed in the story and rode on a single wave in a symphony of sympathy. Since the majority of them were of the compassionate feminine variant, their high tones swept through the air, coo-ing, ooh-ing, and ahh-ing in unison throughout the picture, as these birds of a feather flocked together!
By the time they got to the gushy goodbyes at the end, we felt as though we had been involuntarily pushed in for a swim at a pool party or dunked in a huge tub of tears, soaked to the bone in an overflow of raw emotions, exuding profusely row by row. For us stoic gentlemen who were hidden in the upper bleachers amid the masses and considered ourselves to be realists, it was a cringe-worthy experience since we had expected it to be a purely fictional fantasy beyond the realm of reality, and didn’t want to seem like happy kill-joys among the whiners.
In a certain way, we related to the main character, as he was portrayed on screen as being out of his element and somewhat helpless and vulnerable. Yet we lacked his glowing persona, magical finger, and childlikeness that most fans found irresistibly lovable. It must be admitted that although considered cute by the adoring audience, the matinee idol resembled something out of at the late 1800’s “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” fake freak exhibition, or a side tent attraction of questionable authenticity that P.T. Barnum would conjure up as a publicity stunt in his “Greatest Show on Earth”!
So it was a bit of a stretch of the imagination for some of the less sensitive souls from the old school, who in their day were slapped silly for telling tall tales of secret creatures to get attention, to try to put themselves in the shoes (or, in this case, sneakers) of those L.A. hipster kids. All that having been said, the siblings were admittedly risking the fierce parental punishments of the yuppie folks era…like being sent to their toy and/or computer room with a bag of potato chips and a bottle of soda in hand for a half hour of solitary confinement called “Time Out”!
For the more sever infringements, the quasi-disciplinarians had a threatening term called “grounded”, which meant you couldn’t leave the house for a an entire weekend…with the stipulation clause written in by the savvy students personal attorney under the title of “The Me, Myself, And I Spoiled Brat Rights” that all the defiant defendant’s friends could come over for a two-day sleepover/movie night/pizza and ice cream party. All this was the calculated risk they took by involving themselves in such an intriguing web of under-cover (literally!) suspense, while perusing a precarious adventure that led to their getting all fuzzy and huggable with a very weird, bony-fingered (dare I say home-ly…wherever that may be) complicated little critter!
As you may have envisioned by now, we just didn’t quite fit into the genre, and looked more like city slicker or hay seeder carnival barkers wearing our usual bow ties, tweed caps, and saddle shoes, trying to maintain our yesteryear style rather than donning fandom attire, complete with springy antennas that sported florescent ping-pong balls attached to the ends! In order to avoid being accidently photographed among the throngs and sacrificing our “square” boy scout image, we slipped out of the theatre just before the lights came on so as not to risk winding up on the front page of the National Enquirer Newspaper or some other grocery chain store sensationalist tabloid with the caption “Alien Vaudevillians Break through Time Warp to Retrieve Lost Space Boy”!
Hence we escaped undetected and swiftly got into our “Memorabilia Mobile” before the crying crowds exited into the darkening eve, feeling as though they had just said a forever farewell to their best-est friend on earth, who was going away to school on Mars for higher education. They proceeded to pour out aimlessly into the parking lot, waddling from side to side like stunned ducks, with their vision still blurred from sobbing, and further impaired by the special effects exhibited in the film. Then they were suddenly stopped cold in their zombie-atic tracks, and fixed their gaze in a blank stare as they witnessed a sight to behold!
To their astonishment, they were confronted with an extra-unordinary, unidentified moving object circling the area. It left them utterly confounded as to its true nature. It resembled some sort of mythological, fabled looking, living, breathing, steer-horned, lion-headed, elk-antlered, armored mechanical animal with mesmerizing, eye-catching reflective signs covering and illuminating its exterior!
It was a most unusual sort of surreal sight with a blinding, flashing blue light and an audio array that included a blaring siren and blasting Ahooga Horns, sounding like a battleship on high alert with a Salvation Army Brass Band on board tuning up. It looked like nothing from the earthly realm that they had ever seen before. In fact, it seemed even further out than the standard UFO sightings they were all enamored by on the boob tube, and shows like “Mysteries of the Unknown” hosted by Leonard Nimoy or Orson Welles. From a distance, it exhibited even more of an aura of intrigue and mystique, rendering them speechless!
Like unwitting, gullible guppies in humanistic life forms, caught in a net of confusion, they didn’t know which way to swim after just having been in the tank of a fantasy world that had induced them into a state of mindlessness and made them feel akin to an “it”. Now, once again, they were facing another indescribable situation…but this time in real time, adding to their already overloaded sensory perceptions for the night! They seemed to have entered a cosmic vortex as they pointed in disbelief until their senses of sight and sound revealed that what they were witnessing wasn’t just an illusion.
Then to add the finishing touch to the colorful encounter with these “Peoples of Popcorn Land”, I tuned in an eerie squealing high frequency station on our Ham radio that had such a shrieking, paralyzing effect that it could stop an alien elephant in its tracks! By broadcasting it over our loudspeaker system, it echoed through their atmosphere with the stunning effectiveness of a ray gun. Then, in a mechanical, Martian-like manner, I bid them a final farewell: “E.T. is going home…E.T. is going home…E.T. is going home..!”
On April 18, 1983, we first met little Drew in person as we were performing at The American Publicist Guild Awards 20th Anniversary Ceremony, which was being held at the Los Angeles Hilton Hotel. There we sang to recipient of the Showmanship Award, Sylvester Stallone, who was being honored for being one of Hollywood’s biggest Motion Picture box office draws ever due to his portrayals of that famous punchy-faced American hero “The Rumbling Rocky,” and also the machine gun-toting roughneck “Rambling Rambo”, who fits into the fantasy genre because he made people disappear like magic by wiping them out of existence!
Drew was one of the presenters of the various awards at the luncheon and got a bird’s eye view of us in action from her perch high atop at the head table. She got a big kick out of seeing us seemingly flying out onto the scene like unintimidated Cape-less Crusaders and going toe to toe with the tough guy mug, singing face to face without flinching and nullifying his fearsome Balboa bravado. After the ceremony, we were mixing and mingling with the celebrities there and shared a few more giggles with her and took a photo together for the sake of posterity, along with actress Jo Beth Williams, who appeared with her in the movie Fever Pitch. Drew’s managerial mother dearest, Jaid, was looking over our shoulders as we took the picture, and can be seen hovering in the background.
Two years later on March 21, 1985, we were with the little alien-lover once again when she was ten at the prestigious luxury Beverly Hills Hotel (a.k.a. “The Pink Palace”). Located on Sunset Boulevard, it was the premier gala gathering place of the rich and famous Hollywood elite since its hey-days in the early 1900’s. We performed for the “Who’s Who” crowd assembled at an event called “The Hollywood Reporter Salutes Radie Harris” that was a follow-up tribute to the biographical Reality TV movie in which Drew had participated that chronicled the life of this well-respected and accomplished author and gossip columnists.
The Honoree was known as “The Queen of Broadway Ballyhoo” (the name of her column) and worked for nearly 50 years at The Hollywood Reporter, which served as one of the major newspapers covering “Show Biz” happenings, similar to the celebrities’ report card. She was also known for being the light-hearted host of CBS radio interviews, including interesting tidbits about the lifestyles of the famous people of the Golden Age of Radio and Television, the Motion Picture Industry, and the Broadway Stage. Her show was on the top of the charts, and she always exhibited kind and favorable reviews for her guests, which was a rarity in that fork-tongued, blabber-mouthed, rumor-rag-sheet business.
Radie was one of the originators and talent coordinators of the New York Stage Door Canteen that became famous as a place of refuge and moral support for our troops on leave in New York City during WWII, where they could meet and socialize with the stars and starlets of the entertainment business. She was also a recipient of the Publicists Guild of America Award and many others for her work in the media field.
In addition to young Drew being chaperoned by her mother once again, there were many other well known celebrities and highly acclaimed actors and actresses in attendance for that eventful afternoon, some with sci-fi status, others a bit more down to earth, and still others who had dual credentials, such as Roddy McDowell (My friend Flicker, Lassie Come Home, Bermuda Triangle, and Planet of the Apes), and Dorothy Lamoure (Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s fantasy dream sarong gal), who both had a part in Radie’s reality production.
The guest list also included Academy Awarded winner Jack Lemon (The Great Race, The Odd Couple Movie), Ava Gabor (Green Acres), Franco Zeffirelli (director and designer), Buddy Rogers, (silent films flying ace, leading man, and husband of “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford), Anthony Quinn (the Pope in Shoes of the Fisherman, the title character in Barabbas, and Ulysses’ nemesis in The Odyssey), Robert Stack (Unsolved Mysteries Man and Eliot Ness) and his wife Rosemary Bowe (Miss Montana and actress), Vanessa Redgrave (from Deep Impact), Emmy recipient Nanette Fabre (Sid Caesar Show), and Robert Preston (“The Music Man” and “The Last Starfighter”) sci-fi was there.
In addition, there was Linda Evans (former Miss Globe and Dynasty soap opera star), Pia Zadora (Santa Clause Conquers The Martians), Alexis Smith (The Smiling Ghost) Arlene Dahl (Journey to the Center Of the Earth starring James Mason), his wife Pamela Mason (English actress, author, and screenwriter who did a guest appearance in an episode of Wonder Woman called “Mind Stealer from Outer Space” and was also in the Harris Bio).
Then there were those who resembled aliens and did appear in sci-fi features such as “Queen of One Liners” Phyllis Diller, the electric-haired, feather-headed, cigarette-holder-grasping, evening- glove-wearing, fun-house-cackling wife of Fictitious Fang, a 1960’s iconic comedienne and star of an infamous sci-fi horror comedy, Dr. Hackenstein. There was also Carol Channing, the platinum blonde wigged, Muppet-faced, “Hello Dolly” Broadway legend, who also was the voice of Mrs. Fieldhouse in the animated fantasy Thumbelina, and the White Queen in a production of Alice in Wonderland.
On a prettier freakish four octave note, there was Julie Andrews (fantasy personified as Mary Poppins), but her chimney sweeping sidekick Bert (aka Dick Van Dyke) was a no show. We caught up and rubbed sooty elbows with him and William Shatner (“Captain Kirk”) at another event honoring Liz Taylor for her starring role in Broadway’s Little Foxes. He was all cleaned up and decked out in a tuxedo, looking like one of the cartoon penguins that he had danced with out in the English Countryside in his Poppins appearance!
Getting back to the Radie Harris event, it was time for our unexpected entry into the scene. We were presented as the featured entertainment by the distinguished master of ceremonies, who was escorting his wife Monique to the affair. He was a leading ladies man known by many titles: “Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome”, “Man in a Grey Flannel Suit”, or in a cowboy hat in “The Big Country”, or in a bicorn as “Horatio Hornblower”, a high seas two timer. He was also known “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and a Giant Philistine with his sling in David and Bathsheba. Then he ventured on a romantic “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn before finally converting to Catholicism (in movie world, at least; in real life, he was a rocking-cradle-Catholic, swaying in the doctrinal breeze!) and returning to The Eternal City to become the feisty Irish priest named Father Hugh O’Flaherty whose fame he acclaimed in Scarlet in the Black!
You know who I’m talking about…it was none other than renowned actor and Academy Award winner, Gregory Peck, who in his distinctive resonant baritone “Monster Mash” voice announced our arrival: “We now have a surprise singing telegram sent from George Burns!”
This brought the who’s who of the Ballyhoo audience to a stirring chatter, looking around inquisitively for who-knew-what, where, or when, as they pensively waited for someone, somehow, to appear. Then suddenly, as if materializing out of thin air from within a magician’s illusionary puff of smoke, they observed a pair of 1930’s garbed “blast from the past” characters, topped off with hit-man caps, ascending the steps leading to the stage platform, appearing as if they were in a semi-state of levitation, like a pair of Houdini’s magic doves let loose!
When finally elevated onto the star studded dais, we scanned the lengthy table of headliners and zeroed in on the guest of honor, Radie Harris. Then we sprung into action with one of our patented serenade renditions of “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”, the amplification system magnifying our voices and ukulele accompaniment. It was received whole-heartedly by bursts of laughter, smiles from ear to ear, and thunderous applause from the packed house of celebs. The videos were rolling and cameras were flashing to capture the spontaneity of the expressions and reactions of all those famous familiar faces in a most memorable moment of a glamorous gala.
After that highlight finale of the afternoon event, “Mr. Television” Milton Berl (a.k.a. “Uncle Miltie”, who was also in the cast of the Radie Reality TV production) was the first to come over and give us the thumbs up and show his approval as he shook our hands and said, “Good close harmony…perfect harmony!” We appreciated his comments, since he spent many years in the entertainment world, had seen thousands of acts perform over the course of his long career, and was known best for complimenting his one and only favorite act…himself!
He had begun his long and prosperous career in early 1900’s in Vaudeville, then Silent and Talkie Motion Pictures, and later in the 1950’s was the main pioneer of TV Land, making countless appearances on the big and little silver screens for over three quarters of a century. He even performed as a child in the famous silent film series, The Perils of Pauline (the original “cliff-hangers”), which were shot in our hometown of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
We were fellow members of the Hollywood Comedy club together with him and his brother Phil. Our first meeting was at the funeral of the beloved Jack Haley (“The Tin Man” from The Wizard of Oz). Thereafter we would bump into each other at various celebrity functions as we traveled in the same circles. Milt was also the President of the Los Angeles Friars Club, the illustrious men’s group of the “Entertainment Elite” at which we did celebrity roasts.
Among the many that were present in the same ballroom that fit into a sci- fi-ish luncheon menu was a former youthful blonde beauty who had also made her screen debut at a young age in silent films. Her name was Faye Wray, a brunette at the time of our meeting. Since she lived to the ripe old age of 96, her hair color probably lightened up again, naturally going from gray to white!
In 1933, she eclipsed and soared above all other starlets, undoubtedly becoming the most popular creature feature heroine the studios had ever produced as King Kong’s favorite gal! She was eventually presented with a golden star on Hollywood Blvd., making it to the list of movie immortals and reaching the pinnacle of her success by playing a flimsily clad damsel in distress, who unwillingly ascended the highest man-made structure on earth at the time, the Empire State Building, and got a free bird’s eye view of the New York City Skyline. It wasn’t exactly what she planned for an evening out, but she just got carried away…literarily!
See…there was this impulsive overgrown furry fellow, “Kingie Kongie”, who had a bit of a crush on her, and made up his mind to pick her up that night. It was at a freak show of sorts in “The Big Apple” where only the biggest and the best appear, and he was the main attraction. So he proceeded to make theatre out of it and dramatize the glamorous setting by breaking loose from his nice snug-fitting iron bracelets and chains and to trip the lights fantastic by being Mr. Broadway and going out on the town!
If that wasn’t enough of a show-stopper, for an encore the macho-man-beast proceeded to scoop up his dishy date with one of his humongous hairy hands and impress her by exhibiting a gallant display of his daring and dexterous climbing abilities, scaling “The Tallest Building in the World.” When he reached its pointy peak, he hung onto it and skillfully swatted planes as if they were merely flies at a picnic. After all, you can’t blame a chap for giving it his best shot…it takes a heroic effort to win the heart of a celebrated heroine who is accustomed to a lot of attention and being placed on an elevated pedestal by her peers!
Getting back to our ballroom event, we encountered another familiar face that we knew personally from previous engagements and who congratulated us on a superb performance. He was the well-known character actor with an impressive sci-fi thriller and B-movie resume. William Campbell (“Bill” to us) had credentials extending across the TV panorama, covering programs such as Bonanza, Gun Smoke, The Loretta Young Show, Perry Mason, Kung Fu etc. He also played in motion pictures like Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (starring Betty Davis), The High and the Mighty (starring John Wayne), Man without a Star (starring Kirk Douglas), and Love Me Tender (playing one of the older brothers in Elvis’s first flick in a series of low budget boomer blasts).
But unquestionably his most memorable appearance was on the original Star Trek series episode “The Squire of Gothos”, when he portrayed the formally dressed, Regency era infantile eccentric, General Trelane, who had made the Enterprise crew his unwilling guests in his impenetrable castle via his mirror of enchantment. He was show-cased in an elaborate setting, with most of the action taking place in his 18th century style drawing room, furnished with a highly polished, gold-trimmed mahogany classical Harpsichord.
The room was aptly accented by a set of ornate wall sconces overhead that seemed to frame him within the atmospherically enhancing flickering candles. He then proceeded to perform a solo concerto, appearing very Liberace-esque. He embodied the image of self-proclaimed sensationalism, as he magnificently gloated in celebration of their involuntary presence, knowing he had a totally captive audience with no other choice but to helplessly witness his victory of entrapment.
Doc didn’t have a diagnosis for the dilemma, so Spock, the logically straight-shooting Vulcan science officer, attempted to use his arsenal of disarming tactics to psychologically detonate Trelane’s whimsical world with his usual weapon of rational precision, and risked said irrational one’s wrath at gun-point. In response, his impulsive friend and captain, James T. Kirk (whose motto might have been: “Shoot first; chat later!”), seized the moment and challenged the squire to a duel with his ornate pistols, firing a deliberate liberating shot over his opponent’s shoulder that succeeded in smashing Trelane’s magical mirror and shattering the illusion!
In another fan favorite episode of the series, he maintained his villainous persona by being featured as the Klingon, Captain Koloth, in “The Trouble with Tribbles”. Then in the latter years, he hitched a star ship ride on the popularity that followed the Trek phenomena and became a frequent convention guest, appearing at numerous special events and re-unions, gaining renown for retelling the S.T. stories with flair!
Having been in our company and seen our act at a number of private and public celebrity events where we had performed, Bill appreciated our ability to reach all ages with our old time personal singing style. He was the Organizational Director and Principle Fundraiser for the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, CA, and the affiliated nursing facility nearby in Calabasas. We had entertained for the “Golden Age” Christmas Party Show that was held on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1981, and Bill was the M.C.!
Decked out for the festive occasion in an evergreen suit jacket, matching neck tie, and a Rudolf- Red sweater for that holiday cheer effect, he gave us a big build-up introduction with his usual dynamic and dramatic theatrics. Addressing the audience that consisted mostly of seasoned seniors of the Stage, Movie, TV, and Radio worlds , he introduced us as one of the great acts of the century and as being a continuation of the pioneers of the Entertainment Industry hailing from Fort Lee, NJ, the first Hollywood where many of them had started their careers.
Following a respectful clapping of hands from the show-biz seals that made up literally hundreds of years of cumulative entertaining experience, we responded by saying “Thanks for the Turkey dinner, Bill!”, and headed toward the door, waving bye-bye and acting as if we were ducking out before our performance! This brought the house down with jovial laughter from both Bill and the audience, as he called us back jestingly, “Come back here, you crazy Jersey guys!”
After an about-face by popular demand and the risk of being hunted down by a pack of aging mad-dog former starving artists, we returned and gave them a full menu of entertainment delicacies. It began with a nice plateful of appetizing Vaudeville tidbits, and then serving them up a heaping helping of homespun good old chestnut songs of yesteryear, with a tasty blend of comedic cranberries. They got their tummies full of healthy belly laughs, and were topped off with some sweet creamy dreamy mellow lullabies, and an eggnog toast for the sake of “Auld Lang Syne” for the coming New Year! After the conclusion, we received a rousing round of applause (thankfully not applesauce!). In the olden golden Vaudeville days, the audience would come equipped with over-ripe fruits and veggies to throw at the performers if they were not completely satisfied with the results!
When the “Jingle Bill Rock” bash was successfully concluded, and as the reminiscing and kibitzing was simmering down, Bill took us aside and asked if we would have the time for a private meeting to look over the calendar and put us on the entertainment schedule for other special events. So we went to his office, which was furnished with an impressive big mahogany desk and classy matching leather chairs, and sat down for a spell in his pen-pushing pad, spending an hour or so booking multiple other performances and conversing about life experiences.
At that time, he was in his mid-50’s and seemed to be in the prime of life, still exuding sparks of imagination and vitality. His jet black, shoe-polish-dyed hair, that didn’t quite appear authentic, contrasted the somewhat fair complexion of the middle-aged man, but did match his black horn rimmed glasses which further enlarged his big brown eyes. He removed them right before we took a photo together earlier at the show, which left him kind of baggy-eyed and tired looking. I never quite understood why people do that; you get used to them with specs attached, and then all of a sudden they take them off for a picture??
In our conversation, he began relaying his personal feelings about getting older, and through those coke bottle thick lenses, he exhibited his demonstrative, wide-eyed, exuberant actor expressions, and with an emotion-riddled voice, he emphatically stated, “When I was young, I felt that I was indestructible!” As a matter of fact, he resembled Clark Kent as he was saying that, as if he thought of himself as Superman, and like many other youthful Rams or “Y.A.M.’S.” (Young Aspiring Men), he tended to be a bit over aggressive and nearly burned himself out before the wisdom set in to help him accept his plight as a mere mortal! He later became a volunteer prisoner of the security of the cozy, comfy, Motion Picture Country Home as a patient in reality (or perhaps he could be called “Prince of His Illusionary Palace”, as in the S.T. episode!) and after a lengthy illness, he passed away at the age of 87.
Getting back to the Beverly Hills Hotel after the Harris shin-dig, we were preparing to board our “Blessed Bus” that was parked in the front near the red carpeted awning entry when we spotted the plastic-masked face of Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was attempting to lure her obstinate German Shepherd into the back seat of a Rolls Royce. We tried to assist her by singing a soothing song to the pure bred pup, “Oh, You Big Beautiful Dog”, who acquiesced either out of love or fear of our singing, or just to shut up the Hungarian nag!
Charlton Heston (Moses, Ben-Hur, El Cid, Michelangelo, Charles Gordon, and the random Sci-Fi Ant and Planet Ape Man) was walking stoically up the circular driveway dressed in a silver suit and appearing like the alien guy from The Day the Earth Stood Still! I began beckoning him over our loud speaker: “Charlton…Charton… Moses…Moses…”, as he looked around aimlessly searching the source of “The Voice of the Great I Am”!
He was the President of the Screen Actors Guild at the time, and had seen us previously performing at the Bob Hope Hollywood USO Club for the Actors Fund of America Annual Blood Drive drawn from the current celebrities of the day who we serenaded whilst donating. Iggie Wolfington was the representative of the West Coast Branch, a worthy charitable organization that aided actors in times of financial hardship, illness, and old age.
Wolfington was the well known Toni nominated character actor and sidekick of Robert Preston in the Broadway Production of The Music Man, and was also a decorated WWII hero, meriting the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. We worked with him for several years and took a photo that he signed: “To the Two Headliners”. We also received a letter of appreciation for the volunteering of our talents that read: “Your participation at the Tenth Annual Actors’ Fund Blood Drive, was once again a BIG HIT. Even Charlton Heston said (presumably in his low bass note tone!), ‘Who are those two wonderful guys?’”
George Burns (“Oh God” himself!) had some other earth-shattering things to do, like rearranging a continent or something like that, on the day of the Radie Harris event. So when the cigar-smoking comedy straight man got wind of the exhilarating outcome of our representing him in his absence, he showed his gratitude and approval by having his secretary Jack set us up as his special guests with backstage passes at his Caesar’s Palace Show in Las Vegas. At the time we were also working for Caesar’s as their Singing Ambassadors of Goodwill, so we took him up on his invitation, and after his performance joined him for a drink or two in his private dressing room where he was hosting an intimate gathering of guests.
We came in with a song as usual, and good old G.B. joined in the fun as we sang a few more together with him as a trio, which was quite entertaining for all. He then elbowed his long-time manager, Irving, and jested aloud, “What I like about these guys is that they book themselves!” He was ribbing his agent about having to pay him his 10% fee, which brought a good chuckle to those in attendance, and “By George” a feather of admiration was put in our caps for maintaining our independence! After taking a photo together, we sang “Everywhere You Go, Sunshine Follows You” as our exiting tune along with the Oscar-winning star of the “Sunshine Boys”. He said “That’s a good song; come see me again, boys!”
Before we left the backstage area, we ran into Lynda Carter who was sharing the billboard with George as his opening act. She made her way to fame as “Wonder Woman”, alias Dianna Prince, born on Paradise Island. In real life, she was a tall, blue-eyed brunette, originally of a Catholic Irish and Mexican spicy combo mix. She seemed a bit depressed that night, until we sang an updated parody version of a classic old tune, with words that originally ran: “Ain’t she sweet, see her walking down the street.” The revised version was taught to us by our old Vaudevillian friend “The Magic Juggler”, Whitey Roberts, and went: “Ain’t she hot, she’s got what no gal’s got”!
In response, she threw double kisses in with both her hands in our direction, and exclaimed excitedly, “You really lifted my spirits!” There was a chance that it could have been the spirits in a bottle of champagne that were emotionally drowning her to begin with, because she seemed a little loopy. In her later biography, she had said that when she was a young child and aspiring to be a singer, songwriter, dancer, actress and versatile celebrity, she would watch The Dinah Shore Show and would imitate the beloved Tennessean, exuding her Southern charm to her audience by throwing two-handed kisses, which we had witnessed first-hand when we sang to Dinah at her charity golf tournament in Palm Springs.
Lynda wasn’t the one and only “Wonder Woman” who we serenaded in the world of supersonic celebrities. The first TV pilot series featuring Cathy Lee Crosby was the highest rated show with a female leading role. The slender blonde actress was also a professional tennis player who was ranked 7th in the world. As a writer and producer, she did her own theatric adaptation of a play called “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, and merited an Outstanding Contribution to the Arts Award from the City of Los Angeles.
Her play was performed at our home away from home, The Hollywood American Legion Post #43, which was a massive memorial fortress-like building built in the 1920’s in honor of the WWI veterans. Our Hollywood Comedy Club meetings were held there as well as many other functions that we performed for. We even camped out under a large palm tree in the back parking lot in our memorabilia mobile and would shave and shower in the locker room, just like the WWII service men had done while visiting L.A.
Marshal was the in-house bartender and keeper of the keys and had seen his fair share of Hollywood entertainers perform there over the years. He witnessed our scores of spontaneous musical entrances at numerous gatherings and functions, hearing our amplified voices echoing through the high ceilings and marble hallways. He also saw us in action at the famous Hollywood Power House Bar where he moonlighted. He grew fond of us and treated us like long-lost nephews and would announce aloud for all to hear in his commanding Southern drawl: “Hey! Here they are! The best act in town! How ‘bout a beer?” So as our unofficial promo agent, he plugged for us to be in Kathy Lee’s show.
At our initial meeting, we serenaded her, which resulted in her incorporating us as the official in-house entertainers of her production, keeping the other actors upbeat and light-hearted, which we accomplished as long as it ran. We met again at the Publicists Guild Awards where we first met Drew. She was also the co-host with John Davidson of one of TV’s most successful shows called That’s Incredible, where she performed various athletic challenges, including sky diving, water skiing, and all sorts of acrobatics.
Later as a business woman, she was the Foundress and CEO of CLC Entertainment Studios. One of the most prestigious honors that she ever received was being knighted with the title “Lady Cathy” by the Royal Order of Saint John, the oldest Humanitarian Organization in the world for her long standing service to children and the less fortunate.
So to conclude with a spiritual reflection: it is not for us to adore or idolize the celebrities and so-called stars that we may encounter along our path, but to appreciate the sharing of their gifts and pray that we do the same with ours, in hopes of using them all as God intended, with grace, humility, charity, and morality. No matter who we are, our primary goal in life should be setting a good example to His children of every age, while worthily pursuing and fulfilling His intended mission that is universal: To light a little light in the hearts of mankind!
Author’s Reflection on Tidbits of Irony:
On that star-studded afternoon as we approached the dais to sing to Radie Harris, someone uttered aloud, “Smith and Dale!” They were one of the most famous Vaudeville acts of all time, who headlined the first All American Variety Bill to tour Europe in 1909, and later went to Hollywood and made films for 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and Warner Brothers. We were often referred to and associated with them because we represented that lost bygone era.
It just so happened to be that prior to leaving for Hollywood in 1978, we had the privilege of performing for the ninety-four-year-old Joe Smith and having a newspaper article written about our meeting with him. He was the original real life character that George Burns portrayed in The Sunshine Boys movie. We met him at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, which was located about 5 miles away from where we hailed in Fort Lee, “The First Motion Picture Capital of The World”.
After our performance there, an elderly gent approached us, complimented our act, and introduced himself as Joe Smith. He then invited us to stroll down memory lane to his modest quarters where the walls were plastered with memorabilia from his hey-days, like this vintage photo of their Dr. Kronkeit skit (Joe on the left). We had told him that we were booked for the grand re-opening of the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, NJ, that had been closed for over forty years after hosting scores of well- known vintage show- biz acts.
We asked the seasoned pro for a few pointers for that upcoming event, and valued his sage counsel. We also mentioned our plans for venturing beyond our territory and heading way out west to the Golden State of Sunny California to continue our career quest and to achieve our American dream. He admired our ambition to take it to the Orange Groves of Hollywood-land, USA, and reminded us that many went in vain to find fame, but few screen icons still remained!
Smith was a living legend from an era gone by, and the only half left from the world famous team available to speak about it. His comedy partner for over 70 years, Charlie Dale, who also had been a resident there, had already taken his last bows and headed for “the big time” on cloud- nine. Joe reminisced and shared a few words of wisdom and keys to success. He told us to avoid getting our hands tied by signing union contracts, and encouraged us to “knock on every door” and be independent, which we ever after heeded!
It took us months to save up and pool our meager resources and to fortify, decorate, and pack our “Memorabilia Mobile” (spruced-up covered wagon) with all the necessary survival equipment and costume disguises before embarking across the country in the footsteps of Conquistador explorers, Gold Rush miners, and Golden-Era movie pioneers.
During those endless hours of patiently waiting for God’s divine time clock to strike the chime that would signal the start of our mission, I spent as many moments as I could spare reading and writing Inspirational journals while in solitude and prayer. Most of this took place at my secluded hideaway that I called “Eternity’s Stage”, located on the property of my former college, St. Peter’s in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where a life-size replica of the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima stood. A wooden bench rested there on a large stone platform perched high atop the picturesque Palisade bluffs that were carved by the mighty Hudson River overlooking the New York City Skyline.
It was located in close proximally to the very ground where General George Washington stood, knelt, and prayed while contemplating his fateful retreat route across New Jersey, knowing that his divided troops at the New York Fort that bore his namesake had fallen to the superior British forces. Many times, I sat there reviewing various historical accounts of his epic undertakings and praying for his soul and his guidance while trying to imagine the magnitude of his mission and envisioning how he must have felt contemplating his chosen path to broaden the horizons of our nation and reaching beyond the realm of one’s self to achieve independence.
While I gazed across at that colossal city, I would reflect on the profound message that I had previously received there when in a prayer of petition about my life’s mission: as I addressed the Almighty Father in a personal way saying, “Pop, what you want of me? How can I do your will and make my humble mark on humanity?” He instructed me through an interior voice: “Go to the eye of the camera and uplift hearts!”
He was in his own mystical way echoing my own dear mother’s loving plea: “Be independent and use the talents that God has given you!” He was Also reinforcing my father’s favorite quotes “Mark my words, he who hesitates is lost, don’t put of till tomorrow what you can do today”!
When we finally reached our destination of Los Angeles, our first official charity gig was performing for “The Actors Fund Blood Drive” that helped raise donations for elderly show people like old Joe. Strangely enough and seemingly out of the blue as if he were waiting for us, a familiar character actor (or perhaps an angelic messenger akin to Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life…one never knows!) came over to us and reiterated the same sound advice that Joe gave us about making the rounds, etc. and reinforced our solidarity to remain independent, as we knocked, rang, and sang at countless doors to fulfill our goal and destiny’s design as the “Entertainer’s Entertainers”!
Some five years later, after a multitude of chain-reaction performances and celebrity functions in an invigorating (yet simultaneously exhausting) schedule, we were called back to New Jersey and offered a contract to play in Atlantic City by the Vice President of Caesars Hotel/Casino. After we completed a few seasons there, we took a flight back to L.A. (Smogsville, USA) for several bookings, then headed north to escape to the fresh, cool, crisp air and white-capped mountains of beautiful turquoise-blue Lake Tahoe. It was our rest haven retreat where we sang for various boat tours, hay rides, and civic and casino events like golf and ski tournaments, etc.
Just before leaving the “City of the Angels” after our brief visit, we had the unexpected opportunity to once again be in the right place at the right time. What some might call “coincidence”, or rather what I believe to be “divine destiny” which no one could have predicted, we took our last encore performance at “The Hollywood Reporter Salutes Radie Harris”, before returning permanently to our home in New Jersey, to begin a new season at the Showboat Casino in A.C., thus closing the last chapter of our book of Hollywood adventures!
In a few twists of irony, after we had sung to Radie at that event honoring her as the last of the Golden- Era showbiz columnists and radio personalities, she too headed back to our neck of the woods and spent her final years at the Actors Fund Home East, in Englewood, NJ, which was one of the last places we entertained before originally heading to Hollywood. Seven years later we were privileged to perform there once again, sharing the stage with Helen Hayes (“First Lady of the American Theater”) and one of the key figures on their Board of Directors.
She won countless acting awards and made many appearances on the Family Theater produced by the Catholic media pioneer, Fr. Peyton. He also incorporated the talents of Trek stars such as William Shatner (Kirk), Jane Wyatt (Spock’s mom) and numerous others. Joe Smith was a permanent “star” resident at that Actors home up until the very end. The seasoned showman, who was our first brush with a celebrity as one of the last notables of the Vaudevillian era, served as a mentor of sorts sharing his priceless advice with us about remaining independent at all costs.
He bid his fans farewell and took his final curtain call on February 22, 1981, just a few days after completing his 96th year. Twenty years to the day on February 22, 2001, Radie Harris, at age 96, also passed away there. They both died on George Washington’s Birthday…may they all rest in eternal peace!
Although they were native New Yorkers, they exited the theater from the same side door across the Hudson in Englewood, NJ, very close to where G.W. and his army had been encamped on the nearby cliffs of Englewood and Fort Lee. The magnificent George Washington Bridge, “The Diamond Necklace”, links our hometown of Fort Lee with Manhattan Island where Radie was originally based, within a stone’s throw where Smith and Dale had first begun.
At the Fort Lee High School, where we first began to formulate our song and comedy duo, our athletic teams (in which I participated to build my strength and character) were known as “The Bridgemen”, named after that monumental structure erected in honor of the man who became immortalized as the first Commander-in-Chief, President, and Premier Hero of our country through his persevering pursuit of liberty as “The Father of Independence”.
I truly believe that the connecting bridges of the above events that I have woven throughout this storyline were written and composed providentially and were built on the bedrock foundation of the many prayers and petitions that were offered up, especially by those inspired upon the windy Palisade bluffs while awaiting orders from the Supreme Heavenly Commander.
It all came full circle as “Pray without ceasing”, “Go to the eye of the camera”, and “Be independent” became our battle cries and calling cards while mapping an uncharted course through the misty valleys of doubt and climbing challenging rocky terrains to the high mountain peaks to seek His Divine wisdom. We also encountered many manmade monuments, built of stone and steel, but none could compare with those comprised of the fiber and soul of humanity… on our Journey to the Stars!
By The Traveling Troubadour