Monthly Archives: June 2013

Richard Pryor: His Stand-Up Comeback

Richard Pryor Here and Now (1983)When Richard Pryor came to New Orleans in August 1983 to record his comedy special Here and Now at the Saenger Theatre, he stayed in the New Orleans Hilton where my wife Pat, as administrative assistant to the hotel’s general manager, handled all VIP guest details.  Pat’s working contact with Pryor was with his agent and show producer David Banks, but Pat and I both got to meet Richard as he prepared for two tapings of his final official stand-up comedy show.

The 1983 stage performances were a comeback to show business after a horrendous event in 1980 when Richard had set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.  He had third-degree burns over more than half his body, and survival itself was in the balance.

Although Richard Pryor as a stand-up comedian exhibited a profane Silver Streak movie posterirreverent style that was unsuitable for children, our three teenaged daughters knew him well from his hit movies: Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980) both with Gene Wilder. The fact that Richard had won several Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Recording and television Emmys for Best Writing in Comedy for specials starring Lily Tomlin (1973) may have been lost on our young girls, but in the 1970s and 1980s, Richard Pryor was one of the most recognized entertainers in the world.

Richard Pryor’s comedic legacy for bringing highly charged racial and social issues into sharp perspective paved the way for comedians like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and opened a venue for the general public to address their prejudices.

The New Orleans Hilton in 1983

The New Orleans Hilton in 1983

In my brief encounters with Richard Pryor in Pat’s office, he seemed both gentle and humble, although he obviously felt the pressure of the scheduled performances.  He was still refining his material for the show when David Banks asked Pat to type the head notes for Richard’s individual sketches onto index cards.  The cards would be placed on an on-stage stool where Richard could refer to them as the show progressed.  The show was performed on two separate days at the Saenger and then edited for the broadcast and DVD versions. Pat and I were given prime seats for the first show, and if you see the show recording, you may notice Richard deftly referring to Pat’s index cards as he moves from one subject area to another.

Monty and Pat in New Orleans in 1983

Monty and Pat at the Hilton in 1983

One day while Richard was in the hotel, I was walking through the Hilton lobby with our three daughters trailing behind when we crossed paths with the star and his lady. We then stopped to greet each other. I had recommended some New Orleans restaurants to Richard, and we had some brief words on that subject before he moved on.  There had been no opportunity to formally introduce the girls, but suddenly they were pulling at my shirt.

Daughters Pam, Danielle, and Annalisa

Daughters Pam, Danielle, and Annalisa

“Dad, that was Richard Pryor!” one of them exclaimed. “He acted like he knew you!”

I guess when the girls saw Richard in Superman III (1983) with Christopher Reeve, they might have tried to impress their friends by saying, “Yeah, my Mom and Dad know him.”

Richard Pryor photoIn 1998, Richard Pryor was the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center.  It is the highest award a nation can bestow on a humorist. Considering his abusive childhood and his struggle for racial equality, Richard Pryor’s triumphs are profoundly important in articulating the American experience.  I’m glad to salute Richard Pryor by this remembrance.

 

 

 

 

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Julius Erving: Dr. J. As An ABA Virginia Squire

Dr. J slam-dunks as a Virginia Squire

Dr. J slam-dunks as a Virginia Squire

Julius Erving, known to his fans as Dr. J, joined the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1971, and in his first season, he was selected to the All- ABA Second Team and the ABA All-Rookie Team.  Famous for his dramatic style of play with spins, high jumps, and amazing slam-dunks, Dr. J was just beginning a 16-year professional basketball career that would earn him a place in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall of Fame.

As the editor of Metro Hampton Roads Magazine, I used my acquaintanceship with Squires owner Earl Foreman to obtain a private interview with Dr. J at his Hague Towers Norfolk, Virginia apartment.  My photographer that morning was Bob Friedman, my pal from our days at the University of Virginia and the future publisher of my novels. Bob and I were both basketball fans, so we were very excited about our appointment with the future superstar.

On time for the late-morning interview, we politely knocked on Dr. J’s apartment door. No one responded.  We knocked harder and repeatedly to no avail until we were at the point of leaving when the door opened. There stood a giant of a man, bare chest and barefoot, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.  We announced ourselves, and he apologized for over-sleeping and invited us in.

Dr. J as interviewed at breakfast. Photo by Bob Friedman

Dr. J as interviewed at breakfast. Photo by Bob Friedman

Most of the interview was conducted over Dr. J’s kitchen table, and while still bare-chested, he fixed himself a bowl of cold cereal.  Then we moved to his living room where he put on his shirt, socks, and shoes.  Neither Bob nor I had the presence of mind to request personal photographs with him, something we have always regretted.

Dr. J was very polite during our visit, but it was to be short-lived as he was due at a team practice.  We departed in the elevator with him and then watched him drive away. I hadn’t gotten enough information for a feature story, so we published a sidebar, short piece with one of Bob’s photos, and a game-action photo provided by the Squires.

Dr. J as the interview concludes. Photo by Bob Friedman

Dr. J as the interview concludes. Photo by Bob Friedman

Seasons later, Bob and I watched Dr. J in several NBA Finals as his Philadelphia 76ers battled the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers. Finally, with the addition of Moses Malone to the 76ers, they swept the Lakers in the 1982-83 NBA Finals.  Dr. J had been an NBA Most Valuable Player and eleven-time NBA All Star before his retirement in 1987.  He played in over 800 professional games, scored more than 30,000 points, and was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 1993.

Fans like Bob and me remember that in 1976 Dr. J won the first Slam Dunk Contest that any professional basketball league had ever hosted. The images of him flying to the basket and slamming the ball through the net in impossible ways remain indelible.

Since I am a Norfolk, Virginia native and a former journalist, some words about the demise of the Virginia Squires seem appropriate in the context of meeting Julius Erving.

I had met Earl Foreman early in his consideration of Norfolk as the headquarters city for his ABA franchise location.  I also knew and had worked with Denzil Skinner, the Director of Scope, the then new 10,253-seat sports and entertainment complex in Norfolk.  As the founder and editor of Metro Hampton Roads Magazine with about 20,000 monthly magazines in circulation to people who were the perfect demographic for buying Squires season tickets, my support of the venture was deemed important. Earl Foreman even gave me a press pass to sit at the scorers’ table for the16-game home schedule at Scope in 1971.

Years later, in July of 1974, when Earl Foreman was being lambasted by fans and the press for selling four of the best players in the ABA—Julius Erving, Charlie Scott, Swen Nater, and George Gervin—I put Earl on the cover of Metro and encouraged him and his Squires staff to explain what went wrong.  The feature story by Fred Jordan was titled “The Foreman Years: Was It All His Fault?”

Metro Cover - Earl Foreman

The economic strategy behind the capital investment in ABA franchises was that the best teams in the league would ultimately be absorbed by expansion into the established NBA and thus become valuable financial assets.  Unfortunately, when the ABA folded, the Squires did not make the transition. The main obstacle had been Foreman’s concept to make the Squires a regional Virginia team that although headquartered in Norfolk, would play additional “home” games at the Hampton Coliseum and at sports arenas in Richmond and in Roanoke.  These four cities, however, were economic rivals rather than cooperative friends, and their political pettiness could not be overcome.  Affluent businesses in these cities thus did not buy blocks of season tickets, and individuals did not relate to the Squires as their city’s home team.

Foreman attempted to sell the ABA franchise to a Hampton Roads group of investors in order to save the team for Scope, but all efforts failed, and the Squires passed out of professional basketball history when it played its last game in Scope in April 1976.

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The Amazing Peter Decker

The couples Joynes and Deckers at a Metro Magazine party

The couples Joynes and Deckers at a Metro Magazine party

I was Peter G. Decker’s friend, confidant, and social pal throughout the 1970s when Peter was in his mid-30s and I was in my early 30s and living in Norfolk, VA.  Although Pete was already a member of the board of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a very successful trial lawyer, and a popular emcee and entertainer, these were fun-filled years before he accepted the leadership roles that prompted so many subsequent local, state, regional, and national honors.

Before I came into the Lebanese and Greek family circle of Pete and Bess Decker, my social manners were those of a straight-laced Englishman.  I would shake hands, but never hug.  But with the Deckers I had to hug and even accept kisses from all their parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins!  My rigid posture on greeting Decker friends and family gave me away, and Pete seemed to enjoy making me sweat, especially at Easter when I joined all the Decker family men in visiting the homebound elderly. As I followed the line of men into a stranger’s house, I was hugged and kissed just like all the others. I thus began to melt under the great warmth of their culture, and I came to believe that the English social restraint that I had been taught was plainly wrongheaded.

I will never forget the time that Pete was hosting in his home a refugee from the Lebanese Civil War, a cousin who was a dentist.  By way of introduction, Pete told the bearded young man that I was his brother, and then he said to both of us, “Kiss your brother.”  I hugged the stranger and kissed him on both cheeks.  Tears filled my eyes.  Peter Decker had a great gift for getting into your heart.  What the gesture meant to the man who was losing his homeland, I can only imagine.

What can you give to givers like Pete and Bess Decker?  My then-wife, Theresa, a Louisiana Cajun, could cook special dishes for them, but we could never match their excessive generosity to us.  I did, however, manage to give them memorable creative gifts twice.  Once on Pete’s birthday, I had an artist render a caricature of Pete’s head from a photograph that I provided.  Then I designed a business-type card with the caricature and the bold words “I’m One of Pete’s People” and presented him with a box of 500 of them.  Pete loved it!  About two weeks later, Pete called me.  He needed to print more cards.  His people were begging for them, and how could he say no?

The "business" card that I designed for Pete

The “business” card that I designed for Pete

The second memorable gift was a poem that I wrote and had framed as a birthday gift for Bess in 1978.  My gift was opened next to last at a party at their home.  Bess cried when she read it.  Poor Pete, he had to follow my gift with his own—a big diamond ring.  It was unfair, and he never let me forget it with faces of mock anger.  Later, he confided to me that the framed poem was hung on the back of Bess’s bathroom door—her most private space.

Peter owned a great Hatteras-made fishing boat, The Gannet, docked at Rudee Inlet at Virginia Beach. President Jimmy Carter had fished on it; and when it was not a working charter boat, it hosted Pete’s friends and VIPs.  Captain Fred Feller, a former Norfolk Police detective, was the major investigator for Pete’s law firm, but what Freddy really loved was fishing the Gulf Stream for tuna and other deep-seas fish.

A happy fishing day on Pete's Gannet

A happy fishing day on Pete’s Gannet

On several occasions, Pete asked me to host a fishing expedition on The Gannet when he was unavailable. The guests would bring gourmet lunch items, snacks, beer, and a bottle of premium whiskey to be served during the two-hour run to the beach after the fishing day.  I brought my camera to document the events and to make sure that each guest later received a gift album of the best photographs.  One great trip included a city councilman, our Congressman and his wife, the Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, a Circuit Court Judge, plus three more of us who also caught big fish.

Pete introduced me to Danny Thomas and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and to Telly Savalas when Telly was at the top of his Kojak television and movie fame.  Pete was always inclusive, never exclusive. His circle of friends in Hampton Roads was international and diverse in social class.  Walk into a restaurant with Pete, and he seemed to know everybody in the place.  From people seated at the tables to the wait staff and chef, they all wanted to greet Pete.  Bess had to deal with the situation that often saw us seated at our table while Pete toured the other tables and even the bar.

Pete was also an over-generous tipper, and if you went out for the evening with the Deckers, you had to face the fact that Pete would not allow you to pay any part of the bill. You had to be very creative if you wanted to reciprocate the Deckers’ generosity. One time I helped set up a basketball goal in the Deckers’ back yard and tried to coach their three sons—Peter III, Paul, and Phillip—on the finer points of the game.  Other times I took party photographs and ensured that Pete and Bess had album copies.

The couples Joynes and Deckers at a Western Night gala

The couples Joynes and Deckers at a Western Night gala

What I remember most was the fun that we had together.  We were still young and spontaneous enough to engage baby sitters on short notice and join other friends for an impromptu restaurant dinner party. Pete, who had played stand-up bass and sang in bands throughout college and law school, knew every working musician in the area.  So if there was live music anywhere that we went, Pete was invited on stage.  Knowing that I had also performed professionally as a band singer, Pete always insisted that I join him on stage to sing some old standard that the band was sure to know.

For an elaborate corporate Christmas party that I was managing, I wrote a cabaret act for us that featured the Pat Curtis band.  Our show was a hit, and when Pete sang a romantic ballad a la recording star Tom Jones, I arranged for two pretty women to throw panties at Pete on stage. It caught Pete by complete surprise!  Too bad we didn’t get a photo of the expression on his face when the screaming women threw “their” panties.

Pete and I performing our cabaret act

Pete and I performing our cabaret act

Even the best of friends can be separated by their respective destinies.  Now divorced, I went to New Orleans to collaborate with my co-author on a new edition of our best-selling Insiders’ Guide to New Orleans, and there I met Pat, now my wife of thirty years.  As editor and advisor, she has helped me create over 50 major literary works since our marriage.

Pete DeckerPete grew in service and public stature to become one of the most celebrated Virginians of his generation. On a different path, I withdrew to write the literature of my heart and to fulfill the will to art that revealed itself as my life’s purpose.

In remembrance, and with profound gratitude, being with Peter and Bess Decker those long ago years provided me with some of the best days of my life.  The family values that they demonstrated allows me now to embrace everyone that I meet. Any warmth of character and personality that I now possess once began with hugs among the Deckers.

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