Monthly Archives: July 2013

Cybill Shepherd: A Photo Op

Cybill Shepherd feature imageAs a writer who transitions to the editorship of a consumer magazine, there are lots of opportunities to meet and be photographed with celebrities if you know the tricks of the trade.

The actress Cybill Shepherd was an immediate star at age 21 when she debuted in The Last Picture Show (1971), a film that was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Then she made impressive appearances in The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Taxi Driver (1976), but her star dimmed with films that failed at the box office.

Cybill Shepherd from the early 70s

When I met Cybill Shepherd in 1976, she was touring dinner theatres in a production of A Shot In The Dark. As the former girlfriend of Elvis Presley and other Hollywood notables, she still had audience drawing power.

Following her performance in A Shot In The Dark at the Tidewater Dinner Theatre, there was a wine and light fare reception for theatre patrons.  I was attending as the editor of Metro Hampton Roads Magazine, a monthly, 100-page plus urban features publication. One of the magazine’s most popular sections was titled “Metro Eye” and consisted of a two to four-page layout of photos taken at area social, cultural, and business events.

As editor, I assigned free-lance photographers to a number of these “Metro Eye” events each issue, and our photo coverage was very welcomed and desired at these venues.  My payment for these photographs was insultingly low, but the photographers were allowed to sell their pictures to event sponsors and individuals.  Usually it was very profitable for them to be identified as a Metro photographer, and many good free-lancers wanted those assignments.

Monty and wife Theresa with their best friends Peter and Bess Decker pose with actress Anne Francis at a Tidewater Dinner Theater reception

Monty and wife Theresa with their best friends Peter and Bess Decker pose with actress Anne Francis at a Tidewater Dinner Theater reception

Coincidentally, one of the Metro photos appeared in the program for A Shot In The Dark. Theatre executive Alan Sader had included a gallery of pictures from past shows showing patrons with such stars as Forrest Tucker, Dana Andrews, Yvonne De Carlo, and Pat O’Brien.  My best pal Peter Decker and his beautiful wife Bess were pictured with me and my then-wife Theresa beside actress Anne Francis who had starred in a production of Cactus Flower.  Anne Francis is best remembered for her roles in the 1950s classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet, and for the 1960s television series Honey West.

Monty hams it up with the then-27-year-old actress Cybill Shepherd

Monty hams it up with the then-27-year-old actress Cybill Shepherd

A Metro photographer was working the theatre reception event, and of course, he wanted to ingratiate himself to me by taking my picture with Cybill Shepherd. It became obvious to Ms. Shepherd that the photographer, in bringing us together and directing the photograph, was paying more attention to me than he was to her. He was also taking a lot more shots than were necessary.

When the photographer finally released us, Ms. Shepherd turned to me with an expression of wonderment and demanded, “Just who the hell are you, anyway?”

How could I possibly respond to her without confessing my exploitation, so I answered with something both short and reasonable that I hoped she could accept.

“I’m the mayor,” I said.

Cybill Shepherd recovered from local pretenders like me to star in an Emmy Award winning television series, Moonlighting, with Bruce Willis (1985 to 1989).  Cybill Shepherd is a gal with spunk, and I like spunk.

Cybill Shepherd and Moonlighting co-star Bruce Willis

Cybill Shepherd and Moonlighting co-star Bruce Willis

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Danny Thomas: The Miracle of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Danny Thomas featureA destitute comedic actor and night club singer prays to the saint of hopeless causes and makes a vow to build a shrine to St. Jude if he should be blessed with success.  Years later, the entertainer fulfills his vow by becoming the founder of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital where miracles happen everyday.  What a plot for a movie!  But that’s the Danny Thomas story, and I was privileged to know him and to witness his vow come true.

Danny Thomas It all began

In the 1940s, Danny Thomas worked steadily on network radio shows as a comedic character actor. Film roles during the early 1950s in The Jazz Singer with Peggy Lee, and I’ll See You In My Dreams with Doris Day propelled Danny into television where he enjoyed great success with Make Room For Daddy, The Danny Thomas Show that had a 13-year run (1953 to 1965).

Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee

Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee

Producing his show at Desilu Studios where Lucille Ball was filming her iconic series, I Love Lucy, Danny partnered with legendary television producers Sheldon Leonard and Aaron Spelling to co-produce three landmark television series: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad.  Danny is credited with discovering Mary Tyler Moore in 1961 when he recommended to Carl Reiner that she be cast in the Dick Van Dyke Show.  Danny also produced three television series for Walter Brennan—The Real McCoys, The Tycoon, and The Guns of Will Sonnet, and he continued to work in television through the 1980s.

Bess and Pete Decker at an early St. Jude fundraiser

Bess and Pete Decker at an early St. Jude fundraiser

My personal connection to Danny Thomas was facilitated by Peter Decker.  In the 1970s, before I left my home city of Norfolk, Virginia, Pete and Bess Decker were my best friends.  Pete was a criminal attorney, humanitarian, and a talented musician and singer who lived to receive every honor that a grateful city and state can award an individual. When Pete and I got together, he was already on the Board of Governors and Directors of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis that Danny, a fellow Lebanese, had founded in 1962.

As Pete’s friend, I joined the Board of Directors for St. Jude of Southeastern Virginia, and I served as secretary at our meetings. Through this 20-member board Pete organized a regional telethon and other events that over a 50-year period of his service raised tens of millions of dollars for St. Jude, a hospital dedicated to the treatment of sick children regardless of race, religion, or the ability to pay.

The focus on cancer and other catastrophic diseases in children paid great dividends in 1996 when two doctors from St. Jude’s Immunology Department were recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for key discoveries in how immune systems function to kill virus-infected cells.

Pete Decker and Danny Thomas

Pete Decker and Danny Thomas

Peter Decker made over 500 appearances with Danny Thomas in concerts, telethons, and other fundraising events for St. Jude.  As a singer, Pete made records with the Pat Curtis Orchestra that were sold to benefit St. Jude.  Pete and I performed impromptu together in clubs where musician friends would invite us on stage, and I even wrote a cabaret act for us that we performed with the Pat Curtis Jazz Band. I was surprised, however, when Pete asked me to record a song for the Southeastern Virginia St. Jude telethon.

To diversify the telethon entertainment, Pete wanted me to do a big band pop standard, and he provided a recorded Nelson Riddle orchestral arrangement of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.”  I sang the song with the recorded accompaniment in a recording studio and later lip-synced the song in a television studio taping against a uniform St. Jude telethon backdrop.  During the telethon, Pete could introduce me, and I would appear on tape as if I were actually on stage.  I accepted, however, that my performance was little more than late-night telethon filler.

Monty and Peter in cabaret act

Monty and Peter in cabaret act

A few weeks after the Norfolk telethon, Pete called me to say that my tape performance of It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie had been chosen for the master telethon talent reel that would be provided to St. Jude telethons produced in more than a dozen markets where the same stage backdrop would be used.  In a sea of rock and roll, I was the quiet romantic crooner alternative.  I waited in vain to be discovered, but Pete and Danny appreciated the effort.

The recording of my St. Jude performance was reprised at our middle daughter’s wedding.   As a surprise to me, the bride danced with her father to his recording of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.  Only the family was in on the plot. I remained the mystery singer.

The most time that I spent with Danny Thomas was at a small dinner party given for Danny and Phyllis McGuire at the Deckers’ home in Norfolk.  Phyllis was still a statuesque beauty who you will remember as the lead singer of the McGuire Sisters. After the trio won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts television show competition, they produced a succession of hit records on the Coral Records label.  With number one hits like “Sincerely” (1954), “The Theme from Picnic (1956) and “Sugartime (1958), the group had 30 chart hits over a 16-year period.  The McGuire Sisters appeared on all of the top television variety shows during the 1950s and 1960s and even made the cover of Life Magazine. On tour for St. Jude with Phyllis McGuire, Danny, in his early 60s, welcomed the chance to relax at the Deckers.

The McGuire Sisters

The McGuire Sisters

The last time that I saw Danny Thomas was at his home in 1975 or 1976 where he hosted a reception following the final day of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic (1970 to 1984). Danny was an avid golfer, and two PGA tour events bore his name.  I was in Memphis on business as the Associate Publisher of Holiday Magazine, and was thus available to attend.  Entertainer Jimmy Dean, famous for his hit record “Big John” and later for his breakfast sausage, was a memorable guest.  My former boss, George Crump, who owned country music radio stations, had once held Dean’s management contract, so we had a common connection.

Danny Thomas In memory

Just like everything else in the life of Danny Thomas, St. Jude was the focus and financial beneficiary of the golfing event.  If St. Jude himself had anything to do with Danny’s great television success, the blessing has been repaid exponentially at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I am so glad to have been a witness to Danny’s and to Peter’s devotion to a great work of life.

Danny Thomas with some of the children at St. Jude

Danny Thomas with some of the children at St. Jude

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Telly Savalas: Who Loves Ya, Baby?

telly savalas who loves ya babyIn the summer of 1975, I was brought into the extended family of television and movie star Telly Savalas to celebrate the opening of his stage show at the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.  Here is what it was like being around Telly in the prime of his performing career.

My best friends in those days were Peter and Bess Decker. Bess’s sister was married to Telly’s older brother, Gus, and thus the family connection.  When the entire Savalas clan was urged to join Telly for his Las Vegas opening, Pete and Bess invited me and my then-wife Theresa to join the Norfolk, Virginia contingent.  Our junket host on the private charter flight required only the male gamblers to post $1,500 that could be redeemed in casino chips.  Otherwise, the flight, hotel room, meals, and drinks were covered as we were expected to be active players in the casino.

In 1975, Telly was one of the most popular stars in show business. His New York City police detective show, Kojak, was in the middle of its five-season run (1973-1978). TV Guide ranked Telly number 33 on its 50 Greatest Television Stars of All Time list.  And if that were not enough, his singing-talking rendition of the song If (If a picture paints a thousand words….), was #1 in Europe for 10 weeks in 1975.

Telly Kojak

Telly had won an Emmy (1974) and two Golden Globe Awards (1975-1976) for Kojak, so when we met him as the shaved head, lollipop sucking, assertive NYC cop character with the famous catch-phrase “who loves ya, baby?” he was universally known.

In person, Telly Savalas was joyfully entertaining, but his sensitive and generous side shined through in his consideration of family.  His older brother, Gus, a Foreign Service Officer stationed at the American Embassy in Athens, came from Greece to celebrate Telly’s success.  Gus even sang a song as a surprise guest in Telly’s opening night at the Sahara.  Gus proved to have a grand operatic voice and was obviously the best singer among the Savalas brothers as Telly playfully acknowledged.

l-r Teddy, Telly, Gus & George

l-r Teddy, Telly, Gus & George

George Savalas

George Savalas

Younger brother, George, who played Detective Stavros, a wild-haired, quiet, comedic foil to Kojak’s street-wise savvy and dramatic darkness on television, was also there. I had established a previous friendship with George and his family when he served as the Celebrity Grand Marshal of the Neptune Festival Parade in Virginia Beach. I was a member of the festival committee, and I also saw George several times when he visited the Deckers in Norfolk.

To really appreciate Telly Savalas, you ought to know that he served in the US Army for three years during WWII and received a Purple Heart. He earned a degree in psychology from Columbia University and began his entertainment career as the host of a popular talk show on the Voice of America radio network.  Oddly, Telly also worked as an ABC network senior director of special news events. He began doing character roles on television drama series in the 1950s and 1960s.  His more than 50 guest appearances included the Twilight Zone classic episode “Living Doll.”

Living Doll episode from The Twilight Zone

Living Doll episode from The Twilight Zone

Telly got his start in feature films when he was discovered by the legendary Hollywood star and producer Burt Lancaster who cast him as his deranged prison mate in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).  Telly received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for that performance.

Telly Savalas in Birdman of Alcatraz

Telly Savalas in Birdman of Alcatraz

That same year, he also appeared in another box office hit, Cape Fear, with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. For the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, Telly shaved his head for the role of Pontius Pilate and then decided to remain shaved for the rest of his life. Big film roles followed:  Battle of the Bulge (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970) with Clint Eastwood.  In total, Telly played the villain in 34 feature films and diverse character roles in another 21 films from 1962 to 1988.

telly savalas kelly's heroes

Theo Kojak was conceived in a television movie pilot for the Kojak series titled The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973).  After the television series ended, Telly reprised the Kojak character in seven made-for-television movies between 1985 and 1990.

Telly Savalas IFIn Las Vegas during our time with him, Telly invited us to his Sahara showroom rehearsals where he sang If and danced a soft-shoe routine with a few shapely showgirls.  Mainly, the show was built around an entertaining patter of show business anecdotes.  Most evenings that opening week, the family party gathered in Telly’s dressing room for refreshments, and then the men went out with Telly for late- night gambling.  Telly was a world-class poker player who finished 21st in the 1992 World Series of Poker.  In 1975, his preferred game seemed to be baccarat, which he played with the high rollers behind a red-velvet roped VIP area.

Since most of us were not in Telly’s high-roller league, Peter, Gus, George and some others in our party kept to the craps tables where we found no luck even when we tried tables in other casinos.

On opening night of Telly’s Vegas show, I brought a bag of rubber skinheads for the men to wear at the Savalas family tables.  When Telly announced the presence of his family in the audience, and the spotlight turned on us, there we were, every man shaved headed like Telly!  Telly was totally surprised, and the gimmick got a big laugh.

One night, Telly got us all invited to a Paramount Pictures reception where I met a very gracious Dionne Warwick, and a Glen Campbell who must have been going through a rough patch in his personal life.  A few years before this encounter, I had been part of a production team that brought Glen Campbell’s touring show to the Hampton Coliseum. When I reminded him of our previous meeting, he was very rude in demonstrating a “so what” attitude.

On one of our final nights in Las Vegas as we enjoyed a late after-show private party  with Telly, he asked for our attention.  He announced that he had to leave to attend another party. Regretfully, he said, he could not take us with him. Frank Sinatra had just called, and we understood that even Telly had to go when summoned by the Chairman of the Board.  Anyway, we had already seen the Sinatra show at Caesar’s Palace from a front-row table.

Frank Sinatra and Telly Savalas

Frank Sinatra at a Vegas party with Telly Savalas. Photo by John Rimmington

When Telly died of cancer at the age of 72 in 1994, his friend, Frank Sinatra, attended his funeral.  Another attendee was Don Rickles who was in the film Kelly’s Heroes with Telly.  Telly Savalas was a generous friend, and I will always remember his great kindnesses to me and my wife that week in Las Vegas when he treated us like family.

As an Afterword to the Las Vegas events of July 1975, I must confess that in my excitement of mingling with the stars, I gambled way more than I could afford.  When my markers were gathered, I had lost nearly $5,000, which was enough that year to purchase a new Ford or Chevy.  And although business and book research has taken me back to Las Vegas a half dozen times, I have never gambled a single dollar more!

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Johnny Cash Live at the Hampton Coliseum, 1970

Johnny Cash Man in BlackIn October 1970, I was part of the local production team that booked and promoted the Johnny Cash touring stage show in Hampton, Virginia.  When Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter played the newly opened Hampton Coliseum, their show was one of the most popular acts in show business.  Too bad that their performances would be interrupted by the worst thing that can happen to a live stage show.

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

Johnny’s ABC television variety show, recorded in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry, was rated the 17th most viewed television program in 1970.  The show began in June 1969, with Joni Mitchell, Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, comedian Fannie Flagg, and folk legend Bob Dylan as guest performers.

Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash

Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash

Nearly every star of the folk-country music genre appeared on the show. Cash also featured the legends of country music like Bill Monroe as well as pop stars like Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Pat Boone, and even jazz great Louis Armstrong in his last television appearance before his death.  For the ratings boost, show business royalty like Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Peggy Lee, and Lorne Greene came to Nashville to appear on the show.

Johnny Cash Show

WCMS, the top-rated country music radio station in the five-city Tidewater, Virginia media market, was owned by Com-Ent Inc. where I was a vice-president.  I was thus part of the production team effort to sell out the 13,800 concert seats in the Hampton Coliseum and to handle the financial and logistical details of managing the event.

Hampton Coliseum. Photo by David Polston

Hampton Coliseum. Photo by David Polston

Although the Hampton Coliseum would go on to successfully host a great lineup of shows including those of Elvis, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Eagles, Elton John, and just about every other major act that toured, the newness of the venue facility that had just opened earlier that year had a critical flaw.  The coliseum sound system had bugs.

Hampton Coliseum indoors

Evidently, people in the concert sound system business suspected that the Hampton Coliseum system might fail during a major concert because our office was contacted by a portable sound system vendor who had truckloads of giant new speakers, amplifiers, microphones, and sound technicians that he offered in a stand-by role at no charge.  Since WCMS promoted a line-up of country music concerts every year, some outdoors, I concluded that the equipment owner was just trying to get his business foot in our door.  I thus recommended that we accept the offer, and I arranged for truck parking spaces just outside the Coliseum loading dock.

June and JohnnyAs the huge audience crowd found their seats, Johnny sequestered himself with June in one of the dressing room suites.  In talking to the band members who assembled in the larger Green Room, I was told that Johnny preferred to be alone with June prior to going on stage.  In my pre-show contact with him, he was very polite, but reserved, as if preserving his energy.  Then with a final tuning of their instruments, you could see the energy surge into Johnny.  His posture came erect, and he strode out to the stage as The Man In Black that the audience expected.

I don’t remember how many songs Johnny got through before the HamptonJune and Johnny duets album Coliseum sound system failed.  The audience was all hyped-up to hear Johnny sing I Walk The Line and Ring of Fire, and to perform Jackson, It Ain’t Me, Babe, and If I Were a Carpenter, his famous duets with June.  But when the sound system went out, and it couldn’t be fixed, Johnny, June, and the band departed the stage with the raised hand gestures of “what can we do?”  The capacity audience then erupted with outcries of disbelief.

Back stage there was panic and desperate demands to quickly bring the sound system back on line, but the Coliseum management was helpless to correct the complex technical problems.  After more than half an hour of blood, sweat, and jeers, we made the decision to summon the outside vendor who then began a rapid set-up of his portable system.  The performance stage was a raised platform at one end of the Coliseum floor with the audience seats cupped in layers around it.  On stage, it had the feeling of performing in the round.  The huge box speakers were designed for outdoor concert use; and when the four primary ones were positioned on the platform, they became monolithic barriers that the performers would have to work around in order to gain sight lines to the audience.

Johnny and June

To the credit of Johnny and June, after an hour and a half delay, they returned to the stage and humorously worked around the six-feet tall black speaker boxes in giving a great show.  I had witnessed Shirley MacLaine walk off a Chrysler Hall stage in Norfolk after a sound system failure had twice interrupted her act.  The second time, she did not return.  Johnny and June would have been justified in doing the same, but they didn’t.

After the show, there is a financial reckoning between their accountants and ours.  Usually, the bottom line payout from the box office receipts is made by a promoter’s check, but this time the Cash show road manager wanted their share of the box office in currency that would be counted and carried out into the night in brown paper grocery bags.  After enduring the sound system ordeal, how could we say no?  I witnessed the count. I believe that our country friends walked away with about $83,000 in small bills.  That was a lot of money in 1970!

As the Johnny Cash tour buses departed Hampton, our exhausted staff went home feeling that we had dodged live concert’s most fatal bullet: the failed sound system.  We were also aware that Johnny Cash had done each of us a huge career favor by returning to the stage after the long delay. Thanks, Johnny.  You will always have our gratitude and respect.

Gravesite in Hendersonville, TN

Gravesite in Hendersonville, TN

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