Category Archives: Famous People

The Book That Changed My Life

Monty Joynes reading

Monty Joynes reading

Maybe every writer can describe the single book that changed his or her life.  In my case, the book was not a literary experience but rather a transformational alteration of my mind.  The book is Talks and Dialogues by J. Krishnamurti.

J KrishnamurtiJohn King, who teaches composition at Central Florida University, asked me to contribute my personal experience with the Krishnamurti book for a show that he describes thusly:  “The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life is a weekly program featuring interviews with new and established writers, as well as essays about books that changed writers’ lives.  It is like a slightly disreputable version of NPR.”

In Episode 60, which was available the first week in August, John begins his Devil in the Groveshow talking about his own writing and the expansion of his podcast, and then he moves on to a long interview with non-fiction Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King (no relation) who talks about his book Devil in the Grove.  Gilbert King’s novelistic style account of a famous rape trial in the Jim Crow South is a fascinating history lesson that I recommend to you.

My pre-recorded essay for the final segment of the show, “The Book That Changed My Life,” is as confessional as anything I have ever published.  The “before Krishnamurti” Monty was a very different person from the one who emerged after the reading.

Included on The Drunken Odyssey website is the cover of the book with extensive text as an introduction to J. Krishnamurti.  Here’s the link to access Episode 60 of The Drunken Odyssey and to hear my recorded essay.

           

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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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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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General George Patton: WWII Commander

General Patton wearing his 4-star service cap in 1945.  Photo by U.S. Army

General George Patton wearing his 4-star service cap in 1945.  U.S. Army photo

Our images of General George S. Patton, Jr. as the greatest combat commander of WW II come from either newsreels and documentaries or from the 1970 feature film, Patton, starring George C. Scott that won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture.  My personal connection to General Patton, however, is based on my friendship with Peter K. Babalas, who as a 23-year old Military Police Lieutenant was the first on the scene of the accident that ultimately ended the four-star general’s life in December 1945.

General Patton, although famous as a battlefield warrior, was also infamous for what his superiors deemed politically inappropriate remarks to the press. After brilliant victories in North Africa and the invasion of Sicily, Patton continued to lose commands because of his controversial public remarks.  But the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, was not about to sideline his best field commander for the Normandy invasion of 1944.  He made Patton commander of the Third Army, and ol’ “Blood and Guts” drove the Germans into submission culminating in the famous remarkable dash of his Third Army to relieve Bastogne and win the critical Battle of the Bulge.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Lt. General Patton in Tunisia, 1945.  Photo by U. S. Army

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Lt. General Patton in Tunisia, 1945. Photo by U. S. Army

In the months after the end of the war in Europe, as an officer overseeing the occupation of Germany, Patton gave former Nazi military officers jobs and stated that the real enemy was the Soviet Union.  Sidelined again, Patton was given command of a phantom army assigned to a historic documentation of the European war. On the day of the accident, December 9th, Patton and his Chief of Staff, Maj. General Hobart Gay, were traveling in their large 1938 Cadillac staff car en route to a pheasant hunt.

Lt. Gen. Patton with Maj. Gen. Walter Robertson pass in review of Third Army Troops in April 1944 prior to the Normandy invasion in June. US Army Photo

Lt. Gen. Patton with Maj. Gen. Walter Robertson pass in review of Third Army Troops in April 1944 prior to the Normandy invasion in June. US Army photo

Near noon, a 2-1/2 ton military truck unexpectedly made a left turn into the front of the staff car. The driver of the truck was a technical sergeant on his way to a quartermaster depot. In the low-speed collision, Patton was thrown against the steel frame of a glass partition that separated the driver from the passengers in the rear seat. The impact of the blow scalped the general’s forehead and caused a compression fracture to his cervical spinal cord.

Army Lt. Peter Babalas as he looked during WWII

Army Lt. Peter Babalas as he looked during WWII

Military Police Lieutenant Peter Babalas, in an Army jeep, came upon the accident moments after it occurred. He ran to the staff car and opened its rear door to render assistance.  General Gay was supporting Patton’s body, and he instructed Babalas to call an ambulance. Patton whispered to Gay, “I think that I’m paralyzed.”  Two medics arrived on the scene, and then an ambulance with two medical officers came.  Realizing that Patton’s injuries were serious, the officers made the decision to transport Patton to the best equipped medical facility in the area—the 130th US Army Station Hospital in Heidelberg, 25 miles away.

All the others involved in the accident were only slightly injured.  Lieutenant Babalas, as the Military Police officer on the scene, thus became its official investigating officer. During his investigation, Babalas discovered Patton’s uniform service cap with its four silver stars wedged in the back of the Cadillac’s displaced rear seat.

I met Peter Babalas in 1967, a few short months after my discharge from the Vietnam War-era US Army where I had served as the Plans and Training NCO of the 91st Evacuation Hospital. I was recommended to Peter as a speechwriter in his campaign for a Virginia General Assembly senate seat.  My father, a tool and dye maker by trade, had been a long-term Democratic precinct committeeman, and the compromise Chairman of the 2nd District Democratic Party, when the party divided violently over war politics. I was thus personally familiar with all the major players in both state and local politics.

Peter Babalas as my friend in 1967.  Photo by Foster Studios

Peter Babalas as my friend in 1967. Photo by Foster Studios

Within weeks of joining the Babalas-for-Senate campaign, I was managing the day-to-day operations of the campaign, and I formed a lasting friendship with Peter and Lillie Babalas.  We unseated a well-entrenched incumbent in the Democratic primary and went on to easily win the general election.  Peter remained in the Virginia Senate until his death in 1987.

Peter had earned a Harvard degree in economics after his WW II military service (1942- 1946), and then went on to earn a University of Virginia law degree in 1950.  He was recalled into the Army for service in the Korean War (1951-52).  When I went to work for Peter, he had a large law firm housed in a downtown office building that he and his partners owned. I both liked and admired Peter.  Later in my career when I became the founder and editor of Metro Hampton Roads Magazine, I asked Peter to tell me, for publication, about his encounter with General Patton.

At the Army hospital in Heidelberg, General Patton was completely paralyzed from the neck down and was having difficulty breathing.  Specialists were summoned from London, but the prognosis was grave.  The general, however, was fully conscious, and he insisted on being told the truth about his condition. “Would he ever again be able to ride a horse?” he asked. “No,” the chief doctor admitted.

August 1945. Gen. Patton riding "Favory Africa", which Hitler had personally picked out to be presented to Emperor Hirohito.  The horse formerly belonged to the riding school of Vienna.  It was confiscated by the Germans and later returned by the Americans. US Army Photo

August 1945. General Patton riding “Favory Africa,”which Hitler had personally picked out to be presented to Emperor Hirohito. The horse formerly belonged to the riding school of Vienna. It was confiscated by the Germans and later returned by the Americans. US Army Photo

Patton also wanted to know the outcome of the accident investigation, and thus Lieutenant Babalas was ordered bedside to report to the general.  Babalas found no fault on either driver, and the general concurred.  Then Peter produced the general’s service cap that he had retrieved from the staff car and offered to return it.  Patton instructed Peter to keep the hat as a “souvenir,” and he added, “I won’t be needing it anymore.” This remark has been widely reported as evidence of Patton’s premonition of death. And so it was that within 12 days of the accident, the great General George S. Patton, Jr., age 60, died from pulmonary edema and congestive heart failure.  He would have much preferred to die in combat. Certainly he could not have abided invalidism.

Gravesite of Gen. George Patton at the American Army Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg.  US Army Photo  May 1949.

Gravesite of Gen. George Patton at the American Army Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg. US Army Photo May 1949.

General George Patton was buried in the Luxembourg American Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg along with other wartime casualties of the Third Army.  It was his personal request “to be buried with my men.”

Peter Babalas safeguarded the last military headgear that General Patton ever wore, and later he offered it to the Patton family for display at the General George Patton Museum of Leadership at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

By this posting, I hereby render my most respectful military salute to General George Patton and to my friend, former Army Lieutenant Peter K. Babalas.

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Elizabeth Taylor: Her Violet Eyes

violeteyes In 1977, I was on the Virginia Beach Neptune Festival Committee and thus earned a seat at the table that hosted the famous actress Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, John Warner, a former Secretary of the Navy, who was then running for a Virginia US Senate seat.  As the Grand Celebrity Marshall of the month-long festivities, Elizabeth Taylor would crown King Neptune IV on his arrival from the sea.

That late September, Elizabeth Taylor was still amazingly beautiful at age 45.  And yes, as I can personally attest from close-range observation, her violet eyes were mesmerizing. Her major movie career triumphs, including Academy Awards for Butterfield 8 (1960), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1965), were behind her, but she was still a major world-class celebrity.  Why she decided to marry John Warner and seek Washington society as a junior US Senator’s wife was an enigma to her fans. Nevertheless, there she was on the campaign trail doing her best to get Warner elected.

Elizabeth Taylor as she appeared in Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor as she appeared in Cleopatra

Prior to the memorable close-contact Neptune Festival Committee dinner party, I was invited as a magazine journalist to a Republican fund-raiser reception featuring Elizabeth Taylor as the ultimate attraction.  Prominent Republicans and their best dressed and bejeweled women paid big bucks to potentially socialize with the once Cleopatra (1963), and the hotel ballroom was overcrowded, with all eyes focused on the doors where the gorgeous one would make her entrance. After an hour of disappointed expectation, it was rumored that Elizabeth (we were all on a first-name basis with her by now) was having problems with her hair and that she was screaming at a local hairdresser who was obviously unworthy of her trust.  That, at least, was the unconfirmed rumor sweeping the ballroom.

When queen Elizabeth finally entered the end of the ballroom, there was a mad stampede of women toward her.  They ran recklessly head on with flailing arms and handbags. From my view among their stunned and discarded men, the women appeared to have lost all sense of decorum in their determined dash to gaze into the star’s famous eyes.  Their behavior was shameful and embarrassing, and I wondered then how the women at our upcoming Neptune Festival dinner might react in their close proximity to the star.

When we were seated at the table for ten at the Neptune party, I arranged for my then-wife Theresa to sit next to Elizabeth Taylor, while I took an opposite seat.  From the very beginning of the dinner, socially prominent women approached the seated celebrity and leaned in on her with excessive attempts to engage her.  My wife was rudely pushed aside as these women wedged themselves between her and Taylor.  Theresa reported to me that some of these star-struck ladies who were smoking cigarettes actually spilled ashes into Elizabeth Taylor’s hair.

Monty and Theresa

Monty and Theresa

Throughout the ordeal of the interruptions, Elizabeth Taylor kept her composure, but she did not eat her dinner, and she left the event as soon as she reasonably could.  Theresa apologized for the bad behavior of her peers, and Elizabeth hugged her for the sincerity of it in parting.

Taylor and Warner alongside the Carl Vinson ship.  Photo from Carl Vinson Public Affairs

Taylor and Warner alongside the Carl Vinson ship. Photo from Carl Vinson Public Affairs

As a witness to the outrageous conduct of celebrity fans, I wonder if fame is worth the abuse.  Elizabeth Taylor endured all and thus helped John Warner win the Virginia Senate seat in 1978. She had married him late in 1976 as her 6th husband, but they were divorced in 1982. The role of a senator’s wife, as many had predicted, was a miscasting of Elizabeth Taylor.  Then, too, how many Washington society dinner parties could she have endured with rude women leaning on her and spilling cigarette ashes into her hair?

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