Tag Archives: Telly Savalas

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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Filed under Famous People, Memoirs, Movies, Music, Writing

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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Filed under Family, Famous People, Memoirs, Writing

Taking Five With Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck and Monty at the 1971 Hampton Jazz Festival

Dave Brubeck and Monty at the 1971 Hampton Jazz Festival

I met the great jazz composer and performer Dave Brubeck backstage at the Hampton Jazz Festival in 1971.  As a magazine journalist, I had a press pass that afforded me introductions to many entertainment and sports personalities.  Brubeck’s 1959 hit Take Five, with saxophonist Paul Desmond, was still a popular concert request a dozen years later.

Dave Brubeck was very approachable and a generous interview subject.  I appreciated him as a worldwide ambassador for an art form that I loved:  American jazz.  His passing in December 2012, nearing the age of 92, reminds me that great music never dies.

I once thought of myself as a band singer and had enough performing experience to have a deep respect for the real professionals.  During my college days, I sang with swing bands that played country clubs in the early 1960s, and I even did a nightclub solo act with a tenor guitar by performing the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary songbooks.

In the 1970s I would sometimes do a set of pop standards with a visiting band.  A highlight for that kind of walk-on was singing with Bob Crosby, the brother of Bing, at a convention gala.

Monty appears with Bob Crosby at a convention gala

Monty appears with Bob Crosby at a convention gala

My favorite performing partner, however, was the irrepressible Norfolk, Virginia attorney and philanthropist Peter Decker.  Pete introduced me to Danny Thomas, who invited me to sing “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” on the St. Jude Children’s Hospital telethon.  I recorded the song in a studio and then lip-synced it in front of the telethon set in a local television studio.  The tape then played in 16 major markets during the national telethon, but I got no calls to sing anywhere else.

Monty on stage backed by Lucian Montagna on trumpet

Monty on stage backed by Lucian Montagna on trumpet

Pete also introduced me to movie and television star Telly Savalas, his brother-in-law, and we had a couple of great trips to Las Vegas together.  As a singer, however, I was way out of my league in Vegas.  But in Norfolk, Virginia, Pete and I had the opportunity to do cabaret shows with some great musicians including trumpet player Lucian Montagna.

After taking our solo turns, Pete and I once did a takeoff on the Dean

Peter Decker and Monty perform their Martin and Lewis comedy routine

Peter Decker and Monty perform their Martin and Lewis comedy routine

Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy routine where Jerry fights his way through the band to interrupt Dean trying to sing a love song.  At that show I paid two front-row lady friends to throw lace panties at Pete, a la Tom Jones, during one of his romantic ballads.  Fortunately, some photos remain of us performing on stage.

Seeing the homage being paid to Dave Brubeck triggered many memories of my minor-league performance days.  The road to success as a performance artist, I have to admit, is much more difficult than writing literature.  As writers, we can put our pens down and take a break for days, or even months.  When you are a professional musician, you can only “take five.”

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