David Bowie calling


The times they are a-telling, and the changing isn’t free

I’ve told a few celebrity encounter stories on this site, so let me say right up front that I don’t know for certain that I spoke to David Bowie on the phone. But I think I might have.

It was the summer of 1984 and I was working in the Melnitz Hall offices on campus of the UCLA Film, Television, and Radio Archives. I had been a work study student in the radio archives before taking the full-time job, and so knew the collection pretty well. When a call came in for the radio archivist and he wasn’t there, the woman at the front desk routed it to me.

On the phone was a man with a very familiar-sounding British accent, asking me about the radio collection. He was particularly interested in radio dramas, so I gave him a partial list of our holdings and invited him to come in and peruse the rest. He was being strangely evasive but continued to keep asking about our sci-fi and BBC radio holdings. Finally, I just broke down and asked him his name.

“This is David Bowie,” he said, without any trace of prevarication.

Oh, I get it, I thought to myself. This was one of my actor friends playing a trick on me, knowing my fondness for the Thin White Duke. So I decided to play along. “Can I call you David?”, I asked. “If you like”, he replied.

I told him about some of our sci-fi and action-adventure holdings, such as Dimension X and Suspense. He also asked about comedy shows and seemed particularly interested in Jack Benny (which struck me as odd).

The entire time I was talking to “David”, I was pretty sure that I must have been actually talking to someone else who was just doing a killer David Bowie impersonation. I invited him again to actually come into the archives in order to browse our collection in person and to listen to shows in which he might be interested.

He took a long and thoughtful pause, and then replied “No, I better not. I’m just here for a little while to see my son. But it’s a secret, you see. The blokes at the Olympics asked me to perform at the opening ceremonies and I told them I couldn’t be in town. Be a good fellow and don’t tell anyone that you spoke with me.”

At that point, I will admit, I started becoming a believer. The 1984 L.A. Olympics were coming up and that seemed a curiously specific detail. He asked me if I had any children, and he spoke a bit about his son and how much he missed him following his divorce from “Zowie’s mum”. We talked for probably a good ten to fifteen minutes. Whoever this man was on the phone, be he David Bowie or some impersonator, seemed genuinely lonely and kind. At the end, he promised to call back in a few months once he had more time on his hands.

I never heard from him again, and nobody ever confessed to me the elaborate practical joke. Now, years later, I still don’t know for certain that I spoke with the actual David Bowie, but I think it’s okay to finally tell this story.


A long time ago, in a land far, far away…

In the summer of 1977, I went back east to visit my dad. My sister and I were going to join him on a trip to the British Isles. I had heard of this film Star Wars, and when we passed through Manhattan, we saw people lined up for blocks to get into the theater. This being New York, the lines spilled out into the streets and cars were stuck in the ensuing traffic jams. Dad promised we’d see the film when we got back and, we hoped, the lines were a little shorter.

That trip was memorable for many reasons, but the day that sticks out now was this: we were staying in a small town in the north of Ireland. In the town square was a movie theater, and on the marquee it said Star Wars. Having just seen lines around the block in New York City just a few days before, we couldn’t quite believe that the same film was showing at this closed theater in this quiet little Irish town. We looked around the box office and knocked on the doors, but no one was there. A sign said that the theater would open at 5:00 PM, so we resolved to come back. Which we did, shortly before 5:00 PM, to avoid any lines. There were no lines.

The box office opened sometime afterward, and the theater manager (also the guy who sold tickets) assured us that yes, this was the same Star Wars. We asked him when the film would start and he told us in about an hour, so we bought our three tickets and, when it became clear there would be no line, we wandered around the town for a bit, making sure to get there before 6:00 so we could still get good seats.

That turned out not to be a problem as we three Americans were the first people in the theater. We sat and waited. And waited. A few more people came in and took their seats, chatting and eating popcorn. About 6:30, Dad went to find the manager to ask when the movie would start. He came back and reported that the manager told him the movie would start when the people got there. Every few minutes, that fellow would pop his head in, count how many seats were taken, then disappear again. Finally, once the theater was about half-way full — it was well after 7:00 now — the lights dimmed, the projector fired up, and we watched a short comedy about a fat man trying to get into a small boat. When that was done, the lights came back on, a few more people wandered in, and after a good twenty minutes or so the lights dimmed again and the feature began.

Many people have fond memories of their first time seeing Star Wars on the big screen: the whimsical “A long time ago…”, the now iconic Star Wars logo, the opening crawl and that stirring John Williams score. My fondest memory is turning to see my dad all wide-eyed, like a little kid, staring at space ships, and sitting in a theater where the entertainment starts when the people got there.

Lohman and Barkley Paper Dolls

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1979, I became a fan of Lohman and Barkley, the KFI AM-640 radio comedy team that had been working together since the early 1960s.

From Wikipedia:

Audiences tuned in by the thousands to hear Lohman’s quick wit and vast array of character voices play against Barkley’s straight man routine. Among Lohman’s characters were the obsequious con-man and alleged farm expert “Maynard Farmer,” whose toadying “That there’s the finest (whatever) that I’ve ever seen there, sir” won him numerous undeserved rewards; “Otis Elevator”, a good-natured handyman; “Judge Roy Bean,” a hanging judge, former big band leader and supposed ex-member of the Bee Gees; and human interest reporter “Ted J. Baloney” and his wife “W. Eva Schneider-Baloney”, the poetry lady who seemed never to have any poetry, who supposedly drove to the Wilshire Boulevard studio each morning on Ted’s tractor (and later, a fire engine with W. clinging precariously to the back) from their home in a tree house in Brawley, a real town in Imperial County, nearly two hundred miles (320 km) away. These characters and others were also regular occurrences in a segment called “Light Of My Life,” a spoof of daytime soap operas.

In 1983, I wrote to the station and they sent me a set of Lohman and Barkley paper dolls. I don’t know how popular these may have been, but I have yet to find any other images on the web.

Dressing Suitably for the Emmys

Last night’s Emmy Awards reminded me of a story about my dad. I last recounted this story in June when my brother, sisters, niece and nephew sailed out into the San Francisco Bay to dispose of Dad’s ashes. We all told a story about him, and this is the one I shared.

In 1983, I arranged for my dad and his wife Mary Lynn to get tickets to that year’s Emmy Awards show. It was a fun chance to hang out with well-dressed Hollywood stars, even though we were in the nosebleed seats. I get dressed up in my tuxedo (I still owned one then) and Mary Lynn put on a nice gown, but my dad showed up in a dark blue business suit.

I was a bit appalled. The invitation had clearly said “black tie” and he looked embarrassingly out of place in a sea of tuxedos and bow ties, but there was nothing to be done.

The lobby of the Pasadena Civic Center was very crowded and, since we weren’t VIPs, it took us awhile to even get in. Once we finally got inside, Dad excused himself to go to the men’s room. The rest of us found our seats and waited. And waited. It was getting very close to the start time and Dad still hadn’t made his way back to his seat. This was a live television show and I was concerned that if he didn’t return on time, he might get locked out. I was just about to go look for him when he showed up, looking a bit flustered.

“The strangest thing happened to me”, he said. “I was coming out of the restroom when someone grabbed me, said ‘There you are!’, and starting dragging me backstage. I didn’t know what was going on, but I eventually pulled myself free when I saw that he wasn’t taking me to my seat. The guy asked ‘Aren’t you part of the show?’, and I told him no and had to show him my ticket before he’d let me go.”

I should explain here that my dad was an incorrigible storyteller. I had shared many of his adventures and noticed that, in the retelling, certain elements had become, and I say this generously and with affection, exaggerated. I greeted his backstage tale with a healthy amount of skepticism, but let it go as the show finally started.

The 35th Primetime Emmy Awards are remembered mostly for the coarse language that came from the hosts, Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy. For viewers at home, a lot of it was bleeped out, but we got to hear everything in all of its original glory. Cheers and Hill Street Blues won a lot of awards. Judd Hirsch won for Taxi and gave a bittersweet acceptance speech since the show had recently been cancelled. We saw clips of Michael Jackson wowing the world from the Motown 25 special.

There is a time in every awards show where they explain how the votes are tabulated. It’s generally a low point, since it is difficult to make really exciting TV out of rules of accountancy. To spice things up that year, the president of the Academy came out and introduced the Price-Waterhouse dancers. As he explained how the votes were counted, out came a line of men in blue business suits, swinging suitcases and executing a well-choreographed dance.

I turned and looked at my dad, sitting next to me in his blue business suit, and he just responded with an arched eyebrow. I suddenly had a vision of him being pulled onstage with the dancers and stumbling his way through the number, all the while protesting that he needed to get back to his seat. He must have been thinking something similar, for we both burst out laughing.

I think we both received valuable lessons that day: Dad learned to pay more attention to the dress code, and I learned to not always be so skeptical of his wild stories.


Lauren Bacall by herself

Here we go again.

Humphrey Bogart was my gateway to classic Hollywood. I started out a fan of his tough-guy gangster films, then moved up to the classics. When Lauren Bacall was introduced in To Have and Have Not, I too fell in love with her. How could you not? Sultry, sexy, elegant, with that smoky voice and eyes you could get lost in, I totally understood why Bogie fell for her so hard.

In 1983, Lauren Bacall was performing onstage in L.A. in Woman of the Year. I got tickets to go with my dad and his wife on July 31st. I remember the date because it also happened to be my sister Shannon’s birthday. For her birthday present, I found a hardcover copy of Lauren Bacall By Myself and brought it with me.

A few days earlier, I had met a woman at a UCLA drama reunion event (I can picture her face but forget her name) who played Helga in the L.A. run. When I mentioned that I was going to the show and bringing the book, she offered to meet me and bring the book to Ms. Bacall.

So there I stood, like a stagedoor Johnnie, when “Helga” came out and found me. I handed her the book with a note inside, explaining that it was my sister’s birthday and asking Ms. Bacall if she would kindly sign it for Shannon. Helga disappeared for several minutes, then came back and beckoned me in.

And a moment later, I was standing in Lauren Bacall’s dressing room.

She was unbelievably gracious, especially considering that she had just spent two hours onstage singing and acting her heart out. She thought it was very sweet that I got this book for my sister. I confessed that, even though it was a present for someone else, I had also read it. She laughed at that, and thanked me. I stammered a few words about what a big fan I was of her and Bogie. I almost regretted it the moment I said that, for he had been gone 25 years at that point and she had since created a great career for herself, but she gave me another, very soft thank you, and I could still see a great deal of tenderness in her eyes.

Our meeting lasted only a minute. She signed the book to my sister, cupped me on the side of my face for just a second, and then I was whisked out of there. It all happened so quickly but it made an indelible impression. It is not everyday that you get to meet a living legend, but especially one so caring and classy.

Lauren Bacall was 89 years old when she passed away today, the last of her kind.

Lauren Bacall's signature

Robin in the hood

I have two Robin Williams stories.

The first was about 30 years ago in L.A. I went out one night with Richard Clark and another friend to a nightclub. It should be emphasized that this is not something we normally did, but we had heard about this hot place near Crescent Heights and decided to check it out. We stood in line for some time before we finally got in, and ended up at a table near the door. Here we were, three single guys in our twenties, in a swinging L.A. nightclub in the 80’s, and completely clueless about what we were supposed to do next. Then Robin Williams suddenly appeared.

He stood in the doorway with two very attractive young woman. They could have been actresses, dressed to the nines and very glittery. We were maybe twelve feet away, stunned into momentary silence. Robin Williams was looking around at the very crowded nightclub and seemed to be pondering whether or not to actually come in. The three of us looked at each other for just a split second, then we all stood up and started gesticulating madly “Come join us! Sit here!”.

I wish the rest of the story is that he and his entourage came to our table and that we all had a wild night, but it didn’t happen that way. We actually established eye contact for just a moment, but he waved us off and disappeared back out into the street. All these years later, I remember nothing else about the nightclub or even the rest of the evening, other than the fun time we could have had.

Later, we all learned what a difficult time that was in his life as he was trying to quit his addictions. His son Zac was born in 1983, but at the time we saw him in that nightclub, he was having at least one affair with a cocktail waitress who later sued him.

By 1990, I was living in New York and worked in a spectacular toy and comics store in Greenwich Village. In December of that year, Robin Williams came into the store with his family. It was now five or six years later and he looked like a very different person, more relaxed. Zak was then about 7, and Robin had a new wife and a toddler. They were shopping for unusual imported toys. I showed him several robots and, at one point, I made a joke and he laughed.

Let me repeat that. I made Robin Williams laugh.

That totally made my day. I thought for just a second to mention the whole nightclub incident from some years before, but how was he supposed to react: “Oh yeah, how’ve you been?”

Instead, I played it cool, sold him some toys, and everyone walked out happy.

It is strange to think that we now live in a world without Robin Williams.

Flirting With Disaster; or, When Sean Met Sally

Your Big Blue Host

(image courtesy April Muniz)

On May 14, 2014, I had the distinct privilege of hosting the Big Blue Door Jam, a night of story-telling with the theme “Flirting With Disaster”.

If you are in the Charlottesville area, you should definitely plan to attend more of these events, and take Joel Jones’ Telling True Stories classes. Joel is a fine teacher and you learn a great deal about one of the most intrinsic human experiences: telling stories.

As host, my job was to keep things moving, introduce the story tellers, remind the audience of other events, and to announce the evening award winner. While the ballots were being counted, I also had a few minutes to tell a story of my own.

You can listen to me tell it here, or read the text below. It’s one of my favorites.

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