October 2, 2019
Hip hip hooray!
How are ya?!
I get uneasy when too much time goes by without our being in touch.
I don’t want you to forget me or lose interest in the upcoming book which is nearing completion.
To whet your appetite a little more, I’m sending along a brief excerpt from “My Adventures with the ICONS, IDOLS, and IDIOTS of Hollywood.”
I hope you enjoy it.
“Ernie Ford and the Farmer’s Wife”
About this time the Preps begin a series of now-and-then fair dates with Tennessee Ernie Ford that will stretch on over the next few years.
By the late fifties, our old pea pickin’ friend and devoted fan has become one of America’s most admired and recognizable stars.
His first national hit was “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (king of the wild frontier)” - and his follow up release “Sixteen Tons”, remains at number 1 for eight weeks.
He tops that off with a smash guest shot on “I Love Lucy” playing her hayseed hillbilly “cousin Ernie” and the entire nation takes him to its heart.
Since then he’s become known as “America’s favorite Hymn Singer” and his sacred albums on Capitol sell in the gazillions.
To me as a preacher’s kid, Ernie’s rendition of hymns I’ve grown up singing sounds authentic and delivered with great respect and sincerity.
But don’t get me wrong. He’s not pious or a prude, and when he misses an easy putt on the links, he can cuss a blue streak. But his basic decency shines through in everything he does.
Once his daytime show - on which we made our TV debut- gains in popularity, NBC awards him a new contract and gives him his own prime time variety show.
And now, that show, fittingly sponsored by Ford, dominates the Nielsens.
ERNEST JENNINGS FORD has become middle America’s most endearing and beloved personality.
And he deserves it.
He’s one hell of a nice guy who, since he gave the Preps that first T.V. exposure, has become a constant champion of the group.
Ernie is gifted with an understated, razor-sharp, country-tinged wit that he delivers with an “aw shucks”, Will Rogers drawl.
When he introduces us at each show, he kiddingly refers to 6’4” Ed as having “legs clear up to his armpits” and then warns the audience, “ladies, you might wanna loosen your girdles and you men hold on the best you can ‘cause these boys kick up a whole lot of sand!”
Then, later in the show, he turns around and sings “Ol’ Man River” and that rich, opera-trained bass/baritone raises goosebumps and makes you believe every word.
Ernie is the quintessential Southern gentleman and has grown even more ruggedly handsome since those early days on Vine Street.
Unlike some lucky idiots who hit it big and turn into egomaniacs, his newfound success has not diminished his humility or humanity one bit
He genuinely likes his fans. You can sense it when he meets them.
They’re his kind of people…salt of the earth like the folks he grew up with in tiny Bristol, Tennessee.
And as the years pass, his bond with the Preps has grown and deepened, and Ernie has become my adoptive “uncle” and another Idol of mine.
Every year, for 5 straight summers in the late ’50s, the Preps perform with Ernie in at least one state fair extravaganza somewhere in the heartland.
The Michigan State Fair, Alabama State fair, Wisconsin State Fair, South Carolina Exposition and Indiana State Fair.
On one of these trips, I discover that when that elusive quality called “charisma”, is bestowed on a nice guy like Ernie Ford, it can light up the lives of some everyday folks.
Case in point.
Since Ernie’s top-rated television show is sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, some hotshot at their ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, decides that when Ernie and his entourage from Hollywood land at the local airport, it would be a great promotional stunt to have him and his support personnel driven to our lodging at the fairgrounds, via the scenic back roads in a motorcade of 10 top-of-the-line, elaborately-painted, spanking new Ford sedans in every two-tone color combination in the new Ford catalog.
(More about J. Walter later when we join forces to turn “26 Miles” into a Ford commercial!)
When the colorful, circus-like fleet arrives en masse to pick us up for the drive to the fairgrounds, the “Barnum and Bailey” and “Rose parade” wisecracks fly thick and fast among us super cool, blaze’ show biz types.
How cornball can you get?!
But I have to admit, ten gleaming sedans, fresh off the assembly line, are eye-catching as hell. Hmm… maybe the ad agency guy knows what he’s doing.
Luggage is loaded. The formation forms and the long, gaudy column slowly moves out of the airport and into the bucolic countryside.
The Preps’ car is fourth in the colorful procession and more than one farmer stops his tractor and stares in wonder as we snake our way down winding roads through towering cornfields and, now and then, past a modest homestead with a barn, a tractor and often, a car-tire swinging from a tree in the front yard.
We’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere, when the cars ahead of us start to pull over and stop on the shoulder.
We all do the same as Glen makes a bad joke about Ernie needing to pee, and I make it worse by adding, “well, he is a pee picker!”
Everyone groans at the lame line and clambers out to see what’s happening up front.
It’s then I spot two people I’ll never forget.
Very few things, in my six decades in show business, will ever be quite as fascinating—and sometimes moving—as witnessing the stunned euphoria that overwhelms a simple, down-to-earth person when meeting a real, live celebrity.
Particularly, if that encounter is totally unexpected.
Ernie’s lead car has stopped at a tiny roadside produce stand tended by a wrinkled, weathered farmer and his grim-faced, work-weary wife.
I watch Ernie get out and approach the stand as the couple stares in wonder at the sudden invasion of a convoy of gleaming new, carnival-colored sedans.
Ernie strolls up, smiles a pleasant “howdy” and proceeds to load up the arms of his driver and assistant with fresh corn.
The craggy farmer and his stolid missus - who is all business - set about serving a bunch of us who have piled out and suddenly descended on the booth.
In addition to the fresh corn there’s squash, raspberries, and blackberries, all picked that morning and picture-perfect.
This is where even more corn enters the picture (metaphorical pun intended) and I get to be part of a memorable afternoon.
After a few hectic minutes, it hits the farmer.
I see him stop selling, turn and give Ernie a long, quizzical look.
He squints in disbelief then looks away, not wanting to be caught staring.
After a moment, he turns his back, pulls out a handkerchief and cleans his glasses.
He puts them on and turns back around.
That’s when he and Ernie make eye contact.
Ernie’s smile widens as he steps over, extends his hand and introduces himself… as “Ernie”.
The stunned farmer stammers an awkward welcome, then thrusts out his massive, calloused paw and pumps Ernie’s hand vigorously.
Ernie chuckles, obviously enjoying the moment.
After a few faltering words, the rattled farmer excuses himself and rushes over to his wife who’s working the other end of the booth.
I stand watching and imagining the conversation with his no-nonsense missus.
“Ida May. Good Lord. It’s him!”
“Tennessee Ford uh – Ernie Tennessee… it’s him!”
“Harvey – you fool! What on earth would he be doin’ out here?! “
“They’re drivin’ over to the fairgrounds. C’mon meet him.”
“Ida May… you’ll see, he looks just like he does on the T.V. I tell ya, it’s Tennessee Ernie Ford!”
She looks over towards Ernie who gives her a friendly wave and realizes it’s true.
“Oh… my… Lord. Go fetch the kids…”
She approaches Ernie and shyly extends her well-worn hand. “Mister Ford …”
Country gentleman to the core, Ernie wraps her tiny hand in both of his, then draws her nearer for an affectionate hug.
Suddenly, this tough, gritty little woman, who’s always dealt with whatever shocks her hardscrabble life throws at her without flinching, is trembling.
And at a complete loss for words.
Ernie asks her name, and her eyes well up as she softly responds.
Ernie congratulates her on the fine quality of the produce and proceeds to make small talk with her… no “small talk” isn’t fair to Ernie. He really wants to know all about this overwhelmed little lady.
A world-famous star has landed in her front yard, and he’s turning out to be a right nice fella.
Then it gets even schmaltzier.
All our cars have emptied now, and we’re mobbing the awestruck couple’s tiny stand.
At first, their three freckled, gap-toothed kids, gather shyly at the edge of the fast-growing crowd, staring in wonder.
Of course, Ernie won’t hear of that and beckons them over.
They approach timidly.
Ernie towers over them, but instinctively crouches down to look each of them in the eye as, one by one, they step forward, shake his hand and politely tell him their name.
By now, the stand is surrounded by…let’s see…10 sedans… 3 or 4 people in each.
I knew I should have listened in math class.
Anyhow, all kinds of people from the motorcade have materialized and are buying out every scrap of produce.
All the while chatting and laughing with each other and bantering with the three, suddenly talkative farm kids and their dazed parents.
Out of the blue, here’s a bunch of sophisticated, big city, show biz folks, and a rustic, rural family – total strangers from far different worlds – spontaneously having a merry old time in the middle of nowhere.
Then the inevitable family camera comes out and the couple and their sprigs get some shots with Ernie.
Ida May still doesn’t smile, but at least she manages not to frown. You can bet that picture will soon hang on their living room wall next to Jesus, Hank Williams, and Dwight Eisenhower.
The clamor of robust cordiality is everywhere and soon the sounds of animated chatter and lively laughter ring out across the plowed fields.
Ernie has now happily melded into the crowd and become just another one of the folks milling around having a good time.
The couple’s kids are soon working the crowd… chatting up anyone who’ll listen.
Ever watch a blasé’, “seen-it-all” musician from L.A. in aviator sunglasses and a Dodger’s cap chatting away with a farm kid who’s awestruck talking to a real live guitar player?
It’s good stuff… and no one’s in a hurry to leave.
By now, grim-faced Ida May has softened a bit more under Ernie’s charm assault and has, at least, stopped looking quite so grim.
Finally, the tour manager points to his watch and mimes, “we gotta get going”.
Bashful, heartfelt hugs and handshakes break out all over.
As we say our goodbyes, Ernie presents the family with a copy of his classic Gospel L.P. dated and personally inscribed to the family.
The farmer accepts it, and I swear I see him fight back a lump in his throat.
His wife whispers a timid “thank you”, then quietly draws her offspring around her.
Ernie bids each of them goodbye by name and disappears into the car.
As we head back to our vehicles, the tableau behind us is pure Norman Rockwell.
Huddled together and waving is a modest, workaday family that has just experienced an unexpected brush with celebrity.
We all turn back and wave one more time as we straggle back up the road to our vehicles, loaded down with produce and reflecting happily on what we’ve just been part of.
Car doors slam up and down the line and engines roar into life.
As we pull away, I look back and see the wife. She stands waving happily now… and smiling.
Something that doesn’t always come easy to her.
And all because a kind and affable show business icon dropped by for some corn.
Touring with big-name celebrities will put me in the middle of countless such encounters.
Say what you will about stars and their egos, there are a lot of the really big ones I’ve seen brighten the day of some lucky “civilian” during an unexpected encounter.
Like a female clerk at an airport rental car counter who looks up from her paperwork and suddenly realizes she’s face to face with a smiling Johnny Mathis.
Or a flustered waitress who finds herself taking Ricky Nelson’s order.
Or an excited hotel bellman fumbling with the key as he shows Glen Campbell to his suite.
Or a simple farm family at a remote produce stand, not really in the middle of nowhere… rather in the middle of America’s heartland that has gathered a memory they will celebrate forever.
As our garish cavalcade moves down the country road, I realize I will not forget this day.
And, that night at the fairgrounds, the corn on the cob is particularly delicious.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
That’s all for now. I’m sending you all good wishes for a happy and fulfilling Fall.
Until next time, take good care of yourself and each other.