November 25, 2020
TITLE: “Loss, Laughter, Gratitude”
These days, the first line of most e-mails, text messages, and phone calls is, “I hope you’re safe and well”.
So, though it may not be original, let me start this by saying the same thing… and adding two important words to make it, “you and yours are safe and well”.
That’s from the heart.
First, about my book.
I just turned 84, so other than my daily trip down the driveway to get the mail or wearing out my treadmill, I’ve been pretty much in my man cave determined to put the finishing touches on it and send it off to an editor/publisher. Well, thanks to being forced to stay home, I did just that and after 3 years of work, I sent it to the first potential publisher last night.
Once I clicked on “Send”, Simone and I opened some Champagne to celebrate.
Many of you have been so supportive and encouraging as I worked on the book and I am deeply grateful.
Now, I sit and wait for their feedback.
Realistically, it’s going to be out next Spring or early Summer.
So, please don’t send us any more checks right now. Believe me, I’ll let you know when it’s available and be happy to inscribe your copy.
Unfortunately, along with my elation over launching the book, comes sadness at the passing of two more of my friends and colleagues… Tom Kennedy and Alex Trebek.
I produced “Name That Tune” for its full 5 year run on NBC.
Our female vocalist was Kathie Lee (Johnson) Gifford, and her male counterpart was Steve March (Torme’) son of Mel Torme’.
And, at the top of our talented pyramid was the Host Tom Kennedy.
I can’t say we were close friends, but we shared more than one long, laugh-filled lunch at Musso-Frank’s or the Smoke House across from Warner Brothers studio in Toluca Lake.
Every Christmas brought me a joyfully extravagant gift from Tom and his wife… including an exquisite, cut-crystal wine decanter that I still use every night.
When the red light went on, Tom was completely unflappable. Remember, by our third season, our Grand Prize was $100,000.00. A game show M.C. has to be a “likeable traffic cop” who keeps things moving along, but never lets an almost correct answer slip by.
We had very strict rules about what kind of answer would be acceptable.
I would stand just off camera listening intensely to each syllable of every answer. If it was a close call, I’d either flash Tom a thumbs up or thumbs down. A contestant once slapped the buzzer and blurted out his vaguely pornographic guess, “Her vibration is really good!” for the name of the Beach Boys hit. Tom shot me a quick look and, of course, I gave it a thumbs down while the audience roared with laughter.
Tom was always the picture of finesse when he explained “the judge’s decision” to some heartbroken player.
On a judgment call—with $100,00.00 at stake—the buck stopped with me and we had the system down pat… we thought.
The true test of a friendship is how much you can get away with kidding each other about some memorable past misstep.
Tom and I never remembered a particular incident in the same way, and jokingly jabbed each other about it from time to time.
We were nearing the final round of the game to determine which contestant would enter the soundproof booth to play for a hundred grand.
The song began and the male contestant, a real up-beat jocular guy from the Bronx, punched the buzzer and yelled, “He’s Not Heavy—He’s Your Brother!”
Tom looked over and I gave him a thumbs down.
He turned to the shocked guy, said “No!”, then spun around and asked the woman player for her guess.
High suspense… the audience held its breath.
She smiled smugly and snapped, “He’s Not Heavy He’s My Brother!”.
Here’s where Tom and I don’t share the same recollection. He says I flashed him a thumbs up. I insist I never would have because her answer was incorrect. It isn’t “He’s NOT heavy”, which misses the deliberate vernacular of the title “He AIN’T Heavy”.
In later years at lunch he would crack, “I guess you were just reaching up to pick your nose.”
Nonetheless, Tom declared her a winner, the band struck up and the audience went crazy.
As producer, I was responsible for keeping everything on the up and up…the FCC monitors game shows very closely.
But I got a break. The powers that be, decided her answer was “essentially correct with one grammatical change that was incidental.”
It was one of the few corporate decisions I ever agreed with and I did not have to go to Leavenworth.
In later years, Tom and his wife Betty moved to a condo on the Bay in Ventura.
For a while, I hosted a Sunday afternoon talk/music radio show at a popular restaurant that sat right over the water with a view of the picturesque Ventura harbor.
He dropped by the show one Sunday and on the air, I asked him about how far he lived from the restaurant.
Tom liked golf and would occasionally express himself in golfing terms.
He thought for a moment then said, “Hmm—from here, I’d say about a nine iron.”
He was a genuinely nice guy… a consummate professional—no ego trips ever—a true gentleman and I think of him every time I pour a glass of wine.
Thumbs up my friend. RIP
Answer: “He was one of the most esteemed, affable, and astute personalities to ever grace the airwaves.”
Question: “Who was Alex Trebek?”
My first project at NBC in 1973 was developing a game show for a new young TV host from Canada named Alex Trebek.
When I first met him, he was sporting a riverboat gambler’s mustache and an Afro.
I remember how heated the discussion became between some of us in programing about whether or not he should shave off his mustache. It seems some idiot in the research department insisted that his polling indicated the game show audience—which consisted mostly of women at the time—would never relate to or trust a host with a mustache.
Fortunately, our side prevailed and Alex kept his upper lip adornment.
(Ironically, later in his career he would shave it off on his own.)
Unfortunately, Alex’s first show “Wizard of Odds” (co-produced by sitcom star-to-be Alan Thicke) lasted just a little less than a year.
Nonetheless, the polished, urbane host projected a quiet confidence and erudition that we knew would be an enormous asset to the right show.
Then along came Merv Griffin (boy do I have some funny stories about him!) with “Jeopardy”, an ingenious show for geniuses.
You all know the rest of the story.
Over the years, I worked with other game show hosts like Peter Marshall, Jim McKrell, Bob Barker, and Chuck Woolery.
Some projected humor or warmth and others a high energy level that vitalizes a game show.
On “Jeopardy” Alex personified intelligence and elegance.
About two years ago, I ran into him at a Costco gas station. He was filling up his SUV for the drive north to his beloved lake hideaway.
We shook hands - he was not the hugging type - and laughed about our ill-fated collaboration almost fifty years earlier. We hadn’t crossed paths for a long time and yet our easy, congenial conversation reminded me of what an unaffected and authentic person he was. It would be the last time I saw him.
I’ve always said that my favorite kind of television show is one that makes you feel more intelligent after watching it.
“Jeopardy” not only does that, but with Alex at the helm, it also made you feel civilized - maybe even cultured - when you made a correct guess.
His character and courage in the face of his diagnosis became an inspiration to all of us who admired him.
Answer: “He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed by millions.”
Question: “Who was Alex Trebek?”
To wind this up, let me try to bring you a few smiles… maybe even some chuckles for Thanksgiving.
As some of you know, I’m a preacher’s kid from West Hollywood.
A Pastor’s home is a traditional “port in the storm” for all kinds of people who are down on their luck… particularly at this time of year.
No Thanksgiving dinner at our house was ever just for our family of four. Our “guest” might be a runaway teenager, an abused wife, a homesick serviceman or a drunk we dragged out of the oleander bushes where he had passed out.
Mom fed all of us mountains of the best home-cooked food in the world and no wayfarers ever left the parsonage as forlorn as when they came.
One Thanksgiving when I was 15, I screwed up and… well, here’s what happened.
This year the turkey is almost 20 lbs. and sits in a huge pot at the far end of the kitchen table. Mom puts in the stuffing and veggies, bastes it, and places it in the oven.
After about 20 minutes, she removes it and carefully places it back on her end of the table to baste it still more.
That’s when the overhead light goes out.
No problem. There’s her cocky younger son ready to come to the rescue.
I race to the cupboard, grab a fresh light bulb and place a chair next to the opposite end of the table from the turkey - which by now is simmering in a cauldron of succulent juices.
Now, with a screw-up worthy up Inspector Clouseau, I get up on the chair and then step up on my end of the table to replace the bulb.
Of course, this triggers what might be called the “teeter-totter” effect and the turkey’s end of the table springs up and the 20 lb. bird – with all the trimmings – slides slowly down the table and lands in my lap just as my butt hits the ground.
I am a mortified mess.
Mom is not thrilled.
Dad and my brother Stanton come running when they hear the crash.
And there I am covered with dressing and juice, with a turkey nestled on top of my groin.
We’re all having a good laugh as they help me get up and clean off before they set about saving Mom’s turkey.
It’s then I realize that I’ve been doubly stupid.
I neglected to let go of the light bulb when I hit the ground and my right hand is now clutching a mass of glass shards.
But all’s well that ends well.
Ultimately, we’re able to rescue the turkey and trimmings and feast royally as usual.
That is, once Dad brings me back from the emergency hospital.
Maybe I got a break because my intentions were good.
I needed only 4 stitches at the base of my right thumb, but the doctor said I missed severing a tendon by a milliliter—which would have been very serious because I would have had to eat a drumstick with my left hand for the rest of my life which—believe me—wasn’t easy that afternoon.
I still have the scar which helps keep me humble. And my jeans never stopped smelling of turkey grease no matter how many times Mom washed them.
Whatever… I was lucky, not only to survive my clumsiness, but to grow up in a family where we could laugh it off and share our Holiday dinner with others who weren’t as fortunate.
This Thanksgiving will be unlike any we’ve ever known, and it’ll be difficult without the company of those we love.
I’ll try not to get “preachy” about this, but let me make a friendly suggestion.
I’ve been told by experts that one of the most effective ways to fight off tedium, the blahs, the blues, and even depression, is to practice… GRATITUDE.
As corny as it may sound, make a real effort this year to count your blessings like family and friends—even if they’re not next to you at the table. After all, it is called THANKS giving.
As for me, in addition to all the other good things I’ve had come my way over my eight decades, I now have friends like all of you I can keep in touch with to share a few memories and a laugh or two.
I promise to do my small part to send you some fun tales, tributes, and hopefully some hilarity in the days ahead.
Here come the Holidays.
Let’s all make an effort to be grateful and let’s keep in touch.
Until next time, take good care of yourself and each other.
And try to keep the turkey on the table.
All the best,