“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
—Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), Godfather 3
January 23, 2019
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining… but a few days after presenting our “final” Four Preps show at the Candlelight Pavilion here in Claremont, wouldn’t you know the phone rings with a highly seductive offer and we’ll soon be off to Florida to concertize for the snowbirds down there at a private, high-end retirement resort.
So-o-o, it looks like the Preps will still be performing now and then for certain select situations on a sort of individually “customized” basis.
That’s just fine with me since I will now have the luxury to pick and choose dates that sound appealing and don’t require hard ticket sales to fill a 5,000 seat auditorium.
Who needs that pressure?!
I promise I’ll keep all of you posted on details of upcoming shows.
In the meantime, I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of beloved, 97-year-old Broadway legend Carol Channing, with whom I had the pleasure of touring… and on whom I developed a major crush as a young man.
Hey c’mon… I was still in my early twenties at the time and this dynamo of a woman was an irresistible flirt… funny, flighty and warm… with a throaty laugh, a husky voice (the only woman baritone I’ve ever known), a full, luscious mouth, huge, hypnotic eyes and a sensational pair of legs.
One critic wrote that Carol exuded “gawky glamour and loopy allure” and I adored her from the moment we met.
Here’s an excerpt from the book about how it all happened.
(The following is a literal excerpt from the upcoming book “ICONS, IDOLS and IDIOTS” due for publication in early 2019. All rights reserved.)
CHAPTER EIGHT—“Mentored by a Master”
It’s the early sixties.
With a mounting number of recent successes, I’m beginning to feel in my youthful arrogance, that I know pretty much all there is to know about performing.
And then along comes an opportunity to work with a gentleman who would become one of the most extraordinary mentors I will ever learn from, and a venerable Broadway legend. And I soon discover there is so much more I need to know.
One day early in 1961, our manager Mel drops by the rehearsal studio where the Preps are busily preparing for the full slate of concert bookings ahead.
We have both a Top Ten album and single on the charts and the year ahead will be crazy busy.
Mel casually informs us that Thursday afternoon at 2:00, he’d like us to drop by 720 North Maple Drive in the heart of Beverly Hills plushest neighborhood.
When I press him for details, his response floors me.
“George Burns would like to meet you boys.”
He has our attention.
We all know that Burns’ beloved wife Gracie Allen has retired because of poor health and since then, he’s been searching far and wide for a new comedy partner.
Now, Mel informs us, Burns is mounting an Act with fabled Broadway star Carol Channing and adds they have signed for “big bucks,” to open with a giant splash in Vegas, then move on to Lake Tahoe and finally the World’s Fair in Seattle.
And, he confides with a calculating smile, “…they’re looking for an Act to round out the bill… preferably someone young.”
Burns has seen us on the Sullivan show and asked to “meet the boys” to see if we might be what he and Ms. C. are looking for.
Now right away that tells me something about George Burns. Trust me, not many headliners of his stature would worry enough about their supporting Act to invite them over for a chat in his living room.
I am about to learn that his intense love for what he does always translates into worrying about every little detail and polishing it all as well as humanly possible.
Again, I will witness how hard the old master performers prepare so you’ll never see them sweat.
Think about it. Crosby, Burns, Astaire, Hope, Sinatra always make it look so easy.
I was naively convinced they were walking through their careers just doing what comes naturally. Certainly not “working”. Lucky schmucks – getting rich for doing nothing but being themselves.
But then I learn… Crosby shows up early to rehearse!
And Carol Channing is a highly disciplined creature of the theater where 8 demanding shows a week are routine.
And old pros like George Burns really care.
Oh man, how he cares. And he works very hard to make it look like a leisurely walk in the park.
In the fateful and frenetic months ahead, I will learn just how hard.
On Thursday, When I pull up typically early, in front of the Burns’ gracious home, I recognize it immediately.
On my high school job driving for Irma May Florist in Beverly Hills, I’d often deliver here with roses from George for Gracie’s birthday or an elaborate centerpiece for some special occasion.
Only this time, I’m not going around the back to the service entrance with a clipboard and an arm full of nasturtiums.
I’m walking in through the front door with my heart in my throat and my palms so sweaty I hope Burns won’t notice when we shake hands.
I ring the bell, the massive door swings open and an Asian houseboy ushers me inside and down the hall to the spacious sunken living room.
I’m about to meet George Burns.
As he crosses the room to welcome me I hungrily take it all in (for the book I’ll write someday).
Burns is nattily dressed–razor-sharp trousers, crisp blazer with a pocket silk.
He looks exactly as he should, right down to the cigar and that old hoofer jauntiness in his step.
And that voice! No mistaking who’s on the other end of that warm, raspy, oh-so-familiar sound that reminds me of honey with a few toast crumbs thrown in.
Then suddenly, I spot the inimitable Carol Channing across the room.
Oh my God… how could you not spot her?!
She’s tall… and very blonde… and captivating just to look at!
A real, honest to God, bigger than life Broadway STAR!
She waves and heads directly towards me beaming broadly. She shakes my hand and gives it a little lingering squeeze before letting go.
As we chat, she stands almost nose to nose, and fixes me with an unblinking, wide-eyed stare that I’m certain is scorching the wall behind me with a laser beam.
Only later do I learn it’s to compensate for acute vision problems which would not have made her a great brain surgeon.
I’m immediately struck with how down to earth and accessible she is.
And she simply vibrates with buoyant energy.
She’s won my heart in the first five minutes and performing with this one of a kind lady will provide me with some of my most memorable experiences… all recounted in the book.
Later, when I finally watch her in rehearsal, it’s obvious she is an eccentric, brilliant and hardworking lady, gifted with masterful comedy timing and devilishly clever comedic instincts.
Carol’s husband and Manager at the time, Charles Lowe, is there at the audition, as well as a few of our agents from MCA (funny, the more hits we get, the more agents show up).
And of course, there’s our manager Mel, the sage of Show biz, sitting on the couch puffing on his ever-present pipe.
Mel–an old-school Hollywood heavyweight–lives just a few blocks away and has known George forever.
We all engage in chit chat for a few minutes, then our musical director Lincoln moves to the grand piano and we audition with our 20-minute stage program, including our comic group impressions.
Everybody loves what we show them and Burns even chuckles at the comedy number we end with.
When we finish our presentation, Carol applauds and exclaims “Oh my!”
George, on the other hand, says nothing. He simply gets up, walks over and joins us as his pianist, Murray Granger, replaces Lincoln at the keyboard.
George winks at me playfully, takes a puff on his cigar and without uttering a word, slides crooningly into one of his vintage vaudeville ditties.
It’s immediately and joyfully obvious that George loves to sing.
I mean really loves to sing.
After all, his first gig in show biz was as a five-year-old member of Vaudeville’s “Pee Wee Quartet.”
George jokes that “I’d rather sing than eat. Unfortunately, my friends would rather listen to me eat!”
Making up spontaneous “head harmony” is second nature to us by now and we immediately pick up on what he’s doing and ease smoothly into a rich, four-part blend behind him.
Our robust young voices underscore his whimsical crooning and it sounds like we’ve been blending with him forever.
The old veteran sings on, having a wonderful time.
So are we… but what’s the verdict?!
George finishes the song, beams broadly (and no one could beam like George) then breaks up with delight, turns and shakes hands with each of us.
“Welcome aboard fellas!”
Carol comes over and there are happy hugs all around.
The last item on our wish list – playing a major showroom in Vegas is about to come true.
And my wild and frequently weird adventures are about to go into overdrive.
Here comes Vegas–“Sin City”–where this Preacher’s kid will encounter low lives and high rollers… I will watch a world famous Vegas headliner gamble away his entire six-figure salary one boozy night at the Baccarat table… and I’ll ward off the persistent advances of a flirtatious gay chorus boy… mingle backstage with long-limbed, sweet-smelling semi-nude showgirls in mesh stockings, five inch high heels and little else… accidentally piss off one of the garrulous pit bosses in his shiny black suit who’d just as soon break my kneecaps as look at me… and get an enormous favor that will change my life from Dani, a six-foot-tall French beauty from the chorus line who will… never mind. It’s all in the book which goes on to detail all my rich adventures with those two show biz legends over the next year.
And I refer to that life-changing tour in the FORWARD on the book’s opening page.
If you promise to still buy the book, I’ll let you read that opening page right now...
It’s June of 1962.
I’m standing backstage at the majestic Orpheum theater in downtown Seattle, listening to the excited buzz of the sold-out audience.
The Four Preps are about to perform the final show of a historic tour with George Burns and Broadway legend Carol Channing that began with a smash opening in Las Vegas and is now about to conclude a standing room only week at the spectacular Seattle World’s fair.
Last night we were feted with a magnificent VIP dinner atop the space needle, capping off a week in which our audience has included Bobby Kennedy and his family, Jonas Salk, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, John Wayne, Lyndon Johnson, Carol Burnett, Fred Astaire, Walt Disney, Mitzi Gaynor… even a dog named Lassie.
Burns steps to the mic and the crowd hushes.
“And now, here are four young men I know you’re going to love. They steal the show every night, but I don’t mind ‘cause now and then they let me sing with ‘em.
You’ve seen ‘em on all the top TV shows… Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark, and in their big hit movie “Gidget.”
And you’ve heard their wonderful hit records all over the radio.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the musical stars of our show…”
I stand euphorically listening and marvel at how in the hell I got here, and how serendipitous, ironic and just damn lucky my journey has been.
CHAPTER ONE—“I’m Hooked”
The year is 1940.
I’m about to sing my first solo in front of an audience.
I am 4 years old.
(Next 200 pages coming soon. I promise.)
been damn lucky to work with greats like Carol Channing.
Did I say “work?”
Not really work… not with that effervescent platinum blonde around.
And now, it’s “Goodbye Dolly.”
I cherish my memories of you and I’m so glad the parade didn’t pass you by.
All for now.
Be good to yourself and each other and KEEP IN TOUCH.