In a working career now approaching four decades, I am surprised at the number of celebrities I have met.
My first career in television news afforded me many opportunities to meet famous people. Whether they were politicians seeking election, actors promoting a project, or heroes who accomplished something truly special, I have taken many memories from each encounter.
The first real celebrity I met was taxpayer advocate Howard Jarvis of California. Fresh from his victory in getting Proposition Thirteen approved in California and thus changing the way real property has been taxed in the state, he was in Binghamton, New York to support a campaign to make it easier for voters to put propositions on the ballot. I interviewed him for the television station where I was a general assignment reporter.
I also recall the movie Airplane had just come out and Jarvis’ cameo in that picture, where he sits in the back of a taxi cab throughout the movie, was clearly in the back of my mind. Unfortunately, I did not ask him about that appearance. I’m sure he would have given me a much more memorable response than he did on the subject of voter referendum.
I also met then candidate George H.W. Bush (or Bush 41) while at that first reporting job in Binghamton. He didn’t need the H. W. middle initials back in 1980 when he was trying to wrestle the Republican Presidential nomination from front-runner Ronald Reagan. Those initials were added once his son George W. became active in national politics.
I met Bush 41 again after leaving the field of journalism. About fifteen years later, the now former President spoke at the State University of New York College at Geneseo.
My wife and I met him at a reception following the speech. She asked him about raising children and his answer politely deflected anything specific.
A few years after that encounter, then U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton visited Livingston County, New York as part of an effort to visit every one of the state’s sixty-five counties. I remember asking her whether she had any dealings with wisdom teeth as my daughter was having dental surgery that week.
She looked straight at me and said Chelsea had her wisdom teeth removed, and that my wife and I should make sure my daughter had plenty of videos and lots of love to take her mind off the pain. There’s a picture of Mrs. Clinton standing next to me at the Yard of Ale restaurant in Piffard, New York.
While working in Huntsville, Alabama as a television reporter, I was assigned the space beat. Huntsville was the home of the Marshall Space Flight Center where several components to the space shuttle were developed and managed.
NASA had a tradition of sending astronaut teams to the local Space Centers following a mission so that the workers could be thanked appropriately.
The cover photo from my book Microphones, Moon Rocks, and Memories shows a very young me doing a live report as two astronauts arrive by plane in the background. Those two astronauts were Joe Engle and Richard Truly who flew in the very first space shuttle mission.
I also met Astronaut Walter Schirra as he visited the Alabama Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville where several actual spacecraft from the early days of the space program were on display. He was taken to a Gemini spacecraft that he flew in the 1960s.
I recall his remarks to the crowd as he wondered how he ever got into the tiny spacecraft in the first place.
Huntsville also gave me the opportunity to meet three stars of television: Pat Buttram (who played Mr. Haney on Green Acres), Efren Zimbalist, Jr. (from The F.B.I.) and Kay Lenz. Butrram and Zimbalist were campaigning for Ronald Reagan; Lenz was promoting a movie. Her career never really took off but she continues to do television roles. I saw her in an episode of NCIS a few years ago.
In the early 1980s, I found myself working in the newsroom of WOKR-TV (Now WHAM-TV) in Rochester, New York. It was there where I met television news icon David Brinkley. He visited our station’s new news center on his way to a speaking engagement at the Eastman Theater. I was too busy producing that afternoon’s six o’clock newscast to pay much attention to him, but I was able to attend a reception in his honor following his appearance at the Theater. As luck would have it, I had a chance to have a short conversation with him about local news (which he thought was pretty good back in 1983). I wrote an appreciation essay on his contributions to television news in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle following his death in 2003.
A few years later, I would meet the original On the Road CBS reporter Charles Kuralt when he visited CBS affiliate WROC-TV in Rochester where I worked as Executive Producer. He was brought into Rochester to speak at an evening event and our Station Manager imposed on him to stop by the television station to visit the news department.
I was helping a reporter write a particularly challenging sentence when the Manager brought Kuralt into the newsroom. We were in awe of this man who practically defined television feature reporting.
I recall he smiled a lot, did not say much, and had a pack of Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes in his shirt pocket.
I met and spoke with authors David Halberstam and Doris Kearns Goodwin at the same speakers’ series (in different years) at the State University of New York College in Geneseo where I met President Bush. Halberstam had written The Fifties, and I recall our conversation centering on Elvis Presley. Kearns Goodwin spoke about the biography of Abraham Lincoln she was working on (she would title it Team of Rivals and publish it in 2005). Our brief discussion following the speech was about her book Wait Until Next Year. The book was about growing up on Long Island in the 1950s, coping with life after the passing of her mother, and being a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. We got on the subject of mothers: mine had passed away recently and Kearns Goodwin wrote extensively about losing her mom at a young age in that particular book.
I sat in the front row of a news conference where Jerry Lewis was promoting his performances in the traveling production of the musical Damn Yankees. I wasn’t in the news reporting business anymore (a friend in the business got me into the news conference), but I asked Lewis about a reference he made to a book he was writing on his comedy partnership with Dean Martin. He gave a very long and interesting response to my question. The book Dean and Me came out two years later.
Probably my favorite time meeting celebrities came in 2007 and 2009 when I attended the Game Show Congress in Hollywood. The Congress was formed to honor the significant contributors to television game shows. I met dozens of game show hosts, announcers, producers, and celebrity guest game players at these two events. These stars were accommodating to the attendees. They posed for pictures and I could tell they enjoyed the attention. I appreciated being around the people who entertained me so much on school sick days and summer vacation when I could watch daytime television in the sixties and seventies. I met Betty White, Don Pardo, Wink Martindale, Florence Henderson, and Teresa Ganzel among many others. Teresa played the Tea Time Movie Lady in the Art Fern sketches during the final years of the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As we were posing for the picture, I told her how I enjoyed her work with Carson who had passed away in 2005. She told me, “We all enjoyed Johnny. He was wonderful to work with.”
From the world of music I met Davy Jones from the Monkees and music personality Mitch Miller during my years in Rochester, New York. Davy was in a production of The Real Live Brady Bunch, a camp stage show where actors played the roles of the Brady television family. Mitch, then in his seventies, lived in Rochester part of the year and was at the station to promote a Fourth of July concert (his birthday) where he would conduct the local symphony. Both were gracious and comfortable with their celebrity status. I think it was easier being a celebrity back then than it is today.
I’m glad it was a little bit easier back then because it allowed me to approach some of these celebrities, shake their hands, and talk about a variety of topics. These famous people, along with at least a dozen others whose stories I could not share for lack of time, were accessible. They appreciated the attention as much as we appreciated their sharing of themselves for a quick comment or observation.
It was a special time with some extraordinary people.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced