Last weekend, I went on one of my now monthly work trips to L.A., but had some time for a few very memorable playdates.
I was staying at the Beverly Garland hotel. If you're not familiar with her, Beverly Garland was a profilic TV actress perhaps best known for a stint on My Three Sons, but who was also a regular on Scarecrow and Mrs. King and 7th Heaven, along with appearing in countless other movies and TV shows. Her husband opened the hotels decades ago, including tributes to wifey's brilliant career in the lobby. Sadly, Garland died in 2008, breaking news I had not heard when I arrived until I Googled her. (Thankfully, I didn't ask the front desk if she might pop in during my stay!)
It's actually a lovely Holiday Inn, even if one can easily be mesmerized watching the badly dated video loop of all her most memorable appearances that plays on the default channel of every in-room TV. (My definition of badly dated is that it refers to Garland being in her second 50 years in the biz and very much alive.) The hotel used to host autograph shows of the ilk that I attend far too regularly.
Loved spending more time at the French Quarter in my buddy Roy's Baby Jane of Hollywood, the place for movie memorabilia and naked pictures of leading men. He hooked me up with some Jane Withers photos—the explanation for why I needed those comes later.
But first, I was honored to be invited to have dinner with the great Billie Hayes, 80 this year, a respected stage actress with many TV credits to her name—yes, I am obsessed with her as Witchypoo from H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1970) with cute (and now dead from oral cancer!) Jack Wild and as Weenie the Genie from Lidsville (1970-1973). Billie told us wonderful stories about her friendship with Alice Ghostley (when Alice died, Billie took responsibility for her dog), her charity Pet Hope (she's lost count of how many times she's pulled over to save an animal in distress), getting to meet The Wizard of Oz's Margaret Hamilton (meeting Hamilton for The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, the ultimate witch told Billie she was her favorite witch!) and hanging with Kate Hepburn.
Her Hepburn story was unique in that Billie was coming from a place of not wanting to meet the legend—too intimidating—and then being impressed by how friendly Hepburn actually was. Imagine seeing Hepburn in Coco at the Dorothy Chandler and then being summoned to the small cottage she shared with Spencer Tracy for a late-night, informal gathering? I couldn't, but Billie described it so vividly I felt I'd been there.
She also talked about her fabulous friends Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde (with whom she debuted on Broadway in New Faces of 1956), describing them as polar opposites—Reilly gregarious and easy-going, Lynde rather tortured and serious.
Billie was a doll, very attentive to all her dinner companions—a group of gay dudes fixated on a kiddie show she'd done 40 years earlier. She graciously signed my Li'l Abner cast album, ticking off what had happened (as far as she knew) to the entire cast. [Did you know Valerie Harper was in that? Her face is even (barely) discernible on the LP sleeve!]
Are people who play witches always so the opposite?
The next day, a group of us—myself, Don, Brian, another Matt and Julie—headed to The 25th Annual Gypsy Awards, a function of The Professional Dancers Society. This year, they were honoring Dame Julie Andrews and had attracted a lot of big names (and even more not-so-big names) to show up and in some cases participate. It was held at the Beverly Hilton and had a small red carpet but a medium-sized contingent of attendees who were strictly there to get autographs from and pictures of the old-time idols.
Some of the hardcore fanboys had items for people to sign. When I spotted one with an "Ann-Margrock" illustration, I figured Ann-Margret had to be coming.
But they had items for everyone from honoree Andrews to rumored participants who never even showed, like Debbie Reynolds. There were also multiple, still rather doable former-dancer gay menz in the house, many paired off like silver candlesticks. Any number of them could've been good candidates for work on IWouldntSayNoGramps.com. I was dying to pull them aside and ask them for all their stories from being sexy dancers in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but that will have to wait for an encounter I have set up for next trip.
The first luminary we pounced on was Miriam Nelson, a famed choreographer and Paramount actress who at 89 looks and acts a good deal younger. She was charming, and was later feted from the stage by Mitzi Gaynor as one of the most good-hearted human beings of all time. I see she has a memoir out called My Life Dancing with the Stars with a foreword by Andrews and the late Blake Edwards—bet that's a lively read considering the list of stars she worked with (Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly) and the fact that she choreographed the opening day at Disneyland.
When 92-year-old Marge Champion (the original model for Snow White, pictured) entered with her strapping, 55-year-old director son Gregg, half the lobby descended upon her. Once the wife of famed choreographer Gower, Marge is no slouch herself in that department, apparently still teaching after having worked as an actress and choreographer throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s. She looks amazing and was happy to sign and only slightly less happy to pose for pictures, asking my pal Matt if he'd been a dancer himself. Actually, I owe him for helping me to "get" Marge, as her dreamy son seemed keenly interested in making blond Matt's dreams of an autograph with Mama come true.
I missed a wheelchair-bound Teri Garr, 64, who suffers from MS, because I had been in a mad dash to replenish my batteries (time for a new camera). Jane Withers, 85, and nightclub singer Barbara Van Orden (around 70?) were milling about, as was Honeymooner Jane Kean, 87 (whom I've met).
Charlotte Rae—Mrs. Garrett to you!—came in all alone and was directed to a sign-in table. About to turn 86, she's tiny and moved about slowly but was sweet to her many fanboys, as was 72-year-old glamazon BarBara Luna, known for being a child actress turned soap bitch (with a detour on Star Trek along the way).
Mitzi Gaynor, 80, is PDS's prez, so she was in high demand when she entered, a vision in purple. She would later joke that due to all her tucking and her hard-working Spanx that every part of her was purple. She was a bit overwhelmed by all the photo requests, but the two Matts scored the terrific shot at the top of this post.
Some others I nabbed:
Singer/songwriter Carol Connors, 71, had Elvis Presley as her first boyfriend and was the voice behind the #1 smash "To Know Him Is To Love Him." She has written many songs over the years, not the least of which was the theme for Orca (1977). She was all decked out, reminding me of Charlene Tilton.
Bubbly ex-Miss America (and soon-to-be ex-Mrs. Gary Collins) Mary Ann Mobley, 73, was swamped with photo requests, but kept reassuring me she'd get to me after posing with Carl Reiner, 89 and 364 days when we met, and Neile Adams, 79, who is Chad McQueen's mom and a dead ringer for Judy Carne. Mary Ann finally got to me, wisely covering my stomach with her hand—a pro at this!
Reiner proved a toughie at first. He kind of walked past me when I first asked, so I used my natural advantage as a guy less than half his age and went up a few paces and into a better position, which led to one of my favorite celebrity pic-withs ever—what a living legend.
Universal sci fi star Kathleen Hughes, 83, is best known for It Came from Outer Space (1953), but struck us as the opposite—quite earthy! And looking lovely in red as she signed her name to various bits of memorabilia.
Dick Van Dyke, 86, blew me off, which was sad. He said, "No, we're 45 minutes late!" and kind of looked off in the distance, but in the time it took to say no, it would've been easier to stop for the photo. Here we are, looking like we're in conversation as opposed to in a pic-with stalemate:
We had bad info that Tommy Peel was Robert Morse, but once we heard all the great stuff said about him inside, we didn't regret getting our pic-withs and autographs from this cheerful dancer:
I like to think we were able to get legendary costume designer Bob Mackie, then 71 and now 72, because he thought we were cute, but he was probably just being kind to everyone.
Would've been so embarrassing if I'd worn those drapes I had picked out!
The very last stars I saw before going in were the legendary soap couple Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes. I clearly remember my mom watched their soap Days of Our Lives around 35 years ago at our old house (she swore off soaps soon after). They epitomized TV glamour to me. At 86 and 68, respectively, they're still a handsome pair, and they were quite engaging, chatting for a long while with BarBara Luna before asking me all about my interest in the program.
Inside, we found our table (a bit far from the action, hence the shaky, zoomed-in video) and enjoyed a delicious lunch not far from Cora Sue Collins, 84, whom I've had the pleasure of meeting before. Matt and another guy at our table went out for a cigarette and promptly returned with pic-withs featuring Carol Burnett! She'd arrived late. Very lucky for them, so I guess smoking doesn't always lead to no good.
The program was really well done and fun to watch. Mitzi Gaynor's opening remarks amounted to an A-plus stand-up gig, particularly when she was lecturing Julie Andrews on how it had taken PDS five years to get her on board.
She also poked fun at herself, saying she'd been going for Kim Kardashian but looked more like Sophie Tucker. "That's better!" someone shouted. Anything is.
There was a sweet Irish bit from one-time child star Margaret O'Brien, 75 (met her the same day as Collins) in honor of St. Patrick's Day, a way-too-long Riverdance-esque number and some remarks by American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance guru Nigel Lythgoe (at 62 a baby in that room).
But the highlights were a lengthy, heavily choreographed tribute to Julie's career...
...the introduction of all the past winners of this award: Mitzi Gaynor, Ann-Margret, 70; Dick Van Dyke; Marge Champion; Carol Burnett, 78; Rita Moreno, 80; Florence Henderson, 77; Bob Mackie; and Carl Reiner...
...and of course Carol Burnett and Dick Van Dyke presenting the award to Andrews. The gag was that neither had any more stories to tell about her, leading to Burnett deadpanning, "I have shot my wad." Never thought I'd live to hear her say that! Andrews, of course, made a heartfelt speech:
Right after this, everyone in the room (still capable of walking) simply poured up onto the stage, including our merry band of starfuckers, albeit in separate groups. Julie was surrounded and refusing autographs but greeting friends. Burnett snuck out the back but was grabbed by Brian in my group for a pic-with behind the curtains (!).
Having asked Dick Van Dyke again for a pic-with just before the ceremony ("Sorry, we have to pee!"), I tried one last time. He was prepared to blow me off again, but his beautiful (and new) young wife saw my frustration and said, "I think this young man would like a photo." He immediately complied, giving me the best, most animated pose ever. I thanked her for reading my face!
Rita Moreno was a popular request and gamely posed with me in the center of the stage. I was thinking that she might be the most gainfully employed of them all, what with her role on Happily Divorced. I bumped into Belinda Carlisle's son/gay activist Dukie Mason and his cute boyf, who were also trying to meet Rita ("She's the real legend up here!" says the kid who is also a big fan of Sidney Poitier and many other things from way before his time). He's movie-star handsome in person, which almost makes up for his loathing of Madonna. His mom is Belinda Carlisle (ever see Truth or Dare?), her BFF is Sandra Bernhard (ever see or hear anything about how her friendship with Madonna went?) and he's apparently friendly with Elton John & David Furnish (hello!). So I cut him some slack in this regard!
Margaret O'Brien posed with me, but Brian didn't notice she was mid-blink. He likes to tease me for not framing his photos properly (the one I took of him with Billie Hayes was on an angle he didn't like), but that boy needs to make sure people ain't blinkin' if he's gonna criticize me—you know I love you, Brian...
My last photo op was with Toni Basil, 68, she of "Mickey" fame and of course a very accomplished choreographer with some pretty dazzling credits under her belt. She was polite and looks pristine.
At this point, Julie was making her way backstage, but the other Matt was desperate to snag an autograph for his mom. Seeing that a photo op would be almost impossible, I decided to fall on my sword and help him, nudging him over to her and encouraging him to just fucking go for it. Luckily, an autograph hound had persuaded her that she'd previously promised him a signature ("I did promise this gentleman...Wait, didn't I just give you one?") which slowed her down. She then went down a few stairs and Matt caught her attention with a mention of her mother. "I really have to go..." she kept murmuring, but she complied, signing for him while trying to shoo away—and then recognizing and hugging—a well-wisher on the other side of her. So he wound up with one of the very few autographs she gave out that day before she disappeared behind the curtains.
It was a crazy day, a lot of work but much cheaper than one of the paid autograph shows—and for a good cause. I hope my money will go to give someone a nice, new hip!
Outside, I chatted with Cora Sue Collins some more, who was waiting for friends to pick her up, while Brian helped Jane Withers into her limo, lifting one leg sky high to accomplish this feat. I escorted Collins over to her car, filled with grinning gays. I think all of these old-time stars have to have their gay. I wonder if any have openings?
Later on, we took Jane Withers out to dinner at her favorite Japanese restaurant after picking her up at her cute home. We were joined by Bryan Cooper (a film buff, producer, writer and once a nerd on Saved By the Bell). He and Jane have a hilarious rapport, teasing each other mercilessly. (She was riding him about his facial hair throughout dinner.)
Jane is a really delightful woman. Most famous for having been an enormously popular child star in the 1930s (twice listed as aTop 10 box-office draw of the year alongside Shirley Temple, opposite whom she'd made such an impression in the film Bright Eyes), she worked steadily even after marrying and becoming a mom, perhaps most memorably in Giant (pictured). On that film, she befriended James Dean, telling us one evening he showed up in her bedroom during a party she'd been throwing.
"How did you get in here?" she asked, aghast. "Through the window," Dean pouted. "I didn't wanna see all those people." Not amused, she took out her trusty toolbox that she always had nearby and nailed all the windows shut. "You're coming through the door like everyone else next time!" she informed him.
She also recalled how ripe he smelled in his favorite Western shirt, but he refused to have it laundered for fear it would be ruined or lost. So she began washing it for him and returning it each week. The day before his fatal car wreck, she washed the shirt—and she has it to this day. She was emotional remembering the unusual young man she'd been so fond of, and claimed to have had a bad feeling she'd never see him again when he went off on that trip, one he'd asked her along for.
Jane, a devout Christian of the prayerful and good-spirited and not overtly judgy variety, is a driven collector of memorabilia, perhaps why she was so at ease with our group of stargazers. "I'm practically a hoarder," I told her. She looked at me and said, "Hello!" Turns out her home and more than one storage unit are all packed to the rafters with original movie costumes, books, her world-famous doll collection (FDR once gave her a doll but didn't trust the USPS so sent Eleanor to deliver it!) and more. She told us she'd bought some of the extensive publicity-photo treasure trove of former MGM PR head Dore Freeman and used to haunt all the auctions when the studios liquidated their "worthless" holdings. She's like Debbie Reynolds in this regard, but has—at least so far—managed to hold onto her goodies.
Speaking with her made me reflect on what will become of my own stash of stuff. You can't take it with you, but the curse of a real collector is that you can't exactly live without it either!
Jane was as interested in us as we were in her, asking about all of our jobs and praising us at every turn. Like her famous Josephine the Plumber character, she still has that stage giggle (at this point, it's natural) but she's also quick to tear up over warm memories of her life as an actress or over injustices. She told us she loved The Help for telling the truth; I suspect that movie got most of this Academy member's votes in the Oscar race.
Back at Jane's place, she regaled us with stories of her family, first introducing us to the framed photos by her door of kin and of famous friends like Mary Pickford, before ending things with an autograph-signing session and prayer circle. As she signed each item, she would become distracted by a long (and anything-but-boring) story and then get back to signing. Also, she went out of her way to dream up individual salutations, murmuring them as she signed.
What a dear lady...and what a surreal weekend!