COFFEE WITH ALI

This is a reblog of a post I did June/8/2014, right after Muhammad Ali died.

It recalls an isle of calm for me in the sea of fire. Civil Rights Protests. Anti-Vietnam Protests. Looting, destruction, and shouts of blame from both side of the political aisle.

When this incident took place, we had Hope. We knew that once things calmed down the Civil Rights would take hold in fact not just word. And we knew that we would never go to a War again unless it was really needed, and we would never allow the War to last very long.

But like the song says: ‘We were young and foolish.’

I need an isle of calm today so I brought it out and read it. So topical! Topical in that it follows my Dalton Trumbo posts regarding a man standing up for his beliefs, only to be persecuted by politicians whose only belief is pandering to the lowest common denominator. So topical! I wish today’s violent ‘protesters’ could hear the words of Muhammad Ali, a man known for his violent art, speak with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, a man known for his non-violent speech.

There was this old bulll standing in the middle of the railroad track and far away the train was comng fast. But that old bull just stood there and the people all admired the old brave bull. And the train blew a warning…anotherand another as it came full steam head on. And the people oohed and aahed because that old bull never flinched. Just stood his ground…And…

And all those people that oohed and aahed when the brave bull was standing tall in the center of the tracks, just looked around at what was left of him scattered in little pieces for a good miles, yup, all those people who called that bull brave a short time before changed their tune.

Boy, was that bull ever stupid,” they said, and walked away.’

Thus spoke Muhammad Ali talking about Violent Protesting.

Today I have Hope. I believe that when the stupidity of the politicians is removed from the equation, the genius of our medical scientists will find a cure and a vaccine for the Virus. As far as the Civil Rights issue is concerned…Hatred and genocide are embedded deep in the history of this country.

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.

BIG VAUDEVILLE (BOB)

hOPE IN VAUDEBILLE

Bob Hope walked down the steps of the Winnebago and asked us a question, and cracked us up.

In a previous post, BIG VAUDEVILLE (RED), I said that it had been my privilege to have worked two of the top stars of vaudeville. Red Skeleton was one. Bob Hope was the other. The steps they took to become household words in entertainment are quite similar. As far as my working them, I only worked them once, and I never threw a chair at Mr. Hope like I did at Mr. Skeleton.

Leslie, (Bob), Hope was born in a town just outside London, England. When he was four, his parents immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a stone mason. His mother, a cleaner, had been a light opera singer and dancer in England, and gave young Hope a foundation in song and dance, which he used at the age of twelve to raise money by entertaining people on the city buses.

He entered amateur dance contests while in his teens; and, after a short career as a boxer and other assorted jobs, he decided to try professional show business. His career lasted eighty years, and garnered over 1,500 awards from US President, the U.S. Military, Hollywood, numerous Social organizations, honorary college degrees, awards from Foreign governments, a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, and another from the Vatican.

He began with a partner in a song and dance act. Tragedy hit when the partner ate a bad piece of coconut pie and died. It was suggested to Leslie that he change his first name, go it alone, and stress comedy. He developed a routine of one-liners in which he usually was the brunt of the joke. He spent the early years on stage and in vaudeville where he became a top name after many of the established stars left to work in films. He tried to get into the movies but failed the screen test. This blow to his ego made him work harder in vaudeville and in Broadway productions.

The year 1934 was an important one in his road to fame. He landed his radio show which lasted into the 50’s. He realized that he needed more than just a quick wit and delivery to make it go. He hired a talented group of gag writers and paid them out of his own salary. Unlike Red Skeleton, who created and portrayed the characters that populated his show, Hope hired characters like Jerry Colonna and Barbara Jo Allen to work off of. He also surrounded himself with guests like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and his close friend, Bing Crosby. As the Golden Age of Radio waned, he switched to the new form of entertainment, television. His weekly shows were hits and he augmented them with his popular Christmas Specials.

The carefully thought out, business-like approach that he used to insure his radio show would be a hit, became a Hope trademark in all his career moves both in his entertainment moves and his financial investments, which were often done in partnership with Bing Crosby. When Bob Hope died he was considered one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood.

His work in film started also in 1934. He made six comedy shorts that bombed. Walter Winchell, an important newspaper columnist wrote about one of them, ‘When they catch John Dillinger, they are going to make him sit through it – twice’.

Hope’s big break came about when Jack Benny turned down a role in the film THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 and it was offered to Bob. It came with a contract with Paramount so he moved to Hollywood. His work in the movie gave the studio faith in his being able to handle bigger roles.

This was his first time working with Dorothy Lamour who later would become an important part of six of the successful ROAD pictures. In another bit of irony, Bing Crosby, his co-star in the ROAD series, got his start in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1932.

The movie also gave him his theme song, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, a duet he sang with Shirley Ross. The melody was used as his walk-on music and also to close out his his shows. The melody remained the same but the lyrics were often changed by his writers to suit the situation.

He stuck to a tried and true formula in the films that followed. The self-effacing humor that marked his stand-up routine was expanded in his film roles, and he usually played a likeable coward. Two of the songs he introduced in the movies, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and BUTTONS AND BOWS went on to win Academy Awards for Best Song; and while he had a pleasant voice, he realized it’s limitations and never tried to compete with the ‘singers’ like Crosby and Sinatra. Both Crosby and Sinatra started out in movies doing light comedy, but both eventually attacked heavy dramatic roles and won Academy Awards in acting. Not so with Bob Hope. He stuck with his standard comedic roles.

The film work he did in the 40’s was his best. The first six ROAD pictures cemented his standing as a legit movie star. He made 54 feature films in his career, but not much of his later work matched his early works in the 40’s.

His fame in Hollywood came as much from his 19 times as host of the Academy Awards as from his films. His main shtick was the fact he had never been nominated for an acting Oscar. It worked and was funny – for a while, but it grew old and became the object of biting jokes by other comedians. The Academy did award him 4 Honorary Oscars, and the important Humanitarian Oscar.

When WWII broke out in 1939, Hope was on the liner, the Queen Mary. He volunteered to entertain the passengers to keep their minds off the bad news. His first USO show took place six months before Pearl Harbor. There were 57 USO tours he headlined to entertain the troops, a few in peacetime, but most in our wars from WWII through the Persian Gulf War of 90. In all, 50 years of entertaining our military personnel.

His hard work during WWII, both for the morale of the troops and the War Effort at home, did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by America. Our taking part in the U.N. ‘conflict’ in Korea was not as popular in America, and Bob Hope’s tours dropped in popularity at home; but certainly not among our military troops fighting and freezing in Korea. And then came Viet Nam!

There was a strong anti-war sentiment when we first entered this war, and it grew greater every week we were there. The criticism extended from the politicians that were responsible for bringing us, and worse, keeping us in this civil war in the jungle, to the troops that were doing what their country demanded of them.

The USO shows had lost their appeal back home. Hope’s USO tours were paid for by the government, but also by by his sponsors and his TV network, NBC, which aired them later as Specials. Facts that were not lost on Bob Hope’s growing critics. It became harder and harder to convince entertainers to go with him. By the time of the Persian Gulf War, he had to enlist his wife, Dolores, and granddaughter to accompany him.

His marriage to Dolores was one of the longest in the history of Hollywood. It began in 1934 and lasted until his death in 2003, albeit it had several shapely road bumps over the years. The Hopes had four children, all adopted, and several grandchildren. Bob died in his 100th year. Dolores lived to be 102. They lived in the same house for almost all their married years. I wonder if anyone has tested that house’s drinking water.

He could always keep his material up to date in everything he did; but because he used the same old schtick to bring it to his audiences, his popularity as an entertainer was not bringing in new fans. The young had no ‘memories’ to thank him for, and using a golf club as a trademark prop didn’t exactly excite them. The comedians that were taking over did it by using language and subjects that were offensive to the older generations of both audience and performers. Bob Hope was old hat.

When I worked Bob Hope, he worked mostly benefits, conventions, and in this particular case, a birthday party. And of course, played a lot of golf.

One of the local billionaires was turning 80 and was going to turn over the reins of his privately owned empire to a person to be announced at the party. His two daughters put together a real gala. They rented the St. Paul Civic Center for a week, put the matter in the hands of Paul Ridgeway, who was just coming off planning and supervising a Super Bowl festivity and the visit of the Pope John II to Denver.

Paul, one of my favorite people to work for, had about 20 local stagehands working about 16 hours a day, for 5 days preparing for this birthday party. And he hired Bob Hope to attend.

We were fine tuning everything for the event to start in a couple hours, when a Winnebago ‘dressing room’ pulled in backstage. The driver came down the steps and then held Bob Hope’ arm to help him down.

His appearance was a surprise to us stagehands, as it would be to the party goers, except for the family. Shadow Show Business. Celebrities come into town for a private function. Do their bit without the press or the general public aware that they are in town. In! Out! Pick up a nice paycheck. Over the years, I worked many in this Shadow Show Business, from oldies like Chubby Checkers to current big timers like Elton John. And of course, Bob Hope.

Hope, like Red Skeleton, had a reputation in the business for being a friend to stagehands and the other workers that made the business go. That day was no different.

Hey, guys,’ he hollered to us, ‘Got a question. Do any of you know the name of this old fart that I am suppose to be best of friends with?’ He cracked us up and then continued to entertain us.

They tell me you have been working day and night for almost a week to put this thing together. When I heard this, I figured I had better make sure the check cleared the bank. Wouldn’t be the first time I got stiffed on a gig. But you stagehands know all about that kind of stuff, don’t you?

This hoopla’s got a bigger budget than the ROAD pictures Crosby and I use to do. At least that’s what Crosby always told me, “just a small budget, Bob, didn’t have much left over to pay the actors a lot. I always got enough from each picture to splurge and get a new set of golf clubs. And Crosby would come and pick me up to go golfing after each picture, and he was always driving a brand new car. You don’t think…Naw, not Bing.

This morning the two daughters, a blond and a brunette, and the blond’s husband came up to my room for a Q & A session on what kind of thing I was going to do for their father, you know, my ‘old best friend’.

I said I would lay out some golf jokes. Everybody likes golf jokes. The son-in-law agreed. His wife smiled. The other sister, the brunette, said her dad doesn’t golf. Well, then how about some political jokes. Again the son-in-law agreed. His wife smiled. And the brunette said her dad didn’t like politics or politicians. I can do some movie jokes, I told them. Always goes over big at the Oscars. The son-in-law agreed. The blond smiled. And the brunette said she can’t remember her dad ever going to a movie much less watch the Oscars.’

Hope threw up his hands. ‘What does this guy do for a hobby?, he asked us.

Makes money,’ one of the hands hollered. We all laughed, including Bob.

Well,’ so the son-in-law said, ‘Just do what you want and when everybody laughs, so will Dad. He won’t get the jokes but he’s too nice a guy not to go along with the others.”

So I agreed, and then I said maybe for a throw in I’ll sing a couple old songs. He must like old songs. And the brunette pipes up and says, “If we wanted singing, we would have met Sinatra’s price”. So much for thinking I was their first choice.’

I was sitting backstage with a headset on so I didn’t hear any of Bob’s routine, but the audience must have enjoyed it by all the laughter and applause during it.

After the big announcement that the son-in-law would be the new head of the empire, the band began to play and the audience danced and took advantage of the many open bars. Bob Hope came through the curtains. We were trying to get ahead of the long Out, that couldn’t really start until the party goers left, by quietly tearing down what we could back stage.

Before Bob got in the limo, which had replaced the Winnebago, he thanked us and shook our hands.’I admire you guys,’ he said, ‘ You do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Not like me, getting paid for doing some old, old jokes and lying about being a good friend to the birthday boy. But heck, that’s Show Business.’

When he got into the limo, he rolled down the window and said to those of us close by, ‘It was no big surprise to anyone that my newest old best friend made the son-in-law his successor. He’s too old- school to trust his company to a woman, even if she is his daughter. But I will lay you odds that in less than a year, that nice son-in-law quits and the brunette takes over.’

Hope was right. He could read people just like he could read the FINANCIAL TIMES. The son-in-law wanted out and the brunette took over; and it wasn’t a surprise to anyone, except maybe her father, that she did so good and even enlarged the empire. And over the years she hired us stagehands for all her big public functions; and each time I saw her, I thought back on the time, I got to work Bob Hope. And when I think back I hear a song in my head, a song which countless of our military hear whenever they think back on having seen Bob Hope:

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

BOB HOPE

COFFEE WITH ALI

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.