Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Comes Early to The Underworld!

I mentioned at the start of my last post that I had a “tremendous” weekend in store, though, at the time, I couldn't be completely sure that that would be an apt description of it. It certainly was, however! You know, living out here in “flyover country,” the opportunities to rub elbows with people of any sort of note run slim. I've been fortunate, mostly thanks to my efforts in the theatre, to bump into a few celebrities, but not too many. Thus, whenever a chance comes by to meet with anyone famous, I'm usually in there churning with the rest of the crowd! As has sometimes occurred here in the past, this will be a more personal posting than usual, but you know that I would never waste your time unless there was also a celebrity presence as well.

I'm already busy, working full time from 7:30 – 4:30 (okay, 7:33 – 4:28) and filling in at the Zoo several nights a week for seasonal work, so I've been pulled every which way as I try to shop, decorate the abode, make holiday cookies and so on. I never read the paper, but a friend alerted me to an article heralding the arrival of an Oscar-winning actor and a former Miss America to our city. What's more, the event in question was to take place barely a mile from my house!

As it turns out, Norwood, Ohio, the town I've been living in for about 8 years, is the birthplace of dancer-turned-actor George Chakiris, legendary for his Oscar-winning work as Bernardo, leader of The Sharks, in West Side Story. That film having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, there have been several events to mark the occasion, including a feet-and-hands-in-cement photo op at Graumann's Chinese Theater involving Chakiris, Rita Moreno (who likewise won an Oscar for the film) and Russ Tamblyn. Now, the place of Chakiris' birth was extending a welcome home to its famous offspring. Knowing my affection for the stars whose time in the sun has dimmed, you understand there was no way I was going to miss it!
On Friday, December 16th, the local middle school was home to a program designed to honor him. As it was held in the middle of the day, I had to arrange to get off work in order to attend. I will always be happy that I did so. I was able to slither into a third row seat as the emcee for the event, Miss America 1955 Miss Lee Meriwether, proceeded to screen clips of his work, ask questions of him (posed by the students) and helped to bring several of his qualities and achievements to light. He was presented with not only a plaque and a certificate, but also a statuette, along with having the day officially declared George Chakiris Homecoming Day by the mayor.

In the course of the presentation (the school stage bedecked by students for the Christmas season), it was revealed that Chakiris was born in Norwood, to parents of Turkish descent, on September 16th of 1934. His family owned and operated a combination confectionery and beer garden which they also lived above. He revealed a funny story about himself that had often been told amongst his family members: that once, at only one-and-a-half years of age and in the care of his older sister, he wanted to get dressed, but as his mother was already downstairs working at the store, he simply gathered up his clothes and trotted down there completely naked!

His family moved in the wake of the 1937 flood (a serious event that put Cincinnati partially underwater for a time!), fleeing to Arizona, where it was plenty dry. Thus, he did not reside in the town long and had only fleeting memories. It had been more than seven decades since his last visit. Coming back to the place of his birth was a touching experience for him.

Mr. Chakiris is seventy-seven years old at present! Time marches on, but regardless of that fact, he is in terrific shape. (When he visited his parents' old store after the ceremony, he was able to effortlessly put his leg up on the outside railing in an amusing, impromptu exercise! He also lifted Miss Moreno up off her feet during that cement ceremony in Tinseltown.) He offered many insightful and encouraging answers to the sometimes interesting-sometimes dull questions. His appearance as a dancer in White Christmas was highlighted and he explained that when the film came out, people kept writing to Paramount wanting to see more of “the boy Rosemary Clooney leans on” during “Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me.” So great was the fan mail that he was able to gain further film work, leading eventually to his signature role in West Side.
Other clips shown were from Flight from Ashiya, The Young Girls of Rochefort, a live Cole Porter tribute with terrific singing and dancing and a hysterical, mid-'70s, British variety show performance with a disco duded-out Chakiris swizzling around a bevy of dancing girls while singing (if I remember right, I was catatonic during it) "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

Though he worked with Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Lana Turner and many others, he cites Jerome Robbins as by far the most memorable, influential and meaningful person with whom he ever worked. The taxing standards that Robbins held the performers to in West Side Story are legendary. (In fact, the exacting choreographer was fired after about 60% of the filming had been done because of production delays, reshooting and re-imagining of choreography that had been rehearsed for three months prior!)

Later in the day, he went to see his first house above the aforementioned store and also the birth home of fellow White Christmas performer Vera-Ellen, who, remarkably, was also born in Norwood, about two blocks from my current residence! Interestingly, both Chakiris and Vera-Ellen (sixteen years his senior) were born in the same neighborhood while Clooney was born just 60 miles away in Maysville, Kentucky, yet they all found themselves working together in White Christmas in 1954. (Miss Doris Day is from Evanston, Ohio, a scant mile or two down the road from Norwood. In fact, she and Vera-Ellen used to carpool to dance class together as youths, making this quite a fertile breeding ground for musical performers!)

Miss Meriwether, the first Miss America ever to be crowned on television, worked with Chakiris in two productions of The King and I, which helps to explain her connection to the event. (Actually, since this was a dual event, the second half of which I will get to in a moment, there was another connection involving another Miss America, making the weekend a triangle of criss-crossing connections!) Meriwether is seventy-six and looks positively marvelous, a fact that sadly isn't done justice in my photos. Wisely sporting chic, silver hair and still maintaining a trim, attractive figure, she wore makeup in a makeupless way that just gave her a fresh, clean appearance. Her eyes are bluer than blue. A true lady, in an era when ladies are not so easy to come by any more, she nevertheless has a healthy sense of humor as well.

Following the ceremony, I was able to hob-nob with Meriwether and, lacking any sense of shame or pretense, went directly into explaining my love of Barnaby Jones, the TV series she costarred in from 1973 to 1980. I told of sitting on my grandfather's knee, watching the show, and being petrified during the time she was kidnapped (she was able to recall three such incidents: one involving Gary Lockwood and another with Alan Fudge, but not the third culprit.) I told her how my grandmother commented, “Well, of course, she has to fall down!” as Meriwether attempted an escape, followed by “They have to rescue her soon, there are only five minutes left!”

I then revealed how I'd seen Meriwether in so many projects, including the (screaming) 1978 TV-movie Cruise Into Terror, in which she played John Forsythe's wife on a yacht that is carrying a mysterious sarcophagus. Allow me to list some of the other cast members: Dirk Benedict, Christopher George, Lynda Day George, Ray Milland, Hugh O'Brian and Stella Stevens! She wryly replied that some things might be better off forgotten to which I said, “Not this one, honey! I have it on VHS and would never part with it!” She seemed startled that such a tape would exist, but used copies of it sell on eBay from $20 to $40 depending on the day!!

Not finished toying with her yet, I explained that I had brought a photo to sign, but left it in the car because I didn't realize I would have the chance to meet her this way. As I described it, a stunning portrait from a Sarah Coventry jewelry ad of the 1960s, she said, “Ah... yes, I lost that in the earthquake.” I said, “Your jewelry?!” and she replied, “No... my mother had taken that picture and decopaged it for me, but during the earthquake, it was crushed when a shelf fell down.” Well, I decided right then and there that I was going to find a way to get that picture for her somehow (the one I brought was merely a color-printing on office paper!)

The other guest of honor at this shindig was Miss America 2000, Heather French Henry, a stunning young lady whose chic looks and solid talent would not be denied the year of the millennium and who remains Kentucky's only winner of the crown in the pageant's long history. With her atypical short, brown hair and wearing gowns that bucked the trends of the day back then, Henry was a completely fresh take on the title and remains a popular figure within the organization. Not one to come up with a socially relevant platform just for the pageant only to abandon it thereafter, Henry has long been a tireless advocate for wounded U.S. veterans and still travels the country today to further that cause. She also aids her husband in keeping the memory of that sterling vocalist Rosemary Clooney alive with the ownership and operation of The Rosemary Clooney Museum in Augusta, Kentucky, a riverfront town where Clooney resided for a couple of decades.

Henry was present at the Chakiris ceremony as well and was forced to chit-chat with me once more for what was by now our third time meeting. I had made something of an impression on her years ago when, at the opening of the museum, I sang, “There she is...” to her on the back patio and proceeded to describe how Mary Ann Mobley did a striptease variant to “There'll Be Some Changes Made” during her talent competition in 1958, causing her to soar to the winning spot, leaving poor third-place Anita Bryant in the dust, peeling an orange. (The rules were changed the next year, prohibiting the ladies from removing parts of their costume during the talent segment!)

Henry and I were reminiscing about this as I was preparing to have my picture taken with Miss Meriwether and I pointed out to Meriwether that she had been a color-commentator on that night in '58. Again, she was startled at my knowledge and I mindlessly began crooning the song and carelessly did “the bump” from the bump and grind right onto Meriwether's hip!! It was only later that I realized I might have injured this woman nearing eighty (who looks more like sixty!)

Getting to Chakiris was more difficult because he was swarmed with cougars (just how old do you have to be to play cougar to a seventy-seven year-old man?!) and with out-of-the-woodwork relatives, real and false. Some of them were bearing armloads of photos, videos, yearbooks, you name it... I did finally grapple onto him, though it was rather brief. I told him that I hoped he took it as a compliment that I expected him to look much older than he did!

This portion done, I wondered if I was going to be able to take part in the second scheduled event of the weekend. Miss Henry was about to unveil a new costume from White Christmas down at The Rosemary Clooney Museum (Vera-Ellen's sequined get-up from the “Mandy” number) and Chakiris and Meriwether were invited to join. They would be signing autographs from 3:00 – 5:00, taking part in the annual holiday parade and enjoying a VIP dinner at a local restaurant. Thing was, I was scheduled to work at the Zoo from 5:00 – 9:00 and couldn't risk driving to Augusta and not getting back home in time!

It was Saturday morning around 10:15 when I found out I had my Zoo shift covered and I immediately started planning to head to the museum by about 1:30. I located the picture of Lee Meriwether I wanted to give her and intended to print it off at a local store, frame it, and give it to her for Christmas. I transferred it to my camera's memory card and zipped off to the copy store. I was horrified to learn that somehow it didn't work out and so I had to race back home and try it again. AGAIN it didn't translate (I have done this at least ten other times without issue. I still don't know what went wrong...) so that plan went down the drain.

I then packed my shoes, pants, t-shirt, sweater, etc... and tore off to the gym, where I planned to walk on the treadmill for a while and then get ready. Not wanting to have to park in the lot, a block away, which would mean a lot of wind and so on when coming out, I used a meter, something I never do. I was stunned that a quarter only got me 8 minutes! (We are used to cheaper parking in these here parts.) I finally loaded the damn thing and went inside. As I was finishing up and getting dressed, I knew I didn't want to put the sweater on just then because I was hot and the place was steamy. I draped it over my gym bag and headed out to the car.

Only - SURPRISE – the meter was flashing red and a police car was less than a block away, preparing to land on me! I darted to the car, threw my stuff inside and tore away as soon as possible to avoid getting a ticket. About 20 minutes into my trip to Augusta, I realized I had enough time to stop for an iced tea, so I swerved into a drive-thru. It was then that I realized the disaster of the morning... In my haste to get into the car, I'd DROPPED my brand-new, worn-once-at-Thanksgiving, rust, cream and brown ski sweater into the street!!!!!!!! I was too far away to go back and see what had become of it and, worst of all, had NOTHING to wear to the museum!

On the way, I spotted a discount store. Let's talk about impulse purchases. At 2:06, I parked my car in the busy, Christmas-shopper-filled lot. At 2:13, I pulled out of the lot wearing a new (passable) sweater! I was finally off again, determined to be there for another encounter with the stars.

The Rosemary Clooney Museum is located in her former residence, a 19th century brick home right on the Ohio River. The small town of Augusta is dotted with wondrous old homes (such as the one shown here - NOT the museum, but just another residence) that are decked out splendidly for the holidays. The riverfront I refer to was used during the filming of the mammoth 1978 miniseries Centennial and Augusta was done over as old St. Louis, Missouri. This is the place where George Clooney's parents and sister have made their home and he is an occasional visitor there. (It is common to find portraits and framed magazine covers of this other George in many of the town's antique shops and restaurants as he is generally quite beloved by the citizens there.) In fact, George Clooney was an uncredited extra in Centennial, one of many citizens recruited to help fill in the bustling scenes taking place in the faux city.

The museum houses hordes of memorabilia from Rosemary's career from albums to posters to programs to photographs. Then, there is an ever-expanding collection of costumes from the handful of movies in which she starred. Dresses from The Stars Are Singing, Here Come the Girls and Red Garters are on display alongside both of the gowns from the “Sisters” number of White Christmas. There is even one of the ostrich-feather fans framed and mounted above them. Her sequined gloves from “Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me” are there as are painstakingly-recreated renditions of the red and white finale gowns (the originals deteriorated beyond salvaging) that Heather French Henry and her mother made by watching the film frame-by-frame countless times. Other movie costar costumes for people such as Bob Hope, Anna Maria Alberghetti and Mary Wickes are also onhand. Some of Vera-Ellen's obviously tiny movie clothes are there as well, though it must be said that Rosie's are very trim, too, as she was quite slender in the 1950s. The overflowing house also has a room devoted to George Clooney and one with many pieces of Henry's Miss America publicity and memorabilia. This was the site of round two of my weekend adventure and it would prove to be the most memorable of all.

When I arrived, the limo with Chakiris and Meriwether had not yet made it to the museum, so I was able to share my parking meter/sweater disaster with Henry and a gaggle of bemused onlookers. When the guests of honor arrived, they were greeted by Rosemary's brother (and George's father) Nick Clooney along with other relatives and close friends. Then the “Mandy” costume was unveiled, housed in a cabinet next to one from a chorus girl in the same number.

Following this, there was a stream of autograph seekers, ready to meet Chakiris and Meriwether up close and personal. You get only one guess as to who was first in line! I was crestfallen at not being able to present Meriwether with the picture I had tried to frame, but I had my original one on paper to show her and have her sign, which she happily did. When I turned it around, I exclaimed, “Look how beautiful!” and Chakiris agreed, then I said, “...but she wasn't the only one” whereupon I sprung the photo of him that I had selected, a shot from Kings of the Sun, in which he was wearing a skimpy Incan warrior costume! This produced healthy laughter from both of them. They are shown below simultaneously signing my pictures.
Not wanting to take up too much time, I segued into the other room where I happened upon Debbi Bush Whiting. Name ring a bell at all? It turns out that she is the daughter of ragtime and honky-tonk pianist and composer Lou Busch (the c was added to his name by him for distinction) and '40s and '50s vocalist Margaret Whiting! Again, never failing to humiliate myself for a laugh, I proceeded to remark that Margaret had appeared in the finale of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (which Debbi says she was hornswaggled into as a favor during a shopping spree) and had provided Susan Hayward's vocals in Valley of the Dolls (I even tossed out a bit of “I'll Plant My Own Tree” for good measure!)

We had fun hanging out, chit-chatting and so forth and you just know that after a while I couldn't help but ask her about her infamous step-father of fifteen years (and her mother's companion for far longer than that) Jack Wrangler! I won't betray that confidence (not that anything bad was said) but I can tell you that she appears in the documentary on him called Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, so perhaps some of her reflections are revealed within that movie. She is a vivacious, savvy, funny lady who bears a degree of resemblance around the mouth to her mother.

When the long, long line of fans had dwindled, I went back for another serving of Chakiris and Meriwether. I just HAD to have more conversations with them at the expense of any of my own pride. Meriwether looked at me with a resigned, “oh dear” glance that was followed by a bemused smile. This time, I got down on one knee, to be close to eye-level, and asked a few burning questions. I quizzed Chakiris on the decision to make “America,” one of the most exhilarating musical numbers of West Side Story (or of ANY film!) a battle of the sexes rather than the all-girl version that had been originated on the stage. He said that such an idea came from the screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who later took the limited and two-dimensional book of another Broadway success and helped turn it into the phenomenal smash The Sound of Music, also directed by West Side's Robert Wise.) This sparked a conversation about the dynamics of the number that somehow led to my revealing the story of how Doris Day and Vera-Ellen used to attend dance class together until a fateful car accident led Day to pursue singing instead.

I turned to Meriwether and asked if she had ever had the opportunity to meet George Clooney. (I, myself, have only been about ten feet from him, unable to penetrate the teeming crowds of fans who were swarming him, though I did get lucky enough to secure 2 of only 200 awarded tickets to attend the premiere of one of his films, which he personally introduced beforehand. This picture of him from that day at least signifies that he looked at me! How's that for the name of a book or a movie? "George Clooney Looked at Me!") She said that, no, she hadn't had the pleasure, to which I responded, “Well, you got to meet William Shatner, so there's that anyway....” Ha!

From there, the event was over and the participants retired to a local cafe where they could enjoy some warm drinks before appearing in the annual parade and heading to the $75/plate dinner. (Shown here is the exterior of the museum.) Seeing as how I had already missed half a day of work, skipped a shift at the Zoo, spent gas money to drive an hour or more round trip AND purchased a brand new sweater for the occasion, I figured I had better quit while I was ahead!

As I told these people in person, it is so special to meet someone whose work has meant something to you over the years (and not be disappointed!) George Chakiris was a startling dancer and remarkable actor in one of the most beloved movie musicals ever. He was an eye-poppingly handsome star in several movies thereafter as well, all of which I have seen. In person, he couldn't have been more considerate, patient, humble or kind. Almost completely retired from acting now, with a burgeoning silversmith jewelry business, he is enjoying the quiet life. Miss Meriwether, despite an Emmy nomination and two Golden Globe nominations, is an underrated performer who possesses so much warmth, grace and elegance. Having worked on The Time Tunnel, Star Trek, the Batman movie (in which she was Catwoman) and other cult projects, one would think that she'd be more heavily utilized in guest appearances on sci-fi series. I'm told that she does have a small role in an episode of the upcoming season of Desperate Housewives (a show I've never seen except to briefly check out Shirley Knight once) in the can. Santa can skip my house this year as I already got the best Christmas present I could ever have hoped for when I spent part of the weekend with these two lovely stars.

7 comments:

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Fascinating as ever - good to see the affection for Chakiris - who looks simply amazing for his age, there is obviously a portrait mouldering away in his attic! It is amazing to see him behind Marilyn in "Diamonds are a girl's best friend", and in "White Christmas" and that French musical I love, Jacques Demy's entrancing "Young Girls of Rochefort" with favourites Deneuve and Dorleac. I also saw him as Chopin in a BBBC Series "Notorious Woman" about George Sand (Rosemary Harris) - I never saw "Kings of the Sun" though!

vinniepop said...

FANTASTIC story - thanks so much for sharing it! I love hearing about true fans who have memorable encounters with celebrities they admire - congrats!

Dave in Alamitos Beach said...

I have all of George Chakiris' LPs on my ipod. I even have a French LP that he did which I have never found sold anywhere. I love spotting him in old MGM movies and of course West Side Story and Young Girls of Rochefort.

Speaking of the ipod, the person who is most represented on the ipod (yes, even more than Barbra) is Rosemary Clooney. I'm embarrassed to say that if I was ever in this neck of the woods, I would indeed have to go to the Rosemary Clooney museum.

PS I loved the story of your grand adventure, I just wish there were photos of you in each of your sweaters! :-)

Poseidon3 said...

Dave, I have been to the Rosemary Clooney Museum several times. Having been there the day it opened, I feel like I've watched it continue to thrive over the years. It's compact, but charming and loaded with memorabilia and sits right along the Ohio River which, on a nice day, is pleasant. As for photos of me, I have yet to "come out" and post pictures of myself here - mostly because I have a bad tendency towards weight gain and loss and never feel like I'll pass muster amongst some of the more judgmental web-surfers of the world. Some day when I'm doing well on the "loss" side of the never-ending pendulum, I'll do it! :-)

Thombeau said...

What a tremendous post! Thanks for sharing you experiences.

I hasten to add that my last job was at a zoo, and I, too, have been less than 10 feet away from George Clooney!

Jon said...

Absolutely lovely story - and what an "avenue of stars'" birthplaces you have in your neighbourhood! Jx

Poseidon3 said...

Thombeau & Jon, please forgive my delayed response to your comments! Somehow with a lot of them coming in on the recent "Torch Song" post as well as the weekend, when I spend limited time on the computer, I didn't catch them. Thank you so much for coming to this page and reading my meandering musings on this memorable day of mine.

Thom, I will never forget my "Clooney" encounter and could not believe it when my raffle ticket was drawn to see the movie and watch him introduce it to everyone. Renee Zellwger was there, too, and I was even closer to her, but meh...

Jon, some might say this was/is such a fertile breeding ground for talent because there is nothing else to do here but dream of something else!! LOL Other people born here include Roy Rogers, Roger Staubach, Amy Yasbeck, Julie Hagerty and Sarah Jessica Parker, but then we also gave the world Charles Manson....... so there ya go.