Stories told

Brushes with greatness

I’ve told this story twice before, but the last time was seven years ago and chances are you weren’t among my readers yet.

pinto1

In the summer of 1986 I drove a rusty brown Ford Pinto all over northern Indiana delivering small packages for my aunt Betty’s courier service. Thank you nepotism! The Pinto was basic transportation; its only creature comfort was an AM radio, which I left tuned to WLS from Chicago. WLS still played top-40 music then. Fred Winston did the morning show, Don Wade and his wife Roma held down middays, and Larry Lujack and Rich McMillan came on in the afternoon. They were such fun to listen to! I can’t remember which of them had the call-in feature called Brush with Greatness, in which listeners were invited to call and tell stories of times they encountered famous people. Listeners’ stories seldom failed to be funny or touching.

For a guy who has always lived in places famous people studiously avoid (despite Steve Martin’s famous trips to Terre Haute), I’ve encountered a surprising number people of talent and notoriety. These, then, are my brushes with greatness.

•••

Tony-Randall-tony-randall-1395461-346-400I admit that this first story is a stretch. My parents played canasta with their best friends, the Porters, every Saturday night for more than 40 years. Somehow, Mr. Porter knew Tony Randall, who played Felix Unger on the sitcom The Odd Couple. One Saturday night sometime in the late 70s, dragged along to the Porters’ for another night of watching TV until the adults quit playing cards, the air was electric because Mr. Randall was expected to call. The phone soon rang, and while Mr. Porter and Mr. Randall talked I sat in wonder that this man I watched in reruns was alive at his telephone. Did he stand at the wall phone in his kitchen like Mr. Porter? Or did he rather sit in a cordovan leather wing chair in a book-lined study with a half-consumed glass of tawny port next to his black desk phone on an oval walnut end table with red oak inlay? Mr. Porter seemed a little taller to me for a while after that call.

•••

Here’s a much better story. In the summer of 1985, I met a bunch of friends from all corners of Indiana on Long Beach near Michigan City for a weekend of beaching and catching up with each other. We were all young and stupid, and Indiana hadn’t passed any seat-belt laws yet, so we got the bright idea to cram ourselves into a little hatchback and go for a drive. Nine or ten of us fit somehow into that little Nissan, windows down, cruising, enjoying the warm summer air.

jim-belushiAt a light, a dark BMW sedan with dark windows pulled up alongside us on our left. We all oohed and aahed over the shiny Bimmer when the front passenger window went down. A man leaned across the seat and asked us for directions to a movie theater. He looked familiar, and his voice was distinctive, but it wasn’t until our driver asked in disbelief, “Are you Jim Belushi?” that it clicked. He quickly said yes, but immediately asked again for directions. The girl sitting in my lap lived in the area and started to shout the directions as the light changed and the rest of us in the car went nuts. Both cars pulled away, directions still being shouted. We were going pretty fast by the time Jim thanked us, rolled up his window, and zoomed away. Apparently, the Belushis owned property on Long Beach.

•••

Dad’s friend Mr. Porter directed the art museum at the University of Notre Dame, and we got invited to a whole bunch of exhibit openings. I met many of the artists, but the only one to leave any impression on me was Christo. He and his wife Jeanne-Claude do big and sometimes controversial works such as wrapping the German Reichstag in over a million square feet of woven polypropylene in or hanging saffron-colored strips of cloth from saffron-colored vinyl poles in New York’s Central Park.

Christo’s entrance sent electric ripples through the room. The man had his own atmosphere! I felt the air grow thinner as he approached Mr. Porter, next to whom I was standing. Mr. Porter introduced me. Christo didn’t look directly at me as he extended a hand — a limp hand, and a flaccid handshake. What a sharp contrast!

•••

I didn’t exactly meet Richard Carpenter, but I got a letter from him. I’ve always loved the Carpenters’ music, and sometime during my college years I wrote a gushing letter to the Carpenters Fan Club telling them so. A couple months later a letter came for me in an envelope marked with the A&M Records logo. It contained a brief letter from Richard on A&M letterhead saying that my letter touched him. His long signature looked like a convention of ovals. I have to believe it was a form letter handed to Richard for signature, but I was thrilled anyway. I sure wish I knew what happened to that letter.

•••

GrimReaperIn college, my friend Michael was music director for the campus radio station. He built relationships with record-company reps, who sometimes invited him to concerts to encourage him to put their artists into rotation. He got invited to a heavy-metal triple bill — Armored Saint, Grim Reaper, and power-metal pioneers Helloween, — up in Chicago, and asked me along. I’m sure you don’t know these bands, but in our world they were a big deal. I liked Grim Reaper all right and I was hot into Helloween, so I was pretty excited. Sweetening the deal, Michael got invited to interview the founder of Grim Reaper, a guitarist named Nick Bowcott.

We drove up from Terre Haute in Michael’s old Buick, a $750 car stuffed with $1,500 of premium audio equipment. We rocked powerfully and distortion-free all the way to the Aragon Theater only to find that the show had been moved to a bar in some other part of town. I thought we were sunk, but Michael was not daunted. He followed some sketchy directions, threading his leviathan automobile through narrow streets in seedy parts of town, and we made the show just in time. It rocked.

Afterwards, we were escorted to the tour bus where Nick awaited. The whole band was on board, along with a stream of girls right around the age of consent with faces full of makeup, bodies not very full of clothes, and eyes full of hope and desire that they would be special that night. Band members seemed at once interested, wary, and uncomfortable with their attention — except the lead singer, who just seemed interested.

Most of the girls were shooed off. Nick sat down before us, Michael pressed the Record button on his little tape recorder, and the interview began. Nick was bright, energetic, passionate, and engaged. He answered Michael’s questions thoughtfully and thoroughly, talking freely about the band, making albums, succeeding in the recording industry, and even the existence of God (which he doubted). He looked deeply and intensely into our eyes as he spoke. Didn’t he know we were just two 20-year-old kids from a 160-watt radio station in Terre Haute, Indiana? He treated us like we were from Rolling Stone, giving us his sole attention for as long as Michael had questions. Nick Bowcott was a class act.

•••

Finally, I got to see one of my favorite bands, Heart, play in 2006 at the Morris Performing Arts Center, a fine old theater in South Bend. I was stoked: I had won a contest to briefly meet Ann and Nancy Wilson backstage before the show. The other contest winners and I waited near the stage entrance for our chance. The handler came out and said that our meeting would be very brief and that we could have them sign one item each. I hadn’t thought to bring something to autograph! A friendly woman with a bright smile asked me if I would mind having Ann and Nancy sign an item she brought, since she had brought two.

As the handler took us backstage, he explained that recently some fans had done upsetting and frightening things at these meet-and-greets, so we would do this in receiving-line style so we wouldn’t overwhelm Ann and Nancy. We were to quietly wait our turn or we would be escorted out, period. The air grew tense as Ann and Nancy came out, flanked by crew. They stayed shoulder to shoulder with each other and looked about anxiously. They dutifully signed the items we brought but didn’t say anything. When my turn came, I told her how much pleasure her music had brought me. She looked confused for a moment, but shortly it registered what I had said. She looked me in the eye and said with surprise, in a throaty voice, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Ann signed what I had in my hands and looked directly at the person in line behind me, so I took the hint and moved over in front of Nancy. She just took my item and began to sign it without looking up. I wasn’t sure what to say now, given that things had been so confused with Ann, so I just tried to catch her eyes. She finally noticed and looked at me. Her eyes were as blue as a spring sky, startlingly lovely — but her pupils were the size of sharp pencil points, tiny dots roaring that there would be no friendly chitchat. I mumbled that it was a pleasure to meet her, and then stepped toward the handler and waited until everybody had their turn. After the handler took a photo of us all, we were escorted back to the lobby. Here’s that photo. The woman between me and Ann had the bright smile.

MeAndHeart

Why didn’t I think to get a photo with Nick Bowcott?

What are your brushes with greatness?

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16 thoughts on “Brushes with greatness

  1. hmunro says:

    I’m among the people who didn’t see this seven years ago, so thank you for bringing back these great memories, Jim. I loved all of your stories, especially the one about Christo. I’ve always wondered what he’s like, as a human being, because his art can be so outlandish. You’ve confirmed my suspicions of a Salvador Dalí-like “electric” presence.
    As for *my* brushes with greatness? Hmmm. Let’s see. The first came when I was two weeks old, I’m told, on a flight from Los Angeles to London. My parents had just adopted me and were flying me home when Julie Andrews came over and asked if she could hold me. My parents we so proud of me for not puking on her! About five years ago Ms. Andrews was in town to promote one of her films, so I went down to the Barnes and Noble with my PanAm Fledglings Club certificate, in hopes of having Ms. Andrews sign it all those years later (knowing full well there was *no way* she would remember that baby, of course). Alas, the line was so long I never even caught a glimpse of her. It’s OK, though: Brushes with fame are meant to be fleeting, and they’re best when they’re totally unexpected, aren’t they?
    PS: As a sad postscript, I regret that I never got to meet David Bowie. I didn’t always adore his work, but I had immense respect for him as an artist, and as a truly elegant human being …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your Julie Andrews story is pretty darn cool! Can you imagine her reaction, should you have met her at B&N, to a grown woman saying, “You held me as a baby”? Wow, suddenly she would have felt so old!

      My Facebook feed exploded this morning with remembrances of Bowie. A loss.

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  2. Helloween and Gamma Ray are my best friend’s favorite bands. I’m not crazy into metal, but I’ve listened to my fair share and HAVE heard of Grim Reaper and Armored Saint :) I’ve got a few stories…

    Growing up, our local area churches would pool their resources to put together festivals and concerts and I got to meet a lot of bands that way. My parents owned a B&B and we volunteered to put up the acts during their stay. We got to know bands like Pawn and 3 Peace Offering, who never made it big, but then we also hung out with some way back before they ever broke out, like Switchfoot and Relient K (I first saw them perform before they put out their first album, that show they announced they had just been signed to a label). Switchfoot was a bit bigger then and we were pretty big fans, they had already put out their 2nd album so this was around 1999-2000. My brother and I stayed up late that night playing Goldeneye with them, and we had breakfast together in the morning. I don’t know where they are at the moment, but pictures were taken. Strangely enough, a good friend from back then (who moved to the same town in Colorado that I did) lives in California now and still surfs with Jon Foreman. It’s a small world.

    When I studied music at Ohio State 2005-2009, Donald Harris was still teaching composition and I had classes with him. He’s been around for a long time, studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger back in the 1950s and knows a ton of people, who he’s enticed from time to time to visit the university. Dr. Harris personally introduced me to composer Gunther Schuller who was a longtime friend of his, during a series of concerts we gave of Schuller’s works. I pretty much just shook his hand and said “hi,” didn’t have much to say back then, and I ended up missing most of the concerts. Just last summer I came across Schuller again in my Jazz History class, evidently he had been in with a lot of the greats in the ’50s and ’60s, conducting the Modern Jazz Quartet, playing French Horn on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, and plenty of others. I wish I had taken the time to learn more about him when he came to Ohio State, and sadly he just died back in June. My fellow students still remember him and we’ve reminisced on Facebook.

    I also met some video game composers during the Video Games Live concert they put on at Mershon Auditorium which is also on Ohio State campus, composers Tommy Tallarico, Michael Salvatori, and Jack Wall. They just set up booths after the concert to sell CDs and things; there were super long lines and it took more than an hour for my turn, but they took the time to chat with every one there and we all got pictures too (or at least I did). It’s great, first of all, seeing composers being treated like rock stars, but also that they were so incredibly down to Earth, unassuming.

    More recently I met photographer Robert H. Jackson at an exhibition of his work, he’s the guy who won a Pulitzer prize for the picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. After Texas he worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette for 20-something years I think. He had lots of stories and I got to spend a couple hours talking to him about the Kennedy assassination, celebrities from the ’60s and ’70s, etc…it’s all on the blog, that one. He talked about selling off a camera or two as well, so I might be getting back in contact with him soon…

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    • Cool to know that there are still people out there for whom Helloween matters. I mean, they’re still playing and making records, but power metal’s time in the sun was absolutely the late 80s and that’s a dang long time ago now.

      You’ve got some good stories, some important musicians and photographers.

      I forgot to update this story with one other brush with greatness. When I edited Dummies books for a living, I was in a small group that met Dr. Ruth Westheimer upon the release of her book, Sex For Dummies. But there’s nothing more to tell than that; it was an unremarkable visit.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. divetrash says:

    Hmmmm… let’s see. In 1998 I attended the Broadway opening night of “The Blue Room” starring Nicole Kidman, with my friend Nancy who had worked on the set. Afterwards, Nancy had to run back stage to the Stage Manager’s office, so she took me with her. While I was sitting there waiting for Nancy to finish up, the door opened and Tom Cruise walked in to congratulate every one. My friend Nancy introduced me to Tom. I have to say, he was very engaging. He shook my hand and placed his other hand on my arm and said, “Nice to meet you Laura” and flashed that megawatt smile of his, I went non-verbal, though Nancy said I did make some sense.

    That same night we were at the after party down at Chelsea Piers and I went to the bathroom. When I came out of the stall, Teri Hatcher was washing her hands. We caught each others’ eye in the mirror and said hello. This was post “Lois and Clark” and pre “Desperate Housewives” I rifled through my brain and remembered she had just been cast as Sally Bowles in the national tour of “Cabaret” so I congratulated her on the gig and asked if she was planning to do the English accent. She said, “Well, Sam (Mendes, the director) and I discussed it and decided that I should.” So, I mentioned that I had just seen Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role and was kind of put off since she seemed to be playing the accent more than the role. And she said, “Well, Jennifer’s a friend of mine…” OOPS! “But I can see where that could happen.” She was very kind and gracious.

    My most embarrassing one was Shaun Cassidy. I loved him when I was like 8 or 9. And I mean, I LOVED him. I used to kiss the TV when he came on in “The Hardy Boys”. In 1994 he was performing in the Broadway musical “Blood Brothers” with David Cassidy and Petula Clark. I went to TKTS and got a ticket one night after work. During the show when he first stepped on stage and opened his mouth to sing, I literally swooned. Weak knees, trouble breathing, the works. People around me were concerned,. I’m not generally a stage door person, but for this I was going to make an exception. I waited outside, Petula came out and signed autographs, David skipped out a different door and then Shaun came out. When my turn came, somehow everything just came gushing out of my mouth, about how much I had loved him, the albums I had, kissing the TV. By the time I was done, he was looking at me a bit warily and said “Thank you very much” and moved to the next person. And I swooned again. I am NOT a swooner.

    The most unintentionally creepy one was Kenneth Branagh. In November 2001 I had gone to London to visit a friend. We had gotten tickets to “Private Lives” starring Alan Rickman in the West End. This was another exception to the stage door thing, because I had developed a huge crush on him in “Truly Madly Deeply”. So we waited, now in the West End some of the theaters back onto an alley and the stage doors are all located on the same alley. While we were waiting for Alan Rickman, a stage door behind us opened and Kenneth Branagh came out. He was directing “The Play What I Wrote” in the nearby theater. So I said hi, got his autograph and told him that I thought he was put on this Earth to make Shakespeare accessible. He said thank you and I went back to waiting for Alan, who was very kind and gracious and laughed at my joke about him being the best thing in “Robin of Iowa” (The Kevin Costner Robin Hood). Flash forward a year later and “The Play What I Wrote” has transferred to Broadway and my friend Nancy worked on the set. She takes me to opening night and at the party after I was heading to the bar for a drink and I run into Kenneth Branagh. The opening went fine, I said Hi he said Hi, but I probably shouldn’t have followed up with “I met you last year in an alleyway in London!” He kind of backed away quickly. That was a good party though, I met Eddie Izzard, very funny, and Michael Palin (almost another swoon moment).

    There have been others, but those are the ones that always make me laugh.

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  4. Jim, very cool and interesting post!! Living in NY, I’ve had my fair share of run ins, which would make a good story for another time. But my favorite story was receiving a thank you note from Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. I the 90s I sent him a letter voicing my support for him and disfavor for the International Astronomical Union’s plans to “demote” Pluto into a minor planet. I was pleasantly surprise he wrote me back to thank me! I thought about him as that spacecraft carrying his ashes approached Pluto last July. This is a great post, I especially love your shot with Heart, I love their music!!

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  5. Andy Umbo says:

    Ha. your ‘brush’ with Jim Belushi reminded me of the time I was waiting for a plane at Washington National. I used to live in Washington DC and I would fly back to Milwaukee a few times a year to see my parents. One time, we were waiting for the plane sitting at our gate to leave, so that our plane could dock and we could board. It was holding for an “important passenger”. It’s something you get used to in DC, it’s usually a cabinet member, member of congress, or at “least” a governor. Imagine our surprise when the guy finally showed up, and it was Jim Belushi getting rushed onto the plane. Trust me, a lot of derogatory comments about not being “worth the wait”.

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  6. Eavesdropping while Tony Randall is on the other end of the line and Jim Belushi in the car in the next lane. Guess you have come closer to touching greatness than I have. Wait! Wait! I saw Yoyo Ma in a plane terminal once.

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  7. I was close to President Kennedy one time. At least he must have been close because my mother shook his hand. Being only four at the time it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I thought this going to see a President was just something you did once in a while.

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  8. Back in the late 70s I knew the guy who wore the Mr. Blueberry mascot costume in the annual Blueberry Festival Parade in Amherst, Nova Scotia. :)

    And as if that weren’t enough, I had the honour of meeting and briefly speaking with Gary Numan when he toured Toronto a few years back. Got him to sign my copy of Exhibition, which I’ve had since 1987. :) Awwwesoooommmme…! :)

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