Friday, November 11, 2011
In the Presence of the Famous
Sid Melton died last week in Burbank at the ripe old age of 94. If you’re much under 60, it’s unlikely the name would register, and even if you’re over 60, the name alone might not do it. See his picture, though, and you’d remember.
Melton was one of those great character actors who had a long run in TV and movies. He’s probably best known for playing “Uncle Charlie Halper,” the owner of the nightclub where Danny Thomas performed in his long-running TV show. Or, perhaps, as Alf Monroe, the inept handyman on Green Acres. Or, if you really want to go back, as Ichabod Mudd, the sidekick of Captain Midnight on the Saturday morning TV show of that name in the early 1950s. To the end of his life, the Times reported, people would come up to Melton and mimic his standing line from that show, “Mudd, with two D’s.”
When I got the news, however, I remembered something different and more personal. Sid Melton was in the room on my first date in the summer of 1967.
I’d finally worked up the nerve to ask out a girl from Holy Family High School, who’d taken a summer school drama class with me at Hoover High, my school in Glendale. We went to see Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood, then had a pizza afterward at Miceli’s Restaurant next door. I just Googled, and both the theatre and Miceli’s are still around, against all odds, 44 years later.
Melton had one of the major supporting roles in the play, which I remember as being very funny. And remembering seeing him in person got me to thinking about some of the other Hollywood figures I saw live.
There was Marlene Dietrich, when she did a one-woman show at the Music Center in Los Angeles. There was John Carradine, at the end of his career and life, starring in a local community college production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, so ill and infirm he could barely say his lines. At a luncheon at UC-Santa Cruz, in the early 1970s, I sat next to Jean Arthur, long-retired by then. A couple of years later I was in Berkeley for an evening with the legendary Howard Hawks, who directed John Wayne in Red River and Rio Bravo, Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not, and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday.
No one is alive now who saw Sarah Bernhardt act, and very few people living today have seen John Barrymore or Helen Hayes in live theater. It won’t be that long before nobody’s around who saw any of the people I’ve seen. Movies and TV will keep their names and images around for a long time to come, but when no one is left who knew them, however fleetingly, they’ll be ghosts.
Nearly everyone I know has a memory of seeing a movie or TV star live, and they never forget it. There’s something about being in the presence of the real person that can’t be duplicated. And on rare occasions, a chain develops, linking mere mortals with a famous person from long ago. At a Rotary Club meeting, I once shook hands with a man who shook hands with a man who shook hands with President Lincoln, who was the media star of his age. It’s as close to Lincoln as I’ll ever get, and I cherish the connection.