Close Encounters Of The Celebrity Kind

We might as well admit it. It’s obvious that we’re all fascinated by celebrities. In fact, you could probably say that our endless interest forms part of the very definition of the word. According to the dictionary, a celebrity is someone who is “held up for public acclaim”, which our society certainly does with an enthusiasm that’s sometimes a little scary.

Recently I got to thinking about the nature of celebrity, and it occurred to me that most of us probably have memories of brushing up against celebrities at one time or another — maybe not literally coming into contact with them, which was easier before all the stalker scares, but at least occupying the same airspace with a famous person. I think that I remember reading that there are even websites devoted to celebrity encounters. I’ve had at least four that I can remember, which might or might not be typical, but the interesting thing to me is that each of the four incidents created a different feeling for me — disappointment in the first, pity in the next, revelation in the third, and amazement in the last.

The earliest I can remember would have been in the 1950s, when I traveled to Chicago with a friend and his family to watch my first big league baseball game, the White Sox versus the Yankees. I remember that I was excited by the prospect of seeing Mickey Mantle and I’d even brought a little autograph book. After the game my friend and I found our way to the players exit. We waited and waited and finally the players started passing by, while we eagerly watched for our hero. Eventually Mantle made his appearance and I thrust my book and pencil at him. I’ll never forget the moment – he shoved it aside and snarled, “Get the hell out of my way, kid.”

My next was in the late 1960s, when I saw Rory Calhoun at a local Woolco store. (A now-defunct chain created by Woolworth’s to compete with Kresge’s K-mart.) Rory was sitting on a chair in the middle of a small raised platform, with a sign beside him that said something like “Here in person! Western star Rory Calhoun!” He looked bored and appeared to be nursing a hang-over, and he was sitting there being completely ignored by everyone in sight.

Although he’d never been a big star, at one time he was a solid B movie lead and had turned in some good supporting roles in bigger movies. By this point in his career, he was still getting some guest shots on TV but was losing traction — as evidenced by his showing up at a discount store. I stopped and looked at him and he looked at me. I don’t know if I was expecting him to jump up and fire a six-gun, but I remember thinking how pathetic he seemed. Finally, I nodded and said, “Hello”, and he answered…and I walked on, feeling bad for him.

My third encounter was in the 1980s when I once spotted comedian Jonathan Winters at an antique flea market in a nearby large city. I didn’t actually talk to him, but stood next to him while he was looking at antique toys, and noticed how people kept coming up and asking for his autograph. I didn’t particularly want his autograph, but couldn’t help overhear him saying that he was appearing in the city at a live concert, and that he collected antique toys. Going out to antique shows was one of the things he always did when on tour. I remember being surprised and enlightened by the thought that a celebrity was not that different than me – enjoying collecting as a hobby – and somehow that had never occurred to me before.

My final happening was the time that country singer Conway Twitty was appearing in our city and I happened to almost literally run into him in the hallway of a hotel. He had a guy on each side of him (bodyguards?) and I was walking toward them in the narrow hall. I immediately knew who he was because I knew he was in town, and he had the full getup — styled hair, fancy suit, etc.

We all did the hallway two-step, where we try to dance around each other while murmuring lots of “excuse me’s”, before finally passing on. I remember that I was amazed by one thing that I’d never guessed about him because of how we see celebrities on TV or on stage. He was tiny! His hair was taller than him.* But never mind that — he had the voice, and was always one of my favorites, from his early rockabilly days to his many years of country and pop success. One of my favorites is his duet with Sam Moore on “Rainy Night In Georgia”.

How about it, folks? Any good stories to add? We can have our own little mini-website of celebrity encounters right here. Your comments would work just fine.

  • A later note about Twitty, who died at age 59 in 1993, shortly after making this record. At least one source lists his height at an even six feet, so maybe his bodyguards were huge and I was just focused on him. . .or maybe not.

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