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Continued: A life of contradictions: Shedding light on Dark Star

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 12, 2012 - 7:48 AM

When he collapsed in his apartment on June 1, dead at the age of 66, his friends and many of his listeners from his old WCCO-AM radio sports show were still trying to figure him out.

He had three names -- Dark Star, George Chapple and George Baird -- a seemingly endless supply of money and possibly two ex-wives, though some thought there were three. He drove a Maserati, took the name Dark Star from the 1953 Kentucky Derby winner and once falsified a subpoena to scare a man into apologizing when he felt he had been insulted.

He convinced an insurance company to pay him $285,000 when he said his baseball card collection was stolen, and stretched a dental procedure into a three-month leave from work. His mother, Phyllis, lived in an apartment down the hall from him until her death in 2007, and, according to a close friend, she had the security cameras angled in the garage so she could see when her middle-aged son was in for the night. He had two memorial services, one at Canterbury Park, the other at Interlachen Country Club in Edina.

In the end, Dark Star was a last-of-an-era character to many, and more than a bit of a scam artist to many others -- a man who was admired in Minnesota for an off-beat radio show and an outsized personality. Until the day he died, his friends marveled at his pied piper's ability to get the famous and the not-so-famous to drop what they were doing whenever he called.

And as they gathered to remember him in the days after his death, many said it mattered little that much of what came out of Dark Star's mouth was fiction. "You knew, deep down, that probably three-quarters of it wasn't true," said Kevin Gorg, a longtime Dark Star fan and now a local sportscaster. "You just kind of went along with it."

He sat dissecting baseball games with Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew. Former Vikings coach Denny Green told his lawyer, Joe Friedberg, that Dark Star was the only media personality in the Twin Cities he trusted.

Tom Kelly, the former Twins manager, also was a friend and played golf with Dark Star just days before he died.

"He was really good in a lot of small dosages," Kelly said, but "if you got a week of" him, it might not be as fun.

Kelly said Dark Star would call him during the season to discuss strategy -- but he downplayed his baseball acumen. "He had a working knowledge of what was basically going on, but I wouldn't get too carried away," Kelly said.

In recalling a trip Dark Star made to New Orleans, Eric Halstrom told a crowd at a memorial service that "I took part in [what] may have some criminal activity" involved. The story, which drew hearty laughs and knowing nods, began with Dark Star impersonating a doctor when a customer collapsed in an antique store. The paramedics arrived and the customer was hauled out, and later a thankful store owner shipped a pricey coffee table to the "doctor" in appreciation for his help.

A caring side

But the depth of Dark Star's impact transcended the outrageous.

A hush fell over the crowd at Interlachen when Ryan Lefebvre, a former Gophers baseball star and now a broadcaster for the Kansas City Royals, spoke of the help that came from Dark Star as Lefebvre fought depression. "He would say, 'I love you, dude.' And I would say, 'I love you, too, Pops,'" Lefebvre said of their frequent phone talks.

When Lefebvre turned 40, Dark Star wrote and explained why he had bothered coming to the aid of a "cocky, look-at-me, look-at-me punk." Said Dark Star: "I saw all the things I did wrong."

Sarah Frakes was in her early 20s when she met Dark Star at Canterbury Park seven years ago. She said she became his best friend, accompanying him to Yankee Stadium and to Las Vegas, where he won $28,000 on a single bet. She became a weekend sports anchor in Duluth, and Dark Star had visions of being her agent as she ascended up the sports media ladder.

When that did not materialize, she settled for lazy dinners and long conversations with him at the Blue Point Restaurant in Wayzata, a favorite haunt. "Over the last several years, I would have to say that I was with Dark more than anybody else," said Frakes, who bristles at those who think they were romantically involved. "Dark knew how upsetting [the rumor] was to me. It just made me mad."

If anything, she said, he became a fretting father figure. When she began dating a police officer he became "absolutely livid," she said, thinking she had made a poor choice. On another occasion, she said, he had a custom-made baseball cap with the words "Team Michael" stitched on front -- a reminder to Frakes that Dark Star was solidly in the corner of a boyfriend named Michael.

In her eulogy at Canterbury Park, she told the gathering that Dark Star once tried to buy a giraffe. "I guess I never pictured that when I was 22 years old that a guy in his 60s could have so much in common with me," she said.

It was all part of what drove the legend, which Dark Star did not seem to mind creating for himself. When a startled woman saw a bug in her salad at a dinner party, he reached in and ate it. That story came from Mick Stenson, the president of Davanni's Inc. George Anastos, the man who handled Dark Star's finances, joked that "I was not his financial adviser, I was his ATM. All I could do is slow him down." Anastos said that when Dark Star's mother died, Dark Star handed him a $10,000 check in gratitude for helping his mother.

Anastos said he immediately ripped up the check. "I could lose my license," Anastos told Dark Star.

"I watched George become this public figure, shaking my head, going, 'Oh, my God, how do you do that?'" said Anastos, who remained a longtime family friend.

By most accounts, Dark Star lived off a series of on-air endorsements, an inheritance from his mother and his earnings and a buyout from WCCO Radio. He seemed to be always uncorking the next sure-fire deal that occasionally panned out.

Relationships and sports

Dark Star's most enduring relationship was with his mother. They were one another's only living relatives -- Dark Star had no siblings -- and it was at his urging that Phyllis moved into the same apartment complex, and the two almost always ended their day with a 15-minute conversation.

Bill Weinberg, a childhood friend, said Dark Star's mother once lamented that her son probably never would have a long-term girlfriend because of his addiction to sports and, she laughed, because "he drinks a lot, stays up all night and gambles."

Colleen Hitchcock, who dated Dark Star in the 1970s, said the problem for any woman was prying him away from sports. Once, she said, she arrived for a date -- and ended up watching wrestling. Dana Smith had this distinction: Dark Star dated not only Smith's mother but later a classmate of Smith's who was almost half his age. When Dark Star dated Smith's mother in the 1980s -- Smith was 14 -- she remembered him taking her to stock car races. "[It] was a lot of fun," she said, but added that "you could easily be turned off by him, if you don't 'get' him."

His hold on people was easy to see. Dark Star hired two young sisters to run errands and clean his Minnetonka apartment. The errands included once fetching six rotisserie chickens, and the chores included winding the four grandfather clocks he kept in his bedroom. "When George would call us to do anything, we would always jump," said one of the sisters, Sarah Scoville. "It was never work."

Friedberg, his occasional lawyer, remembered first meeting Dark Star in the betting line at Canterbury Park. He said he was stunned as he watched Dark Star make bets against the horses he had picked that morning in a handicapping column he wrote for a local newspaper. Friedberg said he confronted the handicapper, called him a "thief" and remembered thinking that, as a criminal attorney who represented swindlers and forgers, he was likely talking to a "potential client."

One of the state's pre-eminent defense attorneys and one of its pre-eminent characters became fast friends, gambling buddies and, finally, former gamblers when Friedberg said they both quit. In one bizarre episode, Friedberg said Dark Star gave a phoney legal subpoena to a man Dark Star claimed was insulting him. The shaken man came to Friedberg's office holding the subpoena and Friedberg -- unsure of the legality of what was happening -- told him all would be forgiven by writing Dark Star an apology.

"Joe provided adult supervision for Dark," said Eric Eskola, another longtime WCCO Radio personality and Dark Star friend.

Despite having little experience as a radio host, Dark Star pestered WCCO program director Jon Quick for a job in the mid-1980s, showing up at his home and ingratiating himself with Quick's mother-in-law by bringing her obscure memorabilia from the long-ago Seattle World's Fair.

"We just took a gamble with him," he said.

Wendy Paulson, another WCCO Radio program director, moved Dark Star's show from mornings to late night, pairing the station's off-beat personality with a more off-beat audience. "That was really more his playground," she said.

Then again, there was not much, including his radio gig, that was not Dark Star's playground.

Rocco Bonello, a producer at WCCO Radio for Dark Star, remembered when the host turned a dental procedure into a long leave and spent it at a lodge in northern Minnesota. "He took the summer off, and he would check in every now and then," said Bonello, who described the episode as one of Dark Star seeing "how much he could get away with."

How often did Dark Star get into trouble with management, leading to suspensions?

"Now, why do you have to ask that?" Paulson asked, before largely declining to answer. "Dark is getting the last laugh because of the things we don't know that he did."

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