When someone who has entertained and brightened our lives passes away, it's always a shock. When one has a direct connection to the person who passed, it's even more of a shock, and amplifies the sadness. I felt the shock and sadness this morning when learning about last night's death of the legendary and ingratiating Andy Williams. I met Andy only once. That meeting took place in Andy's dressing room at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1970. It was at the urging of Bob Finkel, who had kindly placed me as one of The Ray Charles Singers, Perry Como's backup group, from 1955 to 1957, on NBC-TV's PERRY COMO SHOW. Bob was that show's Producer, two years before he would eventually begin producing THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW in 1959. (Sidebar: I just read on the Internet Caesars opened for business on my 29th birthday, August 5, 1966, with Andy Williams as the opening star, and one year before I moved to Las Vegas to start another phase of my television career. Until today, I never knew I shared a "birthday" with Caesars. Thank you, Internet!)
Back to Andy and Bob, thank goodness! :) My daughters wanted to see Andy's live show at Caesars that 1970 summer evening. I called Bob Finkel and told him my daughters were fans of Andy's and would be thrilled if they could meet him. Bob said I should just go backstage, knock on Andy's dressing room door and we could have the meeting. I did what Bob suggested. In those days, security was a little less stringent, and because of my television visibility, the security guards kindly recognized me and allowed us to get right to Andy's dressing room door. I knocked. Andy answered in about 10 seconds, "Yeah? What do you want", he asked. I said, "I'm a friend of Bob Finkel, and Bob said he thought it would be okay if my daughters and I said hello to you in person after tonight's show". He immediately (warmly, with a very big smile) welcomed us into his dressing room, he asked me about my history with Bob, the girls got his autograph, we had a nice, short visit, and left. That was that, and I never saw Andy face-to-face again. I was happy he had perpetuated his talents for many years at his own Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri, where the Wall Lake, Iowa, native sadly left us earlier today. He and his brothers certainly added to the stellar collection of Upper Midwesterners who helped shape global appreciation for some of the greatest entertainers this country has ever been blessed to produce. Thanks to recordings, Andy's talent will be with us forever. (One of my favorites, and to which I listen on a special CD in the car, year 'round, is Andy's uplifting rendition of "The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year", the best, in my opinion. Yes, it's Christmas year 'round for yours truly, thanks to Andy. (Hello? Bellevue?) :)
Regarding Bob Finkel and some of the nuances of show business in particular: Bob (who died this past April 30th at age 94) was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native. Me, too, as I think I've stated in this space previously. :) He graduated from Carnegie-Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon) University. His father and my grandfather were pals and sometime business partners. When I was acting and living in New York City in my late teens, my grandfather asked Bill Finkel, Bob's father, if Bob might consider "giving me a break" by possibly working weekly on THE PERRY COMO SHOW, of which my grandfather knew Bob was the Executive Producer. Bill told my grandfather he'd ask Bob. I got a call from Bob within a couple days. I went to his office and Bob asked me if I could sing. I said "Yes". He asked me to sing something I knew Perry had recorded. I sang "Prisoner Of Love". He told me he'd have me become one of The Ray Charles Singers, Perry's backup group, beginning with the following Saturday's show. That lasted for two years from Spring, 1955 until late Autumn, 1957. The show was aired "live" at the now torn-down Ziegfeld Theater, where Billy Rose still maintained an apartment above the theater, and where the original Ziegfeld Follies had been performed. It was like being a part of history, but I had no idea about Bob Finkel's depth in television history until I started working for him. Bob's first "big" assignment was as Director of THE COLGATE COMEDY HOUR starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, a few years prior to producing THE PERRY COMO SHOW. He previously and subsequently worked with all the giants in the industry, including producing The Eddie Fisher Show, The Dinah Shore Show, numerous Oscar and Emmy Awards shows and even directed Natalie Wood in Pride of the Family. He also kindly took me under his wing a few times for other parts on other shows. One of them was NBC-TV's Alcoa Hour production of "Paris and Mrs. Pearlman", which starred Gertrude Berg, well-known in those days for her portrayal of Molly Goldberg on the sitcom, THE GOLDBERGS. All these shows were "live", not taped or filmed, so everything had to be "perfect", with no re-takes. Just two hours before the program was going to air, Bob had us all sit around on couches outside the set and said he had a problem which involved Ms. Berg. He said to her, "What are we going to do about this?". Ms.Berg replied, "I don't know. YOU'RE the Director, dear." Needless to say, the show did go on and the problem was solved by Bob. Also on that program were French actor Claude Dauphin and actor Sanford (Sandy) Meisner. We all had lunch together that day. I had no idea Sandy Meisner also taught acting, and his acting school was one of the best in the business, with some of his students becoming international stars. If not familiar with him or his history, you can see more if you Google his name. (Again, thank you, Internet!)
Great memories and I hope if you're interested in "the business" you may have enjoyed them. One more: Bob Finkel was also responsible for having The Osmonds make their national television debut on THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW. Quite a dynamo, he was an affable, likeable and knowledgeable fellow who knew what attracted audiences for many years. Bravo to Bob and Andy for enriching our lives during a more wholesome time in television history.
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read this geezer's thoughts and remembrances. I hope you'll please also take time to watch my A SENIOR MOMENT webcasts at www.startribune.com/video, where the subject changes every Monday.