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AUGUST 2009

Howdy! 50 years and 25 pounds ago I was Jimmy Stewart for a day. Warner Bros. was making “The Spirit of St. Louis” and they needed an off-duty actor to help test Big Blue, their back projection screen. I was the guinea pig du jour. The brothers Warner just loved whisking you off the golf course and into some odd job on the lot when you weren’t working on a flick. I tell ya, those fellahs rode ya hard and put ya to bed wet. I was proud of all my community service—why, Colonel Warner’s bathroom absolutely gleamed! But I digress…suddenly, it was 1927 and I was Charles Lindbergh triumphantly riding down New York’s 5th Avenue atop the backseat of a convertible, waving and grinning all day to the multitude, as the wind machine blew ticker tape up my nostrils.

James Stewart.A month or so later I was invited to the premiere—I rented a tux and Warner Bros. rented me a date, Miss Germany. On the way to Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre I regaled her with war stories. During the Korean conflict I was stationed at SHAPE HQ, near Paris, and at night we GI’s would listen to “The Mad Baron of B” broadcasting Jazz out of Berlin. The Mad Baron would sign off each show with an “Auf Wreder Bop!” I gave the car keys to our valet, Rudy, and we made our grand promenade up the long red velvet walkway. Jimmy Stewart awaited at the theatre’s entrance welcoming the guests. Miss Germany and I had our picture taken with our gracious host. I treasure it. We were ushered to our seats, the lights lowered, the curtains parted. Miss Germany leaned over and whispered two words in her sultry accent: “Let’s go!” I leaned closer and whispered one word. “No!” We sat through the entire picture, and I was transported. I was in that airplane with Jimmy in his tour de force across the Atlantic. I thought he was a shoo-in for an Oscar, but, then, I felt the same about most of his performances. My date and I rode back to her town house quickly and quietly. I deposited her at the front door. “Good night, Mr. Hutchins!” “Auf Wreder Bop. Miss Germany!”

Cut to the Sportsman’s Lodge,  August 23, 1985—Babs and I were there at a good table with Jocko and Autumn Mahoney, Bo Hopkins and Iron Eyes Cody for the third annual Golden Boot Awards, Pat Buttram presiding. We were sitting hard-by Jimmy Stewart’s table. Gene Autry gave him the Boot for his work in some of the greatest westerns ever created. He wore cowboy duds including his signature hat. I hoped he’d parked Pie out front. He looked believable in anything he wore: baseball outfit, tails, fedora, pilot’s uniform, a plaster cast on his leg.

Jimmy arrived on time that night and remained through the whole shebang. He didn’t work the room. He didn’t shuck and jive. He was just one piece of a grand mosaic. At evening’s end he joined presenters and honorees on stage for rousing renditions of “Back in the Saddle” and “Happy Trails”. All night long he lived the moment, going with the flow, concentrating on the proceedings with a bit of wistful awe. Professionalism and team play incarnate. I watched his eyes! The most powerful set of peepers in movies, expressing mirth to sorrow, movies within movies, eternal windows to the truth…There are millions of Jimmy Stewarts. No two of us perceive him in quite the same way. He never told us anything. He let us discover for ourselves. He took us with him. Together we spelunked the soul of humankind, searching for the path to highest possibilities.

Loved Stewart on Carson’s show. What a spinner of tales. Perfect pitch and timing and always that underlying consoling humor. One night he read his poem about his dog Beau. Jimmy cried. Johnny cried. I cried. Next day I wrote to him requesting a copy of ‘Beau’, and wound up penning my first ever fan letter. I wrote him that he was one of our nation’s greatest natural products, just in case he didn’t know. Later on, I read ‘Beau’ to some grammar school kids as part of a city-wide program to instill a love of reading. I was light years away from reciting it as beautifully as Jimmy, but I believe the spirit of Ol’ Beau and Jimmy carried the day. When Ronald Reagan first ran for governor of California, Jack L. Warner proclaimed, “No, No, that’s all wrong! Jimmy Stewart for governor—Ronald Reagan as his best friend.”               —Adios!