John Hart (right) was a soldier of fortune. No one better at spinnin’ yarns of his fascinatin’ life. One October in Newark, NJ, at a “Friends of Old-Time Radio” convention I sat with John in the hotel bar after a re-creation of a “Lone Ranger” radio show of the ‘30s. I played the sheriff. Derek Tague approached. A fellow of infinite jest, every year he conducts the riotous celeb panel discussions. “Mr. Hart,” he said, “I’ll not trouble you for your autograph. It would be an honor to buy you a drink.” He said the magic words and joined our party, which grew and grew along with all the dead soldiers on the table. Mr. Hart held us spellbound. Awesome! (to use the Cliché de Jour). Derek was right, you know. Autographs are all too soon consigned to dusty scrapbooks in musty corners. Memories of brief encounters with the revered last forever.
Here’s an example. Back in the ‘50s I was in London on a three-day pass from my army post, SHAPE HQ near Paris. An old college chum and I attended the theatre one night. During interval we moseyed to the bar to wet our whistles. A long line led to a bald chap signing autographs. “Alec Guinness!” I said. “Let’s queue up!” Actually, the gent was Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall sat nearby. I got Bogart’s scrawl on a damp cocktail napkin. The real thrill was jawin’ with him. An affable fellow, he spoke of his recent visit to SHAPE as guest of the Head Honcho, General Al Gruenther. “A smart man,” deemed Bogie. I looked at Ms. Bacall. She gave me the look. Gulp! I proceeded to spill Guinness ale all over my coat.
Soon after, some Signal Corps pals and I were sitting at a table at an outdoor café on the Champs Elysées, fully alert, helping to make the world Safe for Democracy. Gliding up the avenue, convertible top down, was a tomato red Cadillac. Sugar Ray Robinson at the wheel. On hiatus from his illustrious boxing career, he was starring at a local night club, tap dancing his way into our hearts. I snapped his picture with my trusty point and shoot. “Hmmm!” I said, “This street is a magnet to the rich and famous. Let’s keep our eyes out.” Good buddy Wally piped up, “Guess who’s at the next table.” My boyhood idol Orson Welles, that’s who. “Wally, I’ll sneakily sidle up next to him. Here’s my camera. Shoot fast!” Ol’ Wally futzed and fiddled way too long. I stood there like a ninny. Welles looked like a citizen in pain. Click. Finally! I skedaddled, forgetting to turn my camera to the next number. Next day, I entrained to Copenhagen, Denmark, for 10 days. I quickly unpacked and headed for the harbor to photograph the statue of the Little Mermaid. Had the roll developed. Ooo La La! The pic of the litter: Me, Orson, and the Little Mermaid in all her topless glory. I took it to be a flourish of Orson Welles’ magic.
Gale Storm had magic. Got a letter from her friend. “I spoke to her the day before she passed. She finished the call with ‘Richard, darlin’, I love you so. I adore you.’” What was her secret? I asked a guy in San Antone what made Gale Storm so wonderful? “Well,” he said, “after all, she was a Texan.”