The recent death of the actor Gene Barry brought a wash of memories over me about the occasion he visited Memphis. At the time, Barry was starring in the lead role of the hit TV western, "Bat Masterson," the legendary Dodge City lawman, and was to be the featured attraction at the Mid-South Fair's annual rodeo. Cowboy stars like Roy Rogers and Lash LaRue had appeared in years before him, but Barry's series was among TV's top rated shows when he was booked for the fair appearance, guaranteeing a large segment of the audience would be his young fans. I'm certain Barry thought his Memphis stop would be a breeze, but then he never expected to encounter Sputnik Monroe.
The evil professional wrestler with the skunk-like white streak in his hair was already the second best known face in Memphis, after Elvis, when he decided to seek even more public outrage by going to the fairgrounds to stalk Gene Barry. Robert Gordon, in his vastly entertaining book "It Came From Memphis," got the scoop years later from Sputnik himself. Monroe explained calmly, "I read in the paper where Gene Barry was coming to the Mid-South Fair and I went out there to hit him in the nose for copying the way I dress. I was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, which is the cowboy town of the world. Gene Barry was the star on 'Bat Masterson' and dressed like I dressed, with a homburg and a vest. I figured if I jerked him off a horse and hit him in the nose for dressing Dodge City-style, I'd get a national reputation." In Sputnik's world, such were the just desserts for impersonating a cowboy. The police kept Sputnik at bay and Bat/Barry's appearance went smoothly, but the Hollywood cowpoke probably never appreciated his near miss with meeting mayhem in Memphis. As it was, Sputnik picked a fight with a rodeo cowboy and made the morning paper's front page. The authentic clipping was sent to me by Sputnik's arch ring enemy, the great Billy Wicks. (Click on clip to enlarge).
The following morning, as we did every Sunday, my sister, Susan, and I attended Temple Israel Sunday School, but returned home to see a sleek town car in the driveway. My mother told us we had a visitor and when we walked into the living room, my jaw dropped. There was Gene Barry himself, sitting at the dining room table having a Sunday brunch. When my father asked if I knew who this was, I replied, "Sure, it's Bat Masterson." The New York bred actor, born Eugene Klass, was the brother-in-law of one of my father's business associates in California. When he found he was coming to Memphis for the weekend, his kinfolks called my mother to ask if there was a good place for a nice, Jewish TV star to get some lox and bagels without being mobbed by fans. "For that," Mom replied, "he'll probably have to come to my house." So there I stood, at age eleven, trying to process the sight of Bat Masterson sitting with my parents, spreading cream cheese on a toasted bagel.
Barry was gracious in the extreme and offered rodeo tickets to my sister and me. When he heard I was an aspiring guitarist, he insisted that I play for him. I had gotten through, "Don't Be Cruel," and "The Battle of New Orleans," when Barry enthusiastically said that he wanted to play along. So, I fetched a pair of bongo drums which I had acquired resulting from my admiration of Maynard G. Krebbs. With bongos firmly clamped between his knees, Gene Barry and I set off into the strangest, rollicking medley of nearly every folk and rock song that I knew. After a laugh-filled jam session, the handsome actor cheerfully suggested that we take the show on the road. Barry withdrew a publicity photo from an attache case and signed it; "To my pal Rand, from his pal Bat," then after expressing his gratitude to my parents and bidding his farewells, Barry opened the front door to find a half-dozen neighborhood kids who had somehow found out about the visit. He was generous to the last child before taking the wheel and heading off to some glamorous hotel suite.
I was still in the thrall of Bat's visit when I spread the morning paper on the floor and saw the article about Sputnik Monroe. I was enraged that this vile man would try to attack such a hero of TV westerns, and I was glad to see Sputnik wrapped in bandages after his fight with the itinerant cowboy. Had someone told me then that I would one day come to revere the man and take his name as a nom de plume, I would surely have asserted that they were insane. I kept up with Gene Barry as a secret pal, but when "Bat Masterson" was finally cancelled, my interest waned, and I never did like the show "Burke's Law" so much. Not so with Sputnik Monroe, who continued to wreck havoc in and out of the ring for another decade and cemented his legend in Memphis history, while personally defending my young ass in the process. But that's another story.
Gene Barry continued his successful career in movies and television and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the original "La Cage aux Folles" on Broadway. His death at the Motion Picture Home in California at age 90 reminded me how quickly life passes. Although I am older now than he was then, I still vividly recall a rugged-looking man with a big laugh asking my father to please pass the lox, and an actor completely at ease in the company of my family, playing the bongos with abandon and a smile while I wailed away on the guitar. The genial Mr. Barry never realized how close he had come to a Memphis-style ass-kicking the previous night. I liked Gene Barry a great deal, and I'm grateful for the afternoon we spent together. My single regret is that if I had only kept in personal touch with him for a few more years, I could have introduced him to Sputnik Monroe, and they might have reminisced about their respective days in old Dodge City.