Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Jammed With Bat Masterson

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.


Divers and Sundry said...

What a wonderful story!

Towery said...

Rich recollection, Randy, charmingly related.



Sputnik57 said...

Thank you, Pops, for straightening that out. Hope you are healthy and I look forward to the documentary based on Ron Hall's new book. There was nothing like the wrestling from the bad old days. As far as I'm concerned, Jackie Fargo is still a newcomer. Stay well,

davethedog said...

Atta boy Randy. This was a great post. Personally, I don't want to live in a world of Democrats and Republicans. Only "faces" and "heels".


Father Farken said...

Randy! You have warmed the cockles of many a heart tonight! Don't forget me brother.... that it was I, Father Farken, that connected the Radiant Randy with the great Billy Wicks. However, I would like to add a little controversy to the mix before Anon turns this whole damn thing into a conspiracy. Here's the deal! Rabbi Lipschitze was a big fan of Gene Barry, as we all were, but he told me that originally that the TV show was to be called Bar Mitzvahson but that the producers thought Bat sounded a lot more manly until Barry reminded them that Bar Mitzvah in Hebrew meant Son Of Commandment and Bat Mitzvah meant Daughter of Commandment but the producers came to a compromise..."We are dealing with WASPS here! We are changing the name to Bat Masterson!" A manly name to the average American. But to Gene Barry it was a jewish girly name. He felt he had to work above and beyond the call of duty to prove his masculinity that he was looking forward to a good tussel with the great Sputnik Monroe! The weird thing about all this is that Bat Masterson inspired Shel Silverstein to pen the song A BOY NAMED SUE! Whew! Life ain't easy for a boy named Bat! The Peace of thr Lord! Father Farken

Anonymous said...

So, tell me, where did your mother get the lox & bagels? I'll venture a guess. B & S Delicatessen Poplar Plaza Shopping Center (Botwonik & Shubow). I hope you gave him one of those completely chocolate eclairs with the custard filling as he hit the road. V'hat a religious experience.

Mrs. Dory (Marti) Funk said...

that was such a great story
I loved Bat Masterson and Gene Barry
and Sputnik was the classic of all the bad
guys, I remember the first time I spoke with
Sputnik on the phone and he asked for
"that puke of a husband I had" well I was
out raged at the old fart as I saw it then
30 years ago, I did not have a background in
pro wrestling and it took me some time to
get with the program on how these guys
handle themselves and their friendships
and understand the meaning of love and
friendship in the industry
your story is awesome and what a memory
I will make sure Dory sees you story
thinking of you

ghg said...

RJ---You've always been an American treasure of recollection and capacity to express it. Reading you always make me proud.

Father Farken said...

I just got word that the Rev. Dr. Oral Roberts has joined that great cloud of witnesses. He was quite a creative fund raiser. I never new him or Bat Masterson but I did jam with his twin brother who was a Freudian Psychologist...Anal Roberts! The Peace of the Lord! Fr. Farken

Shecky Kierkegaard McGuirk said...

Anal Roberts? Freudian Psychologist? Was he beating his bongos with abandon also? This sounds serious! Peace!

Cousin Cliff said...

Happy Birthday cousin, you old Born Again Hippie. I guess the new saying is "never trust anyone over 60" so I probably should have quit reading you a year or so ago! Good post. I've heard about the Bat Masterson visit from Aunt Gerry several times. But in her version, the neighbor kids didn't just "somehow" find out but rather she thought that perhaps you and Susan had a hand in that.

KA said...

RH - knew you through 650 East '65 and discovered your blog through the flyer. Loved this article and look forward to reading the rest of your blog.

Lundy said...

Hey Randy--guess who is sitting in Gulf Shores reading your blog ....Barbara Wallace Boatner and Lundy Wilder !!

If you are ever down this way give us a holler.

Sure is fun to see a photo of Sputnik Monroe. I never knew him but last time I saw him he was loading a truck behind a building on Cleveland. Barbara saw him at the Mid-South Fair wearing a championship belt.

We miss WEVL and sometimes listen online. Hope you and your family are doign well...hugs, Lundy & Barbara (having dinner together tonight)

JaketheRake said...

I miss WEVL too and I live right here in Memphis!!!! What HAPPENED to it?????

Anonymous said...

Father Farken, if there is a Satan then you can bet your bottom dollar that there is a conspiracy against God and man. You of all people on this blog should know that. What do you think Satan does all solitaire? Are you really a believer in the 'shit happens' theory of history? What do you think is pushing us toward Armageddon...blind chance? Wake up and smell the coffee. The only question is exactly who the key players have been and are throughout history. But, Satan IS the mastermind, regardless of the particulars.

karen said...

I stumbled upon this site while googling Donnie Baer. Looking to collect some of the albums that her recorded with different artists. I am so touched to know that his name lives on.

RIP in peace my brother
I love you
Karen Baer