Elvis Presley might have been known as the King of Rock â€˜nâ€™ Roll, Michael Jackson as the Prince of Pop and James Brown as the Godfather of Soul. But way back when, in the good ole movie cowboy days, (so long ago, that I was a brunette), there was a tall, rugged actor, by the name of John Wayne, who had a title of his own. It was the â€œDukeâ€.
His real name was Marion Robert Morrison, but when his parents decided to name his younger brother Robert they changed his to Marion Michael. But it was the local fireman who saw him walking to school every day with his huge Airedale Terrier dog, Duke, that gave him the nickname of â€œLittle Dukeâ€. Because he preferred Duke to Marion, (and who wouldnâ€™t) the name stuck for the rest of his life. As far as his stage name, John Wayne, that was decided by a director and a studio head, when he wasnâ€™t even present.
Iâ€™m going to digress a little here and tell you about a cartoon that I had once cut out and taped to the inside of our kitchen cabinet when I was younger. It was of two Indian chiefs positioned on top of a mountain ridge, sitting on their horses, looking down at their warriors fighting cowboys and the Cavalry. One chief turns to the other and the caption reads, â€œIf John Wayne is down there, Iâ€™m not going.â€ And I think thatâ€™s how we all felt, growing up on the Dukeâ€˜s movies. Off camera and on he seemed indestructible. According to Wikipedia Encyclopedia, he epitomized rugged masculinity and was considered an enduring American icon. It also states he was famous for his distinctive voice, walk and physical presence. All which I can attest to, since I got to meet him.
In the early days of television, when there were a lot of variety shows on the air, we (the employees of CBS) would spend our lunch hours, brown bagging it, while watching rehearsals in the studios. I think back then the celebrities were much more sociable and approachable than they are today. So it wasnâ€™t uncommon to have the weekly guest star, rather then hide themselves away in their dressing room, to sit in the bleachers with us common folk and watch others rehearse–even though they werenâ€™t needed on the set. It was kind of professional courtesy to watch one anotherâ€™s work.
Which brings me back to how I met the Duke. I had wandered down to the Red Skelton set just to see what was going on. The crew was always friendly there, and it was safe, as long as I didnâ€™t enter during â€œThe Dirty Hourâ€. This is a well known inside Hollywood fact, that as much of a beloved clown Red was, he did have a side to him, that could make a sailor blush when he would put on his private shows for his cast and crew members.
I was very young when I started with CBS and nobody ever bothered to warn me about â€œDirty Hourâ€. Unfortunately, I accidentally found out about it on my own. I should have caught on when I saw I was the only woman in the audience. And if Red was bad on his own, having Martha Raye as his guest, only made him even more incorrigible. Once he and Martha were up on stage, I found myself trapped in my chair. I was too embarrassed to get up, so I just sunk down low and kept praying the floor would swallow me upâ€¦it didnâ€™t. The cast and crew loved them both, and I vowed never to return during The Dirty Hour and I never did. I canâ€™t say all the guest stars participated in this show for the crew, but Martha sure did. Actually, she was worse than Red.
It was during normal rehearsal when I wandered down to the Red Skelton set and sat behind a tall, elderly, bald man, who was quietly reading, going through a script. It wasnâ€™t until he got up and headed towards the back of the studio for some coffee, did I realize it was The Duke, without his hairpiece. And like a puppy, I got up and followed him. He was very unpretentious, as he stood alone, in the back of the studio, drinking his coffee.
Because I was new to California– fresh out of high school, and a dork, I carried my autograph book everywhere I went.
Standing next to him, the 6â€™4â€ star towered over me. And even though without a hairpiece, he resembled a bald eagle, his face was still ruggedly handsome and there was a twinkle in his eyes. When I asked him if he would sign my book, he couldnâ€™t have been nicer when he answered, â€œWell, sure.â€ When he asked me my name, I told him, Barbara, (my formal name). Wanting to make sure he heard me correctly, he bellowed my name back to me,
B-A-R-B-A-R-A. And for a brief moment, I thought God was speaking to me.
Because he was so nice, I didnâ€™t hesitate the next day to bring my camera to work. This time the Duke was all dressed in his cowboy garb, complete with hat and hairpiece. He truly looked like the John Wayne that I knew from the movies. And when I asked him if I could take a picture with him, he quickly obligedâ€¦except I made the mistake of standing on his bad side. And without any warning, he said to me, â€œNot that side, this side,â€ and with one swift movement, the man had picked me up with one arm and swept me over to his good side. The picture was snapped and the light bulb went off. The American icon of the silver screen, using the back of hand, wiped his eyes with his knuckles and then grumbled, â€œDamn light bulb, can blind yaâ€ I guess, I should have responded with, â€œWhoa, take â€™er easy there pilgrimâ€â€¦but I didnâ€™t.
We said our friendly goodbyes and I wish I could say like a true hero he rode off into the sunset, but he didnâ€™t–instead, like a true professional, he walked onto the set.
Hi Sue, think you’re right about the Bette Midler movie. But you can imagine how I felt being that young and in her presence, acting that way in front of all those men. They loved her, but if you ask any of them now they’d agree she could make a sailor blush–she certainly made me.
Wow, Bobbie, I love this one about the Duke as much as all the others. And I love the story about Martha Raye with Red Skelton. I’d heard she was well-loved like “one of the boys” — wasn’t that the name of the Bette Midler movie based on Raye’s life????
– Sue Phillips
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