Never met a celebrity that intimidated me, and I’ve interviewed plenty of powerful people during my newspaper reporting and media relations years, including presidents, governors, movie and TV stars, authors, and Major League ballplayers.
Full disclosure: There was one superstar who left met speechless. Ted Williams. My childhood hero. As a Massachusetts native, I grew up watching Ted and the Boston Red Sox on television throughout the 1950s. Listened to Curt Gowdy call the games, and Ted often being the game’s hero.
When my folks moved us to San Diego in the Sixties, little did I know that my Major League hero was born and raised in San Diego. He grew up living in a small, modest North Park house with his Salvation Army mother, May Williams. His father, photographer Samuel Williams frequently left home for long stretches of time.
Ted’s childhood home on Utah Street in North Park still stands, but there is no plaque or signage to commemorate MLB’s best-ever hitter.)
Fast forward to 1992. I was a field rep, specializing in press relations, for California Assembly Member Mike Gotch (now deceased). The assemblyman was among local and statewide politicos who were dedicating Ted Williams Parkway in the northernmost section of the City of San Diego. My assignment was not to interview Williams but to photograph Gotch and Williams on stage. The dedication took place on the Mount Carmel High School football field in the San Diego community of Rancho Penasquitos.
Like a rock star, the long retired legend was driven onto the field. As he approached the outdoor stage, I was changing lenses on my 35-millimeter camera. Actually, more like fumbling with lenses. Someone in the crowd shouted out to Ted. He stopped to look toward the voice -– right in front of me. So close I could reach out and touch my childhood hero.
Suddenly I was seven years old again. All I could do was look up and stare at the ballplayer I’d worshipped. Pretty sure my mouth was open, never uttering a word. Williams wore his signature fisherman’s jacket. He did not seem to notice me, and resumed his walk to the stage.
During the program, I shot the photo of Ted with Assemblyman Gotch from about 25 feet away, thankful, I was using a telephoto lens.
At San Diego’s Hoover High School, Williams began playing in his sophomore year, batting a whopping .583 one season. He also pitched and managed to find time to play American Legion baseball.
Fresh out of high school, The Splendid Splinter played one season with the Double A Minneapolis Millers and two years with the AAA Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres. The Red Sox acquired him from the Padres for $35,000. At the time, the six-foot-two kid weighed only about 140. In other words, lanky. Nicknamed the Splendid Splinter as well as The Kid, he went on to have the most extraordinarily successful career with the BoSox.
During his 21-year Major League career (1939 – 1960), Williams racked up mind-boggling Major League statistics…
- Record-breaking batting average of .406
- . 344 lifetime batting average
- 521 homers
- 2,654 hits
- 1,839 RBI
- .482 on base percentage
- .634 slugging percentage
- 1950’s Player of the Decade
- Played in 18 All-Star Games
- AL MVP 1946 and 1949
Ted’s career was interrupted twice by war. First World War II, followed by the Korean War. He was a pilot in both conflicts.
God awful ending to his long, historic life: Theodore Samuel Williams died at age 83. Supposedly, when Ted died, he wanted his body frozen in a cryogenics facility in Arizona. A couple of years later, cryogenics staff decided to relocate his body. That’s when Ted’s head was lopped off from the rest of his tall body.
Reportedly, two of Ted’s three children wanted their bodies frozen after death, in order to be with their father. Bizarre, controversial, difficult to believe.
Back in ’85, I landed a freelance gig with Sport Magazine. Assignment: San Diego Padres catcher Terry Kennedy Drove three hours to the Padres spring training camp in Yuma, AZ to interview T.K. and his teammates.
The angle: Kennedy’s moonlighting as a newspaper columnist for the Escondido Times-Advocate. Ironically, the scuttlebutt was that Kennedy was not thrilled with the press in general. That was the story Sport Magazine wanted me to probe.
Not surprisingly, Padres interviewed were careful to not offend their valued catcher. From what I gleaned, it was clear that Kennedy liked to write.
Teammate Tim Flannery told me, “I had a radio commentary last year. It was a great outlet for me, and writing is a great outlet for Terry. Writing is something to do while on the road instead of having a couple of drinks.”
Loved Gossage’s remarks. He toyed with me, quickly realizing I was not a baseball beat reporter. Also, Goose dissed Sport Magazine, which had a reputation of sensationalizing. To my amusement, he nicknamed me ‘Sport Magazine.’ Towering over me, the lights out closer said, “I know what you’re trying to do, Sport Magazine. Trying to stir up some shit.
Templeton: “It’s a good experience for T.K., as long as he doesn’t write anything bad about me.” Said it with a smile. While with Templeton at his locker, I watched him pour an airplane bottle of Kahlua into his can of tobacco. Reading my surprise, the stud shortstop explained, “This is the only way I can stomach chewing this shit.” Point well taken.
Garvey: “I haven’t given it much thought…It’s a personal opportunity to develop his writing skills.”
Third baseman Graig Nettles: “It’s been done before. I don’t think it will cause any problems.”
Kennedy: As a Times-Advocate columnist, he pointed out that he always asked T-A editors to critique his work. Although serious about the craft of writing, T.K. added, “I don’t need the newspaper’s money.”
1984 marked the first of only two times the 49-year-old Padre franchise made it to a World Series. In 1998, the Yankees swept the Pads four straight.
NOTE: Kennedy’s father, Bob Kennedy, played in the majors for nearly two decades and went on to be a big league manager and general manager. His brother, Bob Kennedy Jr., pitched in the St. Louis Cardinals chain and was later a scout for the Chicago Cubs.
NOTE: When Terry had an RBI in the 1984 World Series, it marked the first time that both a father and son had World Series RBIs.
NOTE: I attended the 1984 and 1998 World Series games held in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium (Now San Diego County Credit Union).
Also was at the legendary Game 5 of the 1984 National League Conference Series that sent the Pads to the World Series against Detroit (35-5 record for the Tigers first 40 games of that season). At Game 5 of the NLCS, the gal sitting next to me poured beer on my head. I gladly reciprocated. First and only beer pouring I’ve been involved in.
If ever the Padres ever make the World Series again in my lifetime, I’ll hesitate about pouring suds on a nearby fellow fan. After all, beer costs a helluva’ lot more in 2018.
In 1998, I was at the single World Series game held in against the Yankees. The ’98 Bronx Bombers were considered, and probably still is, the best Yankee team in its storied history.
NOTE: Eventually, Padres moved spring training headquarters to Peoria, AZ, where the ball club shares the facility with the Seattle Mariners.
NOTE: Sport Magazine, based in New York City, was launched in 1946 and shut down in 2000.
Spent the day with notorious Watergate felon John Ehrlichman back in the 1980s. Not my choice. It was my job to chauffeur, arrange publicity, and lunch with the man who perhaps was President Nixon’s closest advisor.
At the time, I happened to be News Bureau Director for the University of San Diego. My primary goal was to acquire positive publicity for the university. Among other duties as assigned, I often “handled” celebrities and elected officials invited to speak on campus.
Picked up Ehrlichman at Lindbergh Field and drove him directly to USD. Introduced him to the university’s top administrators. Then we left for San Diego State University’s public broadcast TV station, KPBS, where he was interviewed by long-time KPBS-TV’s popular political correspondent Gloria Penner.
Interview over, we headed to my car. He carried a gift from Gloria: a commemorative KPBS-TV coffee cup. As we were about to drive off, Ehrlichman flashed his temper. He ordered me to stop driving while he suddenly jumped out of the car to grab the coffee mug that he’d left on the top of my sedan’s roof.
Ehrlichman was most comfortable that day while we lunched at an Italian restaurant in Hillcrest. In addition to an entrée, he ordered a side of pasta. I resisted the urge to ask him about the Watergate break-in. To this day, I regret not discussing this infamous subject with Ehrlichman.
When I returned him to the university to prepare for his law school speech, was the first time he seemed relaxed. Maybe his testiness was due to his handler for the day.
NOTE: On Feb. 21, 1975, Ehrlichman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, and Attorney General John Mitchell were sentenced to at least two-and-a-half to eight years in prison for their role in the cover-up of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Months earlier, the scandal drove Nixon from office. Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman were the most powerful people in the Nixon administration. Although Nixon was identified as a key figure in the cover-up, he was not prosecuted in the federal court trial because President Ford had granted the disgraced president a pardon.
Convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury, Ehrlichman served 18 months in a Tucson prison camp. Ehrlichman’s conviction arose from his false testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee and through his involvement in the burglary of the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist who treated Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg was the Defence Department official who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
As for the Nixon’s Administration’s so-called war on drugs, Ehrlichman later admitted it was “really about the anti-war left and black people.”
Ehrlichman authored several books, fiction, and non-fiction, including Witness to Power – The Nixon Years.
John Ehrlichman passed away Valentine’s Day 1999 one month shy of 74.
NOTE: During my 1986-1991 tenure at USD, several notables spoke to the students, including legendary Ray Bradbury, socialist/anarchist Abbie Hoffman, actor Richard Dreyfuss, and Chief Justice Warren Berger (see my earlier blog post, Encounters with U.S. Presidents, a Supreme Court Chief Justice & Moonbeam).
Journalists and public relations pros often interact with a variety of famous and notorious types. Actors, U.S. presidents, Congressmen, state and local legislators, murderers, robbers, white collar criminals, and…
You see them on stage and off. Frequently makes one cynical, yet sometimes it fills you with optimism. Trust me, I know firsthand.
Jerry, *Jimmy, Dutch, Moonbeam. Spent time with all of them. In chronological order:
Actually, met Ford in 1972 when he was House Minority Leader, serving his 13th term in Congress. At the time, I was a college intern for KFMB-TV8’s late-night broadcast. Ford was keynote speaker at the function and was in the middle of eating dinner when I interrupted him with a couple of questions. (Deadlines make journalists behave rudely.) Ford was beyond accommodating. A true gentleman.
Two years later, he was sworn in as president in August 974, the day after “Tricky Dick “I am not a crook” Nixon resigned.
Encountered Brown on a couple of occasions in the Seventies during his first go-round has California’s governor. That’s when he was affectionately nicknamed “Governor Moonbeam” and dated singer Linda Ronstadt and was seen socializing with other showbiz types throughout his early years in office.
I first met Brown in 1975, when he came to Imperial Valley in support of the United Farm Workers during its contentious, and occasionally violent, battle with the Teamsters Union to represent California’s farm workers. The violence did not escape Imperial Valley. Tragically, one lettuce picker was shot and killed.
Brown came to the Valley and marched through the streets of Calexico, about ten miles south of El Centro and along the Mexican border.
In 1975, Brown signed into law the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, empowering the UFW and Teamsters.
Our next meeting came when he campaigned to become the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 1976 presidential election. Carter defeated him in the primary. It was his first of three failed attempts to become the Democrats presidential candidate, losing again to Carter (1980) and later to Bill Clinton in 1992.
Generally speaking, Brown came across as a bit arrogant. Definitely not a warm personality. At least not with news media.
The Hollywood star-turned-politician came to the Imperial Valley desert while President. As a 24-year-old reporter for the Imperial Valley Press, I was charged with covering his brief visit.
Reagan held an outdoor press conference scheduled at the small airport in the town of Imperial, immediately north of El Centro. I was the first reporter to show up, positioning myself right in front of the mike stand where the president was to speak. A primo spot, or so I thought.
Covering a United States president was a first for me. My first surprise: the national and statewide news media arrived in their own plane just minutes in advance of the aircraft carrying Reagan. Once the president arrived, microphones were quickly thrust under my arms and over my shoulders, making my front row seat a moot point. Tough to take notes.
Thankfully, President Reagan quickly sized me up as a local reporter and allowed me to ask the first question. I asked him if he would support a nationwide Agricultural Labor Relations Act. He smiled broadly and said he would.
I was thrilled but managed to keep my emotions in check.
Later, Reagan had a poolside lunch in the backyard of a wealthy grower. I was able to approach him and ask a question while he was eating lunch. Secret Service quickly shooed me away before the smiling Reagan could respond. Heavy sigh.
For my day in 1974 shadowing Carter, please see my earlier post: My Day with Jimmy Who, 1974’s Unknown Presidential Candidatehttps://storiesbehindthestories.blog/
Met Burger in 1987 at the University of San Diego, about a year after he retired from the U.S. Supreme Court as its chief justice. He came to USD as chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. At the time, I was the university’s news bureau director. Among the commission’s 23 members were Senator Ted Kennedy and Phyllis Schlafly, a Constitutional lawyer and conservative activist.
I staged a press conference for Burger on campus. By far the biggest press conference I’d facilitated. National, state, and local media turned out in force. The New York Times described Burger “at his smoothest and most affable.”
So true. The former chief justice exuded warmth and effortlessly commanded the attention of a gaggle of state, national, and local reporters. At the same time, he treated me with respect and allowed me to do my job as his handler.
(NEXT UP: My day with Watergate felon John Ehrlichman.)
Has anyone out there ever been the only person to greet a presidential candidate at an airport? I own that unusual distinction. We’re talking Jimmy Carter in 1974. Back then, he was known as Jimmy Who? As we know, the Georgia peanut farmer went on to become president two years later.
Some 43 years ago, he was flown in a small private plane piloted by wealthy Brawley, CA grower Bob Meyer. That morning, they landed at Brawley’s tiny airport. At the time, Brawley’s population was 22,000, some 14 miles north of El Centro. All part of the Imperial Valley, a huge prosperous farming area two hours east of San Diego. Turned out I spent most of the day with Carter.
Meyer’s SUV-like vehicle was waiting for the farmer and Carter. I rode in the back seat, notepad and pen at the ready.
Driving by sugar beet fields, Carter asked Meyer to stop. The presidential candidate jumped out, waded into the field, without trepidation. He reached in his jeans pocket, pulled out his pocket knife, and expertly sliced open a beet. “It’s ready,” he announced with confidence.
Meyer proceeded to chauffeur him around to meet a few of the Imperial Valley’s wealthiest, including Ed Rutherford, the area’s largest cattle rancher and owner of the Planters Hotel in downtown Brawley, considered the best hotel in the Valley back then.
Later that afternoon, when I had the chance to speak alone with Meyer, I asked him why did he take Democrat Carter to meet Rutherford, a well-known Republican. Without hesitation, Meyer said, “Ed gives to both parties.”
Lesson learned. Those who can afford it, hedge their bets and give to both major parties. I was 23 and with my first newspaper as a reporter – the Imperial Valley.
That afternoon Carter held a press conference at the Imperial Valley Press, by far the number one news media outlet in the Valley. Attended by IVP Managing Editor Bob Liggett, IVP publisher Dick Fitch, a local radio station (KXO), yours truly, and a few others.
That evening at the Imperial Valley Country Club just east of El Centro, Carter was the keynote speaker at a $75-a-plate fundraising dinner-dance for California Assemblyman Tom Suitt (D- Indian Wells).
Four hundred attended, a sellout.
For most of the evening Carter took center stage. Bags of peanuts were the dinner table centerpieces. Like a wise political candidate, he was a good sport, posing for many pics. Imperial Valley Press chief photog Paul Noden. Noden asked Carter to pose being fed a peanut. It ran on the front page the next day.
Of course, the rest is history, Carter narrowly defeated incumbent President Gerald Ford.
And Bob Meyer? Not surprisingly, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Agriculture.
J.C. was the first U.S. presidential candidate to launch a campaign so far in advance.
During his presidency (1977-1981), Carter’s mediation played a critical role in the success of the Camp David peace talks between Israel and Egypt, a great enough achievement to qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. At a time when the cold war between East and West was still predominant, he placed renewed emphasis on the place of human rights in international politics.
In 2002, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote social and economic development.
Carter will turn 93 on October 1. He has been battling cancer over the past few years. Immunotherapy reportedly has kept him cancer free, but he continues to have routine treatments. Earlier, he had part of his liver removed.
I will always treasure my day with Jimmy Who.
Prison, political activism, punk rock’s The Clash, and a 1984 Baez concert in San Diego that benefited Sasway’s legal defense fund.
In 1980, the San Diego area resident refused to register for the draft and explained why in a candid, four-page letter to then President Carter.
“… I am obligated to protest even simple registration since I feel the spirit of this mandate, like actual conscription, is immoral and incompatible with a truly free society…
“…I love my country and would defend it in a time of crisis. Under the current circumstances, however … it seems equally important to the Pentagon that military forces also defend business interests abroad, an antiquated Soviet containment policy, the mythical American honor, and just generally the military status quo…”
After the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Carter reinstituted draft registration in 1980. Six months later, Sasway, then 21, was indicted for failing to register. The legal battle ensued.
As a San Diego newspaper reporter, I was all over this story.
Enter Baez, 43 at the time, who committed her first act of civil disobedience while in high school. Fast forward to ’84. She granted me a telephone interview about two weeks before the singer’s scheduled performance for young Ben at downtown San Diego’s Golden Hall.
When I told her that Sasway said to me that he preferred The Clash perform instead of her, she was a bit ticked off. Understandable, from my point of view.
During her concert for Sasway, she informed the audience that “a reporter told me Ben wanted The Clash instead of me…I’ll have to talk to Ben about that.”
Fortunately, I was sitting far enough from the stage that it was difficult for Baez to spot me. And Sasway was not on stage at the time. Nevertheless, I slinked down in my seat, eliciting a wide grin from my date.
Perhaps Sasway would have felt differently about Baez if the Humboldt State political science major had a clue about her decades of public protests and anti-war activism. In 1966, Baez was arrested twice for blocking an Armed Forces induction center in Oakland. This led to a month in prison.
Her résumé for demonstrating for social causes is extensive. From marching with Martin Luther King to delivering gifts to American POWs in Hanoi to recording an album at Sing Sing penitentiary.
Plus she married an anti-war activist – David Harris who did two years in prison for draft resistance during Vietnam.
Returning to the 1980s: Sasway ended up serving six months in a minimum-security California prison. He could have been sentenced to a maximum of five years and fined $10,000.
He was one of a half-million young men who decided to defy Carter’s registration policies, while about 7.5 million 19-and 20-year-olds complied with the order. Maybe none of the other guys wrote the President.
Sasway became the first American since the Vietnam War to be indicted and imprisoned for failing to register.
In 2011, Joan Baez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She still performs.
The Clash disbanded in 1986, some ten years after forming. They were elected to the Hall in 2011.
Stories Behind the Stories
(In this column, I tell all of what went on during my interviews, coverage, and promotion of quite a few famous folks. Well, I mostly tell all. These stories took place during my two careers (1972 – 2007), first as a newspaper and magazine reporter and then as a higher education public relations director. We’re talking three U.S. presidents, Queen Elizabeth, at least two dozen movie & TV stars, accomplished musicians, and others. Some stories you may find amusing, perhaps revealing. Others not so much.)
For most of our hour-long chat, she sat on the floor propped up against a couch. I sat on a small couch just a couple of feet across from her. She was at the Globe to star in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She’d just finished five hours of rehearsal and had a two-hour break before resuming rehearsal.
During our discussion, Marsha repeatedly mentioned her desire to see the city’s major attractions, including the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, the beaches, and Balboa Park’s museums. After all, she would be working at the Globe for the next several weeks.
Throughout the conversation, Marsha trifled with me. I certainly didn’t mind. On the other hand, flirting comes natural to showbiz types, and she was, and still is, one helluva’ actress. Plus, she no doubt wanted me to pen a flattering report. In any event, I developed a crush on the 40-year-old movie star. (I was 33 at the time.)
Nevertheless, I thought the actress with prom queen looks was hinting for me to show her around town. Of course, I choked and never did ask her out.
She lit a Vantage cigarette and confided “I haven’t smoked in seven or eight years, until now.”
What’s a guy to do? I also lit up a cig. Same brand. So much in common…Heavy sigh.
Taking the Old Globe gig could have been her getaway from reality. She accepted the starring role in Twelfth Night for only $420 a week, quite a departure from her lucrative film career. “I am fortunate that I can afford to do it for only four-twenty.”
While discussing soon-to-be ex-husband Simon, Marsha became philosophic. “Fear stops me a lot of times. When fear takes over, I am not really there. With acting, I have the opportunity to confront all of that.”
At the conclusion of the interview, Marsha invited me to pay her a dressing room visit after taking in one of her upcoming performances.
I did, and was quickly ushered passed a long line of well-wishers standing outside her dressing room. They all were bearing flowers and other goodies. Nieve me showed up empty-handed.
Within seconds, I was inside her dressing room. Boy was I in for a surprise. She was not the same mellow person I’d interviewed just a few days earlier. She was bouncing off the walls with post-performance energy and intensity. Not exactly Jekyll and Hyde, but overwhelming.
A few minutes later, as I was about to depart, Marsha moved in to kiss me goodbye. Instead of seizing the moment and accepting a kiss on the lips, self-conscious dummy that I was, I instinctively turned and took her kiss on the cheek. Regretted that ever since.
Back in the newsroom the next day, the guys wanted to know what happened. Suffice to say, they were disappointed and gave me a hard time because of my failure to ask her on a date.
Still, it begs the question: What would other journalists have done? Could’ve been construed as unprofessional. Not necessarily. After all, covering entertainment is considered soft news, unless a crime or serious scandal was an element of the story.
Turned out she had plenty of male companionship while in town. Duh! Cinderella Liberty and Chapter Two co-star James Caan came down from Tinsel Town to see the play and escort her around the city. And soon to be ex-husband Neil Simon journeyed south to San Diego to catch her opening night performance at the Globe. I took in the Shakespearean play a few days later.
Simon was married to Marsha for ten years (1973-83). While they were a couple, she starred in five films he penned:
- The Goodbye Girl (1977)
- The Cheap Detective (1978)
- Chapter Two (1979)
- Only When I Laugh (1981)
- Max Dugan Returns (1983)
Of those five films, Marsha garnered three Best Actress Oscar nominations. Can you guess which? (see below)
Marsha and Simon divorced was finalized in July 1983, while she was still performing at the Globe.
Although I knew about the split-up, I was unaware that it occurred so recently. If only I’d known, maybe I would have made a move. Well, at least I would have kissed her full on. Okay, okay, now I’m fantasizing. Moving on…
In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, she played the role of Viola, a woman posing as a man. Earlier, she’d portrayed a male, Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Marsha assured me that she is comfortable playing males because “when I was younger, I was a tomboy.”
Born in St. Louis, she attended parochial school and Webster College, where she studied speech and drama.
In the four years that followed the Marsha interview, we corresponded twice, both initiated by me. She was kind enough to respond both times, and her messages seemed heartfelt.
Marsha did not return to the Old Globe until 2015. Cast in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, Mason said she found the role of Catherine an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.
As it turned out, I was unaware that she was back performing in San Diego. Asleep at the wheel – once again.
Answer: Best Actress Oscars nominations for The Goodbye Girl, Chapter Two, and Only When I Laugh. She won Best Actress Golden Globes for The Goodbye Girl and Cinderella Liberty.
Deceased illustrator Joe Shuster has been haunting me this summer—in a good way. Felt his presence in a movie theater while watching Man of Steel and later at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con.
How can you not love a guy who, while just a teenager, created the most iconic superhero to ever fight for truth, justice, and the American Way along with high school buddy Jerry Siegel.
Heady times for the boys from Cleveland. They managed to sell their superhero to D.C. Comics. The powerhouse comic book publisher hired them to write and illustrate Superman. For the next ten years, illustrator Shuster and writer Siegel cranked out Superman tales from D.C. headquarters in Manhattan. One major catch, however. They had to sell all rights to their superhero. The selling price? A paltry $130, but they were very young and naive, and this took place during the Great Depression.
After D.C. Comics replaced Shuster and Siegel, the pair spent the rest of their long lives in court trying to right that awful wrong.
In 1977, I had the privilege of interviewing Shuster. It took place in Shuster’s modest apartment in Escondido, CA, some 30 miles north of San Diego. Even though I was a newspaper reporter who had met many accomplished people, I remember feeling a bit giddy while driving to meet him.
To talk at length with one of the men who gave birth to Superman brought me back to treasured childhood and early teenage moments, devouring Superman and other superhero comics.
Shuster, 63 at the time, greeted me at the door with a warm smile. We sat in the small living room of his modest apartment along with his wife. Retired and just married for the first time, he had recently moved from a San Diego beach community.
The short, timid artist told me that best friend Jerry conjured up Superman in a dream in 1933.
“I just learned after all these years that Jerry got the idea in a dream,” but Jerry was “afraid to admit it,” he said, nestled in a recliner in the small living room. “Superman is everything that Jerry and I wanted to be—our alter ego. Jerry and I are both shy and introverted.”
The quote may appear rehearsed, but Shuster sounded sincere.
When I queried him about the copyright lawsuit, Shuster was critical of DC and not happy about how long the litigation continued to drag on.
Fortunately, Joe did have good news, too. Just two years earlier (1975), a court awarded each of them a $20,000 per year pension, cost of living increases, medical coverage, and published credits in all Superman comics and movies. The ruling came a long 28 years after Shuster and Siegel originally sued D.C.
Two years after our interview (1979), I went to see the first Superman movie ever produced. The Christopher Reeve movie mesmerized this Baby Boomer. And sure enough, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel received film credits as creators of the beloved Kryptonian.
The next day, I phoned Shuster to get his take on the movie. However, the person who answered told me that Joe had moved back to Manhattan.
Fast forward to July 2013. That’s when I discovered that my 36–year-old interview, published by the Escondido Times-Advocate, played a small role in piecing together the brand-new non-fiction book chronicling the lives of Shuster and Siegel.
Superboys, the Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is considered the most comprehensive account of these two extraordinary men. Author Brad Ricca was promoting his book during the final day of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.
After I introduced myself as a former San Diego-area newspaper reporter who interviewed Shuster in the late Seventies, Ricca asked, “which newspaper?”
I told him the Escondido paper (now part of the North County Times), to which Ricca beamed and said, “Your article was of immense help.”
Of course, I purchased Superboys on the spot. Ricca signed the book, “For John, You’re a part of this story!”
A gratifying moment that was completely unexpected. Writers, you see, write to be heard. Writers also keep copies of published material that have special meaning. I kept a hard copy of the 1977 Shuster article.
When a journalist interviews accomplished people of special note, memories of those moments often stick.
In 1992, Joe Shuster passed away of natural causes. In tribute, I wrote a guest editorial for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Shuster had died in such obscurity that his death was not reported until several days later by the Los Angeles County coroner.
Ironically, Joe Shuster died just a few months before his co- creation’s demise. After 54 years of defending earth, Superman was killed off in his comic book. That’s more than a half-century of reaping major bucks for D.C. Comics and long-time parent company Warner Brothers Entertainment.
To no one’s surprise, Superman’s comic book death was nothing more than a clever marketing ploy to resuscitate the superhero’s waning popularity. Eventually, the man from Krypton was revived through the now infamous creative vehicle popularly known as “reimagining.”
Four years after Joe died, co-creator Jerry Siegel passed, also of natural causes.
A few weeks before the July 2013 Comic-Con, I feasted on the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. Enjoyed the darker, controversial Superman depicted. Especially appreciated the considerable amount spent on Krypton before infant Kal-El was placed by his parents in rocket ship bound for Earth just before Krypton implodes.
The weakest element in Steel: too many fight scenes between Superman and General Zod. Half of the punch outs could have been cut without sacrificing the integrity of the story.
I wondered if Joe Shuster would agree.