The ongoing hype surrounding the release of a new Hollywood movie that resurrects the 1950s cultural phenomenon of “The Three Stooges” has reminded me of a childhood experience that for many years now has allowed me to win countless ill-fitting T-shirts from FM radio stations who ask listeners to phone in tales of their “brushes with greatness.” That translates to chance encounters and other interactions with celebrities and VIPs.
As a reporter for more than 40 years, I’ve had more than a few, ranging from almost knocking Henry Kissinger down a steep staircase at a San Francisco hotel to sharing a bottle of expensive single-malt Scotch whiskey into the wee hours with a Nobel Laureate. Jane Fonda — basking in her “Hanoi Jane” period — once bummed a cigarette, and Bono and I once compared notes about our favorite hangouts in downtown Dublin. It was night, and we were indoors, sipping something, but Bono — never call him Paul — still wore sunglasses. Why should Ray Charles have all the fun?
But each of those episodes and many other close encounters with the rich and famous pale, by far, to an experience I had when I was 10 years old, growing up in suburban Chicago. For reasons too convoluted to explain here, I spent the summer of 1961 working as an actor, a member of a professional theater company that staged shows nightly under a giant circus tent. Most were musicals — “South Pacific,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” etc. — with the lead roles being played by well-known TV and film stars of the era. Some of those stars were a joy to work with (think Phil Ford and Mimi Hines), others not so much (prima donna William Bendix comes to mind).
As is theatrical tradition, the curtain would rise every night at 8, so I would arrive about 6 by cab, to give me time to get into my makeup and my costume de jour. On Saturdays the cast would always come earlier, as the company put on an elaborate buffet each week before the Saturday performance. While ethics precludes the concept of a “free lunch” among journalists, not so for the starving artists who are stage performers.
I arrived on a Saturday at about 5 p.m. I must have spent the day either playing baseball on a dusty diamond or cutting lawns, which is how I kept myself in baseball card money. Either way, when I arrived at the theater, the woman who did my makeup took one look at me (think Pigpen from the Peanuts comic strip) and said, in disgust: “Young man, you get in the shower and clean yourself up. I can’t work this.”
I went into the dressing room, stripped down to nothing, grabbed some soap and a towel and wandered into the shower room, which was billowing with steam from others who were also cleaning up their acts. Turned out my shower mates were Moe, Larry and Curly Joe, all lathered up and scrubbing away, having just completed a Saturday matinee at the same theater. I recognized them from TV, of course, but didn’t know they were in town to perform in person. More surprised than I was to see these three old and very naked comedians in the steaming flesh were the Stooges themselves, who probably wondered how a 10-year-old kid had found his way into their post-performance shower.
For many years thereafter, when the radio DJ would solicit stories of “brushes with greatness,” I would call. “Well, I’ve heard some pretty good stories from your listeners,” I would say. “But none that can touch mine.”
“Really?” the DJ would say.
“Really,” I said.
“So, what’s your story?” the DJ would ask.
“I once took a shower with The Three Stooges.”
Tom Walsh is the BDN reporter covering Washington County.