Backstage in South Florida: Tracey Ullman and Jerry Mathers
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: Up close and personal with a pair of show biz icons.
My day job is working at a television station, and I've relished meeting television personalities almost as much as bonding time with my music heroes. None as memorable as my dinner with Jerry Mathers, the star of Leave it to Beaver, one of the most popular programs to emerge from the so-called golden age of television. Those too young to remember the show might scoff at its simple premise involving a precocious youngster who muddled through adolescence despite being frequently derailed by his big brother Wally and Wally's pal Eddie Haskell. The actors from that show are mostly retired from show business now, but Mathers continues to bank on the nostalgia and make public appearances for the delight of those who forever recognize him as "The Beav."
When I worked for Hard Rock Café Miami in the mid '90s, we had a promotion that offered our patrons a chance to dine with Mathers. Not surprisingly then, when he showed up for the event, there were those that greeted him like a long lost relative. The patrons swarmed him on his arrival, and even though we cordoned him off for his dinner with the dozen or so winners, he couldn't escape the adoring stares of the other diners. Mathers, who was in his mid 40s at the time, still bore the youthful facial features of his beloved character, although he had clearly gained some weight and was considerably less perky than his television persona. (Sadly, he was subsequently diagnosed with diabetes, but in 1996, not long after his visit, he embarked on a strict weight loss regimen.)
Mathers graciously answered all the questions posed to him, affirming the rumors that the actor who played Eddie Haskell -- Ken Osmond -- had indeed joined the Los Angeles Police Department where he had been shot in the line of duty (he was saved by his bullet-proof vest). He also allowed that he remained close to his TV brother Wally (played by actor Tony Dow) and that the two toured together in a theatrical road show in the early '80s. And while he lamented the loss of actor Hugh Beaumont, who portrayed his wise and worldly dad Ward Cleaver (he passed away in 1982), he said that both Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley, who acted the role of his mother June, were almost as close to him as his real parents. The actors on the show still keep in touch with the nearly 90-year old Billingsley and the mother-son relationship remains strong. Although he seemed somewhat shy and unassuming, Mathers admitted he enjoys the attention lavished on his by his fans. "Leave It To Beaver" was seen in nearly 80 countries around the world, a fact that provided him with instant recognition wherever his travels took him.
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Equally iconic, albeit in a decidedly different way, Tracey Ullman made her mark not only in television, but also in film and on record (she hit the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with a song called "They Don't Know," the video of which featured a cameo from one Paul McCartney). I met her while working at the Coconut Grove Playhouse where, in November 1990, she starred in a one-woman show called "The Big Love." In it, she played a character named Florence Adland, a woman based on the real-life mother of actor Errol Flynn's teenage paramour.
I was a huge fan, so naturally it was a bit intimidating to find myself working with her. I remember the first day of rehearsal when I went to introduce myself. As always, the stage manager tried to shield the stars, knowing that I, as the theater publicist, would be intent on drawing her out of rehearsal in hopes she would do interviews with the press. As it turned out, Ullman declined any opportunity to speak with local reporters, a rather frustrating proposition as far as I was concerned, but nevertheless, she was as charming as could be. She insisted on calling me "David Cassidy," owing no doubt to my '70s style haircut (which has changed very little to this day). Her tenure at the theater also became something of a family affair, due not only to the presence of her spouse -- producer Alan McKeown -- but also to the fact that her then four-year old daughter Mabel insisted on decorating her mum's backstage dressing room with all kinds of paper décor, from streamers to bits of colorful accoutrement.
"The Big Love" eventually went on to Broadway, and while it didn't fare as successfully as was hoped, Ullman did form at least one lasting bond in Coconut Grove. She managed to snag the theater's sound man, a funny guy named Allen Zipper, and lure him to L.A. where he became a writer on her HBO series Tracey Takes On..., and later, The George Lopez Show. Lucky him. I'm left with the memory of the theater Christmas party where she charmed me by forever pledging her devotion to me, as David Cassidy, the man who was the forever object of her teenage crush. So it's with no small degree of wistful remembrance that I still relish the signature she inscribed on my Playbill, "Well Lee, how can I be sure you're not really David Cassidy, you little rascal?"
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