Close encounters of the Celebrity kind

 Jim Bauer

After Morenci teacher and coach Jim Bauer graduated from Hillsdale College, he spent the summer working at various basketball camps. Through a friend, he got a job at Michigan State University’s camp during the era of legendary coach Jud Heathcote.

He showed up for the first day of work in the old Jenison Field House and Heathcote gathered all his young coaches around him in a circle.

Heathcote was working his way through his expectations when he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and looked at Jim.

Jim’s friend never mentioned a dress code and now he was feeling a little obvious in his tank top and shorts.

“Jim!” Heathcote said. “Can you make a muscle for us?”

“What?” Jim asked.

“Make a muscle for us,” Heathcote asked, so he flexed his arm.

“I’ve always been under the impression that at MSU coaches should dress like coaches,” Heathcote said. “You got 10 minutes to get back to your dormitory and change.”

Heathcote had one more run-in with Jim before camp ended.

On the final day, an all-star game was played and the rookie coaches served as referees. There were several people in the stands as parents arrived to pick up their children. Heathcote sat next to the scorers table.

“I called a charge and the big horn went off,” Jim recalls. “Jud gets up and walks out onto the court. “Charge? That’s not a charge!”

He reversed the call.

Bill VanValkenburg

Bill worked as a manager and head cook in a nice Grand Rapids restaurant when he was putting himself through college. In back was a hotel and the restaurant often provided room service.

“One Friday night after I had sent all the other restaurant employees home and was getting ready to close, the owner—who I had only seen once or twice— opened the door and said, ‘Bill, you’re going to have some special guests later on tonight so fire up the grill and get ready to work.’”

He never let on who was coming in to eat.

“Man, was I ever shocked when about an hour later the door swung open and in charged the Harlem Globetrotters. And I’m talking about the old guys here...Curly and Meadowlark Lemon, etc. And they were hungry!”

Bill soon learned that whenever they were in the area, they always had a meal in that restaurant.

“First thing I knew they were behind the counter and we were throwing on T-bone steaks and baking potatoes and fixing huge salads. It was an absolute riot! I’ll tell you, those boys could eat!”

Bill remembers three things about that evening

They were perfect gentlemen. They tipped extremely well. “They were throwing around $20 bills like crazy and a $20 bill was a huge tip back in those days.”

And finally, that he was too stupid or not thinking clearly enough to ask for autographs.

Barbara Ford Tadda

The former Fayette resident had the privilege of meeting Liza (with a “Z”) Minnelli in her dressing room before she went on the air for a Chicago WGN-TV morning talk show in the early 1970s.  Barbara’s sister-in-law worked at the station and the Liza day came on one of Barbara’s rare visits to the studios.

“Before going on the set, Liza was a chattering nervous wreck. She smoked, she chewed her nails. She asked me if her makeup looked right, did her outfit look good and did I have any gum; I did.  Then she goes before the camera and she is as “cool as a cucumber” just like we’ve all seen her in the movies, theatre and on TV.

“Off the air, Liza asks me if she did OK!?!  What a thrill for a former Fayette girl!”

Several people asked for her autograph and Barbara asked her for two: one for each daughter, both in grade school.

“I go home and tell my daughters I have these autographs for them.  My daughters ask, ‘Who’s Liza Minnelli?’ And those autographs stayed in our dining room buffet drawer until we moved to Florida in 1993. Please don’t tell Liza we threw them out!”

Brad Brown

Some people seem to be celebrity magnets. Morenci teacher Brad Brown quickly came up with three encounters.

“As a student at Adrian College, I worked in the library. Early one Saturday morning I was at work and of course the library was empty. I was reading the sports page when I heard some people enter to my right. I continued my morning read as the patrons walked to the counter. 

A voice asked if the Red Wings won last night. Having read the article I responded “Yep.”

He noticed several men in suits sternly staring at him with the newspaper in his face.

“I lowered the newspaper and standing directly in front of me was a Chelsea native wearing a Detroit Red Wings leather jacket. That’s right, Jeff Daniels, star of Arachnophobia, Dumb and Dumber and plenty of other movies since then was standing right there.

“Dumbfounded, I said, You’re Jeff Daniels to which he responded ‘Yes, I am.’ I shook his hand and then he was ushered off by his tour guides.”

Brad also attended Siena Heights and participated on the track team at the national championships at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles.

Since Brad was one of the older members of the team, the coach allowed him to take the rental van and give some younger members a Hollywood tour.

“We pulled up to a stoplight and in the convertible to our right was Rodney Dangerfield. My passengers asked if they could take a picture with him. He said ‘Sure,’ so they piled out and got a quick snapshot with him and got back in before the light turned green.”

While serving as an assistant coach at Siena Heights, Brad was in Lincoln, Neb., for the indoor championships. Sitting in the lounge one evening with the rest of the coaching staff, he spotted who he thought was Ric Flair, one of the most famous professional wrestlers of all time.

He asked the others what they thought and they were skeptical.

“Then there’s only one way to find out,”  he said, and let loose with the signature Ric Flair “Whoooooo.”

“We all watched intently for a response.  The man looked over, grinned, and responded with his own “Whoooooo.” We walked over and sure enough it was him.  He was sitting with some other wrestlers as they were in town for the WWF.  Later, we got a picture with Ric and Paul Orndorff, another former WWF wrestler.”

Dave Brinegar

Dave Brinegar of Fayette met someone famous before he became really famous.

“I met George W. Bush in the summer of 1999 in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Baltimore. He was governor of Texas at the time, and campaigning for the 2000 presidential election.”

Dave didn’t know at the time that a  Bush fund-raiser was scheduled that night.

“He pulled up to the hotel in a couple of large black SUVs with dark tinted windows. There was no greeting party at the hotel, but there were quite a large number of people with him.  In particular I noticed two very large individuals with bulges under their sport coats where one might wear a holster for a weapon.  As he walked through the rotating doors and into the hotel lobby I recognized him at once, and walked up to him and introduced myself.”

The President-to-be wore a well-tailored dark designer suit with cowboy boots and a light colored cowboy hat.  Dave got “a modestly firm handshake” and he invited Bush to visit Fayette during his campaign—he even suggested that he could have dinner at the Brinegar home.

“I told him that northwest Ohio could be critical to his campaign, and he agreed. I don't think I need to tell you that he didn't show up.”

Ben Green

Ben and his sisters were at a sporting goods show and decided to have their photo taken with the King of Duct Tape, Red Green.

First Maddie stepped up and said her name was Maddie Green. Then Rozee went up and said that her last name was Green. Finally, it was Ben’s turn, but by this time Red Green thought they might be pulling his leg with the Green routine.

“And Mom tried to tell him that I had an uncle with red hair that they called Red Green and he didn’t buy that either.”

Jim Whitehouse

Jim Whitehouse: In 1964, the youth group from the Congregational and Methodist churches went to hear “some famous minister” preach. Alice Fish and Wilma Fink drove, as I recall. Others on the trip included Linda Rutiser, John Bancroft, Jannie Fink, Mollie Fish and I think LeeAnn Ranger and Diane Green.  There were probably others as well. We all piled in the cars and off we went.

We arrived very early at Central Methodist Church right down in the heart of downtown Detroit. We took our seats. Hardly anyone else was there yet. Eventually, the place started to fill up.

I was sitting next to Gaius Fish and he had a Kodak Brownie camera with him.

“Let’s go get a picture of this guy.  We’ll tell him we’re from our school newspaper,” he said.

So we slipped out of the pew and left the church by the front door. We must have been quite conspicuous because nearly everyone else coming in was African American. We walked around behind the huge place and up to a back door, which was locked.

Gaius, whom we all called Gus, banged on the door, which was soon opened by a huge black man wearing a sport coat with the distinctive bulge of a holster showing.

“What do you boys want?” he said rather gruffly.

“We want a picture of the minister for our school paper,” said Gus.

“Go away,” he said, and started to close the door in our faces.

From somewhere inside, we heard this wonderful mellow voice say, “Let the boys come in.”

The bodyguard opened the door and we walked in. The minister was just putting on his jacket, getting ready. He shook our hands and asked us where we were from and let us take pictures of each other shaking hands with him, and then he opened the front door for us so we could walk out into the church and go back to our seats. What a nice guy!

A few minutes later, in this huge church packed with people, the service started, and this man came out and started talking and swept me away with ideas that have shaped my thinking and my life ever since.

I don’t know what Gus ever did with the photos—I can’t remember if they ever appeared in the school paper, since neither of us were really on the staff as far as I recall.

I sure would like to have a copy of that picture of my smart-alecky face next to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Don & Carol Heilman

A person’s outward appearance doesn’t always match the profession. Don and Carol Merillat found that out many years ago.

Carol’s youngest brother, Bob, played football in Mantua, Ohio, with a good friend, Jack Lambert, who later became a pro.

“Don and I met Jack at my mother’s funeral in 1976 and found him to be a most gentle, caring man,” Carol said. “The interesting part is that in high school, Jack was a tall, lean, young boy, and played the position of  quarterback. He went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was considered to be the greatest linebacker of all time.”

Carol also mentioned that Sandy Koufax attends some Vero Beach High School basketball games where the Merillats spend the winter.

“But he never talks to us,” jokes Carol. “I don’t think he recognizes us.”

Denise Jensen

Fayette resident Denise Jensen and her husband, Joe, have always been big-time time Indiana University basketball fans, but because Bloomington is so far away, they rarely get a chance to catch the Hoosiers in action.

Their best bet is to take a trip up to Ann Arbor for away games against the University of Michigan. After one game in 2002, in which Indiana came away with the victory, the couple—and some other enthusiastic Hoosier fans—went to an area outside Crisler Arena to cheer the players as they loaded onto their bus.

There was also a limousine parked nearby, but she and Joe had no idea whom it was for. Then someone yelled, “Hey! It’s Spike Lee!”

The acclaimed filmmaker was in town to cheer on the Wolverines, but responded well to the Indiana fans’ playful jeers. He walked to the group and shook a few hands, trading some trash talk of his own.

“You Indiana fans are all the same,” Denise remembers him saying.

“Don’t feel bad,” she told him. “But you really should cheer for another team.”

Pat and Bob Dister

Pat and Bob Dister were on a plane to Florida when Bob said to Pat, “Don’t turn around, but guess who’s behind you.”

It was University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr. Pat was impressed that everything he wore had a little “M” on it.

Bob urged Pat to respect Carr’s privacy and not try to have a picture taken with him. But when Carr left his seat to go to the bathroom, Pat borrowed his newspaper from his wife.

Bob continued to remind Pat that the coach was on vacation and she should not bother him. As they were getting ready to leave the plane, Pat returned the newspaper to Carr and said, “Coach, you’re doing a good job with those boys. You’re a good role model.”

And the guy across the aisle, who’d been “yapping up a storm” with Carr during the flight, said “You’re the coach?!” and turned to his son and said, “It’s Coach Carr! Maybe you can get your picture taken with him.”

Pat immediately called her daughter when they left the plane and the first thing she said was, “Did you get a picture?”


Pat Grover

When former Fayette resident Pat Grover was a student at Bowling Green State University, she met Broadway star and game show host John Davidson (“Hollywood Squares,” “The $100,000 Pyramid”).

“After his performance, I went to the hotel where he was staying and took the elevator to his floor. I gave him a hug and a kiss—I was impetuous at the time!

“Cubby O’Brien of the original Mickey Mouse Club was also there, so I met him, too. I also got Oscar winner Joel Grey’s (“Cabaret”) autograph when I was in New York. He was performing in the show ‘George M.’”


Scott Martinez

There are a pair of celebrities in Scott’s life that would cause him cough up 50 bucks for the chance to meet one. It happened recently in Detroit when Sylvester Stallone came to attend a benefit premier of his new movie, “Rocky Balboa.”

“I went because I love the Rocky movies and I knew he was coming,” Scott said.

Scott wasn’t exactly sure when Stallone was showing up, and when he reached the theatre, he saw the red carpet rolled out and Stallone exiting his limousine.

Scott had to park about a 100 yards away.

“It was a full-out sprint across the parking lot and even then I knew I wasn’t going to make it,” he said.

That is, until he pushed and shoved his way to the front. There he got his handshake and an autograph. Scott was actually carrying a shirt for the signing, but got so flustered that he forgot about it.

Instead he had Stallone sign his movie ticket, but that led to a dilemma. Theatre seats were over-sold and Scott wasn’t going to get a seat. He could get his money back if he gave up his autographed ticket.

He left with just a handshake and a brief, embarrassing conversation with his movie hero.

“It was lame,” Scott said. “I said, ‘I really like your movies.’”


Mary Jane Dopp

Morenci native Mary Jane (Borton) Dopp has more than her share of celebrity encounters, particularly when she worked in fund-raising in Burbank, Cal. There are plenty of good stories, she says, but her lips are sealed.

“I had some incredible experiences when I was in California,” she said, “but I’m afraid those I can tell weren’t funny and those that were funny, I can’t tell.”

For a “little girl from Morenci”, she says, there really was something a bit surreal about holding dedications for the Disney family; having to hide your staff badge as you left work because the international press knew Bob Hope was a patient and the cameras and microphones were waiting for anyone–for you, even–to pass along any tidbit of information; and having a database full of real celebrity addresses because if anyone gets sick at the studios, they go to St. Joes.

“What I did discover is that celebrities, without stage makeup, look much like the rest of us,” Mary Jane said. “You often have to look twice–or even thrice—before you know for sure who you are seeing.  Underneath it all, they’re mostly quite human. Some are good people, some, not so much.”

    - January 31, 2007