Thursday must have been one of the biggest days EVER for the website TMZ.com – the number of online hits might have equaled the federal debt.
I also imagine most of the inquiries were for the sudden death of a TMZ regular – Michael Jackson, at the improbable age of 50 (didn’t it seem like yesterday that he was a pre-teener making number one hits for Motown?). The “King of Pop” will never again be hounded by the press and public over what was (charitably) a strange adult life. However, his music (in the Jackson 5 and in his early solo days, culminating with one of the biggest selling albums of all-time, “Thriller”) will stand the test of time. Perhaps he will finally get to duet with his former father-in-law, Elvis, and maybe, just maybe, he will find some peace.
But earlier in the day, it was announced that actress and 1970s icon Farrah Fawcett lost her battle with cancer at the age of 62. In her days, the late 1970s, there was NO bigger TV star or celebrity in our society. From the second biggest poster of ALL time to “Charlie’s Angels” to her marriage to Lee Majors, the “Six Million Dollar Man,” the American public couldn’t get enough of this gorgeous Texan. She was so famous, people just used a single name to ID her – Farrah. You said it and everyone else knew immediately who it was.
And she WAS Texas through and through. Raised in Corpus Christi and as a student at the University of Texas (she was runner-up in a Miss UT pageant yet no one knows who finished ahead of her), Farrah was the shiniest star of the Super State. Her first major (albeit) small movie role was in “Logan’s Run,” which was filmed at Houston’s Greenspoint Mall as it was under construction.
As unlikely as it would seen, I had a personal connection with Farrah. In 1977, I was sports editor for the Conroe Daily Courier, a small paper just outside of Houston. While it was a small position (compared to the two Houston dailies), that part of Texas was undergoing explosive growth and change – much of it happening at Lake Conroe and residential developments.
The two biggest were April Sound and Walden on Lake Conroe and much of the promotions centered on sports. At April Sound, the golf pro was former PGA champion Dave Marr (who designed the course and owned a townhome on site) while the tennis facility was led by two of the sport’s all-time greats, Australians Roy Emerson and Rod Laver.
Walden, not to be outdone, had its golf course designed by Aussie Bruce Devlin and it is still regarded as one of the top 20 courses in the state.
But Walden added a second component to its portfolio – show business because its general manager (the late Merv Siegel) used to manage musical groups like the Fifth Dimension. He used his connections to bring performers to a cabaret setting in the Walden clubhouse (including comedian Jack Carter, saxophonist Boots Randolph and singer Lou Rawls).
In June, 1977, Merv pulled off the biggest coup of all. He had Walden host the first Jack Benny Memorial Tennis Tournament to benefit Juvenile Diabetes. On the star-studded roster were the likes of Dan Rowan, George Peppard, Robert Stack, Mike Connors, Dick Van Patten, Dina Merrill and a young actress whose parents (Jim and Pauline) and sister (Diane Walls) lived on the local property.
The invitations went out months, perhaps as long as a year before, so no one knew what to expect. When the event came around on the calendar, Farrah was already a superstar. Yet the event was being held in a facility unaccustomed to superstars. The place was only expected to hold 500 fans yet 5,000 tickets were sold to see Farrah play tennis (which she did fairly well).
She needed a five-man (as in BIG, LARGE men) police escort everywhere she went and the Saturday night banquet required an outdoor tent twice the original size to hold the throng. It was a sight to see and I was there to see it all. In fact, I had the honor to play in a doubles match (with TV sports anchor Ron Franklin) against her and an amateur partner. The round-robin format allowed for one set matches (which I lost because I had no business out there in my jeans and horrible backhand). Still it was the thrill of a lifetime.
However, it was not THAT I remember. On Sunday, toward the end of the event, Siegel granted my long-standing request and I had a five-minute one-on-one interview with the hottest woman on the planet.
The professional journalist I pretended to be was AWOL that afternoon. The awe-struck male, sitting in front of Charlie’s favorite angel (in my book at least), could barely mumble intelligent questions. She didn’t seem to mind; I believe she had seen it and heard it before.
This is what I remember: her teeth. Farrah Fawcett, along with striking blonde hair, an athletic body and bubbly personality, had the whitest teeth I had EVER seen (before or since). They radiated and when she smiled, it was like a Halogen lamp at full blast. They were beautiful and she was beautiful; it is a tragedy that an insidious disease like cancer literally destroyed her beauty from within.
On the wall of my back room, where I have my Hall of Fame baseball collection and signed photos of Drew Pearson, Willie Nelson and others, hangs an autographed picture of Farrah at a Bill Cosby charity tennis event in Los Angeles the month before she appeared at Walden. It is the only print and I showed to it her to sign.
“Wow! Where did you get that?” she asked, and I explained the picture’s background. She seemed intrigued and genuinely moved.
“You aren’t going to sell this, are you?” she inquired.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I’ll take this to my grave.”
Sadly, she has gone first. So when I return home from my vacation, I will find that photo, put it in a proper place in the foyer, light a candle in mourning and say a little prayer for one of the brightest stars (and teeth) in the Texas sky.