A Note From Mark – The Day We Met An American Legend

111140364.jpg

There were about 20 of us seated in the Grandstand Theater in the museum. We were on one of Sports Leisure’s popular Baseball Road Trips several years ago. This one had a theme. We were following the life of Yankee legend Yogi Berra. Our itinerary had included a visit to (old) Yankee Stadium, where Yogi was immortalized in Monument Park with other Yankee greats. We had stopped in St. Louis, Yogi’s hometown, and toured the neighborhood where he grew up with his great niece as our guide. She regaled us with stories of Yogi and we marveled at how two legendary baseball figures like Yogi and his friend Joe Garagiola could have grown up on the same street. Now we were in New Jersey, at Montclair State University, home of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center. We’d been listening to Dale Berra talk of his own major league baseball career and the career of his father, Yogi. After about 15 minutes of story-telling, Dale paused and said, “Before you folks leave, I have a piece of memorabilia I’d like to show you,” and he opened a small door and disappeared behind it, leaving it slightly ajar.

We looked at each other in anticipation. What could it be? A World Series ring? Maybe the Yankees had loaned a World Series trophy to the museum? Would we get to touch a piece of history? Well, yes on the history thing, as you’ll soon see. And yes, I think you could call what was shown to us a “trophy”. We waited for what seemed like hours but in reality was only a minute or so. The door swung open, and a small, slightly hunched over figure appeared. We collectively sucked in our breath. It was Yogi himself.

image1Yogi Berra (center) at his museum in Montclair, surrounded by his Sports Leisure fan club.

Seems that word had gotten to him that a group of people were out on a trip, tracing some of the stops Yogi’s journey in life had taken him. So he decided he’d like to come down and meet us. When Yogi walked in, our collective jaw dropped. We were like kids in a candy store, staring at him without speaking or moving a muscle.

After about 15 seconds, Yogi spoke up. “You can come on down here, he said.” We still sat transfixed. My legs were like rubber, I couldn’t get them to work. After a second encouragement to join him, we made our way down the steps. Yogi shook everyone’s hand, asked us about our trip and wondered aloud why someone like him would be that interesting. One of the first things I noticed was the gnarled shape of his hands and fingers. Foul tips and pitches in the dirt for decades had broken and bent his fingers so that they sort of curled together. Catcher’s hands I think they are called. Hazard of the trade.

We tried to ask Yogi questions, but admittedly, we were star-stuck. For the next 10 minutes or so, I didn’t know whether to cry, smile or wet myself. Friends later asked if I’d gotten his autograph. I hadn’t. Signatures on a piece of paper have never held any intrigue for me. Just standing there, in the presence of a man who was not only one of the best baseball players to ever put on a uniform, but was indeed a great man, was an honor you could feel, in a humble sort of way that spoke of the man himself. In just those few minutes you could sense that Yogi was a kind and gentle man, a man of great integrity.

(His integrity was such that in the 1980’s when George Steinbrenner fired Yogi after only a few weeks of managing the Yankees, he vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium again, and boycotted the field until Steinbrenner publicly apologized over a decade later.)

Born to Italian parents and growing up in a rough and tumble neighborhood known as “The Hill” in St. Louis, Lawrence Peter Berra served his country in WWII and was a machine-gunner on the USS Bayfield during the Normandy invasion. He played the game with a passion few have ever reached. He was the heart and soul of the Yankees.

Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimaggio, Lou Gehrig; the Yankees have had their share of legends, of Hall of Famers. Superstars. Certainly Yogi fit into every one of those categories. Some of his World Series records will never be broken for the simple reason with 30 teams now it isn’t likely anyone will ever play in as many World Series games as Yogi did.

Ironicly, it was his malaprops, his creative use of the English language, which made him memorable. By now, you’ve heard many of them repeated often in the days since Yogi’s passing. They make us laugh. Now some will make us reflect on the man who said them.

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

“I take a two hour nap everyday between one and four.”

Of a St. Louis restaurant, he said, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” On attendance at Yankee games, he commented, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?”

He once spoke of purchasing three of his favorite cardigan sweaters in different colors, “navy blue, navy green and navy brown.”

My personal favorite, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

And on and on. Some of Yogi’s “sayings” will live on forever. He once stated, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” Except those around him verified he did. Often.

Bobby Hofman, a childhood friend who eventually played shortstop for the New York Giants and worked for the Yankees, hung the nickname Yogi on him after noting Berra’s resemblance to a Hindu holy man the two had seen in a movie. In his early years with the Yankees, he was mostly known as “Larry.”

Now Yogi has passed and we have lost something special, a true piece of Americana. Yogi wasn’t just a baseball player, he was one of us. His entertaining way of saying things made us laugh, made us think, made us human. Yogi cut through the airs of fame and fortune and talked to us on a level we could all appreciate and understand. We didn’t laugh at Yogi as much as we laughed with him. He was the guy you wished you could have a cold one with.

He passed peacefully on the 69th anniversary of his Major League debut, at the age of 90. No American sports figure other than perhaps the likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and the previously mentioned Babe were more recognized by the American public than Yogi. At this writing, funeral arrangements were still pending. Where you would hold it, I don’t know. Other than Yankee Stadium itself, what venue could possibly hold all of the people who would probably like to say goodbye to a man they never met?

Owning a tour company has allowed me to go a lot of places, see a lot of things, meet many wonderful people. But I sincerely doubt anything will ever top the day a diminutive man appeared from behind the door of a make-believe baseball stadium. As one of his friends, the late Wes Westrum, also a master of malapropos said, “When they made him, they threw away the molding.” Amen. Not likely will there ever be another Yogi.

And that, is just one man’s opinion.

Making Travel Dreams Come True is Going to Cost More Next Year

The price of travel is going up.  Not surprising, you say.  Seems like pretty much everything goes up, at least a little, every year.  A fact of life, you say.

Having been a small businessman for three-and-a-half decades, I pretty much concur.  Most prices rise a little at a time.  It’s a fact of life in our capitalistic economy.  Most economists will even tell you that gradual price appreciation is a positive thing.

What we are facing in pockets of the travel industry next year is not gradual and will not be positive for travelers.  It will be sudden. It will be a lot in some places and the increases, categorically, are for different reasons. I’m seeing it as we build our travel programs for next year, negotiating prices and contract terms. Let me offer my take.

Hotels – The price of hotels is going up mostly for one reason, demand vs. supply.  For the last several years, new hotel construction has been tempered by poor economic conditions, pretty much around the world.  Fewer new hotels means less competition for existing rooms, so prices automatically tend to rise. Existing hotels, accustomed to annual price increases, found the economy and competition wouldn’t allow much in the way of increases, even though rising costs pressured profits.  Hotels and motels, like many businesses, sucked it up and held the line on prices.

Now, many are trying to pass on five years’ worth of increases in one shot.  The Embassy Suites Logan Airport went from $159 to $215, for the same month, same day of the week, from 2014 to 2015.  Other hotels sported similar price increases.  New York is up $70-80 a night over last year.  Key West is up 20-25%.  If you are planning family vacation travel next year, my advice is to start shopping room rates early, there won’t be many in-season sales for 2015 (until new hotels start springing up in 12-18 months).  So far, the hotels are not playing the new game the airlines have created.  But they certainly could.  Read below.

Airlines – This is entirely another story, worthy perhaps of congressional investigation (on second thought, never mind, Congress has way too many issues already). The airlines, as a group, are price fixing by withholding inventory from public sale.

If you don’t believe me, check Southwest’s schedule for April.  Lots of flights are labeled as “not available” even though they are 7-8 months away.  How could that be? Prices are also extremely high on the limited “available” flights.  Ditto for United, except all flights are available, just at totally ridiculous prices.  By withholding seats until closer to departure, they can increase the average price paid and increase profits.  On the surface this is not illegal, unless they have all gotten together and decided to do this as a group.  I will suggest that is the case.  Far too much coincidence in timing and process to believe otherwise.

Restaurants – If you go to the grocery store, you know that food prices have risen considerably in the past couple of years.  Of course, restaurants have to pass on those costs.  Because I’m not a restaurateur, I can’t comment on the specific finances of the situation, but prices are on the rise.  This could be one area where the price increases are most justified. And most unavoidable. Expect meat, seafood and fresh vegetable prices to be up the most.

Bottom line, expect to pay more for travel next year, whether you travel as part of a group, or independently.  But let’s hope supply and demand drive prices, not huge corporations, who through mergers, have eliminated competition and put themselves in a position to goose the American public.

And that, is just one man’s opinion.

Mark Hoffmann

P.S. If you would like to attend the Tour Preview Day at the Doubletree Hotel this Saturday, there are a few spots still available! Give us a call at (916) 361-2051. If you’ve already made a reservation thank you and see you there!

The Curtain Falls on 23 Years of the Palm Springs Follies

image1.php

It is an old adage in theater circles that if you ever get the chance to attend the final performance of a long-running show, always take advantage of the opportunity.  Because, after months or even years of “getting it right” every afternoon and evening, there’s often a little pent up emotion which is attached to the last show, and it often combines with a special energy from the audience to create a memorable day on the stage.

That’s exactly what happened Sunday the 18th, when the fabled Palm Springs Follies took their final bow(s).  The Palace Theater in the heart of downtown, the Follies home for 23 seasons, never looked better.  The pre-show crowd was positively electric, which isn’t easy when it’s 95 outside.  Inside, the energy level stayed as hot as the outside temperatures throughout the afternoon.

As the program unfolded, the company of 20 performers, all over the age of 55 and some in their 80’s, shared a little about themselves.  Director and Emcee Riff Markowitz was at his comic best.  His sarcastic style has aggravated more than one local through the years, and probably offended a few tourists, but his Don Rickles’ type of delivery is true old school comedy and shows talent and passion for his craft.  It is a passion he has displayed on the stage each time I’ve seen the show over the last two decades.   Like him or hate him, he is funny.  And he had the job for 23 years.  There’s something to be said for longevity.

Longevity.  The company of the Fabulous Follies certainly have/had that.  You had to be 55 to even get an audition.  Many of the performers were part of the team for many years, and most were longtime show business veterans.  On this final day, they all seemed to stick their chest out a little more, to stand a little straighter.  Their pride was apparent.  Even though the show will not go on, they knew they were a part of something memorable.

The audience was filled with returning performers and guest stars from past seasons.  Kay Ballard, Peter Marshall and the like.  You’d know the names if you’d been around as long as they have.  They knew the importance of being a part of this special day.

Mary Jardin, who along with Riff gave birth to this crazy idea back in 1991, looked stunning as she waved to the audience.  Mary admits the job of running the follies wasn’t always about financial success, and it’s apparent that mounting an independent show and the pressure of selling tens of thousands of tickets every year has brought its share of challenging moments.  “You have to wonder where some of these people who are so eager to write about us now, where were they when we needed them?”

Such is the lament of a theatrical producer.  When you tell them you are closing forever, everyone comes.  And while that creates a steady stream of “wow, we are selling a lot of tickets,” it’s intertwined with thoughts of “why did they wait until now?”

It strikes me that for 22 years, Riff, Mary and their gang were making deposits in a special sort of bank.  It was one which allowed only deposits, no withdrawals.  The bank was so special, they didn’t even know it existed.  Until this year.  Then all the people who enjoyed the Palm Springs Follies for so many years stood up and said so.  Boy, did they.  On May 18th, when Riff took the stage, he was met by a loud and sustained ovation.  The same thing happened at the end of the show.  The show that had to close was the show that suddenly no one wanted to end.

But end it did.  All good things must come to an end, and such it is with the Follies.  The show which singlehandedly returned downtown Palm Springs to its glory days has sold its final box of popcorn.  The tens of thousands of people the Follies brought downtown seven months a year for nearly a quarter of a decade will have to find another reason to come.  Whether they will or not, come that is, is open to speculation.  It’s my opinion the Follies have been seriously underappreciated for years, and their absence will be truly felt next fall when the doors to the Palace Theater aren’t thrown open for eight shows a week.  All those people had to eat and shop and slurp frozen yogurt after the show on a warm evening.  They had to stay in hotels and ride the tram to the top of Mount San Jacinto.  They spent a lot of money in town.

At the end of the show, after much applause and more than a few tears, Markowitz got to do what many performers do not.  Some shows close suddenly, without warning.  Such was not the case here.  He got to say goodbye.  After all those many years, after all the challenges of making the show go on, Mary and Riff left on their own terms, with their heads held high.  They had become icons, which I’m fairly certain they hadn’t bargained for.  For one day, heck for one season, people came.  They said thank you.  On that final day, they said it over and over.

At the end of the day, that is what I will remember.  I hope Riff and Mary and the entire cast will remember the applause, the tears, the heartfelt joy everyone in the theater that day shared.  And that they got to say goodbye, with the applause ringing in their ears and the tears on their faces.  It doesn’t get any better.  I hope it was enough.

Thank you Mary and Riff.  Thanks for all those years.  For hanging in there and giving us a great show.  It wasn’t easy and I didn’t always take the time to say thank you.  I just made my annual deposit and moved on.  It was special and it will always be.  May the Palm Springs Follies live on forever.

Betty White, Proving You’re NEVER Too Old

My “relationship” with Betty White started when I was still in grade school. Betty was one of the “celebrity” panelists on What’s My Line?, To Tell The Truth, and I‘ve Got A Secret, game shows popular in the 60’s on daytime television. I used to love watching those shows as a kid. She played the “dumb blonde” on the panel, except you could tell from her narrative that she was anything but dumb. A guest spot on The Mary Tyler Moore Show turned into a regular bit, and she was a part of the cast on Mama’s Family. The list of shows she appeared on as a guest star over the years fills pages and pages.

Fast forward to the 80’s. Now Betty has joined three legendary ladies on The Golden Girls. It turns out to be one of the most beloved TV shows of all time, and can still be seen every day on cable stations. At that point, most people would have taken the money and called it a career. Not Betty.

She’s 91 years young these days and the only surviving Golden Girl. But she isn’t just surviving these days, as I found out the other night. I was channel surfing and came across Off Their Rockers, Betty’s latest reincarnation. If you haven’t yet seen the show (now in it’s second season on NBC, with reruns on Lifetime, which is where I found it) it stars Betty and a cast of senior friends, pulling pranks on younger people. I haven’t laughed so hard at a TV show in years. It wasn’t just funny, it was hysterical. Guest stars like Howie Mandel and Ed Asner are appearing in the new season. Betty serves as the host, as her “posse” executes the cleverly created pranks. Just goes to show innocent little old ladies (and men) might not always be as innocent as they look!

Betty White has become a symbol of perseverance and success. Her new show earned her an Emmy nomination in its first year, and there is no sign the lady who has been in show business since three months after her high school graduation plans on wrapping it up anytime soon. Her formal TV career spans seven decades and is the longest in history.

Betty White is her real name. She was born Betty Marion White in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1922. She is, without any doubt, a true American treasure, still making us laugh. There have been three husbands, the last of which was Alan Ludden, the game show host, who passed in 1981. There’s a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, and Emmy and other awards all the way back to 1951.

If you find yourself at home some evening with nothing to do, check out Off Their Rockers. I suspect, like me, you will not only chuckle a few times, you will recognize a lady who is worthy of the notoriety coming her way. From the hostess of the Rose Parade with Bonanza’s Loreen Green (Does that take you back a few years?) to her current cast of misfits, she has done something very few people are able to do. She is saving the best for last. Just thinking about her makes me smile. What a compliment. You go, Betty. You are truly America’s Golden Girl.

 

Huell Howser, California’s Biggest Ambassador, Travels On

“Now that’s amazing.” Those three words were immediately identifiable to anyone who is a loyal fan of PBS and lives in California. Huell Howser, who came to California a quarter century ago to be “a TV guy”, passed away last week, leaving behind an incredible library of stories about our state, which he brought to life and which will live on forever. What an incredible legacy for any man.

After Howser’s passing, the accolades began to flow. Huell earned every one. But interestingly enough, he wanted no tributes, not even a memorial service. This was a man who lived his life privately. His friends and co-workers knew he was a closeted gay man, but it was a part of himself he chose not to share with others. He died as he lived – in the company of close friends.

What a shame that he felt a need to be someone other than himself to all of us. Because most of us knew him only as a man with a funny accent who was forever telling us about interesting places in our state we had yet to discover. I suspect a large majority of his PBS audience and fans cared little about his personal life. They loved the man they saw on the screen. Huell was a real person. His interview segments on “California Gold” were often done in one take, because he didn’t demand perfection as much as he did honesty. It was a style that served him well.

Howser stepped back from his show last fall, as his health declined. Before he passed, he asked for nothing, except for PBS to continue to air his programs for as long as people enjoyed viewing them. I suspect we’ll see those shows for many years, as reminder of a man dedicated to sharing his adopted home state with others. Many a time I’ve sat on the couch, watching Huell on TV, only to find I need a scratch pad and pen available to make notes about the places he shared. Those shows were a treasure trove of ideas for someone in the travel business.

I got the opportunity to meet Huell in Sacramento’s KVIE studios when he visited in 2011. I had requested an interview with him for The Travel Guys radio show. Veteran broadcasters generally hate those requests. There’s always something they’d rather be doing. But Huell was courteous, smiling and laughing through the entire 12 minute tape. My only regret was not getting a “Now that’s AMAZIN,'” from him during our short time together. A good man, a kind man, a humble man. The kind of guy you miss when he’s gone.

So my friends, I propose a tip o’ the hat to Huell Howser. I wish him peace and safe travels on his next journey. He was and will always be, the definition of California Gold.

We All Remember Where We Were the Night He Walked on the Moon

It was President John Kennedy who set the stage for one of America’s most reluctant heroes. During his too brief time as our nation’s leader in the early 60’s, he challenged us to put a man on the moon. Before the decade was out, Neil Armstrong was that man.

I remember it as a quiet warm summer night. We had moved the television set out on the back porch, I don’t exactly remember why. But I remember it being a clear evening and the moon was visible, so perhaps we thought we could actually see him walking or follow along on television better if we could see where he was. If it was mom’s idea, it completed one heckuva science lesson.

Can’t you remember where you where that evening? Remember the pride you felt. I was about to enter high school in the fall, my little sister must have been 10 or 11, my brother a bit younger. Seemed like to took forever for the moon walk to occur. We had our barbecue and sat in our lawn chairs, waiting for the door for the lunar capsule to open and Neil Armstrong to step onto the surface of the moon. AP said, “Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the highway and checked into motels just to see the moonwalk.

It was the biggest thing to happen in my young life. I believe it will go down as one of the major human accomplishments of our country in my lifetime. It embodied two things we desperately need today. A leader who urged us to attain a goal seemingly beyond our reach, and a country full of citizens willing to publicly support that goal.

The whole process to getting to the moon was fraught with adventure (and even death). We knew it was dangerous. But it was cutting edge (before even the phrase was popular) and it made us proud to be Americans. The Cold War was in its final stages, and one of the reasons was our ability to beat the Russians to the moon, along with our determination to make it happen.

I was never a NASA scientist, or a space worker of any kind. But I will always be grateful to a modest Neil Armstrong, a true American hero who was suddenly thrust into history books forever. I visited his museum with a tour group a few years back, and his brother stopped by to talk to us. He explained that Neil didn’t really do public appearances, but shared some stories of their childhood in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Everyone handles fame in different ways. It strikes me that America’s early astronauts have proven, over time, to be excellent protectors of our history and our integrity, in no small part because of the way they have conducted themselves after they came into the public spotlight. That point shines through in the request the Armstrong family made to Americans:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Amen. God speed Neil Armstrong, American Hero.

 

Farewell to America’s Grandfather – Andy Griffith

Andy Griffith passed away Friday. To anyone under 30, that might have gone unnoticed. To those anyone older than that, well, could we see the hands of all the people reading this who feel a little like they grew up a bit under the influence of the characters of “Mayberry?”

I thought so. Personally, I remember being home from school with the sniffles, curled up on the couch in a blanket, my suffering made a bit easier by Andy and friends.

Andy Griffith had many successes in his acting career, including the country lawyer named Matlock. But none defined a man or an era like The Andy Griffith Show and the people of the imaginary town of Mayberry. Who couldn’t identify with Barney Fife, Opie, Gomer, Aunt Bea and the gang. When Jim Nabors left to create the highly successful Gomer Pyle, USMC, the program successfully replaced him with his “brother” Goober and never missed a beat. Don Knotts became famous as the bungling deputy who got nothing right, but was still loved at the end of the day. The show’s actors and actresses won awards, but interestingly Griffith was never among those honored. He never complained.

The characters of Mayberry were endearing and the topics the show tackled were pretty cutting edge for a situation comedy in the 60’s. Always done tastefully, with understanding and class.

Class. That would be word that best described Andy Griffith. He refused to embroil himself in politics or other controversial situations, preferring to be “America’s Grandfather.”.

Just listening to Ron Howard, who started his career as Oppie, and has gone on to become a superstar in the entertainment industry, reflect on his relationship with Andy, tells you all you need to know. “He shaped my career and he helped me grow up. I have never met a finer man,” said Howard. Andy helped a country grow up. The 60’s were a time of social upheaval. We lost political leaders, went to Viet Nam, landed on the moon, discovered pot and flower children and generally rearranged the deck chairs like never before. We needed a rock, even if it was a television character.

As we celebrate our great country’s birthday this week, I can’t help but be a bit sad. Resources like Andy Griffith are not easily replaced. Certainly someone new will step up to be the country’s most beloved and humble elder non-statesman. Alas, that man will have big shoes to fill.

Thanks to Andy, for sharing his craft, and really, his philosophy of life with us during his journey. It was a tremendous gift, and it impacted far more people than he will ever know. Or maybe he did know.

It marks, to me, the end of an era. Mayberry and it’s people will live on forever, through the magic of film. It was from a simpler time and place. Andy and his Mayberry was our reality check all those years ago. Still might be.

PS – Donnie Anderson of our staff shared a link to a vocal version of the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show. For all these years, I didn’t know the song HAD words. I really enjoyed listening to it. A little corny, which seems absolutely perfect for the moment. Listen to it by clicking here. Thanks Donnie for sharing.

Ernie Edwards was a Friend of Mine


“Hey Ernie, tell the folks about the time Colonel Sanders stopped by the Pig Hip.”

“Ah shucks Mark,” Ernie would drawl, “I’ve told that story so many times.”

“Come on, once more,” would be my reply (I’d played this game with Ernie a few times over 15 years).

“Well, OK. You see, one night back about 1960, as I was getting ready to close, a gentleman came through the door. He told me he could show me how to make the world’s finest fried chicken. I told him in return I’d offer him the finest barbecued pork sandwich he’d ever tasted,” Ernie would begin.

“He cooked the chicken, in some kind of special pot (which turned out to be a pressure cooker), I fixed him a sandwich and we ate. Mr. Sanders told me I could make a lot of money selling his chicken. Even offered to sell me a franchise. I told him I’d sell him a Pig Hip franchise and he could quit the chicken business. We laughed. After dinner, he moved on. Guess he became sorta famous. Maybe I should have considered one of those chicken franchises of his.”

It was one of Ernie’s best stories. For many, many years, Ernie Edwards ran a restaurant in a small town along the side of Route 66 in Broadwell, Illinois. Broadwell is just a few miles from Lincoln and Springfield (where an aspiring young lawyer would begin a path that would lead him to the White House).

Broadwell isn’t a town as much as it is a wide spot in the road. Because of the interstate wiping out part of old 66, you really have to make an effort to stop there. There isn’t much to see anymore.

The old Pig Hip burned down a few years back. An electrical fire in the restaurant Ernie had made into a museum turned the old, mostly wooden building into a tinderbox torch that was completely ablaze by the time the fire department could be summoned.

But here’s the interesting part. People kept coming. When the restaurant was open, Ernie served up barbecued pork sandwiches and other short order delights. But as the years piled up, the interstate diverted a lot of the traffic from the old road. Ernie retired and figured his career was over. His second career, as a storyteller of and on The Mother Road had just begun.

Then the guidebooks on the old road started getting written. The restaurant had closed and now it was not even there, and people kept stopping to see the now closed highway icon.

I met Ernie in 1995, when took my first trip on Route 66. I knew the first time I met him he would be a “staple” on tours of the old road. We’d stop, and Ernie would hold court in the back of his house. The people would gather around, listen to his stories and get a autographed Pig Hip placemat, buy a few of the souvenirs Ernie sold, and head down the road, having met a true piece of Americana.

Last year, a friend of Ernie’s called me. Seems Ernie was having a harder time getting around and it was time for him and his wife to consider relocating to an assisted care facility in Lincoln. He didn’t want to go. His friend Bobby said, “I’m just calling a few of Ernie’s friends to see if there’s anything we can do to cheer him up. He’s pretty down about having to go to the nursing home.”

I had an idea. Two days later, at our Spring Open House at the KVIE Studios, we invited people who knew Ernie and people who didn’t, to sign one of two giant 30×48” poster boards, one with the “Pig Hip” logo on it. Then, with an assist from FedEx, we delivered the cards to Ernie in Lincoln. That was last April.

Last week, my intercom beeped. “A guy named Bobby is on the phone. Says he’s a friend of Ernie’s, and you would know him.”

Took just a second for my brain to make the connection and I picked up the phone.

“Mark, this is Bobby from Illinois. I just wanted to call you to tell you Ernie Edwards passed away last night. He was 94 years old.”

Then Bobby continued, “I wanted you to know because of the cards. When Ernie got those cards last year, it really turned things around for him. He moved to the senior home, and he and his wife didn’t take a lot with them, because the house was only a few miles away. But he took those cards. They were part of a display in the town museum last fall about The Pig Hip and then they we returned to Ernie’s room at the home where he was staying.”

“Whenever anyone came to visit him over the past year, they would hear the story of your cards. Ernie would tell anyone who would listen that those cards were from his California friends who visited him on Route 66 at the Pig Hip. A big smile would come over his face. It really made a difference. I guess maybe he thought people didn’t really care much about an old restaurant man who told stories.”

I was speechless. A tear or two rolled down my cheek. I thanked Bobby profusely for his call and his comments. I asked him to send my best to Mrs. Edwards.

I’ve met a lot of people like Ernie along America’s old highways. Like Dawn at the Rock Café in Stroud, Oklahoma; or the folks hoping to restore the Wheat Growers Hotel in Kimball, Nebraska; or Angel the barber in Seligman, Arizona, a man who perhaps singlehandedly helped start the movement to preserve and restore Route 66, because he wouldn’t let his town die.

But there aren’t too many quite like Ernie. They broke the mold when they made him. We have lost a friend, those of us who travel Route 66. And next year, when the bus rolls into Broadwell, we’ll stop and I’ll tell the story of the man who sold the “Pig Hip” sandwiches (you only use the LEFT hip of the pig for sandwiches, because the pig scratches himself with the right one, and the meat on that side is tougher – or so Ernie said, with a straight face and then a laugh.)

God, I love to travel. Mostly I love getting off the interstate and taking the old roads, meeting people like Ernie, and hearing the stories, because it’s the stories that make people like Ernie live on within us.

Did I tell you the one about the fried chicken salesman who stopped one night at this little restaurant in Broadwell, Illinois…

So long Ernie. Your friends on “The Mother Road” will miss you.

We found this video, courtesy of Central Illinois Tourism. Enjoy!

Forever Gentle on my Mind…

20120224-230503.jpg

My occupation sometimes gives me opportunities I’m grateful for. Not all of us are bright enough to see (or hear) opportunity knocking. I had to learn that lesson the hard way. For years, you see, I’d wanted to see the late John Denver in person. Twice Sports Leisure Vacations took groups to see him in northern California. I didn’t go, thinking there would always be next time.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved the music of Peter, Paul and Mary. We took groups to see them numerous times over the years. I always had an excuse of why I couldn’t make it. Next time, I said.
Of course, the next times ran out for both John Denver and Mary Travers. I will never see them perform live in person. I told myself that would never happen again. So when I heard that Glen Campbell was making a farewell tour after announcing he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, it was quite obvious there would be no second chance to see him. In checking his concert schedule, I discovered he had already completed most of his west coast stops. Only one concert date remained, in Phoenix, a city I needed to visit to inspect the hotel for our upcoming Spring Training trip. So I rescheduled my trip, paid an extra $150 bucks for a last minute ticket, plus $65 for the ticket to the show, and off I went to Phoenix.
It was worth every penny. How was the concert? I knew you would ask that. I waited a few days to write you, because I wanted to think about how to describe my feelings last Friday in Phoenix at Comerica Theater.
The concert wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t perfect. There weren’t mushy family videos and flashy lights. There was one simple costume change. It was a wonderful night that I will always remember. Glen was on stage for an hour and fifteen minutes. He sang all his favorite tunes the people came to hear, along with a couple from his new and final album. A short, two-song encore concluded the evening.
What made the evening so perfect was the fact that no one expected it to be perfect. We all paid to see and hear an entertainer who wasn’t 100% and we knew it. Could this be the first time a person with Alzheimer’s has been so public while suffering from the disease?
I’m reminded of a book I read recently called, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” by Malcolm Gladwell. As I sat in the theater, I thought to myself, “This is the tipping point.” Glen Campbell, by being an incredible public figure while sick, is putting a name and a face on Alzheimer’s like no one has done before. Indeed, I believe he is “the tipping point.” This is the time when all of us who don’t know how to act or react when around those who have the illness, who don’t know what to say to the caregivers, this is when we get more comfortable with all that jazz. It’s a time when the actions of one person can make all the difference.
This has happened before. I remember back in the early 90’s, when AIDS had first been discovered and people were scared to death of the disease. Then, the circumstances surrounding a 12-year old boy named Ryan White became public. Ryan wasn’t gay like many of the others diagnosed with the disease at the time. He was just a little boy who has the misfortune of getting a tainted blood transfusion. But from that day forward, the face of the disease changed. Public acceptance and understanding increased ten-fold.
We may be seeing that same thing happen again. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Wouldn’t it be amazing if a man with such incredible musical and guitar-playing abilities was able to use those talents to create such a “tipping point?”
The irony is that Glen Campbell often doesn’t remember, even just after the show’s conclusion, what has taken place on the stage. The nature of the disease is that it impacts short term memory the hardest. He sings his songs and thanks the audience. He has three of his adult children in the band on stage with him, watching dad’s every move on stage, in the event he loses his place and can’t quickly recover. There are large monitors with the words and directions on them. Despite the monitors, from my seat in the 8th row, at times you could see the confusion on his face.
He lost his place within the lyrics a few times, ever so briefly. He even joked about it once. The one thing he didn’t miss were the guitar licks. The man can play. They say muscle memory is very powerful. I certainly saw a sample of that.
The Rhinestone Cowboy was in all his glory. The tears flowed often in that brief 75 minutes he was on stage. Not his, the audiences’. I was celebrating a piece of my childhood, back to the days of “The Glen Campbell Good Times Hour” on CBS television in the late 60’s, closing my eyes and listening to the music. I doubt that it mattered to many in the theater that the evening wasn’t slick and perfect. In fact, I’m certain it didn’t. There was a lot of love and human understanding in that theater in Phoenix. It was a most unique evening.
It seems a bit ironic that Glen Campbell’s most memorable pop tune is “Gentle on my Mind.” It seems ironic because his mind is slowly drifting away, while he hears the cheers of the crowd, and plays the music he loves with his children beside him. Whether he knows it from moment to moment or not, it’s an incredible way to make your last lap, and the way he’s making it may be felt by many people for years to come. I think it’s called a legacy. Glen Campbell should be proud.
By the time he got to Phoenix, his fans were indeed waiting. The Wichita Lineman is still on the line. We should all be so lucky.

A Day with the Fighting Irish, Weather or Not!

College football is one sport I’ve never been a huge fan of. No special reason. I’m not a big fan of professional football either. Perhaps the fact that colleges basically serve as a free minor league for football is something that doesn’t seem quite right to me. The landscape is littered with college football players who didn’t become academic scholars. Or even close. Such is the way of the world in college football. But as I discovered this past weekend, there is a side to college football I truly enjoy.

Last Thursday, Chris Galloway and I took a group of 35 to Chicago for a “sports weekend” with celebrity guest host Kelly Brothers of KCRA-TV and KFBK Radio. The idea had been Kelly’s – a 4 day trip including both a Cubs game and the Notre Dame football home opener at South Bend. Throw in some sightseeing and great food (Harry Carey’s and Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket – a Route 66 landmark – it just doesn’t get any better!) and we were all in for a real treat.

On Friday, we watched the Cubs and the Pirates, two teams that were playing only for personal glory, inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. It was a hot, humid day, but we were seated behind third base, in the shade. Overall, a great day to soak up the old ballpark.

Saturday morning, we arose early for an 8am bus departure to South Bend, arriving around 11am eastern time. By the time we arrived, thousands had already set up camp around the outside of the stadium. Tailgating? Practically mandatory. Kickoff was still 4 ½ hours away, but the campus was teaming with activity.

First stop, the bookstore. It’s the best souvenir spot on campus and our gang supported the local economy in a big way. Just about everyone getting back on the coach clutched a bag in their hands, some were large bags. Next up, a tailgate party fit for a football fan. Italian beef (a Chicago favorite), southern fried chicken and all the trimmings. Unfortunately, we didn’t make a clean connection with our “beer wagon,” which was in a different parking lot, until we were on our way into the stadium. Best laid plans…

Kelly led a walking tour of the campus, which was filling up rapidly with fans. We paid homage to “Touchdown Jesus,” a massive mosaic on the side of the library. The nickname comes from the fact that the artwork can be seen from inside the football stadium, and Jesus has his arms outstretched over his head, as a football referee would pose signaling a touchdown. A bit irreverent, but it works.

This being the first game of the season, lots of parents were on hand to proudly root for their child’s new alma mater. Kelly, being a Notre Dame grad, was in his element, as he showed us around. A highlight was the story of his dorm, Zahm; and the obvious nickname for its residents (Zahmbies, what else). To say there was excitement in the air is an understatement.

As game time neared, the players, attired in coat and tie, marched to the stadium; followed by the band, after a pre-game concert. Once inside, it was obvious the excitement had come right through the gates with us. Professional sports have a certain aura surrounding them. College sports do also, but it’s a different vibe.

Fan’s investment in pro sports teams is in dollars and years of rooting for their favorite teams. College is different. The investment in college teams often comes from the heart and soul. Alumni who spent some of the best years of their lives working towards a degree have a tie to their school’s sports teams that borders on the fanatic.

As the game began, the stadium announcer informed us they were tracking thunderstorms 100 miles from the stadium, but expected no problems with the weather. Famous last words.

By the end of the first quarter, the storm clouds had begun to gather. Notre Dame, after an initial burst of energy, found itself down 16-0 to South Florida, a team they expected to beat handily. The stadium felt like the air had been pumped out. When your team is getting their collective hats handed to them, it’s hard to maintain your level of pre-game enthusiasm. Then came the announcement. Due to a major wave of thunderstorms headed our direction, the decision was made to suspend play at halftime.

The rains came, as advertised. The fans, many disgruntled by the delay (Don’t they play football in all kinds of weather?), grew impatient. Some left. But at least 85% of those gathered remained on the concourses for what became a two hour delay. When play resumed, the Fighting Irish lived up to their name, marching down the field to score. Perhaps the second half would be different from the first.

But Mother Nature wasn’t done. Another thunderstorm approached and with only 4 minutes to go, a second suspension was announced. This time, with the game seemingly out of reach for the hometown boys (23-13), most headed for their vehicles, hoping to beat the raindrops. BIG raindrops. Buckets of raindrops.

Our gang returned to the coach, the last few arriving as the skies opened up. We had called it a day. (The game did resume again after a 40 minute delay and ended up 23-20, in favor of South Florida.)

Some fans were upset, some confused, some were on the back side of a lot of drinking earlier. (Tailgating has to stop when the game starts, and no alcohol is sold inside the stadium, which certainly helps dry out the imbibing fans.) And if you didn’t know “the rest of the story,” you might have wondered why a football game had been stopped twice for thunderstorms.

Think back just a few weeks. At the Indiana State Fair, severe thunderstorms brought high winds, but the show went on. Unfortunately, the winds caused a stage to collapse, killing 7 people. Now think back to last fall. You might have missed the story about the Notre Dame Student Manager who was video-taping a practice at the stadium when lightening and thunder came. The young man, Declan Sullivan, was killed by a lightening strike, an event that deeply troubled the Notre Dame leadership, because they had not provided a safe environment for a young man in their charge. They were humbled.

So when the word came that 80,000 people were in the path of a potentially life-threatening wind and rain storm, those in charge of one of our country’s most venerable schools did the right thing. They acted with an abundance of caution and suspended play, getting people out of the elements.

It was an unpopular but well thought out decision. A football game is not worth anyone’s life or limb. Yes, a wonderfully exciting day had come to a less than glorious conclusion.  But the day was a success. I think the folks who went with us had a good time and got to experience a college campus on game day. Not just any college campus, Notre Dame. Thanks to a few thoughtful, caring school officials, we’ll all live to tell about it. Sometimes good decisions are not easy or popular. Even when they seem insignificant 24 hours later. Which I think is the point.

I’ll attend another college football game someday. I had a great time. The people at ND were super, Kelly was a terrific host. Next time though, let’s leave the thunderstorms behind.