July 5, 2013

Lifetime of 'starlight' shines on Barbers

Phoebe and Don Barber are pictured in June 1981.

Don Rickles

Neil Sedaka

Red Skelton

Van Johnson


If anyone has an appreciation for the actors and celebrities who entertain the world on a daily basis, it's Ron Martel, who, with his wife, Leigh (Reel People), has been providing movie reviews for The Friday Flyer every week (with a couple of exceptions) for nearly nine years.

Recently, Ron helped Canyon Lakers Don and Phoebe Barber write their memories of “hobnobbing with the stars” in a special three-part series. This article is the first in the series.

Hobnobbing with the stars

By Ron Martel as told by Don Barber

Special to The Friday Flyer

At one time or another, everyone seems to have rubbed shoulders with a celebrity or two. These experiences may bring illusions or delusions of being swept into the lavish lives of those fortunate (or possibly unfortunate) to be in the public spotlight. Such occurrences happened with unusual frequency to Canyon Lake’s own Don and Phoebe Barber over a period of several decades.

Maybe it was destiny, as they had performed very successfully in theater at school. They were high school friends but never dated. After Don went to UCLA and Phoebe to UC Berkeley, they settled three states apart with other partners, had children and later divorced. At their 20th high school reunion, they were the only divorced persons in the class. One thing led to another, and they tied the knot in 1971.

Years before, Don says he enjoyed visiting Las Vegas. He remembers on one occasion, he was at the craps table alongside Harry James, the WWII big band trumpeter, and pin-up star Betty Grable, who were married at the time.

Don says Harry and Betty were having a terrible spat in front of everyone. The glamorous Betty was not so glamorous that night, sporting a scarf over her head and wearing a denim shirt and Levi’s. Don says he was surprised how small she was in stature compared with her glamorous long legs and exotic looks in movie roles.

A few years later, at the Riviera, Don was playing craps after the Red Skelton show. Red was well-known on radio, TV and movies from the ‘30s through the ‘70s. Red, himself was on the opposite end of the table from Don. Don was not doing particularly well that night and threw a snake-eyes.

Red had just put money down on the two dots (a 30:1 bet). He yelped and jumped up and down when that happened and shouted to Don, “Thanks, pardner, I know when to leave,” and left the table. Don's delusions at crap tables eventually faded to wiser and more spiritual interests.

Phoebe’s first hobnob was at 11 years old when Director Otto Preminger filmed “Fallen Angel” in her hometown of Orange in 1944. In front of her home, she saw Alice Faye, Dana Andrews, Bruce Cabot and John Carradine sit next to her to strike up a conversation and rehearse their lines.

She thought Linda Darnell was beautiful and very friendly; Dana Andrews was courteous, but a no-nonsense professional like he typically played. The most jovial was Leo Carrillo, who enticed Phoebe to enter the Hollywood world. Her wise mother was adamantly against that aspiration.

A few years later, Phoebe entered a local beauty contest. Otto Kruger, character actor of the ‘30s and ‘40s, was one of the judges. When he placed her runner-up bracelet award on her wrist, he explained she might have won if she had not stumbled on her name, Sara-Phoebe Glasgow Sweet, instead of simply Sara Sweet, as she was known at the time.

As an Orange County tennis star, Phoebe once rallied with the great tennis pro of the ‘50s, Pancho Gonzales. She was invited to a match in Hollywood to watch her hero and was seated directly in front of actors Peter Lawford, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Van Johnson and “The Cisco Kid,” Leo Carrillo. Phoebe thought Peter Lawford was friendly, but Van Johnson a little reserved. Mostly, she was fascinated to see the beauty and flawlessness of Miss Tierney's face.

After Don and Phoebe married, it’s reasonable the celebrity sightings would continue. In 1978, Don and Phoebe bought a condo in Palm Springs as a weekend retreat. At Melvyn's Restaurant at the Ingleside Inn, they met Patrick MacNee of the old “Avengers” TV series. They had long talks about his career. "Nice fellow, Patrick," they say.

On another occasion, singer Donna Summer and her manager joined them for breakfast. Donna complimented Phoebe on her outfit. Phoebe says Donna wore no makeup, yet still looked refreshing. Phoebe loved Donna's disco tunes, especially “Last Dance,” and she will be sorely missed.

One night in the ‘70s on Palm Canyon Drive, Don saw actor Van Johnson in an overcoat, walking down the sidewalk with his dog and a "little pip-squeak male companion with an effeminate voice." Don says his image of Van as a lady's heartthrob was shattered.

At the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Don and Phoebe saw Neil Sedaka open for The Carpenters. The next morning, they bumped into the 5-ft., 5-in. Sedaka and his wife outside the hotel. They expressed to him how much they enjoyed his show over the headliners. Don says Neil was uplifted because he had been having trouble with the Carpenters' management. They then spent 20 minutes talking with the talented singer.

A year later, Don and Phoebe went out where the dance floor was so crowded dancers could hardly keep from bumping into one another. They found themselves dancing next to, who else, but Neil Sedaka and his wife, who were having the time of their lives.

In the ‘70s, Don and Phoebe spent a weekend at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas where “It Takes a Thief” TV show was filming. Afterward, Robert Wagner agreed to pose behind Phoebe for a home video Don was taking. She asked him about his wife, Natalie Wood, to which he replied, “Oh, she's over at the trailer resting now. She's here in town with me.”

One night in the ‘80s, Don and Phoebe took in the Don Rickles Show at the Riviera Hotel and sat in the front row ? a prime target for Rickles. Sure enough, Rickles singled out Don, “You're Irish aren't you?” Don nodded.

”I can always tell you guys,” Rickles said. “Well I'm a Jew. What do you say about that? Sit down.” Then, he walked away and muttered into the microphone, “Is the Irishman sitting down? Does he have something in his pocket?” Knowing Rickles, it could have been much worse.

Another time at the Sahara Hotel, Don and Phoebe bumped into comedian Jack Carter next to the crap tables. When Phoebe introduced herself, Jack called her Fee-Fee for about a half hour while they were talking with him. Don and Phoebe figured he was doing it as a comic routine.

One night, Don and Phoebe took in a performance at the Hollywood Theater (later renamed the Kodak, then the Dolby Theater), with actor-singer Richard Harris. They gained backstage access and greeted the humble Harris. They told him how well they thought of his performance. After an engaging conversation, he was gracious about the entry of the two backstage and wished them well.

Afterward, Don and Phoebe were followed to their car by Sally Kellerman (movie “MASH”) and her male companion. Recognizing her, Don said in a loud voice, “Well, I thought the play was good, but not as good as it would have been if Sally Kellerman had been in it.”

This produced a laugh from behind and the reply, “Come on, you guys, why would you want to ruin a perfectly brilliant play like that?” Don says she was a sport to laugh at the compliment even if it was perpetrated because of her presence.

Speaking of the Hollywood streets, on the way to Dino's Night Club on Sunset Boulevard, Don let Phoebe off on the corner while he looked for a parking place. There were several “business girls” working that evening who did not appreciate the “competition.”

Don soon returned when he couldn't find a place to park, rolled down the window and motioned for her to get in. Phoebe was fuming for the insult, but Don said she should consider it a compliment, as the ladies of the evening assumed he chose Phoebe over them; almost the end of Don!

A spectacle to behold was Phoebe driving their motor home, pulling a boat near Lake Tahoe with Don and his three sons, Phoebe and her three sons and Phoebe’s two daughters. In a small village on the east side of the lake, Phoebe pulled the rig into the parking area of a small restaurant-bar. When all 10 entered the restaurant, Phoebe noticed a familiar figure.

She said, “I know you, I know you, you're, you’re the Virginian, that's right.” Yes, it was James Drury. The kids were delighted to see a TV personality as he invited them all to a shindig over on the South Tahoe Shore. This time, they politely declined.

To be continued . . .