I imagine that it’s not uncommon for folks who live in Manhattan or L.A. to spot celebrities on some kind of regular basis, or at least to not be surprised to see some big-name famous person while out grabbin’ a bagel. That’s life in the bright lights of the big city.
But such star sightings are a relative rarity in Syracuse. The other day, my wandering mind ambled its non-linear way to the famous people I’ve seen somewhere, here or there or anywhere over the years. I’m not talking about concerts or performances or lectures I attended, wherein I witnessed the magic of Eddie Murphy, Harlan Ellison, President Bill Clinton, William Shatner, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, locally-staged plays starring the likes of Julie Newmar, Bert Parks, and Abe Vigoda, or the many musical acts in my Virtual Ticket Stub Gallery. I don’t mean getting into the locker room at Yankee Stadium on Old-Timer’s Day 1972 to meet Joe DiMaggio and Whitey Ford, or going to a comics convention in New York in 1976, where I met Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Batman co-creator Bob Kane, and so many other writers, artists, and editors that I admired. I’m also not talking about celebrity signings and meet-n-greets, where I briefly met Mickey Mantle, Adam West, and Micky Dolenz, back-stage access opportunities where I met Peter Tork, The Searchers, KISS‘ Gene Simmons and Bruce Kulick, and Mary Lou Lord (and actually chatted with Mary Lou for quite some time, two young parents talkin’ about their kids). Nope, none of that. I’m thinking about sightings in the wild, times when I wasn’t expecting to see someone famous, but there they were, ready (or not) for their close-up.
I mentioned this to my daughter, and she was amazed to learn that KFC spokesman Colonel Sanders was a real person; she thought he was just a fast-food mascot, no less make-believe than a Ronald McDonald or a Burger King. But yeah, when I was a kid, traveling with my Mom some time in the late ’60s or early ’70s, I spotted ol’ Harland in the crowd at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It was definitely him, dressed in his familiar white suit, shuffling along with, I think, a small entourage of assistants. He looked very old, and very frail, and I don’t think anyone bothered him. Kentucky Fried Chicken was one of my favorite take-out foods when I was a kid, so there was something satisfying about seeing the man who’d developed KFC’s tasty secret recipe, even if I could only see him from afar.
If my 1972 visit to the Yankees locker room on Old Timer’s Day doesn’t count, maybe this does. Before I’d made my way to the locker room, I somehow ran into former shortstop and then-current broadcaster Phil Rizzuto in a public area of the stadium. I asked him for an autograph, but my pen ran out of ink. He told me to wait, he ducked into the press box, and came back with a fresh pen. Here ya go, kid. The Scooter rules!
This was right before an Elvis Costello show at my college in Brockport, so maybe this shouldn’t count either. Nonetheless, while my ex-girlfriend, her ex-boyfriend, and I all waited outside the student union ballroom prior to Costello’s concert, Declan Patrick MacManus hisself brushed by us, all brusque and sullen. Shortly after that, listening from outside the ballroom’s closed doors, we heard Elvis and The Attractions rehearsing “Alison” and “The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes,” two songs they wound up skipping in the actual show, a show that was cut short abruptly when Costello stormed off stage.
British guitar legend Chris Spedding was playing with a band called The Necessaries when they toured as opening act for The Pretenders in 1980. This also shouldn’t count, I guess, because obviously I knew Spedding was going to be at the club, but I was surprised to see him by himself at a table, drinking his beer alone. Well, what the hell. I went over to his table, exchanged pleasantries, got an autograph, and let him get back to his beer.
I was working in a shopping-mall record store in downtown Buffalo in 1985 when boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho stopped in. I had no idea who he was, and had not even heard of him at that point, but I quickly gathered that he was something of a big deal. He was there at my fine record emporium in search of a cassette of “Macho Man” by The Village People, with the intention of using that disco hit as his arena-entrance music. Alas, I had to break the news to The Macho One that The Village People’s catalog o’ favorites was out of print. He politely refrained from breaking every bone in my body, which was good. Someone snapped a photo of Macho and me, and I wish I’d had the good sense to snag the picture as a souvenir.
When was this–1989? 1990? I was working in an appliance store in the Syracuse area, and a guy came in looking at boom boxes. I didn’t recognize him until the master illusionist introduced himself, and asked for the manager. I happened to be in theoretical charge of the store that shift, so Copperfield said to me, I’m doing a show tonight, and I need two of these. If you can give me a deal, and you can deliver them to the theater, I’ll give you two tickets to the show. Awright. I figured out an appropriate discount, and Copperfield handed me his AmEx. I delivered the boom boxes, and Brenda and I returned to the theater that night for a kickass magic show.
I was kind of oblivious to this as it happened, but I was there. Actor Alec Baldwin has family in the Syracuse area, and one afternoon in the early ’90s he visited our store to buy a refrigerator for one of his family members. I didn’t wait on him, but I did see him, and I saw his credit application (which listed his occupation as Motion Picture Actor, and his income as in excess of $100,000 a year). He bought a nice fridge. His then-wife Kim Basinger was not with him.
No such luck.
YOU CAN SEE ALL THE STARS AS YOU WALK DOWN ERIE BOULEVARD. Or something.
There may have been one or two others I’ve forgotten in the moment. Comic Jeff Altman, a frequent guest on Late Night With David Letterman, is originally from Syracuse, and he made a couple of purchases from me when he was back in town. Author David Hajdu also has Syracuse connections (and Brenda was a preschool teacher for one of his kids); he came back to play guitar with his wife, singer Karen Oberlin, in Porcelain Forehead for a BRIGHT LIGHTS! Syracuse New Wave Rock ‘n’ Roll Reunion live show that my This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio partner Dana Bonn and I co-hosted. I met Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob Squarepants, through the same BRIGHT LIGHTS! series, and through our shared history as fans and associates of Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouses The Flashcubes. R & B duo Womack & Womack did an in-store appearance at my record shop in Buffalo, and I’m pretty sure I used to serve fast-food tacos to members of The Goo Goo Dolls before they were famous. Wait–before they were famous? Man, that doesn’t count either….
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