During the years I covered entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I shared many meals with celebrities. Dining with Raymond Burr, being asked to lunch by Olivia Newton-John, and having showbiz legend Lucille Ball eat off my plate were all part of the job.
Burr, who spent nine years winning court cases in “Perry Mason” and another eight solving mysteries from a wheelchair in “Ironside,” was visiting Atlanta in 1986 to promote some TV movies he did reviving his Mason character. I showed up at his hotel suite expecting just an interview. But the burly actor with the resonant voice announced he was serving me dinner. And he did just that, hovering over me like a solicitous waiter as he filled my wineglass.
In the fall of 1980, I spent a day with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in Augusta. Brown, clad in black velour and knee-high black boots, talked sort of like he sang, in short, sharp riffs periodically interrupted by bursts of laughter and exclamations.
When an elderly man came into his office, Brown introduced me to his father, James Joseph “Pop” Brown Sr., and then he sent Daddy out to get us some fried chicken for lunch. We ate the spicy chicken right there in JB’s office, and I remember that, after we were finished, his daddy took great care trying to clean up some grease that had gotten onto the top of the desk.
One of the most unusual spots I ever dined at was George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, on the banks of the Potomac River, where actress Patty Duke had filmed a mid-1980s miniseries, in which she played the first lady, Martha. She sat next to me as we dined on shark (I found it kind of rubbery) and we talked about Georgia, since she was dating a drill sergeant based at Fort Benning (whom she eventually married).
I spent several years as the newspaper’s pop music critic, so I dined with many singers and musicians, including having tea with the B-52s at a vegetarian restaurant in Athens, where one of them was working (it was before they hit it big), and enjoying duck a l’Orange with Roger Daltrey of The Who in Los Angeles.
I joined country singer Tanya Tucker at a chichi French restaurant in Buckhead, Rue de Paris. After the first course, when the waiter brought little goblets of Champagne sherbet, Tucker, wide-eyed, exclaimed, “Dessert, already?!” The waiter assured her that it was simply to “cleanse the palate, Mademoiselle,” and that dinner was still to come.
I traveled to Miami Beach, where the Allman Brothers Band was working on its 1979 reunion album, “Enlightened Rogues.” One evening was spent at the mansion the band was renting, three doors down from 461 Ocean Boulevard, the address immortalized in an Eric Clapton album title. There, I chowed down on huge slabs of coconut cake with a very stoned Gregg Allman. Between bites, he regaled me about a recent “juice cleanse” he’d gone through.
The first Beatle I ever met was George Harrison, at a record label function in Washington. Harrison ate only soup and dessert, and after he’d finished, I walked over to his table and, kneeling beside him, spent several minutes chatting with the Fab Four’s lead guitarist, who proved to be warm and friendly.
I interviewed Olivia Newton-John on several occasions, including once at a local radio station when her “Physical” album was about to come out. After we’d finished, her record label president and a couple of radio station bigwigs were going to take her out to eat. I wasn’t supposed to be included, but Olivia turned and said, “Bill, would you like to come?”
We set out for Mary Mac’s, but, when she learned we’d have to stand in line, she asked for something a bit more private. We wound up at a downtown hotel, where I sat next to her for a leisurely lunch.
Sometimes, the celebs I dined with acted nothing like their image. Don Knotts, famous as frenetic Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show,” sat next to me at a press dinner in New York and was so quiet and self-effacing you almost could forget he was there. Another Griffith show cast member, George Lindsey, who played Goober, joined me for catfish one night in Nashville. I bested him at Mayberry trivia, prompting him to say, “You know more about that show than I do!”
I had lunch at a local hotel with Atlanta-born Bert Parks, the longtime emcee of the Miss America pageant (who always saluted the winner by singing “There She Is, Miss America”). Before the waitress could say a word, Parks barked, “How’s your snapper?” I’m not sure what the woman thought he meant, but she blushed furiously and sputtered, “Excuse me?” He grinned and pointed toward the menu. “Your red snapper. How is it today?”
A few of my celeb adventures involved drinks: I drank with Lionel Richie until the wee hours in a private upstairs hotel bar in New York, talking Beatles (Paul was his favorite); watched Wolfman Jack add two Sweet’N Lows to his orange juice during an interview; and was offered some sort of health drink by one of the Oak Ridge Boys when I was accompanying them on their tour bus. He explained that nobody liked it, but they had it on the bus because “it tastes like it’s supposed to be real good for you!”
Still, the most memorable celebrity meal I ever had was a New York dinner promoting a telemovie featuring TV’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball, in a rare dramatic role as a bag lady. Lucy, looking very chic in a black outfit with a white ruffled blouse and large diamond rings set off by her long red nails, puffed away incessantly on Philip Morris Commanders as she sat next to me at dinner.
One female reporter at our table asked her about being the first woman to head a studio, Desilu, but she waved it off with, “Honey, it was all Desi,” referring to ex-husband Desi Arnaz.
Finally, she looked over at my plate and noticed I had left my beets untouched. “Aren’t you going to eat them?” she asked in that famous foghorn voice. I said, no, I wasn’t fond of beets. She asked if she could have them.
And, so, the star of “I Love Lucy” ate the beets right off my plate. Celebrity encounters don’t come any cooler than that.
Bill King is a retired writer-editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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