Monday, September 1, 2014
Meeting Ed Asner ~or~ Two Uneasy Souls Share An Embarrassing Hour Together
Ed Asner, Dee Wallace, and I have at least one thing in common: we graduated from Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas. Dee (then Deanna Bowers—long before she was the Mom in E.T.) was part of the 1966 Bulldog grads. I graduated a year earlier. Asner’s senior year ended a tad earlier, in 1947. That was also the year of my birth.
Dee and I both worked on Big Red’s school newspaper, The Pantograph. In fact, she was my cub reporter when I was on the Senior Staff. However, I confess I never knew her well then. Definitely I knew OF her, since she was a cheerleader, star of stage productions, and an overall popular young lady. I have since interviewed her a couple of times for the local newspaper.
Ed Asner is another matter. The seven-time Emmy winning actor, forever linked with Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore, is a guy I had never met…until a warm day in 2002. He was the guest at a special tribute for him held in Wyandotte’s stately theatre.
Asner was honored as both a favorite son and prestigious Wyandotte graduate. His allegiance to his alma mater is well known. After all, for years a framed photo of himself as a Wyandotte football player was displayed in at least half of all Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes. Look at any given scene taking place in Lou’s office. His football pic is clearly seen on the wall behind Lou’s desk.
Before Asner’s tribute, I had sent e-mails to all my fellow film critics and entertainment writers to remind them of the Asner event. At that time, I was writing my weekly film column at the Kansas City Kansan, so my participation in the Asner event was solely as an audience member. Since I was not officially a newspaper staff member, I assumed The Kansan had assigned a reporter and photographer to cover the affair.
As Asner sat with local dignitaries on the front row in the audience, student dancers and singers performed for him on stage. Speakers praised him, and a brief video was shown, covering Asner’s illustrious career. Asner was touched, and was nearly in tears when he thanked everyone from the stage in concluding remarks.
After observing handshakes, pats on Asner’s back, and falderal, I joined the audience in departing the premises. A good pal of mine, the now late Vince Koehler, greeted me and asked if I was sticking around for punch and cookies in the adjoining Little Theatre. “Ed Asner will be there,” Vince said, “and I want to get some photos of him with the press.” I agreed to tag along, planning to stay for a few minutes.
Walking into the large, high-walled room, we noticed Ed Asner standing near the punch bowl. He was alone, not even a handler or agent with him. Not one reporter or photographer from any radio, TV or newspaper outlet in Greater Kansas City was present. Not one local civic leader or politician was there. The school principal had skipped out as well.
I was jaw-dropping stunned at the scene. What an insult to Ed Asner. What an embarrassment. I felt shame for everyone who should have been there. Most of all, I felt sorry for Ed.
Here I had planned on observing from afar, and now I could not help but walk up to the man and chat with him as a makeshift greeter. Whenever I interview any celebrity, I always do my homework and have questions ready to ask. Otherwise, my mind blanks out. Unprepared was I, understandably so.
It was then friend Vince said, “I’ll stand back here and take some pictures of the two of you.” My response was “But…but…but….” and Vince snapped away. I was air-headedly hoping that just introducing myself to Asner would take at least 20 minutes, and then I could leave.
As I stood there with a very patient and seemingly unfettered Ed Asner, I wondered who had brought Asner here, and why isn’t he/she with him now? It appeared that Ed was driven to the event, dropped off, and the driver was told to return at a given time which factored in both the auditorium time and the “reception” following. There were no cell phones in those days, so a quick call was not possible.
Ed Asner and I shook hands. I told him I had graduated in 1965, and that I was a long time fan of his. Groping for something original to say, I asked if he knew about the history of Wyandotte’s theatre, particularly the carved images across the top of the proscenium. He seemed interested, so I took him back to the theatre to see the images of men near the ceiling. Even though I knew only sketchy details, I spoke with conviction about the stick figures clasping each other's hands that symbolized the four workers who had died during the theatre’s construction that began in 1935.
Nothing like a grim remembrance to get a conversation going. It’s my way of impressing multiple Emmy winners. Ed seemed to appreciate my mini-guided tour. We headed back to the punch and cookies.
Still no one had entered the room, so I decided to reference his brother, Ben, a guy I had known for years since he owned a popular area record store, Capers Corner. “Yes,” commented Ed, “Ben is a character.” I told Ed about the time in 1967 when I shopped at Ben’s store. Ed, then known as Edward, was co-starring in Blake Edwards’ Gunn, a movie version of the popular TV show, Peter Gunn. Ben had a large Gunn poster hanging near the store’s entrance, and he stopped me as I entered to point out the poster. (He was probably stopping each person entering.) Ben proclaimed, “That’s my brother’s movie!” Sure enough, Ben had boldly circled Ed’s name and labeled it “MY BROTHER.” Ed smiled at my telling.
That took all of 50 seconds, and there we stood. Ed was as bad about small talk as I was. I sensed he was growing a bit frustrated about the situation as the minutes ticked on. As we stood facing each other, he would repeatedly poke me in my stomach like I was the Pillsbury Dough Boy. I stood about 6’ to Asner’s 5’ 7”, making index finger contact with my tummy a given. My fat gut only encouraged him.
Finally, after nearly 60 minutes of small talk and testing the resilience of my stomach, Asner’s driver appeared, and accompanied his boss outside, down the steps (Asner tripped, but Vince caught him), and into the awaiting car.
Lo and behold, I recently discovered Ed Asner and I share another Wyandotte memory. We both worked as feature page editors for the school newspaper, The Pantograph. In a 2002 interview I stumbled upon two days ago, Asner said, “I was feature page editor of the Wyandotte High School Pantograph—the only editor who was an editor and played football at the same time.” Another commonality we share: Asner’s journalism teacher was Mr. William Corporan. Seventeen years later, Corporan was my principal at Wyandotte.