They go in threes

That’s what we’ve long said in the newspaper business. Celebrities and prominent people die in threes.

I vividly recall the summer of 1997. Brian Keith, the actor who played Uncle Bill on the late-’60s sitcom “Family Affair” had just died. A week later, the actor Robert Mitchum died.

The day Mitchum died, I spoke up during one of our news meetings and said to watch out for the third one. Someone asked what I meant. “They go in threes,” I said. “Celebrities die in threes.”

The next day, the actor James Stewart died. I’ll never forget the look on one of my co-workers’ faces when he heard the news. His eyes popped open. His jaw dropped. Not that it was Stewart. Just that there had been a third.

And so we come to three recent obituaries of note.

The first was Elvis.

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He was the guy who rode an old bike and collected cans in our community. I wrote about our Elvis after he died last fall.

Now, the rest of the story. The folks in our community want to put up some kind of memorial to Elvis in one of the parks he so often was seen in. There’s even a Facebook page in his memory. It has more than 1,200 members, more than 100 posts on the wall.

What I did not know was that Elvis had some kind of brain injury when he was young, and it kept him from learning how to read. Or that he’d been married and had a son and a daughter. Or that he was much more social than I’d thought.

The second was Suzanne Pleshette.

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I remember having an absurd conversation with one of my high school classmates back in the mid-’70s. We were rating the relative hotness of a variety of women on TV. Hey, what can I say? We were 16 or 17. It’s the kind of thing you do when you’re 16 or 17. This was so long ago that it was before Farrah Fawcett and Suzanne Somers.

Anyhow, my classmate insisted that Joan Van Ark was the hottest. A bright, attractive young actress at the time, certainly.

But, no, my friend, not even close to Suzanne Pleshette. I’ve always had a thing for her. There aren’t many DVD sets I’d consider getting, but I could watch “The Bob Newhart Show” for days on end. She was that good, that bright, that spicy, that sexy. Of course, now we know cigarettes forged that sultry voice — she died of lung cancer, just 70 — but, oh, that voice.

Time’s Richard Corliss put forth the interesting notion that Pleshette “was a perfect fit for the movies’ golden age” but “unfortunately for her, Hollywood had stopped making the kinds of films that would have made (her) a star two decades before she got there.”

Hal Boedeker of the Orlando Sentinel wrote that in real life, “Suzanne Pleshette was a lot saltier than Emily Hartley. She’d be the person you’d want to sit next to a party because you were sure to hear some choice comments, delivered with sass.”

The third was Howard Washington.

You probably haven’t heard of him. I hadn’t, until I read a delightful appreciation of his life in the Los Angeles Times.

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Imagine you are one of Warner Bros. Records’ top stars. You pull up at its headquarters in Burbank, California, but the tiny parking lot is full. The security guard overseeing the lot lowers the boom on you. Howard Washington tells you in an unforgettably big voice to go park on the street. Yes, you, Madonna. Yes, you, Prince.

Washington was 20 when he started at the Warner Bros. movie studio in 1929, running a shoeshine and a car wash. Though he did other things — served in the Navy during World War II and sold real estate in the ’50s and ’60s — he became synonymous with Warner Bros. He even had bit parts in a couple of movies.

From his post at the record company parking lot, Washington became so beloved that David Lee Roth was the emcee at his 80th birthday bash in 1989. They gave him a platinum record called “Howard Washington on the Lot.” Its songs included “You Can’t Park Here,” “Park on the Street,” “The Lot Is Full,” “They Didn’t Tell Me You Were Coming” and “I Don’t Care Who You Are.”

Sounds like he was one cool cat.

So, for Howard Washington, here’s a tune by a group that was on a Warner Bros. label when he was riding herd on rock stars in the parking lot. It seems to fit with his outlook on life — Washington married and was divorced five times. Then, when he was 74, he met Eunice Glover. They were still together when he died 24 years later, earlier this month, at 98.

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“If You Wanna Be Happy,” Kid Creole and the Coconuts, from “Doppelganger,” 1983. It’s a cover of Jimmy Soul’s R&B hit from 1963, which was based on an old calypso tune, “Ugly Woman.”

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3 Comments

Filed under January 2008, Sounds

3 responses to “They go in threes

  1. Your comments about Suzanne Pleshette v. Joan Van Ark remind me of the old bar-room/frathouse debate: Ginger or Mary Ann? A more interesting debate, to me, was always: Bailey Quarters or Jennifer? (Bailey, hands-down.) And you were right about Suzanne.

  2. Big cosign on Suzanne Pleshette (a major part of my middle school fantasies).
    The first thing I do almost every day is check the New York Times obit page. Therein lie all manner of stories that would otherwise be forgotten, the last stop for really interesting people.

  3. We still miss James Stewart.
    Howard Washington sounds like one cool dude. I’m glad I met him through your blog.

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