This past Tuesday, the world lost a legend and most didn’t even realize what they lost. Stan Freberg was a comedy genius, a genius ad-man, and a sincerely good and gentle man. If not for Stan, there might be no Weird Al Yankovic, no comedy in advertising, and no Grammy awards (No seriously! He named it! Who knows what it would have been called.)
Stan put the “mad” in Mad Men. Watch some of the commercials he came up with and just try to keep a straight face:
In 2009, Brenda, a.k.a. She Geek, was working for a book publisher that was releasing a star-studded audio translation of the Bible. That fall, she was sent to Los Angeles to meet up with Michael York and Ernie Hudson, two of the vocal actors, to go to a television interview with them. I took some time off to go with her. Little did I realize that trip would be the most memorable of my life and would lead to Stan Freberg and his wife calling us friends.
What follows is a remembrance of that weekend that I posted on Facebook in October, 2009 so that I would always have a record of that time. When you read it, in your head imagine the voice of a hyper 7 year old boy on a sugar rush because that’s how I felt about the whole thing.
Today, the angels are laughing a little more loudly thanks to Stan’s presence. We’ll miss you, Freberg.
So Brenda has been working for the past year on the new Word Of Promise, OT version, getting publicity for the project and contacting the talent for release forms, etc. One of the many great talents on the project is one of my favorites, legendary satirist Stan Freberg (more of Stan on YouTube). Brenda had spoken with his wife Hunter a few times in the past few weeks, securing forms for Stan’s participation in some publicity. When Brenda found out that she was going to L.A. to attend a taping for a Word Of Promise promotion, we arranged that I would travel with her and we’d extend the stay into a vacation. She suggested calling Hunter to see if they’d want to do coffee when we came out, but I am no master of small talk and felt it’d be just awkward.
Well, we went to California and we stayed in a hotel where they were having a collectors’ convention filled with TV and film celebs. The main draw was the large number of Twilight Zone actors, but there were also groups from Farscape, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, even Dallas. But the main reason I wanted to go was to get an autograph from my puppy’s namesake, Zuzu, aka Karolyn Grimes. Very sweet lady, btw. After we collected a number of autographs we wandered out into the lobby and were stunned to see that Stan Freberg had set up a table! Brenda found Hunter and struck up a conversation with her. Another very sweet lady, btw, who can really give my wife a run for her money in the talking-up-a-storm competition 🙂 Hunter took us over to introduce us to Stan. He’s a bit older now of course, but still sharp as a tack and loved talking to all the people that came up to his table for an autograph or a picture. Brenda thought to ask Hunter for recommendations for places to see and eat in LA. Hunter gave us her number and said to call her later and she’d have come up with a good list by then. Cool!
The next day as Bren and I were touring the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Brenda got a message from Hunter to call Stan for more information. She did and instead of giving us touristy options, Stan invited us to dinner and a personal tour of the area. Uh, yes please! We called Hunter back that afternoon (she was speaking at UCLA until 4:30) and asked how we should dress since we had no idea where dinner would be. She said they weren’t sure where we’d be going but just jeans and a sweater or jacket should suffice. Good thing since that was basically all I had.
We met up with the Frebergs at the Rite Aid Beverly Hills (rich people gotta get their fix too) and jumped into their back seat. Our evening started with a tour of Rodeo drive. Stan and Hunter pointed out all the good stores telling us what kind of outrageously expensive goods could be bought at each. We also learned who shops where and what used to be in various store fronts. When pointing out one of Marilyn Monroe’s favorite shops, Stan told us about the time he ran into Marilyn at a Chinese restaurant that kept their celebrity guests’ personal chopsticks in a cabinet. They passed in route to get their utensils and she gave him a breathy “Hi”. He really didn’t have a response for that 🙂 ‘After that was a view of some of the fantastic homes of Beverly Hills. Wanna feel really poor? Look no further than Beverly Hills. Their garages dwarf my house. Still, if I had the money, I’d live like that too, at least for a little while.
Then it was time for dinner. Brenda and I were thinking, oh maybe a nice little Italian restaurant or even a good hamburger. Um, no. Knowing we were interested in tales of old Hollywood, Hunter said they wanted to show us the Beverly Hills Hotel and eat at the Polo Lounge there. Right away, I knew any place with the name “Lounge” was going to be more than expensive. I just looked at Brenda and mouthed “OK, we only get to do this once” and decided to just bite the bullet. We drove up to a beautiful hotel, surrendered the car to a valet (I hate mandatory valet), and walked up the red carpet to the front doors. The lobby was beautiful and opulent with chandeliers, velvet couches, golden everything…made our very nice Marriott look a little outclassed. We walked past one room, and Stan stopped to tell me “That’s the room where I coined the name ‘Grammy'” Yes, Stan is the one that saved the Grammy from being named The Eddie. Who knew? Hunter showed us a downstairs eatery that is apparently celebrity filled on Sunday mornings for brunch. Then we walked into the Polo Lounge. The maitre d’ showed us to our table and presented us with the menus. With trepidation, Brenda and I opened them timidly as if we thought a clown on a spring might eject from them and smack us in the face with pies. Sure enough, there were the prices in all their Beverly Hills glory. Sheesh. The host described the specials for the evening, a beef stroganoff and a chicken risotto with truffles, and left us to decide. After much hemming and hawing, we settled on the specials.
“Imagine Marilyn sitting over at that table, and Elizabeth over there,” Hunter told us, and with the surroundings still as they looked in 1955, it wasn’t that difficult. While we waited to be served, Stan told us about his younger days in Hollywood, how when he was 18 he told his parents he was hopping a bus to go downtown and find an agent so he could break into show biz. He got off the bus in “as middle of Hollywood as there is” and found an agency. He told the agent that he did voices. After proving his abilities, the agency signed him on the spot and asked why they hadn’t heard of him before. Stan told them that he’d actually been around for a bit. His now-agent told him, “Well yeah, sure, I didn’t think you just got off the bus.” “True story”, Stan assured us.
The waiter brought out a plate with four tiny crackers topped with a grey matter I was unable to identify by sight, smell, or touch. “Fois gras, courtesy of the chef,” we were told. I don’t care what you call it, I know that fois gras is goose liver paste. Shudder. Hunter told us they don’t usually go for fancy-schmancy dishes and slid the plate to me and Brenda. Ugh. However, feeling polite, adventurous, and emboldened by such a fantastic night, I picked up a cracker and bit into it. Everyone watched me for my reaction. I smooshed it around in my mouth for a bit and declared, “It’s not that bad really. Kind of sweet.” And I finished off the rest of my fois gras. Brenda was hesitant to follow suit but I told her “Just throw it in your mouth.” She did, and agreed: not bad. Not something I’d order again, but hey, I don’t have to now. I’ve already tried it!
Dinner came soon after. Figuring this meal was going to cost us more than the clothes I was wearing cost (granted I shop discount) I was determined to enjoy it. Luckily, my stroganoff was very tasty. We all chatted while we ate, but after a few minutes, Hunter excused herself to the restroom. Stan continued to entertain by telling us about his animation work with Warner Brothers where he did the voice of one of the very polite gophers and of Pete Puma. Stan was very impressed when I started quoting his lines (“How many lumps you want?” “Oh, three or four” Wham Wham Wham Wham!) and really, how could I not do it? I quote that cartoon with Ken all the time!
We noticed that Hunter had been gone for a bit longer than expected and Stan had begun to worry, so Brenda volunteered to check in on her. That left me alone with Stan at the table. I HATE small talk. I’m no good at it. I’m the master of the awkward pause. Lucky for me, you just need to start a topic and Freberg (as Hunter calls him) will take it and run with it. We talked about his work at Disney, his Dragnet spoofs, and Christmas works. (Check out Green Chri$tma$. It’s got some dated references, but the message is timeless.) By this time, Brenda too had been gone for a while and Stan was very worried now. Knowing Stan was having a hard time getting around using his cane, I told him I’d go check on the ladies. He insisted on going however, so I moved the table aside for him and he made his way to the lobby to find his wife. “Was it something you said?” asked the maitre d’ when he saw me sitting alone at the table. I told him I was left for collateral while everyone went to check on Hunter.
Minutes later, Hunter and Brenda came back to the dining room and sat down. Hunter had not been feeling well and when Brenda went to find her, Hunter started telling her about her day and what led up to her stomach ache and continued to talk, losing track of the time. Stan followed shortly after. “It’s OK, Stan,” I told him, “I found them!” “Ha! That’s very funny!” Stan told me. Honestly, the rest of the evening was a blur. Stan Freberg, one of my favorite comics, a legend in his field, had just called me funny and was laughing at my joke. Thank you everybody! Good night! I’ll be here all week! That’s like Wolfgang Puck trying your spaghetti and going, “MMMMM-MMMMMM!” Or Stephen King reading your manuscript and telling you, “Holy crap! That’s creepy!”
What I DO remember, Stan and Hunter are working on a book called “The Five-Minute Difference” based on what kind of changes in life can be made in just a few short moments. They told us about how they met, when Hunter went to one of Stan’s speaking engagements after receiving an invite from unknown sources. She wanted to meet him in person afterwards but grew tired of waiting for him to exit the building so she started to leave. She got to the gate and thought, “What’s five more minutes?” and turned back around. As soon as she got back to the building, Stan walked out to go to his car. Hunter walked up and introduced herself. Nine years later, they are celebrating eight years of wedded bliss and acting like a couple of twenty-something-year-old newlyweds.
Then came the time we dreaded: the check. Or as the French call it, le cheque. Or something. I pulled out my wallet and started to hand my card to Hunter. “Oh no,” she said, “It’s our treat.” “Are you sure?” “Oh we love to take people around who really appreciate seeing the old buildings and hearing about the history of this town. It was our pleasure!” Wow. Just wow. Honestly, I think I’d pay twice what dinner cost for the once in a lifetime opportunity we had just had.
The valet brought the car back around (They at least let me pay the valet) and the Frebergs took us back to the Rite Aid to get our car. On the way, Stan let us listen to the first track of his album “The United States of America Vol 1.” A very surreal moment indeed. Kind of like watching a movie in Grauman’s Theater when suddenly the movie has a scene that takes place in front of the very same theater you’re watching the movie in (true story). When we got back to the car, Stan pulled a copy of his autobiography out of the trunk and signed it to Brenda and me. We told them if they ever made it back to Nashville (Stan had performed on the Opry once a long time ago) to let us know and we’d return the favor. It wouldn’t be as fancy, but it would certainly be as sincere!
What a great time. I could never have expected that a vacation that we threw together at the last minute would lead to one of the most entertaining nights of my life! Thanks, Brenda, for dragging your starstruck husband along with you to L.A. And to think, I almost didn’t go because it was just taking too long to put the details together. But, hey, what’s five more minutes?