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Senior Living: Remembering brushes with fame

Journalism has offered chance to meet, mingle with celebrities

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After taking early retirement in 1986, I was on the lookout for writing opportunities to fill my new-found free time. But luck was on my side when a new national Canadian magazine for the over-50 age group, called Good Times, still going strong, was being launched in 1990. Again, luckily, I had just the idea to get in on the ground floor of this new magazine as a freelance writer.

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My idea was to write an article featuring Barbara Ann Scott, Canada’s first Olympic gold medallist figure skating champion in 1948, for the magazine’s Profiles section. My proposal was accepted and I duly conducted a half-hour telephone interview with the champion, who lived in Chicago at the time with her businessman husband. “Canada’s Sweetheart,” as she was known, was a great interview subject, discussing her past and present, her love of skating and horses, and even sharing tricks for keeping her youthful figure via swimming, horseback-riding and disciplined eating.

The article, published in 1991, turned out to be the first of a series of celebrity profiles I wrote for Good Times. The 1990s were a rich banquet for anyone looking for celebrities in the over-50 age group, appearing in Montreal, where I live. The popular yearly Just For Laughs Festival attracted famous comedians. Other celebrities came to Montreal to lecture in the “Unique Lives and Experiences” series.

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Among the comics starring in the JFL festival, I profiled Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Alan King, the Smothers Brothers and George Burns. Some of them stand out in my memory. Rich Little, the famous impressionist who, when asked him to do one of his many impressions over the phone — the most famous one was one of John Diefenbaker — quipped, “Not at these prices.” I also recall the ever-insulting, but lovable Don Rickles reminiscing about his pal, Frank Sinatra.

A great thrill for me was attending a news conference for the late, great George Burns, who showed up, cigar in hand, a gorgeous blond woman at his side, at age 97. He told a journalist who inquired about getting a ticket to his 100th birthday party, “Sure, if you are still around.” When I asked him at what age a person should retire, his one-word answer was, “Never.”

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Another person of great spirit was Lauren Bacall, also known as “Bogey’s Baby.” Still vibrant in her 70s when she appeared at a news conference I attended, the legendary actress and wife of Humphrey Bogart looked slim and attractive as ever, dressed in a black pantsuit. When a reporter inquired, “Who do you think is today a star of the type you used to be?” she looked at him disdainfully and in her deep, throaty voice replied, “What do you mean used to be?” A star till the end.

For a star-struck movie fan like me, it was a great thrill to see and write about the late, great Gregory Peck, who was starring in his one-man program. Already in his 80s, still a tall and elegant presence, the legendary actor delighted the audience recounting anecdotes from his long and distinguished career.

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I also included Canadian celebrities in the profile series. Among them were baritone Louis Quilico of Metropolitan Opera fame; broadcaster and novelist Robert MacNeil, half of the MacNeil-Lehrer Report on the PBS NewsHour: and politician and humanitarian Ed Broadbent.

Then there were celebrities I met but never wrote about. When one of my favourites, Harvey Korman, star of the Carol Burnett Show, visited Montreal, my boss at the time and his roommate, who knew him, gave a party in his honour. Of course I wrangled an invitation, got to meet the charming, handsome Korman and even have a photo of the two of us to prove it!

Another time, one of my fellow passengers on a British cruise ship headed for Norway was another of my all-time favourites, the actress Patricia Routledge, better known as Hyacinth Bucket of the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. She kindly posed with me for a photo but, hard as I tried, would not agree to be interviewed. I guess celebrities must guard their private lives.

I enjoyed revisiting these celebrities so many years later. I hope you enjoyed meeting them, too.

— Alice Lukacs writes the Life in the 90s column

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