THE ENTERTAINER WHO
BECAME A TYCOON
...dead at 82
Despite his wealth, Merv
always was a regular guy
By ANN JILLIAN and ANDY MURCIA
We first first met Merv Griffin in Los Angeles back in 1979. Ann was in the Broadway bound musical Sugar Babies starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller. The show had just opened at the old Curran Theatre in San Francisco and the rave reviews had mentioned there was this blonde bombshell named Ann Jillian who was a multi-talented new find in the cast.
After six weeks in San Francisco, the show headed for its stand at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. That's when producers for "The Merv Griffin Show" called Andy, who manages Ann's career, asking to book Ann as a guest on Mervs then highly successful talk show.
Andy happily agreed. The day we taped Merv at his old studio on Vine Street in Hollywood, they decided Mickey Rooney would go on first and chat with Merv, and then they would have both Merv and Mickey introduce Ann and bring her out.
It was a dazzling showcase for talk show rookie Ann. She wound up in between two of the best talkers who ever tried to get a word in edge-wise. Merv started kidding Mickey that it looked like Ann must be a prospect to become his 10th wife since he was raving about her talents so much.
Mickey denied it again and again but finally said, Listen, Merv, you just wait until you hear this girl sing and see how she looks and you will feel like I do that she will be the next big star in show business."
Then Ann sang the hit ballad Warm and Willing from the show and she brought the house down. Mickey and Merv met her at center stage during the applause. With Ann in the middle of these two delightful legends and their non-stop motor mouths going full blast, she was trying to do her best to get into the conversation.
Finally Merv stopped kidding Mickey about Ann being his new tootsie long enough for Ann to say she was already married. Merv asked to whom? Ann said Andy's name and when Merv asked her what he did for a living, in her rush to jump in fast with her answer, she mispronounced policeman and instead said, Hes a plockman.
Ann quickly corrected herself, but it got a laugh and led to a lot of good-hearted banter between the three. Merv said at one point, I really like the way you sing Ann, and you do know that I was a singer, too?
Ann said, Oh, really?
Mervs take was priceless and he said, Well, yes, I think I really was. (Merv was a singer long before he was a talk show star and had a hit record with "I've Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.") He became one of America's richest men after creating the two most popular game shows in TV history-- "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy."
Merv invited Ann back on his talk show numerous times, almost as often as the famous Mrs. Miller, the old lady who was always in the audience.
Merv and Andy also got to know one another and, as time went by, Merv often dredged up a lot of laughs out of Ann being married to a cop.
Merv did a lot of benefit work for the Variety Clubs of America and one year he arranged with Andy for Ann to tour the Clubs with him. It was always a pleasure touring with Merv. We stayed at the best hotels, ate the best food and always had a full orchestra with strings. To a new singer, as Ann was, the latter meant a lot.
We rehearsed her newly purchased musical arrangements and Ann got a lot of experience by watching Merv handle an audience. He was always the M.C. on these shows and in addition to taking a turn at the piano and singing, he was full of good things to say and instinctively just knew how to get laughs and endear the audience to him. These shows raised a lot of money for Variety Clubs and we had a lot of fun doing it. Merv was always the first class gent, and always a common sense sort of guy. He was always calm. We never saw him angry.
We last visited with Merv this past winter at the home of our mutual friend, producer Ernie Chambers, in Sherman Oaks, where Ann and I live. Ernie and his wife, Veronica, had just sold their home after having raised their family there, and Merv attended their casa wrap party. As we were leaving early to pick up our son, we bumped into Merv who was standing outside, smoking a cigarette. Merv hugged Ann and she hugged him back for what seemed like a very long time. They chatted quietly while hugging and when they separated, Merv and Andy shook hands. He said, So youre still with the 'plockman' huh, Ann? We all chuckled and we noticed his eyes still had that mischievous, twinkly look about them. We all knew he was battling prostate cancer but we prayed he would beat it.
Merv always struck us as just a regular sort of guy who got lucky and made it big and stayed a regular guy. We liked that about him very much.
Now that Ann is not trying to go for a laugh on national television, she'd like everybody to know she always was aware he was a singer--and a very good one. In fact, we loved the way he treated a good song. Merv was a fine singer back in the big band era with Freddy Martin and others but just to hear him accompany himself at the piano was also a special treat.
We will both miss Merv and show biz has really lost a terrific guy.
When asked once how how his tombstone should read, Merv said, It should just say, 'Stay Tuned.'
Here in our house, we'll do just that. Merv was such a remarkable guy, so who knows what God has in store for him next? We should all stay tuned!
©2007 by Andy Murcia and Ann Jillian Murcia. The caricatures of the Murcias are ©2000 and 2003 by Jim Hummel. The photo of Merv Griffin is courtesy of The Griffin Corporation. All rights reserved. This column first posted Aug. 20, 2007.
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