Monday, August 19, 2019

You never know who you'll find

Remember phone books?

I think they still exist to a certain degree, but there was a time (pre-Google) where to find someone’s phone number you had to go to this real thick book that weighed a ton and look them up. I know – how quaint.

You could have an unlisted number, but most people didn’t bother. And there was no robo-calling in the pre-Google era. Celebrities had unlisted numbers but not all. Stan Laurel was in the phone book.

In 1973 I was on vacation in New York. As some of you know, I also dabble in cartooning. My idol was Al Hirschfeld, who did caricatures for the NY Times for like 70 years. (He’s the one who wrote his daughter’s name, Nina, into every drawing.)

On a whim, I looked in the phone book one afternoon and found an Albert Hirschfeld. I decided to call. A gentleman answered. I introduced myself and asked if he was the Al Hirschfeld who did the caricatures. He said yes. I told him I was an amateur cartoonist and would love to meet him. To my astonishment, he said “Sure, come on over.” He had to give me directions, which subway to take, where to get off, etc.

An hour later I was knocking on his door. He welcomed me into his brownstone, ushered me upstairs to his studio (where he made the magic), and I spent the afternoon watching him work and discussing drawing (how to draw hands, how to draw hair, shadowing, etc.)

IT WAS AMAZING.

Hirschfeld died in 2003 at age 99. His last day was spent drawing. He had dinner, went up to bed, and just slipped away. Talk about the way to go!

Just before I left he took out a piece of paper and did this for me:

What an incredible day.  I miss phone books.

52 comments :

Lemuel said...

I miss the Yellow Pages with its anthropomorphic water heater and jolly light bulb ads. Maybe Crumb got his head comix ideas from them. Now the Yellow Pages are mostly blank spots begging businesses to buy ad space BUT WHO DOES THAT

Jim S said...

so what you're saying is that if I'm ever in LA, I should give you a shout out and you'll meet with me?

Good to know.

Jay T. said...

Jim: Yes, but just remember, he's under "Beaver Cleaver."

Peter said...

Jim, you might end up meeting Ken Levine the video game creator of Bioshock fame.

Peter said...

I'm sure all the men called Michael Hunt are glad no one uses phone books anymore.

Karan G said...

Dylan did the same thing with Woody Guthrie. People would show up at Kurt Vonnegut’s house and want to talk to him. According to his son, Kurt would sometimes grab his coat and go on a walk with them and answer their questions. There is an impulse to give to others who are seeking, and that’s pretty cool. I wrote an email to a famous local author simply requesting when the next author visit would be, so I could purchase an autographed book for my nephew who was studying his and his famous friend’s work. He invited us to meet with him to discuss said work…and it was the experience of a lifetime. I believe he was following Vonnegut’s model. Well if that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Dhruv said...

Wow! Really happy to know you got to meet someone you admired :)

Not many people get that chance.

I have never been able to meet anyone I admired.


But 2 different type of interactions I would like to share.


I was able to see someone I admired a lot once. His name is Jeffrey Archer. He a British novelist. I love his short stories a lot.

He discovered that India has a very large English novels reading population about a decade ago and took every opportunity to visit big cities and talked to his fans to promote his books. Since he was the only novelist who ever cared to actually meet his Indian fans, we were thrilled. In a small bookshop where some 100 people can stand, around a thousand came. I was able to get a glimpse of him and hear him talk. That was a great day for me :)


After discovering a great blog and reading it for a few months, I took a chance and asked a question to the blogger. A pretty big question. The blogger did reply to it on his "Friday Questions" post with a short funny one word reply. That was another great day. Thanks sir :)

Kevin from VA said...

Wonderful story! It's a whole new world now though with cell phones. I'm afraid if Mr. Hirschfeld were alive now, like the rest of us he'd look at his cell phone and if he didn't recognize the number he'd think "No Idea Not Answering".

Brian said...

An Apple original movie with Jennifer Aniston. Here's the trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rw8R39B7JOo

Looks boring......

Will Apple capture the market like Netflix?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Tom Bergeron writes about a similar anecdote in his autobiography I'M HOSTING AS FAST AS I CAN, about how, as a teenager home alone, he had a whim to try to call up the remaining living Stooges, but instead of using a phone book, he called the operator (which, I guess don't exist anymore either), who managed to find a ton of listings for "M. Howard," but only one for Larry Fine. He took it and dialed the number, but found it wasn't the Larry Fine he was hoping for; the lady on the other end (who was the mother of a boy with the same name) gave him the number for the Motion Picture Country Home, where the Stooge lived. Tom called the number and asked for Larry (who was playing poker at the moment), and after chatting with him for a while, was also able to get Moe's number as well. Tom called up Moe, who was annoyed at having a random kid cold-calling him, until he asked how he got his number, and Tom told him Larry gave it to him, to which Moe went silent and said, "Lar-ry!" As if to suggest, "that lame brain!" Moe became a lot friendlier after that.

Tom had also taped his conversations with them, and I know some of them exist out there on the internet (some may even be on YouTube), and I swear, teenaged Tom Bergeron's voice somehow sounds like a 40-year-old private investigator!

Mike Barer said...

I grew up in Walla Walla, where our phonebook was average size. I was always amazed by the tiny phonebooks of nearby cities and the huge phonebooks of Seattle and Portland.
I remember, every year, there would be a new picture on the books, until about mid 70s, then they became more generic.

John H said...

What a great story Ken. Thanks for posting this.

Frank Beans said...

It's nice to hear a good story these days, as it's in such little supply. Thanks for sharing, Ken.

Scottmc said...

What a great story. A book of Hirschfeld's collected drawings was published a year or two before his death. He appeared at a local bookstore to sign copies. It is among the most prized books in my library.(While he didn't put a Nina in every drawing,in those he did Hirschfeld would include the number of Nina's in the drawing next to his signature. My daughter loved searching for all the Nina's.) In his honor they changed the name of Broadway's Martin Beck theatre. They were planning to hold the dedication on his 100th birthday. He died just shortly before. (While not as good a story as yours, years ago I found Ralph Rosenbloom's name listed in the phone book. I had just read his book about his career as a film editor. Among his credits; A Thousand Clowns, The Producers and Annie Hall.) Your encounter with Hirschfeld could almost be a play.

D Graf said...

Bill Veeck was listed in the Chicago phone book. Spoke with him and/or Mary Frances (his wife) several times in the early 70’s. Nice couple.

BADuBois said...

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing... alas, an innocent time that will never return.

Andrew said...

His drawings of the Cheers and Frasier casts are wonderful.

kcross said...

Years ago I looked in one of the LA phone books and found "Chuck Jones Productions". On a whim I sent him a letter asking a lot of questions about Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. I was thrilled when he wrote back, answered all of my questions, and included "The only known drawing of the Road Runner in a stew pot". His return letter is a prized possession I have to this day.

McAlvie said...

Very cool, Ken. He was a genius.

I still prefer phone books when available. These days with all the different carriers, and half the web sites trying to trick you into looking for more than a telephone number, I find searching for numbers and addresses online more trouble than its worth. A telephone book, like a newspaper, allows you to be methodical about your search - and you only have to search once. You just put it on the table in front of you and work your way down the list. In many ways it was a lot simpler and more satisfying.

Roy DeRousse said...

What a great story! I love Al Hirschfeld. I went to an exhibition of his original art when I lived in St. Louis. His artwork is even more amazing when seen in person rather than reproduced.

In Philadelphia, there is a huge Hirschfeld mural on one of the interior walls of the Philadelphia Film Center called the American Musical Theatre mural. This web page breaks it down into 4 illustrations, but they all run together in real life. It's amazing!
http://www.alhirschfeldfoundation.org/news/musical-monday-american-musical-theatre-mural

Anonymous said...

Great story and I am guessing that's a frame along the bottom of that drawing, because if it was me I would be framing that sucker as well!
Dave

BruceB said...

He was the greatest caricaturist ever. I am so jealous that you were able to have that meeting! I am a caricaturist and I marvel at his work. He could achieve a totally recognizable likeness, that perfectly reflected the subject's personality as well, with features like spiral eyes, two dots for a nose, or no eyes or nose at all! And you could immediately recognize the person! Amazing.

Patrick Wahl said...

Sounds like a cool guy. What I remember about phone books is they would periodically show up unannounced and uninvited on my doorstep (unlike you and Al).

Unknown said...

Bob Wolff, the legendary Washington Senators announcer, used to come to a new city, look up people in the phone book he wanted to meet and call them. So, on his first trip into Missouri, he called Harry Truman, who apparently said, "You're the baseball announcer," and they met.

Anonymous said...

Hello Ken,

I'm an artist/illustrator/designer who likes to draw cartoons & comics. This story is simply too cool for words. Cannot imagine it happening in todays' world. And that sketch you have is a true treasure. -LL

Mike Bloodworth said...

At one time I applied to the phone company (back then it was Pacific Bell) to be a directory assistance operator. In those days, before the internet, the "information" operator had a bank of phone books in front of them. You'd chose the appropriate city, look up the number and tell it to the person calling.
The test was basically to see if you could do the above within a specified period of time. I passed, but I didn't get the job. I hinted at the fact that I might not make the phone company a life long career. Thus proving the old adage, "Always lie to a prospective employer when applying for a job."

To digress for a moment. When "411-information" was a labor intensive job done by human beings, directory assistance was free. Now that the process is computerised AT&T charges you even though it couldn't cost them more than a couple of cents. That really pisses me off!!
SORRY FOR THE RANT.

I always loved Hirschfeld's TV GUIDE covers. I really looked forward to those. I can't remember. Ken, did M*A*S*H, Frasier or any other show you worked on ever receive that honor?
I've heard that some stars were less than flattered by Hirschfeld's depictions. I guess they just didn't get it!

Speaking of looking up celebrities, with the internet it's much easier to find not just the phone number, but other vitals, e.g. income.
But, when one Googles "Ken Levine wealth" the video game designer comes up.

Gotta go! I'm going to try to find Kendall Jenner's shoe size.
M.B.

P.S. Did you ever try to call Stan Laurel and what did he draw for you?

Anonymous said...

1980 World Series Phillies vs. KC Royals. A bunch of 20 year old girls were gaga over George Brett so we called the hotel from our office and asked to speak to George Brett. The operator put us through, a man answered and told us to hold on when we asked for George. Of course, we got cold feet and hung up. Glad you didn't. What a great story! Janice B.

Peter said...

I remember when Jon Voight was known for being a good actor. Now he's better known for regularly posting videos on twitter praising Trump as the greatest president this century.

His latest one is a hoot. If you have a drink for every time he says truth or love, you'll need a new liver.

https://twitter.com/jonvoight/status/1163214329736585217

Buttermilk Sky said...

Did you ever read S.J. Perelman's book about their trans-Pacific cruise? I think it was called "Eastward Ha!" (The sequel to "Westward Ha! Around the World In 80 Cliches.") Perelman's prose is perfectly matched by Hirschfeld's drawings.

Dixon Steele said...

In the late 70s, I saw that the NY Times' venerated film critic Vincent Canby was in the phone book, with an Upper West Side address (yes, they used to print that too). He was also a playwright, and, being a fan of his reviewing, I picked up the phone and called him (I was a teenager at the time). We had a brief, pleasant conversation and that was that.

A different time I suppose...

Unknown said...

In Chicago there was a series of kids shows hosted by Bill Jackson (shows like 'Cartoon Town', 'BJ and the Dirty Dragon', 'Gigglesnort Hotel'). He would draw different things during the show. Like a kid would send a letter, and he'd use the kids name, and turn it into a truck, dog, etc. Similar to hiding Nina with Hirschfeld, but he would start with the name.
A few decades later, he started selling the shows on VHS. I ordered one, and when it arrived, it was addressed by Mr. Jackson, and had a drawing of Dirty Dragon blowing smoke around my name. I thought that was pretty cool.

Andy Rose said...

Bob Bergen, the principal voice of Porky Pig, cold-called Mel Blanc when he was a teenager. His recording of the call is on Bob's website. (Mel was listed under his wife's name, which Bob happened to remember from a newspaper clipping.)
http://www.bobbergen.com/clips.htm

Despite the lack of phone books, it can still be done. About a decade ago when I read that Don Pardo had gone into semi-retirement and moved to Tucson, I did a little Google work. Sure enough, I found his home address and mailed him a letter. He sent me a very nice handwritten response on some leftover NBC stationery.

E. Yarber said...

I was a big fan of the original Captain Marvel, who outsold even Superman back in the 1940s. In his final years, the character's original artist, C.C. Beck, was retired in Florida and made his address public because he enjoyed hearing from fans. Not only did I wind up corresponding with Beck for the rest of his life, but he began sending me articles he was writing, asking for my honest feedback. I still have a letter he wrote me stating that he wished I had been editing Captain Marvel in the 40s and 50s, since I understood the character so much better than the guy Fawcett Comics saddled him with. That makes up for a lot of the reactions I've gotten since then.

Green Luthor said...

Back then, you could look up a celebrity in the phone book and maybe find their number to call them.

Now, we have doxxing.

"People online ruin everything." "No, son, people online *improve upon* ruining everything."

Steve Bailey said...

I did the same thing with cartoon director Chuck Jones. In 1988, his daughter was running a studio that sold Jones' artwork, and I was writing for a local monthly publication. I called up his daughter's office one day, and he happened to answer the phone. I ended up doing a 40-minute telephone interview with him. At the end of the phone call, I pushed my luck and asked if he could do a Looney Tunes drawing for our publication. Four days later, my publisher received a Jones drawing of Bugs Bunny reading our publication. You can see the drawing and read the interview online at: https://moviemovieblogblog.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/my-interview-with-cartoon-director-chuck-jones-february-1988/

Cap'n Bob said...

We used to get the Dex book on our doorstep but haven't seen one in years.

Tyler said...

This comment is actually a topic for Friday questions, on a subject that I think you have touched on before but would love for you to revisit, maybe in more depth.

Ken, do you listen to the West Wing Weekly podcast? On the most recent episode, Richard Schiff appears as a guest to talk about the controversial plotline involving his character Toby in the show's final season, a role for which he had earlier won an Emmy Award. I'll try to be vague and avoid major spoilers for those who haven't seen it, but Toby commits an action that results in him ending up embroiled in scandal and legal trouble (the plotline was introduced at the end of the previous season, but really hit the fan in the final one). Schiff had a really difficult time with the plotline and insisted that it involved something his character would never have done.

It ended up being a very unhappy experience for him, to the point where, although he played the part as written, he concedes in the podcast that he got in some awful fights with the producers/writers, and says it was many years afterward that he could look back on the show with fond memories. Not condoning any potentially abusive or assholish behavior on the part of Schiff or anyone else, but if he believed that strongly against the storyline, should the producers and writers have listened to him? Should he have had the right to believe that he knew his character better than they did? The only person who clearly could have argued otherwise was creator Aaron Sorkin, but he had departed a few seasons earlier.

blogward said...

That story gave me goosebumps. And what about REVERSE phonebooks?

YEKIMI said...

I read a book by a now-unknown comedian from back in the 80s and there was an email address for him. So I sent an email asking if there was or was there going to be a sequel to it as alluded to in the first book, The response I got from him was downright nasty and I thought to myself "Well, now I know why you're no longer famous and why I'd NEVER by the damn sequel if it ever came out." In pre-internet days, I'd sometimes write a letter asking questions and sometimes get an answer or a form letter with an autographed picture [which isn't what I was asking for] or no answer at all. When starting my radio career I used to ask or call some of the "big time, big deal" radio DJs. A few were extremely helpful, giving my a boatload of pointers, even inviting me into the studio if I was nearby. A few were "Why would I want to help you? You're just trying to steal my job!". Those dickheads are no longer in radio, then again, neither am I. A few of them have gone to that great DJ booth in the sky and there are a few I am still in touch with although not as frequently as I have been in the past.

DBenson said...

There was a period when, every time I was in an airport or another place that had out-of-town phone books, I'd look up a girl I fell out of touch with shortly after college. Never found a matching name. Made a few tries when the internet appeared, but no luck. Figured it best to let it drop.

Oddly enough, some other girls who turned me down eventually looked me up and remain Facebook friends. They're out of state now and I faintly suspect they just like to know I haven't moved.

Lorimartian said...

Circa 1966, I wrote to Dr. Seuss requesting a copy of a song he composed that I had heard Jerry Lewis sing but knew nothing about its origins. I wanted to perform it in my high school talent show. The denial letter ended with "I'm sure you'll find something else to perform in the talent show." Gee, thanks. It was just a high school talent show, for God's sake. I was very disappointed.

So this post led me down the google rabbit hole. I found the lyrics to "Because We're Kids." It was written for a 1953 musical fantasy film titled "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" that Seuss co-wrote with Allan Scott. It was produced by Stanley Kramer and starred Tommy Rettig (singing voice dubbed by Tony Butala, founder of the Lettermen), Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, and Hans Conried. The movie was not well received when released, and Seuss concluded he and Hollywood were "not suited" for each other.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Ken, great story, thanks for sharing it.

Being a huge Peanuts fan since childhood, I had always wanted to meet Charles Schulz, but never did. I found out in the mid-1990s that he was actually easy to meet, as he would have breakfast every morning at The Warm Puppy, the diner (which still does business!) inside his ice rink in Santa Rosa, and so long as you weren't a complete jerk, he was happy to talk about his fantastic characters, inspirations and experiences, as well as give good career advice to new and fledgling cartoonists, as well as give away autographs. (Though I've read he used to kiddingly complain, "how am I supposed to legibly sign a giant plush Snoopy doll?")

Wouldn't you know it of course, just when I finally just about had the ability to drive up north to see him, he had to quit drawing the strip, and then immediately passed away. I'm still angry with myself for never getting around to taking the trip, while there was still time.

Betty said...

And then there was the actor I admired. I found out his address and wrote him a fan letter (nearly 30 years ago). Met him at the stage door of a Broadway show a year or so later and asked if he ever read the fan mail that went to his house, and he flipped out on me, with a 5 minute screaming rant about how that was NOT okay, it was a VIOLATION of his privacy, etc. etc. etc. I was mortified - everyone I know (no one remotely famous) gets mail at their house, and his viewpoint (which, now that I'm aware of it, is completely valid) had never occurred to me. Lesson learned - that's a line I'm not crossing again.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

Robert Cormier (YA novelist best known for THE CHOCOLATE WAR) slipped his own phone number into his novel I AM THE CHEESE (ostensibly as the phone number of the protagonist's girlfriend). Apparently many of Cormier's young readers used to phone him and by all accounts he was gracious in conversation.

Peter said...

Yekimi

Who was the comedian and what did he say in his reply?

Kevin Kozoriz said...

Adam West was listed in the Sun Valley, Idaho phone book. Well, sort of.

Under West, Adam it directed you to Wayne, Bruce (Millionaire)

Bruce (Millionaire) said to "Please consult Crime Fighters in the Yellow Pages."

Under Crime Fighters in the yellow pages, you were directed to "See BATMAN - WHITE PAGES"

And BATMAN in the white pages sent you to "See West Adam"

https://boingboing.net/2017/06/10/how-adam-west-played-a-prank-u.html

Roger Owen Green said...

DAMN! I LOVED A.H.'s work.

D McEwan said...

Great story.

I have several Hirschfelds, all from my computer's printer, not bought, framed on my living room walls, his portraits of Dame Edna, Tallulah Bankhead, Abbott& Costello, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Keaton and Chaplin. And I have his book "Al Hirschfeld's Hollywood," which documents his work in Hollywood.

Andrew said...

This might seem obvious, but if you do a Google Images search for "Al Hirschfeld" and your favorite TV show, you'll often find what you're looking for. Many are on Pinterest.

Here's Columbo, for example: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/419960733981784318/

And Seinfeld: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/412290540882572461

And All in the Family: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/566257353126590555/

Andrew said...

@DBenson,
"There was a period when, every time I was in an airport or another place that had out-of-town phone books, I'd look up a girl I fell out of touch with shortly after college. Never found a matching name. Made a few tries when the internet appeared, but no luck. Figured it best to let it drop."

That reminds me of the Jim Croce song "Operator."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RA4MykPm4s

Johnny Walker said...

Lovely story. Ken is obviously just as generous with his time, answering all out questions!

I was a HUGE fan of Douglas Adams, and he made his email address very public in the early days of the internet. I always wanted to email him, and then he died suddenly before I could. Doh. Don’t wait to say the things you want to say, (but - as highlighted in a few comments - be prepared that the real people may be just as flawed as everyone else, and not perfect human beings).

Mike Doran said...

Over at YouTube, you can find a segment of To Tell The Truth from the early '70s, in which one spot centers on Nina Hirschfeld, Al's daughter/muse, appearing with two impostors.
Since Kitty Carlisle knew the Hirschfeld family, it was arranged that she would act as host for the segment, switching places with Garry Moore.
Add to that, this was a week when Bennett Cerf served as a guest panelist.
No spoilers here - look it up on YouTube (assuming you don't get sidetracked by the hundreds of other TTTT shows that you'll run across).
(Apologies for not recalling the exact date.)