The recent death of the actor Gene Barry brought a wash of memories over me about the time he visited Memphis. Barry was starring in the lead role of the hit TV western Bat Masterson, the legendary Dodge City lawman, and was to be the featured attraction at the Mid-South Fair's annual rodeo. Barry's series was among TV's top-rated shows when he was booked for the fair appearance, guaranteeing a large segment of the audience would be his young fans. I'm certain Barry thought his Memphis stop would be a breeze, but then he never expected to encounter Sputnik Monroe.
The professional wrestler with the skunk-like white streak in his hair was already the second-best-known face in Memphis, after Elvis, when he decided to seek even more public outrage by going to the fairgrounds to stalk Gene Barry. Robert Gordon, in his vastly entertaining book, It Came From Memphis, got the scoop from Sputnik himself. Sputnik explained: "I read in the paper where Gene Barry was coming to the Mid-South Fair and I went out there [intending] to hit him in the nose for copying the way I dress. I was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, which is the cowboy town of the world. Gene Barry was the star on Bat Masterson and dressed like I dressed, with a homburg and a vest. I figured if I jerked him off a horse and hit him in the nose ... I'd get a national reputation." In Sputnik's world, such were the just desserts for impersonating a cowboy. The police kept Sputnik at bay, Barry's appearance went smoothly, and the Hollywood cowpoke probably never appreciated his near-miss with meeting mayhem in Memphis.
The following morning, my sister Susan and I attended Temple Israel Sunday School. We returned home to see a sleek town-car in the driveway. My mother told us we had a visitor, and when we walked into the living room, my jaw dropped. There was Gene Barry himself, sitting at the dining room table having Sunday brunch. When my father asked if I knew who this was, I replied, "Sure, it's Bat Masterson."
The New York-bred actor, born Eugene Klass, was the brother-in-law of one of my father's business associates in California. When he learned Barry was coming to Memphis, his kinfolks called my mother to ask if there was a good place for a nice Jewish TV star to get some lox and bagels without being mobbed by fans. "For that," Mom replied, "he'll probably have to come to my house." So there I stood, age 11, trying to process the sight of Bat Masterson sitting with my parents and spreading cream cheese on a toasted bagel.
Barry was gracious in the extreme and offered rodeo tickets to my sister and me. When he heard I was an aspiring guitarist, he insisted that I play for him. I had gotten through "Don't Be Cruel" and "The Battle of New Orleans," when Barry said that he wanted to play along. So, I fetched a pair of bongo drums (which I had acquired as a result of my admiration for Maynard G. Krebs). With bongos firmly clamped between his knees, Gene Barry and I set off into a strange, rollicking medley of nearly every folk and rock song I knew. After the laugh-filled jam session, the handsome actor cheerfully suggested that we take the show on the road. He withdrew a publicity photo from an attaché case and signed it, "To my pal Rand, from his pal Bat." Then after expressing his gratitude to my parents and bidding farewell, Barry opened the front door to find a half-dozen neighborhood kids who had somehow found out about the visit. He was generous to the last child, before taking the wheel and heading off to some glamorous hotel suite.
I kept up with Barry as a secret pal, but when Bat Masterson was finally canceled, my interest waned, and I never did like Burke's Law much. Sputnik Monroe continued to wreak havoc in and out of the ring for another decade and cemented his legend in Memphis history (while personally defending my young ass in the process, but that's another story).
Barry continued his successful career in movies and television and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the original La Cage aux Folles on Broadway. His death at the Motion Picture Home in California at age 90 last week reminded me how quickly life passes. Although I am older now than he was when I met him, I still vividly recall a rugged-looking man with a big laugh asking my father to pass the lox and an actor completely at ease in the company of my family, playing the bongos with abandon and a smile.