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A memoir of one of the great talk-show hosts of all time looks back on interviews with Barbra Streisand, Malcolm X, Fred Astaire, Mother Teresa, Milton Berle, John Wayne, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Hoffa, Yoko Ono, Jay Leno, and many others.
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Mike Douglas now lives in North Palm Beach, Florida, with his wife, Gen.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: A Million to One
People ask me how I became a star. That question still floors me. I never thought of myself as a star. Still don't. If you want to know the truth, I fell into the American Dream. I didn't have lofty ambitions or a Master Plan. I liked to sing and entertain people, and the only reason I became (wince) a star is because, by the early 1960s, there weren't enough joints left for a ballad singer like myself to make a few hundred bucks a week and support a growing family. I was in danger of becoming obsolete, a typewriter salesman in Silicon Valley.
It's not like I hadn't already had more than my share of success. I had been singing for my supper since my teens, featured vocalist on some of the nation's best radio stations before I was twenty. I had paid my dues, toured the country with some big bands, and learned some licks from some of the biggest names in the business -- Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Harry James. I listened, I watched, I learned.
I had starred with America's favorite radio musical show, and later the first hit musical program on television, Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge. With Kay, I had even scored two number-one records in two years. "The Old Lamplighter" was my first hit -- still a special song to me -- then "Ole Buttermilk Sky" topped Billboard's chart for eighteen weeks. Those were sweet days.
But by the early 1950s, night was falling for the big bands. In spite of banner ratings, Kay's prime sponsor withdrew and the old maestro closed the Kollege forever. For us, it was the beginning of hard times.
In spite of my credits, work was scarce. The buzzword at the record companies was "rock 'n' roll" and that wasn't me. Most of the nightclubs that had welcomed me in the 1940s no longer existed, torn down to make way for malls and fast food stores. The few that were left were struggling. I worked for months at a time at the Bar of Music and Dick Whittinghill's club in Sherman Oaks, doubling as house singer and MC. Some in-studio jobs at infant KTTV helped pay the bills. Once or twice a year, we would hit the road. A week in Chicago, two weeks in St. Louis, three nights in Boston, a week in New York. But the writing was on the wall. In every city, we'd hear the same sad refrain. Crowds thinning out. Band musicians were scarce. Money was scarcer.
My wife, Gen, and I managed to maintain a decent lifestyle, but show business wasn't paying for it anymore, real estate was. My bride had a wonderful sense of value when it came to houses and I had learned enough watching show biz agents to negotiate good deals. We bought our first home in Burbank on the G.I. Bill for under $8,000 and sold it a few years later for double that. We moved up, found another bargain in the Valley, then doubled our money again a few years later. I wouldn't recommend it today -- it reminds me of the old Detroit saying, "You can live in your car, but you can't drive your house" -- but it worked for us time and again. In the leanest years, we lived off the profits from flipping homes in the flourishing L.A. market.
That was a hobby. In comparison, my vocation was producing dismal results. I was thirty-five years old and still wondering what I was going to be when I grew up. I looked at my beautiful girls, all four of them, and said to myself, "This is no way to live. I'm no quitter, but I've got to let it go." I was into my third day of scanning the want ads when a letter arrived, the old Air Mail Special Delivery.
It was a note from Woody Fraser: "Dear Mike, Please contact me right away. I need you in Cleveland."
It came as a complete surprise. I hadn't heard from Woody since our days together at a WMAQ, an NBC-TV station in Chicago, where Woody was a kid on the production staff and I was staff singer. He remembered me from our time together and my short stint as host of a local show on WGN-TV called Hi, Ladies! An afternoon afterthought, the show was formatted for me to do a little song-and-dance, then ask some nervous guest questions about women's issues (which, back then, were limited to subjects like "Baking with Yeast" and "Cleaning with Ammonia"). It garnered a decent audience and, looking back, it was way ahead of its time. That may sound impressive, but it's not. In television, being ahead of your time is deadly. Besides, the budget was so small we had to choose every day between ordering a pizza or doing the show. In spite of a good response, the station wouldn't budge on the dollars. After six months, we insisted on raises and a bigger budget. The station said no. Goodbye, ladies. Just a footnote in early TV talk history, but Woody remembered.
I remembered Woody was an energetic youngster with some brash ideas about how to make television into something a lot more than what it was back then, radio with pictures. No one was listening yet, but that didn't stop Woody. In our time together, we spent hours every day talking about the vast potential of this amazing medium that was hardly more than an unruly child.
It had been a few years, but we had established a nice rapport and it was great to hear his voice again. Woody was excited. Woody was always excited.
"Mike! You gotta come to Cleveland!"
Woody had moved on to a position in program development for the modest Westinghouse cluster of TV stations. He was at KYW in Cleveland, where he had finally convinced Ralph Hansen of Group W to roll the dice on his concept for a live, talk-entertainment daytime show. With a green light from Hansen, Woody had firmed up a format and went about trying to find a host. He was still looking when word came down that Hansen was no longer with the company. It looked like the end of Woody's short-lived concept, but Chet Collier, the new director of programming at KYW, picked up Hansen's mantle. He needed an afternoon show to compete with the success of The One O'Clock Club, an informal chat show featuring Dorothy Fuldheim, an octogenarian legend in Cleveland news circles, and affable radio personality Bill Gordon. They were killing KYW in the ratings and Collier directed Woody to stop the bleeding. Woody said he had a show in the works, but he hadn't had any luck finding the right host in the local talent pool and needed to reach out to New York or L.A. to find someone who could pull the whole thing together. Bringing in a host from the Coast wasn't in the budget. "Damn the budget," said Collier (God bless him), "full speed ahead."
The Mike Douglas Show premiered on December 11, 1961.
I know time is compressed in memories, but it seems like I went to bed that night and never woke up from the dream that became a life. In a few weeks, we were a local hit. Less than a year later we were syndicated. At the time, I didn't even know what that meant because there was no such thing as a syndicated talk show. Before the weather changed, we were on in several major markets. By the end of 1963, we were blanketing the nation with an unprecedented, live, ninety-minute talk-variety show with big-name guests every day. By 1964, we were number one in daytime all over the country.
For the next twenty years, I spent most of my time chatting, joking, singing, and dancing with the most famous, most talented, most interesting, most powerful, and most beautiful people in the world. I didn't deserve it. I didn't ask for it. I didn't dare even wish for it. It just happened.
You want to hear complaints? You want to hear "get even" stories about the people that double-crossed me or let me down? You want to hear gripes about performers that got on my nerves or executives that got in my way? Read another book, my friend. The complaint window is closed. If Jimmy Stewart hadn't already made It's a Wonderful Life such a famous title, you could put it on the front of this book.
I'm Not Merv
Can I take a moment to clear
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