It was December 15, 1966. I was 5 years old and my mother and I were in the kitchen. It was there that she told me Walt Disney had died. I remember wandering into our side yard and feeling like a light had gone out. This man had visited our house every Sunday night for as long back as I could remember. I didn’t understand death, I’m not sure I do yet, but I knew that life had changed and something wonderful had ended.
The next celebrity death that should have impacted me was Judy Garland. It was June of 1969 and I was 8 years old. My parents didn’t tell me of her death. I think they decided I wouldn’t understand. After all, I only knew Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. If they told me Dorothy had died I would have been devastated. And it wouldn’t have made any sense. She was still on the screen, every year. How could Dorothy be dead?
As a child the TV and movie characters that you love are real. The actors don’t exist. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were Batman and Robin. Adam West and Burt Ward, the names at the beginning of the show were meaningless. The need to believe is deeply entrenched in a child. I never saw the line used to make Mary Martin fly in Peter Pan. I never saw the cheesy special effects in Dark Shadows. Peter Pan flew and Dark Shadows scared the crap out of me it wasn’t until I was older that I began to see the flaws.
Other examples are Sally Field and Patty Duke. Sally Field was Gidget. In an episode of The Flying Nun, where Sally Field played Sister Bertrille, they showed footage from Gidget, where Gidget was surfing. I didn’t see these as two separate shows, I figured Gidget had decided to become a nun that made total sense to me. With Patty Duke, I had no clue that Patty Duke played both Patty and Cathy Lane. To me, they were two separate people and as real as my own family.
I must have been about ten when the fantasy in life gave way to reality. That was the year I asked my dad if Santa Claus was real. He didn’t give me an answer. He said, “What do you think?” I thought about it and realized that Santa couldn’t be real and in a very real way childhood came to an end.
Childhood’s end is probably the most significant loss any of us go through. I don’t know that we see it as a loss at the time. Most of us are in a hurry to grow up and find out what was in the mysterious bottles kept in the cabinet that only our parents drank from. Or we can’t wait to drive or for school simply to be over forever. It’s when we get older that we miss the magic of Santa Claus coming on Christmas Eve or, at night, staring out your bedroom window wishing on the first star you see or hoping this was the night Peter Pan would come and take you to Neverland where you wouldn’t have to grow up and no adult would be around to tell you what you should do.
I guess I’m lucky. I still wonder about Santa on Christmas Eve and I think about leprechauns on Saint Patrick’s Day. In my imagination, I can happily visit Middle Earth and Narnia and for a brief time suspend the horrors of this world. I would rather face a dragon than continue to watch the mess the Republican Party and The Democratic Party continue to make of this country. You can fight a dragon but you can’t fight city hall.
Since the death of Betty White on December 31st of last year I have been watching Hot In Cleveland. This was the last show she starred in along with Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendy Mallick. It was a show about 3 women from LA who have to make an emergency stop in Cleveland on their way to Paris. Because of the attention paid to them by the men in Cleveland they decide they could have a better life in the new city and decide to stay. They rent a house with a caretaker who is played by Betty White and the show is set.
Hot in Cleveland ran for six seasons on TV land and was funny if a bit earthy at times. The scripts were good and the supporting cast was excellent. The show had many guest stars from the best of TV, Carol Burnett, Robert Wagner, Tim Daly, and many others. One show had William Shatner, Shirley Jones, and Georgia Engel all sharing the stage with Betty White and Valerie Bertinelli. Most of my childhood TV shows were represented on that one stage.
It was when Regis Philbin made his guest star appearance across several shows that I began to feel a sense of loss. Regis died in 2020 but he was a big part of my daily life both at home and at work. I was a dialysis technician back in the 80s and the TV sets were all set To Live with Regis and Kathy Lee every morning. I became a big fan of both of these stars and loved the show. On days I wasn’t working or went in for the later shift I made sure I saw it. The legacy of the show lives on with two other co-hosts but no one could match the energy of Regis Philbin and that energy was still present in Hot in Cleveland. But I realized he was gone.
Not long after that, all the women that starred in The Mary Tyler Moore show came on as guests. These included Miss Moore, Chloris Leachman, and Valerie Harper. Betty White was already on the show and Georgia Engel had become a recurring character. At one point they were all sitting around a table trading very funny insults when I realized that all the women at that table were gone. This saddened me as well.
Early in the New Year news reached all of us that Bob Saget died in his sleep in a hotel room in Florida after doing his one-man stand-up show. Bob was 65 years old and it recently came out that it was due to some sort of head trauma that he died. Bob Saget played Danny Tanner on the much-loved Situation Comedy Full House which ran for 8 seasons on ABC. He then reprised the role of Danny Tanner in the show Fuller House.
Bob Saget was a well-loved man both on and off the screen. His co-stars had nothing but good things to say about him and the girls, now women, who played his daughters looked at him as a second father. Not long after his death, I started to watch Full House again on HBO MAX and found myself welling with tears at almost every episode. The episodes made me laugh but they were filled with a genuine sentimentality and the show plays just as well today as it did when it first aired in 1987 to 1995.
Many other celebrities touched my heart at their death. Ethel Merman was first. She passed in 1984 but she was a part of my life because I had fallen in love with Broadway. Ethel Merman was and still is the queen of Broadway. No one was like her and no one like her will ever come again. Lucille Ball in 1989 was next. Lucy was and always will be my favorite. I felt very sad the day she passed. Something else wonderful had gone out of this world. In 1990 Mary Martin passed away. My Peter Pan was gone, and I remember it well, a little magic left my heart.
Why do celebrity deaths or better yet the death of stars bother me so much? I think with some of them I’m watching the generation before me flicker out and die. Soon all those who grew up in the 20s, 30s, and 40s will be gone and all that will be left is memories and photographs and these are not just the stars they are my father, mom is already gone, my aunt’s and uncles and all those I hold dear to me.
Then there are the celebrities of my generation. Bob Saget was 5 years older than me. Mike Nesmith was a bit older but still part of my generation. David Cassidy played a huge part in my life. I went from Puff The Magic Dragon to I Think I Love You because of him and The Partridge Family. I was saddened when he passed as well.
Seeing my generation begin to pass away made me realize that life is very short and your time could be up at any point. The Bible says that “all the days of my life were written for me before I was born.” This means that God knew when I would enter this world and the day is planned for when I will exit and that day is much closer now than it was when I was younger.
I don’t want to leave anything half done when it’s my time to go. I don’t think I can make all of my dreams come true but I believe that some of them still can. I’m writing this blog weekly for more than 6 months. That’s the grace of God and me leaving something behind that may help others. I’ve lost a total of 25 pounds so far. I have quite a long way to go but I want to do it and make some of my other of my dreams happen. It will be good to have a healthy body.
There are still wonderful adventures ahead. I have no idea what most of them will be but opportunities will come and it’s up to me to say yes and find out what will happen. Peter Pan says in the play written by JM Barrie that “Death will be an awfully big adventure.” And it will be, “The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain rain-curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it. White shores and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” – JRR Tolkien