There are three things that I always talk about at Story Salon: Television, Death, and Defiance, Ohio. This story is about death, but not just any death — celebrity death. People leave this world and enter immortality.
There was Elvis. I had become a fan of fifties rock and roll thanks to the TV show Happy Days and Hit Radio 11 KRLA. I did have trouble accepting the 40-year-old overweight Elvis; to me, Elvis was Jailhouse Rock. But no one was more distraught over Elvis's death than my Dad. Understand that my dad was not a fan of Rock and Roll. He dismissed it all as noise. He is conservative and ex-military but he got to know Elvis when he was in the Army and stationed in Memphis. My dad was in charge of drafting Elvis. My Dad knew Elvis as a kid who had bitten off more than he chew.
There was John Lennon. I was too young to appreciate "The Beatles" when they were together, but as a teenager, thanks again in part to Hit Radio 11 KRLA, I did gain a great deal of appreciation for who they were and what they were about. I even hoped they would reunite some day. After all, Lorne Michaels did offer them a check for $3,000.00, made out to "The Beatles" if they appeared on Saturday Night Live.
I want to add Freddie Prinze to the mix of immortals because, as a Puerto Rican kid who wanted to become a comedian, he meant a lot to me as well as to a lot of other people. Sadly he didn't achieve the same immortality. If you asked a “twenty-something” if they know who Elvis Presley and John Lennon were, they would know, even though Elvis Presley and John Lennon died before they were even born. If I ask them if they know who Freddie Prinze was, they'll say, "He the guy in that sitcom, the one that follows George Lopez. He married Buffy and did those Scooby Doo movies with her."
These first three examples of celebrity death caused me to be saddened, but not devastated. The next example was different.
On the evening of March 5th 1982, I was living in Puerto Rico. Our cable system just got WGN out of Chicago. At 10:00 pm, I tuned into The Best of Saturday Night Live. The episode opened with a picture of John Belushi from the opening credits and the years 1949 -1982 at the bottom of the screen.
At first I thought, I don't remember this sketch. The Blues Brothers opened the show and when they went to commercial, I channel surfed. I turned to HBO. They were showing The Blues Brothers movie. I changed over to ABC's World News Tonight and they were showing the same Blues Brothers bit that I saw on WGN. At the end off the clip, Frank Reynolds said, "John Belushi dead at 33."
Oh my God! This can't be true. I was a big John Belushi fan. I loved SNL. We did the Samurai in drama class. Other kids had Rock Stars on their walls. I had a picture of the "Not Ready for Primetime Players." I wanted to grow up and be a "Not Ready for Primetime Player."
The next morning I read in the San Juan Star that he died at the Chateau Marmont and there was this mystery woman that showed up in his rental car. The following Monday at school, a classmate said, " I bet it was drugs." I said, "No way it wasn't drugs. He, he was… just fat. He was fat and he had a heart attack.” The teacher stepped in saying, "Yeah, you’re probably right Tony, he was just fat."