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Bob Wakeham: Confessions of a star-gazer

["In this Nov. 1, 2000, file photo, Hockey legend Gordie Howe speaks to the media before the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame's 27th Annual Enshrinement Dinner at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. An experimental stem cell treatment in Mexico late last year brought a ìlife changingî turnaround thatís put the 87-year-old back Howe back on his feet after a significant stroke robbed him of the ability to walk and talk normally."]
Bob Wakeham is still star-struck by a brief conversation he had with the late great Gordie Howe in an elevator. — AP file phoo

Being a lifelong movie buff and sports fan, I have to admit to having a perpetual case of star-struckism, exemplified over the years by some disappointing, and a few pleasurable, face-to-face connections with the famous.

 

This enslavement to entertainment stars and jocks (a relatively healthy “ism,” compared to other of my addictions, I suppose) came to mind upon spotting the recent resurrection on the CBC of the adoring media coverage given to Tina Turner when she visited St. John’s during the summer of 1985, the start of a North American tour.

I didn’t actually meet Turner back then — another CBC Radio reporter must have pulled rank and gotten the plum assignment, or I may have been stuck hounding some boring politician on Break Wind Hill — but, as I say, I can relate to those who become star-struck when meeting internationally known figures like Tina Turner.

The first famous person I ever met, I do believe, was Rocket Richard, who visited Gander in the late ’50s or early ’60s and was escorted around our hometown by my father, then president of the Gander Hockey Association — a treat for Dad, for sure — and an assignment that prompted our school principal to point me out to “The Rocket” during his 15 minutes or so at our school as “Jerry Wakeham’s son, Bob.”

Dad did manage to event ually get me an autograph during a dinner he and other Ganderites had with The Rocket, and it must had an impact on my youthful skull because I can still recall specifically what was scratched on a piece of paper: “To Bobby: Good luck in hockey. Rocket Richard.”

My schoolmates were certainly impressed, and my head swelled, youthful naiveté allowing me to remain unaware that Richard probably could’ve cared less about the freckly faced youngster in the front row of the gym where we had all gathered for our first experience with stardom.

Dad did manage to eventually get me an autograph during a dinner he and other Ganderites had with The Rocket, and it must had an impact on my youthful skull because I can still recall specifically what was scratched on a piece of paper: “To Bobby: Good luck in hockey. Rocket Richard.”

I kept the autograph for years, treating it like a saintly relic, but it eventually disappeared, long before I could know that it was probably worth a few bucks. (Rocket’s good wishes for my career in hockey proved fruitless, by the way, as my efforts in that athletic area tanked early in life, around the time I discovered a number of players on the ice were skating faster backward than I was skating forward).

Thirty years later, I had a brief few seconds with the Rocket’s chief rival in the NHL, Gordie Howe, in a hotel elevator in Toronto. I was star-struck (that affliction again) when I realized who was standing beside me, but I forced myself while exiting at my floor to turn back and say: “Thanks a lot, Mr. Howe, for all those glorious nights of entertainment.” It was real cornball stuff, but the ever-gracious Howe, then long retired, seemed to appreciate my sucky overture.

“You’re more than welcome,” he said quietly. The elevator door closed.

Gordie was gone from my life forever.

My most humiliating contact with a star, the movie star variety, occurred with Richard Harris, who was here in the mid-’70s filming what turned out to be the godawful movie “Orca.” But all I cared about that particular day was that I had been assigned by The Evening Telegram to interview a real bonafide movie star. Incalculable excitement was in the air.

The public relations flack for the movie studio tried to corner Harris when he emerged from his trailer, as all three of us walked side by side towards the wharf in Petty Harbour where the latest scene was being shot.

“Richard, this is Bob Wakeham from the local paper, and he wants to interview you,” the PR type said in a pleading voice.

Much to my chagrin, Harris didn’t so much as glance in my direction, but stuck out his hand so I could at least touch his starry paw, kept moving, and mumbled: “Yes, later, Bob, later...”

Alas, there was to be no “later.” I was shot down. Incalculable mortification was then in the air.

I was also given a similar brush off outside the Skydome in the early ’90s after I spotted Blue Jay second baseman Robbie Alomar, and tried to get his attention. Here I was, a middle-aged man, star-struck (the word again) by this kid, this baseball player, walking in my direction.

Extending my hand, I blurted out: “Good luck in the playoffs, Robbie!”

Alomar stuck out his hand, Richard Harris-like, never looked in my direction, responded in a barely audible voice: “thank you,” and started to eye up this gorgeous-looking young woman selling flowers nearby. Couldn’t blame him, I guess. But there I was, standing in limbo, hoping nobody spotted my lame and unsuccessful attempt at hero worship. It was pathetic, the truth be known.

Back when I was in my mid-teens, I was in Madison Square Garden with my father at a Ranger game when, in between periods, I noticed Arnie Brown, a mediocre defenceman not in the lineup for that particular game, sitting a few seats behind us, in the company of two beautiful women

 “Dad, Dad, that’s Arnie Brown,” I said excitedly.

 “Well, go up and talk to him,” my father suggested.

I approached sheepishly (still the enormously shy Newf), and asked, quite foolishly: “Excuse me, sir, but are you Arnie Brown?”

“No,” he said. “I’m Eugene Snorkiknich.”

His two girlfriends roared with laughter. I was red-faced. But, finally, one of the women took pity: “Oh, come on, Arnie, talk to the kid, and give him your autograph.” Which he did. I slithered back to my seat.

Perhaps there’s a 12-step organization somewhere for star-struck-ism.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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