Born in 1947, author/radio host/pop culture expert Edward Smith was given the nickname “Torchy” as a baby, thanks to his bright red hair. Many people in the public eye can be somewhat coy about their age, but my fellow redhead wears his label of “Baby Boomer” with pride. Torchy Smith is in good company. It’s estimated that there are 75.4 million Baby Boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, currently living in the U.S. today. Torchy Smith was raised in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Today, he lives in Solon, Ohio. Pronounced “SOH-luhn”, it’s a suburb of Cleveland as well. Torchy Smith’s fan base, however, goes way beyond the outskirts of the so-called Rock and Roll Capitol of the World: This self-proclaimed “nostalgia junkie” has thousands of followers on social media with his Baby Boomers VIP Interviews group and on the net with his podcast Baby Boomers Talk Radio on IHeartRadio.
Smith as just released a new book, named Shooting the Breeze With Baby Boomer Stars!: Surprising Celebrity Conversations for the Retro Generation. Packed with celebrity revelations and priceless pieces of entertainment trivia, the funny, engaging, and often provocative 338-pager features 46 interviews with/profiles of TV and movie stars from the classic years of TV and cinema. Smith also includes a chapter dedicated to three “Celebrity Off-Springs” and another section profiling his good friend and Ohio neighbor Geraldo Rivera, who wrote the forward to the book. TV and movie fans who get nostalgic about their favorite shows from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s will be delighted with Shooting the Breeze With Baby Boomer Stars! In the words of Angela Cartwright (The Sound of Music, Make Room For Daddy), one of Smith’s interviewees, “Baby Boomers like to hang onto things they loved growing up.” It would be a mistake to say, however, that all of Smith’s subjects are stars of yesteryear. While many of them have retired from performing and now live outside the public eye, others remain involved in show biz, either as performers (Alison Arngrim and Veronica Cartwright among them) or behind the scenes (Tony Dow from Leave it to Beaver). Smith’s book features a wide variety of famous faces, from the Mouseketeers, to two stars from the 1978 comedy Animal House (for which Smith has a particular affinity for…), to beloved stars from our favorite childhood surrogate TV families (Butch Patrick from The Munsters, Marion Ross and Anson Williams from Happy Days, Mary Elizabeth McDonough and Judy Norton from The Waltons, and many more). One of the chapters is named “I Know That Face”, where Smith showcases some omnipresent but unsung heroes of TV and movies, such as actress Beverly Washburn of Old Yeller (“Trust me. You know her. You know her well. If you had a television growing up in the 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s, there is no way you missed seeing Beverly Washburn.”). The stories from this diverse gathering of celebs are always interesting and often downright fascinating. We learn that Kathy Garver, of Family Affair, can boast that two of her projects are considered industry “firsts”: The Ten Commandments was the first movie to be shot in Cinemascope, and Family Affair was one of the first television series to be shot in color. Bill Mumy (Lost in Space) was offered the role of “Eddie Munster”, but Mumy’s mother KO’d the role for her son because of the heavy makeup required. Speaking of Bill Mumy: When Smith asks the actor about working with the notorious Alfred Hitchcock on the director’s TV shows, Mumy responded, “If you’ve got nothing good to say about somebody, why say anything? And I didn’t have anything good to say about Alfred Hitchcock!” Alison Arngrim, who played naughty “Nellie Oleson” on Little House on the Prairie, tells about how the wig she had to wear day in and day out for nine hours at a time caused her scalp to bleed. Ouch! Lyle Waggoner, who’s in the Chapter named “Handsome Guys”, cheekily dishes about his Wonder Woman co-star Lynda Carter. And did you know that Mouskeeter Bobby Burgess lives in the Hollywood Hills right next door to Justin Timberlake, who got his start in the rebooted Mickey Mouse Club? Smith’s revelations about the Mousketeers alone, incidentally, are worth the price of the book.
Throughout the book, Torchy Smith makes many smart and keen observations on the world of entertainment from the days when we only had three channels to choose from. While joyfully celebrating nostalgia, Smith admits, “Although it was a positive, uplifting series, Leave it to Beaver also created an image that no individual or family could possibly live up to… not even us very smart Baby Boomers!” Likewise, many of the interviewees in Smith’s book speak candidly about show business. In one of Shooting the Breeze With Baby Boomer Stars!’ most revealing looks at Hollywood, actress Pat Priest (The Munsters) reflects on the politics of the big and small screens– while also confessing that today, she’s sorry that she threw away her old Munsters scripts and that she nesciently traded in “an officially registered Elvis car.” While most of the book is guaranteed to give us a Ovaltine-flavored childhood flashback, not all of the stories are warm and fuzzy. Like many, many stars from the classic TV era, Jon Provost (“Timmy Martin” from Lassie) never received residuals from the show. (Before you ask, neither did Lassie.) Larry Wilcox (CHiPs) speaks about having served in Vietnam. Another actress shares her story about her tragic experience with silicone breast implants.
Funny and charismatic, Torchy Smith took the time to speak to me about his new book, which is guaranteed to be a great read whether you were born in born in 1949 or 1994…
JR: Hi, Torchy! Thank you for speaking with me. Congratulations on your new book. I love the way that you spotlight and “get to know” so many personalities from the Baby Boomer generation. A lot of them really defy generation: Their appeal never goes away. They are really pop culture icons, even to this day.
TS: There’s a reason for that. My generation, of course, only had three stations. Today, the piece of the pie– with TV and movies– is cut up into so many pieces that there are so many more people to know about. By the time my kids, or people from their generation, get to be MY generation, then it’s all gonna be a blur. (Laughs) Those stars are still remembered. Even if we don’t remember the name, we’ll say, “Oh, yeah! I think they were in ‘Superman’… or in this or in that.”
JR: Yes! And a whole chapter of your book, “I Know That Face”, is dedicated to that: You know their face, even if you don’t know their name right away! I think that TV in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, was a bit, for lack of a better word, “incestuous”– you would see the same people again and again in different roles: playing a character on one show, then playing a different character in another show, and then being in a commercial. I think it’s great– but it’s also a little “far out”, for lack of a better term!
TS: The entertainment business in general is “incestual”— but even more so back in the old days, that’s for sure.
JR: Agreed. So, what made this the right time to come out with your book?
TS: Well, I had an inkling that I’d be good at interviewing these people, because I followed them. It seemed to me that every single person who I interviewed had something that nobody knew about them… or was surprising to learn. I’m not talking about the “Howard Stern” type of interview and trying to make them embarrassed about something in their past… but rather something very unusual that was developing: something along the lines of “Gee, my friends don’t know about this.” I’d get together with my friends and talk about that, but most of them couldn’t care less about what I was talking about. They were more interested in golf! (Laughs) But some of them, like the women, would say, “Oh, I was so in love with that person.” I’d answer, “Well, THIS is what happened to them!” They’d say, “REALLY?!”… followed by, “You ought to write a book!” And that’s really how it came about. One of the first persons I interviewed was Geraldo. He was kind enough to do the forward of the book for me. I’ve known him for about 15 years now. That’s a whole other book by itself!
JR: No doubt! (Laughs)
TS: People don’t really understand Geraldo. I got to know him quite a bit. He’s a baby boomer of sorts… and even though he’s not a sitcom star, he’s always been around TV. So he’s a guy that I threw in as a news person rather than a TV or movie star.
JR: I have no doubt he was amazing to talk to. So… to backtrack a bit, you mentioned how growing up, there were only three channels! Today, TV is not a family event where the entire house gets together around the black and white television and watches The Waltons or something like that! Today, a lot of us even watch TV on our computers or phones. Do you think that that’s better, or worse, or just different?
TS: Well, I think that like everything else in life, it has both good things and bad things attached to it. I don’t like the fact that you have so many choices, actually. It gets diluted. I think that the entertainment itself is diluted. The budgets are diluted. The “pizza pie” is cut up into fewer and fewer pieces. Nobody is on the same track. I had my granddaughter over, and said, “Let’s watch TV.” I was like, “How about this?” Nope. “How about THIS?” Nope. Nope. Nope. Then… “Wait… hold it there!” We went through about 8 or 10 shows before she picked something. And, I thought, “Who is watching this?” I asked her, “Are your friends watching this?” She was like, “No…” There’s just no cohesiveness. Everyone is on a different track. I don’t think that today’s entertainment brings the world together. But, on the other hand, everyone has something to watch. So, for that reason it’s good. When these kids today get older, their icons just aren’t going to be there. The careers of these people are just so short-lived. They are all going to be one hit wonders, and nobody is standing out so much that I can see. I’m sure that this generation has their icons, like we did. But it just isn’t the same. I can’t put my finger on it sometimes. It reminds me of music. “Elvis Presley!” “Dion”! Everyone went to school and was listening to the same music. We’d go to the dances and everyone wanted the same thing. When you have so many choices, it’s like going to Baskin Robbins and the 31 flavors. It was so much better with three! (Laughs) Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry! So, sometimes having so many choices just isn’t that good. That’s how I feel! But I’m old-fashioned! (Laughs)
JR: That’s often a good thing to be! Hey, I’m sure a lot of my peers think I’m old-fashioned. I still watch movies on DVD and still read printed books.
TS: Incidentally, my book is also on Kindle!
JR: That’s good to know! So… speaking about TV, what’s funny is that you can have 200 channels on cable, and there still may not be anything to watch! But those old sitcoms and other classic shows really hold up, no matter how many times you watch them again!
TS: Let’s talk about residuals. That’s something that should be noticed. Everyone from The Little Rascals to The Three Stooges to Howdy Doody— whoever we watched– had no residuals. That’s why you’re seeing repeats on retro TV stations. Sometimes, there’s a small residual and they get checks for 13 cents… but 1965 was the cutoff year. So you’ll have a sitcom like Friends, and each one of them is getting a huge amount of money, which is fine. But when it comes down to it: If you keep getting residuals, then it’s going to be hard for people to receive these things. It’s just too expensive. So, a lot of these older programs are going to keep repeating: whether its Gunsmoke or McHale’s Navy or Gilligan’s Island. None of these people got residuals, which is kind of sad.
JR: That’s something that a lot of the subjects in your book speak about: not getting residuals. Some of them take it in stride, and others are quite upset about it.
TS: There’s another thing: I don’t know if you ever heard of Jackie Coogan, from back in the silent days. His grandson is Keith Coogan who was in Adventures in Babysitting. Jackie Coogan was in a lot of Charlie Chaplin movies… but he was a little boy who made a million dollars back in the 20’s. Can you imagine what that would be like adjusted for today? His parents squandered the money. A former child actor named Paul Peterson, who was on The Donna Reed Show, started an organization called A Minor Consideration which helped change the laws and how the money is doled out. If you were a kid star back then and your parents lived off the money, and then all of a sudden you’re not popular anymore, then you felt it. And you got screwed up. My first interview was with a guy named J.J. Solari from the Mouseketeers. When I started doing interviews, I went to the Mouseketeers first. I felt that he was the least popular of the Mouseketeers. He hadn’t been remembered or heard from! And when I spoke with him, he said, “No wonder why kids blow their brains out! I never want to hear about the Mouseketeers!” and he almost hung up on me. Back then, if your parents survived on your income and there was no “Plan B”, it messed you up. And that happened currently, with “Screech” from Saved By the Bell. By the way, one of my friends from Shaker Heights created that show! I’ve been friends with him from when I was 13 years old. He told me some inside stories from the series that aren’t in the book, by the way! (Laughs)So, child actors can have a rough time as we all know. But on the other hand, there are some child actors who had no careers in front of the camera, but learned how to be behind the camera and with other businesses associated with the entertainment business… and they did quite well. THAT’S in the book!
JR: Like Tony Dow?
TS: Yes. Tony did alright. Tony, by the way, dated a girl who I dated. (Laughs) Tony was in Cleveland in 1964 or 1965 at a place called King Park. So was Paul Peterson. So was Johnny Crawford. There was a youth theater here. A lot of top kids in the movies or TV stayed here during the summer. I dated one girl that Tony dated… so we had something in common when I talked with him! But Tony did alright. He found work behind the camera in production. It’s not like he became a multi-millionaire, but he had a career after child stardom. Also, a lot of stars of yesteryear also go to autograph shows and signature shows and make money that way. I’ve attended those shows and assisted with many of them. I’ve also done interviews there.
JR: Yes, I’ve been to some of them. I went to The Brady Bunch Convention somewhere in New Jersey a few years ago. The fans there were really hardcore. Many of them knew every single line of dialogue from every single episode!
TS: I’m like that with Animal House! And I know some of the cast too. I have their interviews in my book!
JR: Yes! So. You mentioned the “Howard Stern” style of interviewing! It reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner with relatives… when people of different political affiliations and ages gather together. Some people make a rule about what we “can’t” talk about during dinner: No politics! No religion! No sex! Along those lines, is their any subjects that you consider “off-limits” when you interview people?
TS: (Pauses) Oh, boy! You’re putting me on the spot, aren’t you?! (Laughs)
TS: There are sometimes things I read about and I wonder, “Should I ask them about that?” “Is that part of their past they don’t want me to bring up?” Of course, there were some people who got into trouble with the law, and I wonder if I should go there. An example: One of the Mouseketeers was arrested… and they were such a lovely person, and you wonder how they could have gone so low that some of those things could have happened. I bring up the subject, and sometimes you can tell ahead of time if they want to pursue it. I may do some foreshadowing, like, “If you don’t want to talk about it…” (Laughs)… and they’ll say something like, “Oh, it was all my husband’s fault… and let’s move on.” or something like that. I’ll give you one example: One of my favorite actors was Tommy Kirk. Tommy Kirk was a Disney actor who was in Old Yeller and many other Disney movies. When he was 18, he was in a swimming pool and fondled another boy who was about 15 or 16 years old. The mother of that boy found out and went to Disney about it. I was wondering, “Should I bring this up to Tommy or not?” He was gay but because it was those days, you didn’t actually “come out”. But John Wayne, who was homophobic, didn’t want to be with him or act with him and made some statements about it. It was brutally rough on these people back then. It messed up Tommy. I said to Tommy, “There are kid actors, and there are actors who just happened to be kids at the time. I thought you were a great actor.” I was thinking about how if he didn’t have that “gay tag” on him at the time, then he would have gone on to a lot of things. But that kind of messed up his life. Today, if you come out as gay, it’s no big deal. But Tommy wound up being a carpet cleaner, and got into drugs. This was a big part of his life afterwards. He kind of disappeared. He doesn’t like to be interviewed. I probably had the last interview he would give; he just about told me that. It was so sad. I saw him at one of the autograph shows, and he was just sitting there by himself. Even a lot of the actors at the show didn’t know who he was. And they weren’t HALF the actor he was. I really felt bad. I handled it in such a way that we talked around the subject. It becomes difficult sometimes. There are other stars whose careers went into the toilet for other different reasons, who may or may not resurface. Again, it’s sex, drugs, rock and roll… It all takes a toll on a lot of people.
JR: Thankfully, some of them recovered only because they left the celebrity scene behind. They had to LEARN to become private citizens again. I’ll bet that can’t be easy.
TS: The 50’s and 60’s were one thing… but when you got into the 70’s– or even the late 60’s– then the whole world went nuts. People think things are bad today, but back then there was Vietnam. You don’t know if you should or shouldn’t mention these things in an interview. Sometimes you can just feel ahead of time if they will talk about these things or not. It’s interesting, especially for my generation– because we saw the world change so much. Many of these people disappeared, and you wonder: What happened to them? Some of them had a good outcome, and some of them didn’t. In entertainment, whether it’s on Turner Classic Movies or on TV, you’re remembered. We wonder, “Whatever happened to that person?” But here’s a “Happy”-er story for you: Anson Williams. Everyone knows him as “Potsie” from Happy Days. Anson Williams’ real name, by the way, was Heimlich. His cousin was the guy who invented the Heimlich maneuver. You can read more about that in my book! Anson wanted to be a movie actor. He was 18 years old, living at home and trying to make it. His parents said, “It’s time to get a real job. Enough with this.”… and they kicked him out of the house. They said, “You’re on your own, kid!” Well, he became successful in Happy Days, and at the same time his parents were really struggling with the mortgage. He bought their house for them. Anson kind of lucked out. He was in the right place at the right time. Most people go out to Hollywood without a back-up plan: They have enough money for three weeks and think that’s enough time to become famous. A lot of them end up leaving. It’s rough business. Remember, show business IS a business!
JR: Truth! One of the pieces of trivia that come out in the book is how the Mouseketeer Cubby owns the right to the name “Cubby”– although he hasn’t tried to market products with it. That makes him a statistical anomaly in this day and age! I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but “Bear” is a term in LGBTQ lexicon for a hairy, big guy… and “Cub” is sometimes used for a younger version of a “Bear”! So a lot of guys who nickname themselves “Cubby”– and there are many in the gay community– may be in trouble! It’s trademarked!
TS: (Laughs) I knew that! I’m sure Cubby knows that. And I’m sure he won’t sue them! (Laughs)
JR: That will be a relief to many of my friends! So… was there ever an interview that you did that you decided NOT to use in your book– maybe because it was too much of a downer, or your subject was ranting or incoherent or just too flaky? You don’t have to name names– unless you want to!
TS: First of all, I had to get permission. Not everyone gave me permission. Even after I’d done the interview and it was on the radio, they just didn’t want to be in the book. So, that was kind of a downer. There were a couple like that. There were some interviews I didn’t use because they were older and had trouble putting two sentences together. That was sad. And there were a lot of people who hung up on me. They didn’t have agents, but I found them– and some of them were pretty abrasive and like, “How did you get my number?” and that sort of thing. So, of course, that didn’t pan out. I can’t think of anyone who I didn’t use because they were an ass! (Laughs)
JR: I’d say that hanging up on someone makes them an ass! (Laughs) But that’s very forgiving of you!
TS: I had to do some fast talking with a couple of them. An interesting experience was Clint Howard, Ron Howard’s brother. I never thought I’d interview him. He kept me on the phone just talking about “the business” for half an hour. He then said, “Call me back another time.” So, I called him back, and he was like, “Oh yeah, I remember you!” It was kind of friendly one day, and not so much the next, and finally he did the interview. He’s just an interesting guy. He’s totally the opposite of his brother, and yet they are best friends. Of course, Ron is very wealthy, and he uses his brother in almost every single movie– either as a walk-on or something else. Both brothers were well-known kid actors. Clint was probably even better known at first, from Gentle Ben, before Ron was in Happy Days. As time went on, Ron became very successful, and Clint tends to be– how shall I put this– leaning more towards the right. And Ron is really out there to the left. They talk and argue politics, but they’re still best friends. I just couldn’t get a handle on Clint: whether he was gonna accept me or not. It took a long time to get the interview. It became, “I gotta do this! This guy is driving me nuts!” He said so many great things off the record. I think he was testing me the whole time!
JR: Yes, he probably was! (Laughs) So, was there anyone who you really wanted to interview who you just couldn’t get?
TS: Yes! Let me go to my file box. I have so many. Johnny Whitaker from Family Affair. He was a great actor. Later on he did Disney’s Tom Sawyer. I called him but he didn’t call back. I wanted to interview Frankie Valli from American Bandstand but his agent never returned my phone call. Another person who was nice about it was Tim Considine. He was in My Three Sons. I had gotten friendly with Barry Livingston, who was Chip on My Three Sons. Tim Consadine was the older brother, and was in a lot of Disney movies. Tim doesn’t do interviews, but I did get a hold of him. He had a book coming out, so he seemed open to it. But he never did the interview. He either didn’t want to remember the old times, or he’s just really into his cars and racing… so that was a little bit of a disappointment. He’s probably one of the only Disney people of that era who’s still living who I didn’t get an interview with. So yeah, there are a lot. I wanted Mickey Rooney, Jr., I wanted Desi Arnaz, Jr.… These are great names from the past. But who knows? You can’t get ’em all. You work by percentages, as well you know! Not everyone’s gonna say yes!
JR: Well, “Never say never!” So… Baby Boomers are a large age population in the United States. In the book you mentioned how Boomers don’t always get the representation they should. Do you think that’s gonna change?
TS: I didn’t think so, but you know what? If you remember the Academy Awards, the big winner was Green Book. Now, Green Book is a direct appeal to Baby Boomers. And others, I guess– but I can’t think of one of my friends who didn’t go see that movie and say, “Oh, this is great!” Baby Boomers aren’t catered too. The ones making movies are so young. The ones spending money on entertainment are also young, so maybe they are right to be doing what they’re doing. But a movie like Green Book proves to me that our generation WILL spend money. We GOT the money! And all the advertising over the years is geared to our generation– so Depends will be a big thing (Laughs), nursing homes will be a big thing… whatever happens and whatever we spend on those products will be a boost. So if you want to think of an investment, think of what Baby Boomers will spend money on! And that holds true for entertainment as well. I don’t know. I’m not an expert on that. But I AM an expert of the past. I live in the past and I’m proud of it. I don’t mind telling people that! But the executives must know, because that’s their job. They’re putting out what people want!
JR: True! But so much of pop culture is transgenerational. That’s a word I like to use a lot, by the way! (Laughs) So, even a 20-something who didn’t grow up watching Little House on the Prairie can tell you that Alison Arngrim was the bad-ass Nellie Oleson, or that they wished they had Marion Smith from Happy Days as their mother! I’m glad you interviewed both of those women in your book! Both of them love to speak about those shows and really care about their fans to this day!
TS: Kathy Garver is another like that. She was on Family Affair. She’s a business woman. And she’s smart: She has a Master’s Degree from UCLA. There are a few stars out there who know how to take lemons and make lemonade! A lot of my friends forget a lot. But then you bring things up and they are like, “Oh, yeah! Now I know who you’re talking about!” (Laughs)
JR: I get it! Anything else you’d like to tell the masses… besides, of course, “Buy the book?”
TS: Yes! If you Google “Torchy Smith” and “Torchy’s Tacos” come up, that’s not me! I had the name Torchy before they did! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) Gotcha! Thank you for speaking with me!
Shooting the Breeze With Baby Boomer Stars!: Surprising Celebrity Conversations for the Retro Generation by Torchy Smith is now available in Kindle, hardcover, or softcover from Amazon.com. You can visit Torchy Smith on Facebook here. Also visit www.BabyBoomersTalkRadio.com.