Monday, August 13, 2007

The Host Who Would Be Guest

August 13, 2007

I was sorry to hear that Merv Griffin had died. He was on the list of people I would have invited if I could have one of those cosmic dinner parties with a guest list of people I would invite if I could. This mythical party has been in my mind for years and includes people from all walks of life, people you really want to spend more time with, people you want to have in your home for a good time.

I used to have Merv Griffin in my home every afternoon in his early talk-show days in the 1960's. He was intelligent, charming, always ready for a laugh -- and really "into" his guests. He seemed to ask the questions I wanted him to ask. And he had such a lineup of interesting people to interview, from Richard Pryor to Orson Welles. I wrote in blogposts over a year ago about his getting into the discussion of duende, Garcia Lorca's concept of the mischievous quality later to be called charisma. Who had it and who didn't became almost a parlor game after duende was introduced to the American public by Griffin's show.

He surprised Richard Pryor by inviting his drama coach from childhood, the recreation director at the community center who pulled Richard out of the ghetto by believing in him. She was smart, no-nonsense and her meeting with Pryor made for great live television. Griffin asked pointed questions of people in politics without really getting political. He had that Irish gift of being genuine and loving to laugh that made him easy to watch and sometimes amazing by what he was able to get people to reveal.

I learned from today's New York Times obit that liquor was served up in the green room of his show, loosening the lips of many a guest. They were willing to say things to this man that they might not have said without it, certainly not before an audience of thousands. They all became our friends and neighbors, over for an afternoon chat.

In those days the talk-show format was, unlike today, more talk than commercials. A segment with any one guest might go on for much longer periods of time. And without the annoying, shrieking commercials, they had a natural, easy feeling. They were like little parties.

And -- with all the other achievements of his lifetime -- Merv Griffin was one of the best at the genre; with a gift for intimacy, a personal charm (and, yes, some duende of his own), and a non-threatening intellect that seemed to really care what his guests were saying. Even though he hadn't done a talk show for decades, I always missed him. I'll miss him more now.


Nagarjuna said...

Mary Lois, I was born in the same town Merv was--San Mateo, California--and attended the same community college he did--the College of San Mateo. A long time ago, I even had the good fortune of seeing him make an appearance on campus. I had watched and enjoyed his TV show for years, but seeing him in person made me appreciate him more than ever. I just stood as close as I could and, as I'm so prone to do, OBSERVED how he carried himself and related to the people around him, of which there were many. He had an amazing gift of gab and social ease about him that shy and awkward little me envied so very much. And we all just lit up like Christmas trees being in the presence of this man, not just because he was famous but also because he exhuded that largely indefinable but readily palpable quality of "duende" of which you wrote.

I will miss him too.

Nagarjuna said...

Mary Lois,

I like your mythical "cosmic dinner party" idea. It reminds me of Steve Allen's old TV show "Meeting of the Minds" that had him engaging some of the greatest minds in history in scintillating discussion over dinner. They just don't make shows like Merv's and Steve's anymore, and we're all the poorer for it.

sinjap said...

i don't remember his old talk show, but he was responsible for my favorite show of all time, jeopardy...a great concept and still going strong after all these years...the nerds of the world (me included) owe him a great deal of thanks!

Finding Fair Hope said...

I just watched Larry King's second tribute. The impressive thing to me is that everybody who knew him knew he was the real thing -- a wonderful person.

Steve, I love your story of observing him and idolizing him too. I wish I had a link to him as you did. All the footage now being shown reveals how much more there was than just the billionaire enterpreneur and entertainer. It makes me smile just to think of him.