Lost Along The Way…

As we age, the casualties pile up around us like the poor blighters in those World War I movies, lifeless in the trenches as the camera tracks through.. We navigate our emotions through the carnage and our lives are a little less than they were for the losses. I lost a few people along the way this past year but with the notices, I was visited by some great memories that are now so much closer to my heart. Herewith, in no particular order, some 2020 eulogies that nobody asked me to write.

Jack Burns
November 15, 1933 – January 27, 2020

It was just about 30 years ago this week that Lisa and I and our year-old son Connor “packed up the truck and moved to Beverly…Hills that is”. I was going through a crisis and wanted to take a hard stab at writing in Hollywood. Our little family had taken off the previous winter after my son’s birth in LA and had had a great time. This time, we actually did land in Beverly Hills, in the last block in the City Of Beverly Hills, a lower duplex in an old stucco that was perfect for us. John Lithgow was the outgoing tenant so it came with a little provenance. We spent the winter and spring of 1991 enjoying our son and each other. I took a sitcom course at UCLA, spent time with some Toronto transplants and hit tennis balls with my sister Marjorie, a successful writer who, unlike her older brother, paid a lot of dues to get where she was. Fun as it was, I didn’t have any work and things got a little angst-ridden. Beverly Hills isn’t free. We had taken a little cottage on Lake Simcoe for the summer and before I left I asked Marjorie if she should help me out. My sister was difficult at the best of times but for some reason she was in a charitable mood and soon reported that they were looking for writers on America’s Funniest People. This was the show ABC spun off from the monster hit America’s Funniest Home Videos which was Top Three and pulling in large eight figure audiences every Sunday night. The network wanted to hold the hour and gave executive producer Vin di Bona the back half for what was essentially a prime time open mic night. It was a Top Ten show out of the gate. Anyway, I wrote a few spec gags for the hosts, Dave Coulier of ABC’s Full House (Bob Saget handled AFHV) and my sister’s close friend Arleen Sorkin. I proceeded to pester the office about coming in for a meeting. I had no agent. Or agency.  I finally got a call at the cottage from the show’s head writer, Jack Burns, who wondered when I could come in. I was nervous but smart enough that I didn’t mention I was on a lake an hour north of Toronto. We set a time a couple of days later and I flew back to LA and found my way down to the old ABC lot in downtown LA.  At 37, I was no kid and I knew that if this didn’t work out I would have to drag my ass back to Toronto and a failing VHS tape manufacturing business I had started with my father. The interview was chaired by the showrunner Eytan Keller and Burns himself. Now, if you’re of a certain vintage, meeting the Jack Burns was an encounter with a showbiz legend. Burns got his first notices as part of a duo with none other than George Carlin (in the photo above), went on to replace Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show, was a staple on Ed Sullivan for years with his sketch partner Avery Schreiber and then went on to a storied, Emmy winning writing and producing career with The MuppetsHee HawFridays (he was at the center of the infamous Andy Kaufman brawl) and many other shows. Jack’s first question was, “Ever kill a man?” which threw me off but I threw some personality at the panel and although Jack seemed less than enthused, I left with a smile. A few hours later Marjorie called to tell me I got the job. Perhaps Arleen, who had some schlep, put a word in. It was a big deal. Especially when I told Lisa. They had hired another writer, a young standup named Tom Martin who was a real nice kid with a good comedic sense (“There’s a ton of bridal magazines out there but you don’t see many issues of “Eager Groom”) and I think we reported to work a couple of days later in kind of quonset hut on the lot. Our “office” was a table, a partition and a couple of chairs. I brought in an old Mac Portable and a printer and we started churning out the cornball intros and segues to the segments compiled by sifting through hundreds of VHS submissions every week.

                                                            Dave

                 And now a lesson in the high art of visual comedy.

(pulls out a banana peel)

                   This is a banana peel. I will place it on the ground 

                   and my beautiful but unsuspecting co-host will slip

                   on it and fall right on her kiester.

                                                            Arleen

                    No she won’t.

It wasn’t exactly the stuff of Humanitas Awards and the pay wasn’t great but it was a lot for simply working a strict 9 to 5 and having to eat lunch with the boss every day at the execrable commissary on the lot. Jack had taken the opportunity to go sober prior to this season so he was a little edgy at times. Thankfully he had a minder in Ann Elder, a dusty old blonde whose job it was to sit by his desk and keep him “warm”. All we knew about her was that she had replaced Goldie Hawn as the body painted bikini-clad go go dancer on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Looking at her IMDB now, I realize she had scraped and clawed her way through a lot of guest shots and writing gigs. Thirty years later I have a lot of respect for a woman who, on our show, just smoked cigarettes and hid behind a wig and sunglasses. When he felt like it Jack, with his Boston Irish shtick, told great showbiz war stories of his wins and losses. He even had Jack Benny material. No crazy dirt because Jack had class but you could dine out on his anecdotes for years.

He had been around long enough to know that you don’t get too close to the new grunts but he kept us in line. We taped two shows every other Friday night and Tom and I hit it off with the warmup guy, one Johnny Cocktails, whose real name is Brad Grunberg and remains one of the nicest guys in Los Angeles. He moonlit as the emcee at the Hollywood Tropicana which was an old mud wrestling dealership and Tom and I would go down on occasion to witness the carnage. One night at a taping I saw that Coulier had brought what appeared to be a Detroit Red Wings hockey equipment bag to the set. I asked him what the deal was and he said he was one of the celebrity captains the NHL had installed that year in the Original Six teams and he was taking the red eye back to Detroit where he was allowed to skate in the pregame warmup with the team. I said I played and he invited me to be a regular at his Sunday morning game which was complete hoot with Richard Dean Anderson, Michael J. Fox, Chad Lowe, Jason Hervey from The Wonder Years, Adam Baldwin and one David E. Kelley who was the best player out there and a terrific guy. I could play back then and I had a great time. Because Jack hired me.

So the whole gig lasted about six months. By the end we were running out of funny people and I was writing sketches for the vaunted Jackalope character. Jack couldn’t wait to get back to his favorite pastime of ocean cruising. And then it ended. We didn’t get asked back for another season. In my case it was because, unbeknownst to me, Arleen’s lovable but somewhat New Yorkish personality, drew Santa bags full of hate mail during the year and she was bounced in favor of Tawny Kitaen. Not to worry, she went off and wrote and married one Chris Lloyd, whose own career reads like the last thirty years of Emmy Awards. His last creation was a little show called Modern Family. Tom went on to have a terrific run for himself. As for me, that was the only staff job I ever had. Marjorie and I tried to work together the following year but then she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and life wasn’t so funny. Los Angeles started to get weird and after the 1994 earthquake Lisa bundled up Connor and our new little girl Madeleine and left me to clean up and follow her back to Toronto. I saw Jack a few times over the years at Jerry’s Deli on the occasional trip back to LA.  He waved from his table, usually solo. He had no family and he retired at the end of the 20th century. A few years ago he was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and he passed before the COVID hit. One could look back at those times and say, well, it didn’t work out as I had hoped. But this many years later I am thankful for that little episode in my life and for the time I got to spend with the great Jack Burns.

Richard Muzzo
June 6, 1954 – October 31st 2020

Early this month it crossed my mind that I hadn’t heard from Rick in a while. My life in November was a little rougher than usual. My severely autistic brother was moving from his group home to a condo, my business was drowning in business (yes, that’s a thing) and my lovelife had suddenly flatlined. My blood pressure was becoming a problem. Oh, and my sleep apnea was starting to bother the neighbors. But it had been weeks, which was way too long and I was both embarrassed and worried because Rick called every other day in a bad week. I was on the phone with my friend/customer Victor from Brooklyn when I had the epiphany and begged off the call to dial Rick’s number. A recording said Rick’s line was disconnected and I knew right then, with a sinking heart, that so was he. 

There was no other conclusion to jump to when it came to a blind man subsisting in a bed in a government nursing shithole. I made a perfunctory call to the nursing home and asked if Rick Muzzo was still living there. The woman on the phone responded with a shocking lack of sensitivity, “Not any more!” I asked where he went. “He died” was the answer.

Yeah. Thus ended a friendship that stayed current for over 45 years.  I met Ricky at a time in my life when I thought of no better Saturday morning activity than a trip down to Maple Leaf Gardens when my New York Rangers were in town to watch their pregame skate and just kind of hang around. I would drag my younger cousin Spencer with me (now known as Spenny from Kenny vs Spenny) so he could get some autographs and keep me company. I don’t remember how I got into other than my credential from the old CKFH show Hockey Hotline where I had a part time gig answering phones for Dick Beddoes. My on-air name was Jonathan Livingston Gross. My idiot friends were working at the station so when they needed more idiots they called me. Whatever, one such morning at the Gardens we met a blind kid who seemed to know his way around the team, his handicap an advantage back when one had to regularly avert one’s gaze from the flailing Blueshirts. He introduced himself as Ricky Muzzo and for the couple of seasons we had this little outing as a regular thing he was always there. Since Ranger fans, hard core Rangers fans, are few and far between in Toronto, we traded phone numbers and so began my long running show with a guy I used to call ‘Blind Ricky’.  Maybe the longest because there are no more than a handful of people I have been consistently in contact with since the mid-70s.

It didn’t matter if I was living in Ottawa, New York or LA. Rick would find me and call and we would riff about the Rangers or some horse at the track or his woeful Detroit Lions. Rick’s radio was as important to him as the phone. And I did what I could for him. Money on occasion, a new TV where the audio was better than what he had, a haircut, meals and the odd Ranger game. He had worked the phones for a few people and at one point he had female company in a blind woman named Debbie. She would show up once in a while. 

In his later years he needed me more. I remember sending a cleaning lady over a few years ago because the rathole he lived in was getting past the point of mere sloth. Then about four years ago his brother Larry found him on the floor unable to walk. Rick always had trouble with his circulation. He kind of waddled at the best of times. 

They put him in St. Joe’s for a while and then moved him to the aforementioned facility where he shared a room with three other men in various states of decline. When I visited I would run a gauntlet of urinary odor and rheumy blank stares in the hallway on the way to his ward. He kept saying his legs were getting better but they weren’t. And so it would go. A Burger King order every few weeks plus, if I could find it, a case of Pepsi Throwback. But mostly it was the phone. Especially after the COVID hit. Sometimes we would trade Marv Albert impressions or our favorite, old MLG house announcer Paul Morris. We laughed and talked about changes in the Ranger PR department. I’m not kidding.  However I would only have time for him, maybe one out of four calls. He was a daily thing at some point. He had nothing so I did my best to engage at times, especially after a game. It was Rick last summer who broke the news to me that Eddie Shack was not well. And when Eddie died we talked, or maybe I did, because the obits were written by morons who never saw Shack play. (See my thoughts below). I think I dropped some food off to Rick a week before he passed.

I caught up with his family through the funeral home. They didn’t know how to reach me. What actually happened is still unclear. He had beaten a horrible abdominal problem earlier in the year but according to his cousin Joe, he just caught a cold and one night and stopped breathing. Or so the call went from the charming staff.  I knew he wasn’t going to last forever in his state. I imagine he was no day at the beach for his keepers.  But what bothers me the most is that, because of the COVID, he died alone, with nobody around to tell him that he mattered to us, to tell him he was a mensch and so considerate of everyone’s feelings, that he never complained about anything. That he added something to my life.  As Joe said, “He tried, he really tried.”

Something in me died with Ricky, that place in my soul reserved for The New York Rangers. It won’t be the same without Rick and maybe someone is sending me a signal that perhaps I should move on a little. I understand former Ranger great Henrik Lundqvist is going to sit out this season with a heart condition. Me too.

Christie Blatchford 
May 20, 1951 – February 12, 2020

Christie entered my life I think for about a year way back in 1982, when she showed up at the Toronto Sun and was given a desk within spitting distance of mine. The operative word there is ‘spitting’. Her reputation had preceded her. She had been a pioneering hockey writer and columnist at the Toronto Star – some of my friends remember her back as a kid working the snack bar at a rink her father managed – and was now taking the step out of the sandbox to a higher grade of reportage, a place where she would find a voice which the country would listen to for most of the next four decades.  She didn’t hold a completely flaky rock critic in any level of esteem and her daily greeting to me was loud and something like, “Where you been Gross, whacking off?” Her reporter’s instincts were that highly evolved. When I left the paper she gave me a book on proper English usage to which I paid as much attention as my 11th Grade Latin homework.

What I remember was that she couldn’t be messed with and her various sojourns at various, read all, the papers in town were as fiery off the page as her words on the page.  She was a warrior for justice, no matter where it was needed. Full stop.  A lot of time in the courts and then, later at her final stop at the National Post, a lot of time on her own time on this earth. Toward the end or a little earlier even, she took some heat from the woke wankers who couldn’t differentiate between their precious feelings and hard facts. She didn’t fucking care and neither did we, her faithful. She was Christie, fearless enough to imbed herself with Canada’s troops in Afghanistan. Great reading it was.

‘Blatch’, always unfiltered in life, had a history of smoking and was diagnosed with lung cancer sometime last year. She had lost her dog around the same time and announced in the fall she was going a little sideways for a period of time. There wasn’t much after that and the word wasn’t good when I left for Florida in December.  She passed just before the COVID hit. There were tributes. Not enough I say but who am I? People get their information from TikTok these days, not actual journalists working in the antiquarian print media.

I miss Christie. At the same time I mourn the passing of a Canada that could produce a Christie Blatchford. That country too, is gone.

The Boys Of Winter 

Eddie Shack
February 11, 1937 – July 25, 2020

Bob Nevin
March 18, 1938 – September 21, 2020

The sports pages seem to be rife with obits of the heroes of my youth. St. Louis Cardinal fans this year lost both Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. For kids that grew up in Toronto in the 60s, there was only one team – the Maple Leafs.  And I was a Leaf fan early on – why I changed allegiance is another rant – and I was lucky enough to have a father who had seasons tickets in an era when getting into Maple Leaf Gardens was as tough as getting to Willy Wonka. This was the Leaf team of three successive Stanley Cups in the Original Six era. You knew every player, guys who hung around forever because nobody got traded back then. And the player that made it all fun was one Eddie Shack, a favorite of coach Punch Imlach and beloved for his absolute lack of self regard. When Eddie got on the ice, excuse my French, shit happened. He wasn’t a goon or a sharpshooter or a defensive stalwart. He was Eddie Shack full stop. He had a song written for him, “Clear The Track, Here Comes Shack” which went to Number 1 on the local charts with lyrics like “…He’ll knock you down and he’ll give you a whack”. He wheeled all over the ice looking for trouble and provided entertainment value for the fans. Yeah, he fought a little but his fists didn’t define him. Neither did his stats. They were the last thing you would use in a sketch of Shackie. That he played for 16 seasons is something of a tribute to his value in so many arenas around the league. When he retired he became a beloved local celebrity and pitchman, leveraging his shnozz for having, “a nose for value.” In his later years he hung out at a Starbucks in my neighborhood, just chilling and telling stories. He was uneducated but aware of his good fortune and was humbled by the attention. He didn’t come from much and he made the most of what he had. One day I brought in his rookie card for a signature, one for which oldtimers usually charged at card shows. No problem, It was never about the money for Eddie Shack, a true original.

It was until he was well into his 30s that classy Bob Nevin had his career season with the Los Angeles Kings, putting up 30 goals and 41 assists in the 74-75 schedule, his fifteenth. Nevin was originally a Leaf and won a couple of Stanley Cups before being traded in what was then, in 1964, a blockbuster deal that brought New York great Andy Bathgate to Toronto and sent Nevin to New York with Rod Seiling and Arnie Brown, a trade that would eventually pay dividends for my Rangers. It was Nevin, the team captain and “the best two-way hockey player I ever coached” according to coach Emile “The Cat” Francis who scored the overtime winner at Maple Leaf Gardens in a 1971 game six clincher over the Leafs , the first Ranger playoff win in many years. I was there and I won’t forget it.

Neither will I forget an incident years later. I had a friend who played professionally and would skate with the Leaf oldtimers in the summer. I’m going back a solid 36 years here. Anyway, he invited me out for a couple of days and Nevin was one of the greats on the ice. You didn’t mess with these guys. They were out to have fun and you gave them the space. I was out of sorts the first day and never really found my legs. But the next afternoon something clicked and I had a little presence. At one point in the hour I was taking the puck up the ice and I heard a voice behind me: “You’re lookin’ a little better out here today.” I passed and then looked back to see who was talking. It was Nevin.

SIGNIFICANT OTHERS

It took me months to put together that the Michael Cohen who died tragically on Lake Muskoka in July was the same Michael Cohen that had a locker next to mine at the gym. We weren’t friends but he was the kind of guy who just made you feel like his best friend within about ten seconds of seeing him. We made space over the years for each other on the communal bench and the conversations usually centered around our wonky knees. He was very serious about his fitness as he was about his life, a very successful life I might add. A good-looking guy on top of having a great business and family, he carried his blessings very lightly. And it wasn’t luck that got him there, nor was it bad luck that saw him go out of his country home on July 5 for a workout on the lake but never come back. I’m not going to talk about “his number coming up” or one of those old saws. That he was run over by a personal watercraft is a simple matter of victim and criminal. I’m all for having fun on the water but I fail to see how someone could not see a tall man in an Olympic-sized rowing scull crossing his path. It took the OPP over six months to lay charges. None of that is going to bring Michael back or make his family feel better. Comfort at this point, for those that knew him, rests in the fact that they were fortunate to have him in their lives for however many years. The gym is COVID closed now. When I go back, there will always be something there to remind me…. We Grosses lost a family member in Larry Gross last winter. He was in is 80s and came down with some stomach cancer the year before. An older cousin who was Uncle Larry when I was a kid, he was always interested in my life although his own, three marriages and a couple of careers later, was more interesting. He had lost a son, Evan, a prodigal computer programmer some years ago but it didn’t kill his smile. An avid skier, he was a member of the local ski bumming “Fakawi” tribe. Last fall he brought lunch over to my father’s condo in between chemo treatments. It was a nice visit and, fittingly, the last time I saw him. Yeah…. Finally, a word about Jeffrey Litwin, another guy with whom I wasn’t terribly friendly but who never made you feel anything less than his bestie when you were with him. I grieve for him alongside my two close friends Les and Paul who go back to Day One or thereabouts with Jeff. He had come down with lung cancer about eighteen months ago. The last time I saw him was pre-COVID over a year ago at a coffee dealership. He was being tended to by his loving wife Lili and we exchanged a greeting that was difficult. I could feel his struggle. He passed last month and because of the COVID only the immediate family could go to the funeral.  Lili sent me the eulogies and I didn’t feel so bad after reading them. In 65 years Jeff had done a lot of living filled with adventure, family and achievement.  Yeah, the Jeff I will remember is the guy I had a ton of fun with on the golf course a couple of years ago thanks to Paul. A life cut short but nonetheless a terrific life. 

After all that, wishing you a healthy, happy, healing 2021.

NEXT POSTING: The Land Of Our People.

1 comment

  1. Mike Ross Reply
    July 23, 2021 at 8:19 pm

    I knew Rick. I worked at BMO MasterCard in 1998. I would call him each month and read him his statement purchases and balance. His brother would take his card and use it without his permission. So the card would be cancelled and Rick would come to the office at Bloor and Dundas to get his replacement card. Unfortunately, for Identification reasons and dumb customer rep asked for his driver’s license. Well, this pissed Rick off, and thats how we were introduced. I was a supervisor and tried to calm him down. Even took him food once, nice loaf of rye bread and 1/2 pound of black forest ham. He loved to eat. I videotaped the whole thing. I recall him loving the NY Rangers, I never asked him why? Although I lost touch with Rick for over 20 years. He often would come to my thoughts. Rest in peace Rick. Wherever you might be, maybe you can lay your eyes again on the ones you love.

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