Fame touches people in a variety of ways. Some strange, some serendipitous.
When my family escaped the cold of Rock Island, Illinois, we were fortunate enough to buy a house in Beverly Hills, at 1168 Hillcrest Dr., in the Trousdale section. Next door, at 1174 Hillcrest, was the former home of the King, Elvis Presley. Elvis had bought the home in 1967, having moved from his St. Cloud residence in Bel-Air, home of the infamous summit meeting with the Beatles.
The former Hillcrest Presley house was now occupied by Paula Kent Meehan. Paula started as a young actress and model and in 1960 founded a small company, Redken Laboratories, with an initial investment of $300,000. She ended up making a fortune from shampoo bubbles and beauty products, and in 1993 sold Redken to L’Oreal.
Nobody told the publishers of Guides to the Movie Star’s Homes that Elvis had "left the neighborhood." Tourists looking for Elvis still arrived by the busload to see where the King had kept his blue suede shoes. Some believed he still lived there.
One day my wife Roz and I were out of the house, but my mother, who was visiting from the small town of Moline, Illinois, was outside on the lawn when a busload of tourists pulled up in front of her. Thirty five wide-eyed Elvis fans, all wanting to know if the King was at home.
Being anything but shy, my mom answered “sure, but he’s not home now."
Mom proceeded to give them a tour. She said: “Elvis watches TV here, this is where he eats dinner, he takes a shower here, and he sleeps here.” All 30 of the out-of-towners believed her. As she took them on a merry tour of our home, our houseman Jimmy Lewis stood there in amazement. I was surprised she didn’t try to sell my clothes as souvenirs. When I arrived home, Jimmy told me the story.
I turned to my mother and said, “Are you crazy?”
She looked at me as only a mother could, and said, “They were such nice people!”
Across the street from us lived Irv Levin, a businessman who owned the Boston Celtics. Irv became a good friend. He owned the Celtics in 1974-75 with Bob Schmertz, a developer of retirement communities who was indicted in 1975 for bribery but died soon thereafter. Irv owned the Celtics by himself in 1978-79.
Irv was not a popular custodian of the fabled Celtics franchise. The rabid Boston fans gave him hell, the team was in such terrible decline at the time – so he ended up trading the Celtics for the Buffalo Braves. He moved the Braves to San Diego, where they became the Clippers.
How do you ditch the Celtics for the Clippers?
To add insult to injury, in the deal, the Celtics ended up with the draft rights to the great Larry Bird the next year. It was the mistake of the century, at least in basketball terms.
Two doors away lived the great comedian Danny Thomas, star of TV’s "Make Room for Daddy," and his wife Rosemary, the parents of Marlo Thomas. I saw Danny and Rosemary often, they were lovely people. Most people don’t know that Danny Thomas was actually born Amos Alphonsus Muzard Yaqoob in Deerfield, Michigan.
Down the street from me on Hillcrest Drive lived the singer, film star and Rat Pack regular, Dean Martin. Hillcrest Drive was full of movie people coming and going, show-biz folk wandering around in their bathrobes, with coffee cups and the morning paper. Having originally come from Moline, Illinois, I have to admit to being a bit star-struck.
Nine months after moving in, I was in Chicago at a meeting and Roz called me up and said, “I just sold the house!” I said, “Are you nuts?” She said, “No, somebody knocked on the door of the house and they liked it and so I sold it.” I said, “That’s great,” and she said, “And we made a 35 percent profit!”
By selling that house, we ended up neighbors to Hollywood’s Master of Suspense. We found a house on a four-and-a-half-acre estate in Bel-Air. The address was 880 Strada Vecchia. Three doors away lived the great movie director Alfred Hitchcock.
I used to see Alfred all the time. He was very funny and likable. We used to sit in the gardens or on the patio and talk – he was very interested in where I was from. He was English and eccentric and I was a small-town Midwesterner, but we had great rapport; we found each other exotic.
Our new house had belonged to a man named Ben Smith, a member with me at Hillcrest Country Club, but it had earlier been the property of Alfonso Bell, of Bell Petroleum Co. Bell used his profits to develop upscale real estate communities in West Los Angeles, including parts of Westwood, Pacific Palisades, and Beverly Hills, luring the Hollywood elite and other well-heeled residents. In 1922, Bell founded Bel Air Estates on 600 prime acres, sprucing up the area with lush vegetation, new roads, utilities, and a world-class country club. Bell’s son, Alfonso E. Bell, Jr., later became one of California’s most popular congressmen.