Many years ago, when I was a kid, I had a keen interest in old movies and the classic actors and actresses from the bygone era. When I came across this fascinating book 'Whatever Became Of...", I was thrilled to see many of the old time greats that were still living profiled in the book. The author, Richard Lamparski, tracked down these lost celebrities and told us what happened to them. His autographed photos in the book got me writing to the stars and building my own collection that I still have to this day. My first autograph, thanks to Richard's book, was actor Buster Crabbe, Flash Gordon in the movies!
Well, I tracked down Richard Lamparski and we had a really nice chat recently...
MICK: When and where were you born?
RICHARD: I was born in Detroit 78 years ago last month. I was there until I was 19. When I got out of school, I worked for a year and a half at Saks Fifth Avenue in the men's department. I saved my money, quit my job and took a night flight (for $99) to Hollywood. I never went back! I got a job delivering teletypes at CBS Columbia Square. That's not Television City, it was the radio network at Tower and Sunset Blvd. From there, I became a press agent for The Ice Capades. After that, I went to channel 5 television in Los Angeles which was owned by Paramount Pictures. I was there for 2-3 years. Then briefly I was an associate producer for NBC working on a series of pilots. That lasted for about six months. I moved to New York on my birthday in 1960 and attempted to get "Whatever Became Of.." together as a project. I had a terrible time with that. Eventually I got an agreement with radio station WBAI to broadcast the show and from that I got a book contract.
MICK: What year did the radio show go on?
RICHARD: March of 1965. It lasted for over 8 years.
MICK: How did you choose the celebrities that you profiled?
RICHARD: In the beginning, it was anybody I could think of that was available in New York. I had no budget for traveling. Over the years, I had made a list of people I wanted to contact. I had the idea from back in the 1950's. In those days, there was no interest in old movies. In the 1960's, kids started having festivals of black and white films, films from the 30's and 40's. If I saw a celebrity on the street, I'd write down there name and see if they were in the telephone directory. Often, people who knew me also knew I was interested in this. They would say "I saw this person at the A&P or I met this person at the library. Do you know what they are doing now?" I made notes of this. So when I went to the program director at the radio station, they wanted to know who I would have on. I gave him a list of about 20 people. 'These people have agreed to see you?" "Yes" I replied because they tentatively had. So I was told to proceed. The publicity director took my list and sent out a press release. The only call they got was from The New York Times and wanted to know if this was a joke. After hearing that I'd been in touch with Jack Pearl, Dagmar Godowsky, Larry "Buster" Crabbe and so forth, they asked me to do a feature about what I'm doing. I did and it ran in the Sunday New York Times. Several publishers contacted me and eventually got one to take it as a book. It wasn't easy. Many of the publishers wanted to know what kind of idea was this! They didn't get it but I thought it was a very simple idea. One publisher said if we forgot about these people, why do we care about what happened to them! I laughed. I eventually signed a contract that was nothing big. The was no enthusiasm from the publisher or the editor in chief.
When it came out, book stores started ordering it much to my editor's surprise. Radio shows and TV shows were slightly interested. Then the Today Show called. From that moment on, I had a very different reception from my publisher. My first interview was with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs. It just took off from there.
MICK: Who was the first celebrity you profiled?
RICHARD: I started before I had the program and these interviews were never aired to begin with. Upton Sinclair was one of my first. Vicki Baum who wrote 'Grand Hotel" and Gale Sondergaard were others.
MICK: You wrote 11 "whatever Became Of..." books, each profiling 100 celebrities from the past. Did you have any favorites out of the 1100 you interviewed?
RICHARD: That's kind of impossible to say because some were my favorites because they gave me sensational interviews. For some of them, as soon as they opened their door, we clicked! We became friends! Buckwheat's (from the Little Rascals) son just called me because I knew his dad. He wanted to write a book about growing up as the son of Buckwheat! I put him in touch with my publisher. For others, we just had a chemistry between us. There were very few that i ever had a problem with and usually the problem was that they were drunk. Then I'd have to go back for the interview. It usually worked out well. The only time I really had a problem, though it didn't come over in the interview, was Buffalo Bob Smith. I went to his house in New Rochelle, New York for the interview. He had a liquor store but was retired at that time. Everything went fine but right in the middle of it, his son came into the room to get a book or something, and he just chewed his son out something fierce! 'What's the matter with you!! There's an interview going on in here!!" It was totally uncalled for. For a child entertainer to abuse his son that way was terrible. There was another one. Silent movie star cowboy Ken Maynard. I went to his residence with my assistant who was black. He always took the pictures for me. Maynard lived in a trailer in a trailer park. When he opened the door, he said "he can't come in here" meaning my assistant. He was very abusive. A terrible pathetic old man. He was totally drunk and couldn't get anything out of him.
MICK: Do you plan on writing any more 'Whatever Became Of..." books?
RICHARD: No I don't think there's any market for it. Interest evaporated over night. When the last one came out, I did my usual round of publicity and no one said 'when is the next one coming?". I had no intention of writing another anyway. No shows were asking to see me. Programs that I did 3-4 times a year for many years had no interest. I really didn't mind it at all.
I'd done it all by then There were very few people I didn't get to. I had no regrets at all
MICK: Do you think the internet has anything to do with that?
RICHARD: No, twenty one years ago the internet was not that prominent. It would not have affected my book buyers.
MICK: Are you working on any other books?
RICHARD: Yes it's called "Hanging Out In Hollywood" that will probably be out late next year. It's a collection of 12 stories about people I've encountered.
MICK: I've read that in 1986, Crown Publishers arranged a party for every personality profiled in your "Whatever Became Of..." books. Had did that go?
RICHARD: There's a lengthy story on the party with lots of pictures in my next book. Some really nice photographs of the stars as they arrived. I was astonished that Lila Leeds came. No one had seen her since she was arrested but she came! It was a wonderful party. Lots of fun. It was at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
MICK: Is there anyone that you wanted to interview and you couldn't?
RICHARD: Alger Hiss. He considered to have dinner with me but he didn't want to be recorded or interviewed. He was a very charming dinner companion. I wanted to interview Greta Nissen. When Howard Hughes shot "Hell's Angels", the original blond bombshell was Greta Nissen, a Norwegian actress. But when he decided to re-shoot it as a talkie, he dropped her because of her heavy accent and choose Jean Harlow instead. Ben Lyon told me the real reason was that Harlow had bigger breasts.
But Greta was married to a very rich man who was envious of her career and wouldn't let me get to her. The were some others but most turned me down because of poor health.
MICK: It sounds like, overall, you had a great time finding these celebrities!
RICHARD: I had a very untroubled career thoroughly. I got to meet people I would not have dreamed I could ever meet. I met Ish Kabibble! I met Tokyo Rose! Brenda Frazier! Walter Cronkite never met Brenda Frazier or Tokyo Rose. The nicest thing about that was I met these people in their homes. I never knew what to expect. Several people had terrible fights with their spouses when I was there. I thought that was funny.
MICK: Did you go to the homes of all the stars you profiled?
RICHARD: In most cases yes. Even when I did radio, I tried to do the interview in their homes. Nobody was doing that. I think it added a lot to the program. I would tell them "Pretend this is television and take us through your house and tell us what it looks like". When I was on a radio station in Detroit, I got the nicest compliment ever. There was a man waiting to go on the air after me. He was the food and wine critic for Esquire Magazine. On a commercial break, he told me he lived in New York and he heard me there. He said 'When you take us for a tour of the homes, it's very vivid for me". As I was leaving, the radio host called me to the side and said "Do you realize what that man just said to you?" "Yes, it was a very nice compliment" I replied. "He is blind Richard!" said the host. I didn't see it because he was seated and I didn't see his white cane. I was very struck by that. And he choose the word "vivid" !
MICK: How long did it take you to complete one volume of "Whatever Became Of..?
RICHARD: Usually about one year. It was hard to judge the time because by the time I finished and turned the book in, i was well into the next book already. To me, the books all run together. I could tell the interest was waning because every year I went to Europe and did people for England and the continent. I could tell my readers weren't really interested in those people. These were people who had gone to movies and the matinee when they were kids. That's what they were reliving. That's not what is was for me. To me, it was meeting celebrities that very few people ever got to meet. Like Baby Sandy! The only interview she ever gave was to me. She had no recollection of her career because she was so young. So she never granted another interview. I thought I would do one or two books and have a nice career in radio, never dreaming it would be eleven books!
MICK: How long have you lived in California?
RICHARD: I lived here in the 1950's. I moved back here in 1972 because I bought a St. Bernard dog and the St. Bernard and Manhattan wasn't very convenient. I bought a house and she eventually died. I decided I didn't want to continue with the series so I moved to Santa Barbara. You could say I'm semi retired. I've only written a few books since I've been here.
"Whatever Became Of..." books can be found on Amazon.com
Richard's latest books "Manhattan Diary" and "Hollywood Diary" can be ordered at
P O Box 1129
Duncan, OK 73534-1129
Phone: 580-252-3547 (Sandy Grabman)