A WWII vet, comic and entertainer

Part of the fun of traveling through both this great country of ours, and some of the world beyond, is the unexpected surprises along the way.

As a young soldier stationed in then-West Germany, the Haberi family of Neumarkt, Bavaria, hosted me for a couple of weekends around Christmas 1975, delighting me with not just a trip to Nuremberg’s Kristkindlmart, but a snowfall on Christmas morning and the pleasure of a family setting far from home on that day.

Before I left Germany, I participated in a border tour, standing about 3 feet from the Communist east and its watchtowers, minefields and concertina wire. Yep, I was hooked on seeing the world beyond home.

Since then, it has been much more fun seeing various sights with my wife, Robin. One day in Jerusalem’s Old City, we were enjoying fresh-baked cinnamon and chocolate pastries while waiting to visit the Dome of the Rock plaza, so iconic to three major religious faiths, when we were approached by a kindly Arab gentleman.

Surely he did not recognize us as a couple of Methodists from Richmond County, but he knew enough to alert us that this was a Muslim-only entrance and point us to the entry near the western wall. “Shukran” to him (“thank you,”) as another Arab gentleman had taught me about a day earlier.

The workmen who constructed the barely 5-feet-high doorway to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity centuries ago must have had a mischievous sense of humor anticipating the struggle most of us would endure to negotiate the low entry, especially Hamlet’s Dr. Bill Cleveland!

Robin and I got the last laugh, easing through as the top of her head barely touched the door’s upper frame. The lighter moments of these travels have not detracted from the sacred and sublime experiences at Jerusalem’s holy sites, nor from those at Normandy’s D-Day beaches and American cemetery, as I shared on these pages a couple of years ago.

Closer to home, our informal quest to visit the Major League Baseball parks has led us to interesting places — and people — here in the states. While traveling in California a few years ago, we became acquainted with a former high school coach from Michigan, Jerry Barr, who also did some writing as a sports stringer for The Associated Press in Detroit many years ago.

Jerry and I had fun discussing old Detroit Tigers players, and what a treat when he hooked me up, via his cellphone, to a conversation with former pitcher Mickey Lolich.

Lolich was the 1968 World Series MVP, and a childhood sports hero of mine. Even in my 50s, I discovered that it was possible to be 15 years old again, just for a few moments!

As we awaited a flight in the Minneapolis airport recently, I spied an older gentleman and his wife seated across from me. I noticed his cap identified him as both a World War II vet and a “China Marine.” Chatting with them a bit, we learned that he had served in the occupation of Japan following the war, then was stationed in China until 1948, just before Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist occupation of that country. He had the opportunity to walk under the Enola Gay aircraft before its famous mission to end the war with the atomic bomb.

But when he mentioned that he had been in the entertainment business, I learned that there was more to this gentleman. As it turned out, he is Dick Curtis. At first, you may not recognize the name, but if you were watching TV in the 1960s and ’70s, almost surely you saw him along the way.

An episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, “Coast-to-Coast Bigmouth,” was built around Mr. Curtis and Mary Tyler Moore. He was a regular on both the Jonathan Winters Show and the Ray Stevens Show. He appeared, as well, in episodes of The Odd Couple, the Andy Griffith Show (old and new versions) and the New Dick Van Dyke Show.

He appeared as a drunken character in episodes of Batman and That Girl. He performed in numerous commercials, too, and has a movie credit in 1971’s Support Your Local Gunfighter with James Garner.

Mr. Curtis’s stock in trade, however, was that of stand-up comic. He performed in many of the major clubs throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as countless smaller ones, for decades, beginning in the 1950s. He was running errands for Red Skelton at the age of 9, and their friendship endured until Skelton’s death.

Mr. Curtis performed with the controversial comic Lenny Bruce very early in both of their careers, and they maintained a lasting friendship as well. Hogan’s Heroes regular Larry Hovis struck up an association with Dick Curtis and invited Mr. Curtis to join him as a writer for Rowan and Martin’s pilot episode of Laugh-In.

While he did not gain the widespread public notice of a Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith or Johnny Carson, it is evident that his friendships and associations with the public entertainers of the mid-20th century were legion, as he won their professional esteem.

In an interesting historical note, Dick Curtis was questioned by the FBI as part of its widespread investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Mr. Curtis’s name appeared in the personal phone book of Lee Oswald’s murderer, Jack Ruby. Ruby owned a Dallas nightclub, The Carousel, and attempted to get Mr. Curtis to perform there.

While Curtis showed up occasionally to visit friends who played the club, he never did so. Even further, he briefly met New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, who would later gain notoriety as the only person brought to trial (acquitted) in connection with JFK’s murder.

Dick Curtis’s service to our country during WWII alone would make him a star to anyone with an appreciation of history. In the course of our airport encounter, two young servicemen joined the conversation, and it was fascinating to watch the old entertainer connect with them. Watching the older Marine exchange “Semper Fi!” with another Marine, nearly 70 years younger and fresh out of boot camp, was priceless.

In a few days, we would enjoy Ronald Reagan’s presidential library and take in the majesty of the Grand Canyon, but this Minneapolis airport encounter had already made for a memorable trip.

In your travels, you might pause occasionally to pass the time with strangers who seem approachable. You just never know who you could meet.

Douglas Smith is a resident of Rockingham and an occasional contributor to the Daily Journal.