April 19, 2000
A couple of minutes with Hugh Pickett - THE COMMENTARY
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER -- If you don’t know who Hugh Pickett is, you’ve been living in a bread box for the last fifty years. Or you’re just 12 years old.
Hugh Pickett is what you’d call a promoter or producer. For over fifty years, he’s been this town’s impresario. He’s brought every famous celebrity from Elvis Prestley to Lillian Gish. He’s got a ton of stories on the famous and infamous, and they’re pretty cool.
Through the miracles of openline radio, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to chat with Mr. Pickett and probe him on the celebrities he’s come in contact with.
He was bosom buddies with the legendary Marlene Dietrich, as well as an old pal of Kate Hepburn. He thought Elvis and Sinatra were some of the most charming stars he’s met, and thought Neil Diamond was a bonehead. He actually knew Lord Lawrence Olivier so well, he called him Larry.
Last night, (actually it’s about an hour ago, as I type) I called into the David Berner Show on CKNW and got myself in the queue. Pat Pancoust, the producer of the Berner show, otherwise known as the traffic girl on weekends, told me I was next and in minutes I was on the air with David and Hugh.
I asked him about stories he might have on Maria Callas and Judy Garland.
Both were singers, Callas, an opera diva and Garland, an actress and stage performer. Callas was one of this century’s finest singers. A voice, was her’s that could be as glorious as the Puccini arias she sang. Garland a real ham on stage, singing Broadway and all that jazz.
Both were interesting women in that they were considered difficult. Callas, ever the perfectionist would become a real bitch in private and in public. She was also romantically linked with Ari Onassis, and when he dumped her for Jackie Kennedy, Callas became a wreck. She refused to sing and became a recluse.
Well, Hugh had a terrific story on Callas. It was right after this fallout with Onassis, and she was wanting to resurrect her career with a recital tour. Pickett decides to book her in Vancouver since she’ll draw crowds. She arrives, does the show, but sounds almost like a frog. It’s clear that she can’t sing anymore. According to Pickett, Vancouverites went to see Maria Callas, only because she was the woman who had slept with Ari Onassis. He also noted that she really wasn’t a bitch in private.
Judy Garland, was of course Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. After getting back to Kansas, she became a stage performer that also dabbled in film. Her 1954 performance in George Cukor’s A Star is Born earned her an Oscar nod, as did a supporting turn in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg. But to be a star of Judy’s stature, came at a terrific price. She was hooked on drugs and booze. She died at the ridiculous age of 47 of an overdose, but did make a stop in Vancouver. It was Hugh Pickett who brought her to town.
I asked Hugh and this is roughly what his story was:
“Well, the Theatre Under The Stars was on at the time, and the kids in the show really wanted to see Judy Garland. She was playing Vancouver on a Saturday, but TUTS was on that night. So the previous Wednesday we got all the kids to Seattle (where she was playing) wanting to see Judy.
She’s 40 minutes late, dead drunk and walks on stage. She falls, I hurry backstage to see just what the hell is going on. The Seattle promoter is willing to strangle Judy, because if she can’t sing he’s got to refund the money. Well, she tries to dance with one of the chorus boys, but falls and the show’s canned. Here I am, worrying for Saturday, because that’s my gig. She makes it to Vancouver, does the show and does it superbly. She did encores and the whole bit. I still can’t believe the difference between the Seattle and Vancouver shows.”
I guess if you’re a real show biz nut like me, stories like these are interesting. Hearing them first hand like that are a real treat and last night was no different.
Hugh’s been bringing in the stars for years. He’s just turned 87, and he’s still mixing it up with the famous. His access to the stars is stuff of legend and it’s that, that also make him a legend in this town.
He’s been palling around with Mitzi Gaynor for years, and scooped the audience last night, that she may just pop up here for an appearance at Theatre Under The Stars’ production of South Pacific this summer. Of course, with Mr. Pickett’s careful attention, mind you.
I’ve been fortunate to question Hugh, about 4 or 5 times now. They’re great stories and if you like, I’ll tell you one some time. Better yet, get him to tell them. To quote that annoying Jonker commercial, you’ll be glad you did.
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An archive of Joseph Planta's previous columns can be found by clicking HERE .