It was 1971 and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was touring behind their hit version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s song, “Mr. Bojangles." I hooked up with them one afternoon on the road, and they said they were going to lunch at a restaurant near their hotel, which turned out to be a Howard Johnsons, whose orange roof was popular at the time. That was the way a lot of groups traveled until they moved up to the more glitzy Holiday Inn.
I showed up and one of the Dirts said, "Don do you know Steve?" Standing with the hippyish band was a guy with white hair and a big smile. He held out his hand and said, "Hi, I’m Steve Martin."
It turned out that the young comic was opening for the band because they shared a manager. So we go into the Howard Johnsons restaurant. There was only enough room in the booth to seat the band, which had a show to discuss. So Steve and I shared a table. It was cool by me.
We sat down and he told me about playing banjo and entertaining at Knott’s Berry Farm and later Disneyland. He kind of stumbled into the comedy part, but it was more fun than banjo picking.
About that time a waitress came over to take our order, Steve wasn’t famous yet, so she didn’t understand what was happening. He looked at the menu, glanced up at the waitress, turned back to the menu, and after a minute or two said: "What’s better, the HOJO clams, or the HOJO tuna salad? Do you have a HOJO grilled cheese sandwich, etc…"
The lady was obviously not amused and he kept bugging her until she walked away. For the next hour I was almost rolling on the floor, and that night at the gig saw him perform for the first time; entering the stage in a white suit with an arrow through his head, and blowing away the crowd with his own, new brand of humor. I noticed a lot of the ladies seemed to like him too.
Never saw him again after he became famous, but I had an interesting 6 degrees of separation 30 years later. I was visiting the great Commercial Director, Herb Stott, in his aerie high above the Hollywood sign in L.A., (Madonna was next door), and was amazed that his home was literally filled with fine art. I mean every wall was covered with paintings and prints, and he even had a sculpture of a high-wire performer on a wire under the ceiling from wall to wall.
I commented on his collection and he told me that he was currently in a bidding battle with another collector over an especially desired piece; "Do you know Steve Martin?" he asked, and I answered: "Once, but not for a long time, he wasn’t collecting a lot of art or anything else back then." Finally many years later when I saw him do "King Tut" on SNL, it all came back. I’d had the privilege of dining at HOJO’s with one of the funniest guys in the Universe, and didn’t even realize it at the time.
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