"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Friday, January 31, 2014

Six Degrees of John Byner

We're just back from a short trip to Florida to soak up some sun and visit with our friends Bill and Trish from the lake. While down there, I came "thisclose" to meeting a show-business legend. We'll get back to that part of our story in a few moments...

I don't understand the allure of Florida. It's far away from all the places from which everyone comes to visit, tucked way down in the most-southeasterly corner of the country. And if you think it's a shlep for Americans to travel to -- what about all the Canadians who flock down there? JEE-sus Chr-IST! The state is lousy with Canadians. Or, perhaps, there aren’t that many there but the ones who are are lousy. I have nothing against Canadians; some of my best friends are Canadian. Canada gave us Molson's. I went to college in Canada and was always amused that Canadians wanted to drink Budweiser whenever it was available at a bar (or, as they are often referred to up there -- a "hotel"). I'll drink anything that's offered to me, but if I had a choice? And was paying for it? I'd go for anything BUT a Bud every time, and gladly quaff an Export with great satisfaction.

While we're on the subject of beer... I work with a number of people who can only be described as "beer snobs". They are up on the latest, limited-edition microbrews (and I date myself with that term -- I believe "craft brew" is the preferred terminology now) and look down their stanges at anything not cask-conditioned or anyone who can't recite the IBUs of what they're sipping. Back when I started drinking beer (in the third grade), Coors was considered an "import", and Olympia was a “microbrew” -- available only in the Pacific Northwest and the stuff of legend.

I recall being in a Canadian “hotel” with 3 of my college buddies for 25¢ Draft Night. We ordered forty drafts. The waitress thought we were joking and said she could only fit thirty on a tray. We told her to bring us those thirty and then bring us ten more. While there was a brief period of mirth during our lengthy consumption, the evening quickly turned sour and I really don’t care to discuss it any further.

Now, then – where were we? (The same question I and my college buddies asked ourselves that next hazy morning.) Oh, yes – Florida. While randomly gallivanting with our friends, we were approached by an elderly gentleman who inquired whether we were looking to buy some property. This will perhaps make more sense when I tell you we were standing in front of a real estate office at the time, looking at pictures of properties for sale. This fellow, whose name apparently was not “William” or “Willy” but “Willa”, had just listed his waterfront condo with the realtor and instead of letting her earn her commission was in full-on sales mode himself. Willa said he was 90 years old and introduced us to his fiancĂ© of two years, who was a mere 80 (she later confided to us she was really 82, and asked that we not share that information with her boy toy). He said his condo was very close by and we were welcome to stop over to take a look. We decided what the hell since our friends are actually looking for a place, and made the short drive to Willa’s domicile.

The condo was nothing special – a stucco finish in flamingo pink, a clay-tiled roof, roomy inside but nothing striking. It was certainly facing the water; however, the water was the equivalent of a back-alley off of the Intracoastal Waterway. The view was of a dock across the gulley with a boat ramp and several diesel pumps. Willa made a point to tell us that he could get somewhere between 14 and 20 over-the-air TV stations without the need for cable or a dish antenna. While it might have been more enticing to hear him extol the virtues of a recessed Jacuzzi, we all know cable doesn’t come cheap.

We made some pleasant small talk with Willa and his lady friend (who, I must say, was the foxiest 80-to-82-year-old I’ve ever seen) and gradually worked our way toward the exit. On the way out, Bill asked Willa to repeat the name of the “entertainer” who lived next door (I had missed that part of the conversation). Willa said his name was “John Bynum”.

I’m certain none of you are familiar with John Bynum. That is largely because what Willa meant to say was “John Byner”.

I’m certain few of you are familiar with John Byner – unless your TV watching days include the panoply of variety and daytime talk shows popular in the late 60s/early 70s. John Byner was an impressionist, a very good one, who was often seen on Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, shows of that ilk. He was never as well known as Rich Little (“Who??”), perhaps the best-known of impressionists back when that kind of entertainment was popular. But for my money he was certainly one of the best, and due to his near-ubiquitous presence on the aforementioned shows, plus numerous guest-starring roles on a variety of TV programs (most notably Soap for those of you who remember it), I instantly recalled who he was.

I would love for the next part of this story to be about how I went next door and rang the buzzer, and John answered and invited us in and we had a fascinating chat about his days in show biz while he showed us pictures of the times he hung out with Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack, Carol Burnett, the Captain and Tennille, Elton John, Charo, Englebert Humperdinck (I should have stopped after Carol Burnett, yes?). However, that’s not what happened… we got back in the car and I pulled up “John Bynum’s” picture on my phone to show everyone and jog their memories. Unsuccessfully.

Bill and Trish aren’t planning to buy the condo, but at least I now know where John Byner lives. That kind of information + a quarter used to buy you a beer… 

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