People I've Known and Been: Little by Little by Rich Little (Dog Ear Publishing, 2015)
Rich Little is a national treasure; a living encyclopedia of movie stars, comedians, and former presidents all wrapped into one dynamic package. Recently, my husband and I had the good fortune to see Little perform at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, where he has been doing his uncanny impersonations for the last three years. The show was nostalgic, funny, and reminiscent of a time when the Hollywood studios boasted of great stars like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and Jimmy Stewart.
Little is not only a talented impersonator and comedian, he is a gifted artist as well, specializing in charcoal portraits of the hundreds of celebrities that he has known during his long career. Each time he regaled the Tropicana audience with the story of one of the personalities with whom he had worked over the years, the portrait that he had created of that person was projected onto a screen for the crowd to enjoy. Video clips of many of his early TV appearances with stars like Judy Garland, Ed Sullivan, and Lucille Ball were included in the show as well.
People I've Known and Been: Little by Little is a compilation of many of the stories and reproductions of the charcoal portraits that Little covered in his Vegas routine. Canadian born, Little began his unique career by entertaining his classmates in school with impersonations of their teachers. He would do these little acts before a teacher entered the classroom. As soon as the instructor would make a gesture or use an expression that Little had parodied prior to the teacher's start of class, the students would giggle uncontrollably, and the teacher had no idea of the cause of the joke. That is, until the teachers learned of Little's special talent.
What is most impressive about Little's book is that he is respectful of the people about whom he tells personal anecdotes, and with few exceptions, follows the precept that if you don't have something nice to say about someone, then don't say it. That makes his stories joyful as well as powerful.
For example, Little adored the great American crooner, Bing Crosby. Of the singer, Little writes, “Who was the greatest entertainer of all time? Bing Crosby. Not because I knew him, not because I liked him, not because I thought he was a great actor or a great singer, but because the facts say so. He had 41 number one hits – the Beatles had 27, Elvis Presley had 18. He sold more than 500 million records. He made more records than any other singer, ever---four hundred more than Sinatra. He had the most popular single record ever, “White Christmas,” which hit the charts 20 times.” (p.52) Although later in his career Crosby was denigrated by his son, Gary, in a book published in 1983, Little maintains that Bing Crosby had a very kind heart and was easy going. And when one thinks of the holiday season, to this day, we associate the beautiful Crosby rendition of “White Christmas” as synonymous with snow, mistletoe, frosty air, and gaily wrapped packages.
An example of Crosby's sensitivity, according to one Little tale, is that he and Crosby were preparing a medley of songs for a TV show in which Little was imitating Carol Channing, Louis Armstrong, Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra while Crosby was singing in his own voice. In five takes Little goofed on a word or made a different mistake, and was starting to feel intimidated by singing with the great star. Little states, “On the next take, Bing fluffed. He did it deliberately. I thought, 'Oh, he's made a mistake, just like me. So he's human, just like me.' That put me at ease, and we finally got through the medley. Every time I made a mistake, Bing made a mistake. Later, I mentioned this to other performers who had worked with him, and they said,'Yeah, Bing would do that.'” (p.56)
The most outstanding section of Little's book is the one on President Ronald Reagan of whom Little writes, “Of all the presidents I've known or impersonated, Ronald Reagan was my favorite. He was not only the most interesting president, but a man I got to know and like very much.” (p.200) Because President Reagan had had a career in show business, Little feels that he related well to what a performer had to go through during a routine, and Reagan made no secret of how hilarious he found Rich Little.
Little recalls how one day when he was invited to the White House he came upon President Reagan talking to the press about the crisis in Grenada. The President was struggling with the queries when he saw Little and exclaimed, “Rich than God you're here. You do me so much better than I do. You finish this damned press conference. I'm going out for a sandwich,” and with that the President abandoned Little in the corridor. (p.205) Ironically, the press did start to ask Little questions such as what he thought about Granada, to which Little replied, “I think it's the finest tune that Buddy Greco has ever recorded.” (p.205) President Reagan finally reappeared munching on a sandwich and urged Little to “Keep it going.”
Little reports that the next question he was asked was “Do you think the government's ever going to legalize marijuana?” to which he responded, “No, but we're going to discuss it next week during a joint session.” (p.206) The President enjoyed the banter enormously, and continued to have Little attend White House events. Little presented President Reagan as a warm, grandfatherly gentleman of whom he was immensely fond.
People I've Know and Been: Little by Little is a delightful read, particularly for those of us who remember the great artists about whom Little speaks. Even more importantly, the entire proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to the Gary Sinese Wounded Warrior Foundation, another great reason to purchase the book. If a stroll down Memory Lane with George Burns, Jack Benny, or Dean Martin sounds like your cup of tea, pick up a copy, help our veterans, and prepare to LOL.