Monday, April 15, 2024

The Chuck Woolery I Knew (for a week)

Chuck at Horseshoe Bay. Photo by Jay Janner 2010.

We’ve glimpsed our share of movie and TV stars at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and it’s usually easy to piece together why they’re there. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow was on hand in 2005 with baby Apple because husband Chris Martin’s band Coldplay headlined. Actor Bill Murray’s omnipresence two years ago was explained by his appearance in town during Fantastic Fest.

But when TV game show host Chuck Woolery was incongruously spotted backstage in 2008, it was hard to put “two and two” together. What was the connection?

“I’m a fisherman,” Woolery told a curious reporter. “I live out by Marble Falls and go bass fishing every day.” Who knew?

Woolery’s most recent game show, “Lingo,” wrapped up filming in 2007, though its reruns still get good ratings on the Game Show Network, thus exposing Woolery, the original host of “Wheel of Fortune,” to a younger generation.

These days, his favorite game show is one without cameras, one he plays out all alone on his boat. “Whenever I catch a big bass, I hold him up and say, ‘Thank you for playing ‘Fishing With Chuck’ before I throw him back in the water,” he says.

After all his years on TV, Woolery received his very first Emmy Award this year for his segment as a guest on ESPN fishing program “Beat Charlie Moore.” Woolery hasn’t retired and still makes appearances, hosts infomercials and collects residuals for reruns, but his time of wrapping five programs a day, which is how game show tapings work, might be over. “I’ll be 70 years old in March, so they’ve gotta be thinking, ‘What if we have a hit? In five years he’ll be 75,’ ” Woolery says.

It was the job of hosting an infomercial that brought Woolery to Horseshoe Bay, about an hour and 10 minutes out of Austin, four years ago. Hired by National Recreation Properties, which had several lots on the bay to sell, Woolery ended up being the first customer, buying a 3,000-square-foot house two days after filming the commercial. What drew him right away was a private dock for his bass boat, on a constantly level lake, unaffected by droughts or rainfall.

He called his then-fiancée Kim Barnes and told her he’d just bought a place in Texas, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to be uprooted. Makeup artist Barnes, who met Woolery on a blind date in 2003, had a good job with “Deal or No Deal.” “She said, ‘Well, what if I don’t want to live in Texas?’ and I said, ‘I love you, honey, and I’m sure gonna miss you,’ ” Woolery says as Barnes jabs his arm with an elbow.

A Detroit native who spent several miserable summers visiting relatives near Lubbock when she was a kid, Barnes was not initially a fan of Texas relocation.

“Chuck sort of did a bait-and-switch on me,” she says. “He made it sound like we’d be going back and forth between Texas and our house in Venice (Calif.), but once we got here Chuck never wanted to leave.” The place in Venice was put on the market after the couple married in July 2006.

“I really love the people here,” says Barnes, 25 years her husband’s junior. She received a jolt of Texas hospitality the day after arriving at her new home in 2006 and being rushed to University Medical Center at Brackenridge for emergency gall bladder surgery. Barnes’ nurse stayed at her side for two hours after her shift was over to make sure Barnes got everything she needed. That nurse, Rain Slatt, and her husband, Brian, are two of Woolery and Barnes’ best friends in Austin, where Woolery and Barnes keep an Airstream trailer. “Rain and Brian know all the cool places in town,” Kim says. “They’ll never go to Starbucks; they’ll take us to the hip, indie coffee shops.”

Woolery plays “Naturally Stoned,” his 1968 song with the Avant-Garde, on his 1928 Gibson L-5.

When he’s not away on business or staying in Austin, Woolery takes his boat out on the lake every morning at 6 a.m. and fishes until about 11 a.m. He usually goes back out in the evening for a couple hours. Casting an estimated 1,000 times a day, Woolery takes his hobby to excessive lengths.

“You mention fishing to most people, and they may think of a tomato can half full of worms and a guy sitting on a dock in a straw hat barely awake,” Woolery says. “But when you really know how to fish, it’s a lot different than that. I take 10 rods out with me, and I’ll use every one, each with a different lure. They’re like clubs in a golf bag — every one has its own specialty.”

A native of Kentucky, Woolery has been fishing since he was a young boy accompanying his father, Dan, an avid outdoorsman. “My dad had a tackle box, two rods and reels and a shotgun in the car at all times,” Woolery says. “It was always his dream to live on a lake and fish off his back porch, so I guess I’m living my father’s dream.”

As a young man, Woolery thought music might be his ticket out of Kentucky. After his first marriage (“to a woman I met in a bar when I was 20”) broke up, he moved to Nashville as a member of the duo the Avant-Garde. “We had long hair and beards and drove a 1956 Cadillac hearse, pulling two motorcycles,” he recalls.

The group, which also featured Elkin “Bubba” Fowler, a former youth minister, had a minor hit on Columbia in 1968 with “Naturally Stoned,” a Woolery composition. “I didn’t realize until later that I had plagiarized the melody from the James Bond theme,” he says.

After the Avant-Garde broke up, Woolery signed to RCA as a solo artist. One day he received an unlikely call in Nashville. “All my life I have idolized comedian Jonathan Winters, so when I picked up the phone and the person said they were Jonathan Winters, of course I didn’t believe him.” A spot-on “Maude Frickett” convinced Woolery that it was indeed the comedic genius on the line. Winters was going to be on “The Tonight Show” and he liked a song of Woolery’s he heard on the radio, so he got the upstart singer booked for the same show.

When Winters’ assistant picked Woolery up at RCA in Los Angeles a few days later, Woolery could sense something wasn’t right. “Jonathan’s not going to like you,” the assistant said, looking at Woolery’s long hair and beard. The comedian had been having a hard time with his son’s long-haired rebellion and wasn’t a fan of hippies. Sure enough, Winters ignored Woolery completely when they met for lunch. “I thought, ‘Well, this can’t go any worse,’ so I decided to do him to him,” Woolery says. “He had a character named Elwood P. Suggins and I had memorized all his routines, so I spoke as that character and it cracked up Mr. Winters. He said, ‘Where are you from?’ And then asked ‘Would you consider shaving and cutting your hair?” A clean-cut Woolery made his “Tonight Show” debut the next night.

Merv Griffin was watching and booked Woolery for “The Merv Griffin Show.” Noting Woolery’s good looks and gift for chit-chat, Griffin asked him, “Do you know anything about being a game show host?”

Griffin owned and created “Jeopardy” and was developing a new show based on the game of Hangman. Originally called “Shopper’s Bazaar,” with Edd Byrnes hosting the pilot, the name was changed to “Wheel of Fortune” and Woolery was installed as the host in 1975. The deal was for Woolery to make $68,000 a season, working 98 days a year, but he says he didn’t receive a contract until an hour and a half before the debut taping of “Wheel.” Although Woolery was relatively green in showbiz, he had made many contacts through his wife at the time, actress Jo Ann Pflug (the film “MASH,” television’s “Love Boat,” “Candid Camera”). Thrown by the sudden demand to sign or walk, Woolery called his friend Carroll Rosenbloom, who owned the Los Angeles Rams football team.

“I’ll get the Hook on the phone,” Rosenbloom said. “The Hook” was top entertainment lawyer Ed Hookstrat, who gave Griffin’s business manager an earful before dictating a letter of intent over the phone, which Woolery signed. “From that day on, Merv had a problem with me,” Woolery says. At the end of the seven-year contract, Woolery asked for $10,000 a week to host “Wheel,” then the top-rated daytime show. Griffin offered $7,500 and wouldn’t budge. When NBC offered to pay the difference, Griffin threatened to take “Wheel” to another network. “I should’ve taken the offer,” Woolery says, looking back at a big career miscue. “Pat Sajak should send me a ‘thank you’ card every day.”

A year and a half later, a resilient Woolery was back on the air with “Love Connection,” the date recap show that ran from 1983 to 1994. With Woolery’s signature “we’ll be back in two and two” commercial break announcement, “Love Connection” is what Woolery is best known for today.

“It was kind of an accident,” Woolery says of “two and two,” which was accompanied by a two-fingered hand signal Woolery shortened when viewers from Australia and New Zealand complained that the second part meant “up yours.” One day Woolery had to make a quick phone call during a break and asked a stagehand how much time he had. “Two minutes,” was the answer; then the stagehand added, “plus one second in and one second out.” Two minutes and two seconds.

It wasn’t until “Love Connection” went off the air that Woolery got back into fishing in a big way. “I decided to buy a bass boat, and I went and looked at one on Lake Castaic (north of Los Angeles). It was owned by a guy named Mike O’Shea, who fished like no one I’d ever seen before,” Woolery says. “After 15 minutes, I realized I didn’t know a thing about fishing. I ended up not buying the boat, but I asked Mike if he could teach me how to fish like he did.” Woolery bought at least 20 DVDs on fishing that day and studied under O’Shea for three years. “The most important part of fishing is finding where the fish are,” he says. “After that, it’s all in the presentation. Sound is an attraction, along with the motion of the bait. You have to imagine what it looks like to the fish underwater. Are they going to buy it?”

At one of the many fish and game product shows Woolery attended, he was given a new kind of topwater lure to try out by a Dallas attorney who had invented it. After finding success with the MotoLure on a day when the fish weren’t otherwise biting, Woolery called his business partner in Detroit and said, “I’m going to buy this company.” Six years later, in early 2010, Chuck Woolery Signature Products sold its one millionth MotoLure. The company has also developed high-quality collapsing rods for carry-on air travel.

So that’s the story. That’s why you might spot the Woolerys at Eddie V’s or Esther’s Follies — or the Highball. When Woolery is spotted at ACL Fest again this year, where he’ll introduce his Austin neighbor Ruby Jane, you know he’s all about the bass fishing, not the bass pumping.

“This is my room,” Chuck Woolery says as he enters a dark space with guitars on the wall and a prominently displayed photo of his father, Dan, holding a prized muskie. “This guitar used to belong to Bing Crosby,” he says, pointing to a 1928 Gibson L-5. Crosby’s guitarist Eddie Lang, the first great jazz guitar soloist, played an L-5, so there’s a good chance that Crosby inherited or bought the guitar after Lang’s death in 1933.

“I used to play tennis with Bing’s son Gary Crosby,” says Woolery. “So one day Gary says, ‘You play guitar, right? I’m going to give you one.’ So he showed up the next week with this beautiful guitar and I was sort of taken aback. I said ‘Are you sure, Gary?’ Then he told me that it was his father’s guitar and he didn’t want anything in his house that used to belong to his father. They had a difficult relationship (as detailed in Gary Crosby’s tell-all tome “Going My Own Way”). I told him, ‘Look, if you ever change your mind, I’ll give it back,’ but that was the last I heard from him.”

by Michael Corcoran. Originally published in Sept. 2010

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