Elston Brooks: The Passing Showman

His own life story could have inspired the tin cans-to-caviar plot of one of the old black-and-white movies he was so fond of.

Elston Harwood Brooks was born in Missouri in 1930. His interest in words and the stories those words can tell began early: When he was eight he published a single-sheet newspaper, The World News, which he charged neighbors a penny each to read. At age ten he wrote elementary school versions of The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio.

By 1940 his family lived in a small frame house on Marigold Street in Riverside.

By 1945 the Great Depression and the war were over, and Elston was out the door.

He recalled in 1969: “I left home when I was 15 and went about the task of putting myself through Paschal High School, always fearful that the school would find out I was forging parental signatures on report cards and turn me in to an ‘orphanage.’ I had two jobs after school to keep me going. One paid $12.50 a week and the other $7.50. That made $20 a week, but you didn’t have to pay income tax on it. I got to keep it ‘all.’ The place I found to live was a rooming house on the short South Side—$9 a week and the bath down the hall. A school bus card cost $2. Cleaning and laundry was about $3. Cigarettes were $2. And there was no such thing as new clothes or doctor bills. You just didn’t get sick. That left $4 a week to eat on. I didn’t eat breakfast, and lunch was made out of lunchmeat, bread, and mayonnaise kept refrigerated on a window ledge outside my room.”

At Paschal High School Elston’s flair for writing developed. He wrote a column—”Babbling Brooks”—for the student publication, the Pantherette. His column twice won the state championship in high school journalism.

Elston’s other lifelong passion was entertainment, especially music and movies. At age seventeen he co-wrote, produced, and performed in a citywide musical, Is Your Juvenile Delinquent?

Elston dodged that “delinquent” tag himself in 1947 when he was one of eight boys who was charged with malicious mischief after some of the boys tore the covering from the new statue of Will Rogers on the coliseum grounds. Elston’s future employer, Amon Carter, agreed to drop the charges.

Elston also wrote and directed a musical revue for the high schools’ Better Relations Organization. Master of ceremonies was another future Fort Worth icon, Bill Camfield.

(Note the mention of principals C. A. Thompson and O. D. Wyatt.)

Soon Elston had his own radio program, Ballads by Brooks, on WBAP radio. Brooks’s voice was described as a “Nelson Eddy-gusto baritone.” He also was a disk jockey and announcer on a WBAP program entitled Teen Age Platter Party.

In 1948 Elston graduated and, at the wizened age of eighteen, joined the Star-Telegram staff.

He began his career modestly, covering high school news.

But by 1949 Elston was combining his two passions: writing and entertainment.

Elston’s career as an entertainment writer got off to an awkward start when he interviewed dancer Sally Rand and asked her how old she was.

He made up for the faux pas in 1974 when Rand returned to the “new” Casa Manana at age seventy to perform a near-nude dance in the Roman musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Elston in his review wrote that Rand was now LXX years old.

She liked that.

After Sally Rand came love and war. In 1951 Elston joined the Army and entertained fellow soldiers during the Korean War. In 1953 he was married.

When he returned to the Star-Telegram in 1953 he resumed his entertainment coverage but added a beat about as far removed from entertainment as a reporter can get: crime reporter.

And in the 1950s Fort Worth criminals were a busy bunch. Thus, on a Monday readers might read under Elston’s byline about the newest show at Casa and on Tuesday about a gangland slaying.

The story of his coverage of a bank robbery in 1955 was presented on the television program The Big Story in 1956. Actor David (The Fly) Hedison portrayed Elston. A few months earlier Star-Telegram writer Tony Slaughter also had been the subject of a Big Story episode.

Elston was a good “cop shop” reporter, but he was a better entertainment writer, and that talent won out.

Elston began to live the life of a big-city entertainment columnist, jetting off to movie premieres, interviewing celebrities, going on location with movie crews.

For example, Elston was on the set of Giant as it was being filmed in Marfa in 1955. In 1970 when the movie was re-released, Elston recalled how that famous photo of James Dean lounging in the car came about:

“Inadvertently, I was responsible for Warner’s getting that famous publicity picture of him sitting in Rock Hudson’s car with the celebrated Giant mansion in the background. The ‘mansion,’ incidentally, was only a four-story false front, with the studio trucks and mess tents sitting behind it. The interiors were filmed later back at Warner’s Burbank sound stages. Later Worth Evans boxed in the other three sides and made it a hay barn. Today, it still sits desolately on the prairie and is used as a Strategic Air Command sight-bombing target.

“On this particular day, director George Stevens, fresh from his Shane triumph, was crouched behind the car, out of camera level, coaxing emotion out of Dean by purring to him: ‘You’re a big man. Jimmy. Feel it. You want Rock’s car, you want his house, you want to take Liz away from him . . .’

“When Stevens signaled ‘cut,’ I walked up to the car to talk to Dean. There was an audible gasp behind me. It came from the Warner flacks. NOBODY interviewed James Dean! But no one had told me.

“I introduced myself. Dean said nothing. Still in the ‘Mood.’ Still looking straight ahead. It was during this moment that the photographers fired away to get a picture that has been printed many times, the world over. Dean had so intimidated them they were unable even to get publicity shots of him. Now, waiting for the Actor’s Studio wrath to fall on my head, they figured it was a good chance to get some shots.”

“After a long minute, Dean agreed to look at me. The eyes squinted. The fingers scratched the greasy shirt he never changed. The mouth moved. It spoke. ‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ it said. ‘I didn’t come here to give no interviews.’

“‘Well,’ I answered, ‘I’ll tell you one thing—I did.’

“Then, losing whatever advantage I might have had, I blew it by asking a stupid, high-school question because I was too taken aback to think of a better one.

“‘How does it feel to be a teen-age idol after you’ve made just one picture?’ I asked.

“‘Whadda you mean, how does it feel? I made one picture. I made another picture. Now, I’m making this picture. When I get through, I’ll make another picture,’ he said evenly. ‘’A man doesn’t die just because he’s made one picture.’”

Fast-forward three months: James Dean died after having made three pictures.

Elston was an obsessive keeper of details. That’s how he could tell you that between 1949 and 1982, he interviewed 747 celebrities—from Frankie Avalon to Darryl Zanuck.

Between Avalon and Zanuck, Star-Telegram writer Jerry Flemmons later wrote:

Elizabeth Taylor let Elston touch the thirty-three-carat diamond ring Richard Burton gave her.

Zsa Zsa Gabor once called Elston a “son of a beech.”

Elston interviewed a nude Jerry Lewis.

Elston rubbed shoulders with John Wayne in San Antonio.

And with Robert Mitchum in Rome.

With Lee Marvin in Fort Worth’s The Cellar night club.

With Johnny Carson on a penthouse balcony in New York.

With Paul Newman in Goodnight, Texas on the set of Hud.

And with Steve McQueen in London as they watched a naked woman wrestle a panther in Raymond’s Re-vue Bar.

Elston dined with Charlton Heston at Maxim’s in Paris. Over drinks the two men discussed Heston’s circumcision, which they considered to be appropriate, even vital, for his upcoming role as Moses in The Ten Commandments. As Heston ordered steak tartare, Elston marveled that someone nicknamed “Lunchmeat” at Paschal High School would even be allowed into a place like Maxim’s.

Elston’s brain was a treasury of trivia, especially entertainment from the past. For example, take Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s on First” routine. Elston could perform the parts of both comedians, verbatim, with mannerisms and accents.

And songs from the past. For example, take Your Hit Parade, a program that for years showcased the ten most popular songs weekly, first on radio and then on television. As a teenager Elston began cataloging the songs of Your Hit Parade. He cataloged them the rest of his life. He also collected all the hit records, which became the basis of the Elston Brooks Show on WBAP radio.

Elston not only collected the songs of Your Hit Parade but also memorized the titles and their dates. Give Elston a date, and he could tell you the most popular song on that date, say, August 30, 1947. He would search his random-access memory and output, “‘Peg o My Heart.’ Buddy Clark had the big record. ‘Tallahassee’ was fifth, and ‘That’s My Desire’—Frankie Laine—was No. 2 but losing ground.”

Not content to be the mere chronicler of entertainment, Elston became a participant. In 1969 he portrayed Oscar in The Odd Couple for Fort Worth Community Theater. In 1970 he reprised that role at Windmill Dinner Theater with a New York Equity cast.

And in 1984 he performed with Ruta Lee at Casa Manana in Woman of the Year and Promises, Promises.

When it came to entertainment, nothing was too big or too small for Elston to write about—from the newest blockbuster movie to the jazz trio playing at a West Side nightclub.

Unless he was reviewing or interviewing, he seldom wrote more than a paragraph about a subject. Each column was a potpourri of snippets stitched together with ellipses:

“Itemsville” was a favorite lead-in to his snippets, but Elston loved to play with the term. For example, one week he spoofed movie sequels.

“Have Notepad, Will Jot” was another favorite lead-in.

Elston, master of the snappy snippet, allowed himself a bit more exposition in “The Passing Showmen.”

Elston wrote primarily but not exclusively about entertainment. He wrote about anything he found intriguing. He was not just a dispenser of facts, a dropper of names. He was a showman, each column a variety show. He entertained, whether by puns or wry observations about life.

“La Triviata” was another catch-all lead-in.

Elston, so fond of the past and of one-liners, often ended a column of snippets with “End of the lines; everybody off,” a throwback to the days of streetcars.

By 1986 he had been writing a daily entertainment column for twenty-six years. That year Elston cut back from daily to weekly to devote time to writing fiction, the result being The Man Who Ruined Football, published in 1989.

On May 22, 1991 came the passing of showman Elston Brooks.

He is buried in Laurel Land Cemetery.

End of the lines; everybody off.

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