Around the Fourth of July each year I usually think of my time working at the Jersey Shore and the man who loved to make Independence Day a spectacular, Merv Griffin.
Merv’s Birthday was July 6th so he always made an extended celebration of the holiday.
I got to know Merv while working in Atlantic City. The legendary talk show host and creator of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy was the owner of Resorts Hotel & Casino at the time. One the first things I was told when I started at WMGM-TV was Merv watches.
I first saw the advantage of that two months into the job when Merv appeared before the Casino Control Commission in August of 1990 to get approval for a debt restructuring plan tied to the casino’s financial troubles. The room was filled with reporters from Philly and New York and as the hearing broke they stayed back as I asked him if he’d talk, he said sure.
Within seconds of his first answer the other microphones came flying in. As he finished his answer he said to me you’re probably going to ask me next about… (some complicated thing over my head related to the bankruptcy). Truth be told I wasn’t but acted like I was and he preceded to give me a couple of great soundbites. He knew I was green but rather than exploit it he helped me and I never forgot that.
Merv Griffin’s ties to Atlantic City ran deep beginning back with his days playing the Steel Pier as a singer with the Freddy Martin Band. He was always looking to recreate a little of that magic at Resorts starting with his Coconut Ballroom 4th of July shows.
Each year he and Jack Sheldon would headline a week of shows with additional guests like Rosemary Clooney. This wasn’t a show where you watched but participated, dancing at the foot of the stage. I had the chance to take in a number of these shows in the early 90’s and they were experiences I’ll never forget.
The success of that led Merv to lament that there was no real successor to Guy Lombardo’s New Year’s Eve shows. What he was seeing on TV each New Year’s Eve were specials geared more for the Top 40 crowd who in his mind were probably out at the clubs anyway. So he decided to begin putting on his own nationally televised New Year’s Eve show from Resorts.
He struck a partnership with the other casinos to borrow their headliners for an hour to have them perform and in turn he gave his competing casinos and the city itself national exposure.
Merv sold his share of Resorts in the late 90’s and focused his attention at home in Los Angeles where he owned the Beverly Hilton. This was Atlantic City’s loss, the world’s loss came in August of 2007 when Merv Griffin died at the age of 82.
Below is the raw tape of one of the interviews I did with Merv prior to one of his 4th of July shows – it was always a favorite of mine because Jack Sheldon pops in for a cameo in the middle of it.