Once called by CNN's Larry King a “Merv of all trades,” former big band singer Merv Griffin (1925-2007) achieved his greatest fame hosting his selftitled talk show from 1962 to 1986. The bulk of his wealth, however, came via packaging such longrunning game shows as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and several high profile real estate deals.
Born Mervyn Edward Griffin Jr. on July 6, 1925 in San Mateo, California, he was the son of Mervyn and Rita Griffin, who nicknamed him “Buddy.” Surrounded by members of his mother's family who exhibited strong interest in music, young Griffin first showed interest in playing piano at age four. Soon after, his aunt Claudia Robinson began giving him lessons, which was kept secret from his father, a tennis pro, who believed that the life of a musician was not a manly one. Indeed, the elder Griffin did not know that his son could actually play piano until the youngster was quite accomplished on the instrument. At a family gathering, when he was commanded by his father to play the piano, the teenager charmed him with a rendition of “Tea for Two,” that he was asked to play repeatedly.
In his 1980 autobiography, Griffin recalls always being show-biz bound, putting on pretend shows with neighborhood kids, and orchestrating the choir at his local Catholic church. During the Depression, the industrious youngster also exhibited a knack for earning extra cash when his family lost their home and moved in with Aunt Claudia. At age seven, he collected neighborhood gossip and sold it in a hectograph printed sheet called The Whispering Winds. He also mowed lawns, sold Christmas wreaths, and worked as an organist for hire at local weddings and funerals.
By his own admission, Griffin was overweight as a teen, and tried to deflect the taunts of his classmates with humor and song. Later, his abilities as a pianist and a singer made him a favorite at local talent shows and U.S.O. events, but his career didn't really get rolling until 1944 when he was hired by radio station KFRC in San Francisco. Hoping to latch on strictly as a pianist, the 19-year-old was asked to sing at his audition. Imitating popular crooner Dick Haymes singing “Sleigh Ride in July,” he impressed station management, who gave him his own 15-minute, three-times a week radio show. Billed as “America's New Romantic Singing Star” and publicized as “the romantic mystery voice,” Griffin became a local sensation, although his 240-pound frame was seldom seen by the public. Finally, after Joan Edwards, one of the singing stars from Your Hit Parade, sang on his show, she told the budding star (as Griffin recalled in his autobiography Merv—an Autobiography), “Merv, honey, you sing great, but the blubber has to go.” Griffin dieted strenuously until he was a svelte 160 pounds, but he would struggle with weight fluctuations the rest of his life.
Sang with Freddy Martin's Orchestra
When KHJ, the Mutual Broadcasting outlet in Los Angeles, picked up Griffin's show, his star rose higher, and attracted the attention of bandleader Freddy Martin. Best remembered for his transformation of Tchaikovsky's B-Flat Piano Concerto and Grieg's Piano Concerto into the lush pop hits “Tonight We Love” and “I Look at Heaven,” respectively, Martin had a good ear for vocalists and at one time or another employed the likes of Buddy Clark, Russ Morgan, Gene Vaughn, and Helen Ward. At the time Martin hired Griffin, the singer was earning more in a day than the bandleader paid in a week, but the opportunity to expand into a national market proved irresistible.
Griffin quickly became a popular addition to Martin's show where the singer's most popular romantic songs were “Wihelmina,” “Never Been Kissed,” “My Truly, Truly Fair,” “Music, Music, Music” and “Am I Love.” However, Griffin's main claim to fame as a recording artist rests with his RCA-Victor release “I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” Sung with an unconvincing cockney accent, the bouncy novelty peaked at number 8 on the national charts in 1949. Although Griffin never liked the number, it made him a star, leading to well-attended bookings for Martin at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. In late 1951, Griffin hit the Top 40 under his own name with “The Morning Side of the Mountain” and “Twenty-Three Starlets (and Me),” the latter recorded with Hugo Winterhalter's Orchestra. In retrospect, Griffin proved a less distinctive vocalist than fellow Irish crooners Dennis Day or Mike Douglas. However, the upside of his short string of hits was a legitimate shot at a mainstream movie career.
According to Griffin in his autobiography, none other than Doris Day arranged his screen test with Warner Bros. in late 1952. As a result, the singer appeared in a handful of feature films during the early 1950's, most notably So This is Love with Katheryn Grayson and The Boy from Oklahoma starring Will Rogers Jr. Sick of studio politics and inactivity between pictures, Griffin opted out of his contract with Warner Bros. in 1955. There was something better on the horizon for Griffin: television.
Legendary Talk Show Host
While touring with Martin's band and with the big band days rapidly coming to a close, Griffin worked on network television whenever possible. Starting in 1951, he appeared on the summer replacement series The Freddy Martin Show which led to regular appearances on Arthur Murray's Dance Party, The Robert Q. Lewis Show, and the Sunday morning religious program Look Up and Live. Griffin also co-hosted a summer replacement series with Jane Froman called Snapshots on a Summer Day and was one of the regular vocalists on the Dick Van Dyke CBS series The Morning Show. “Well, I served my time as an apprentice in television,” Griffin told Larry King in a 2006 interview. “I did a lot of shows in New York. I was kind of a utility singer. If a show like Ken Murray or some of them had a waterfall in their vault and they'd say, ‘Let's put the waterfall on this week, who knows waterfall? Get Merv Griffin. He knows all the waterfall songs.’ So, I'd come and do the waterfall songs.”
Griffin hosted his first televised talk show in 1956, the Miami-based Going Places. His big break, however, came when he filled in for Bill Cullen as the host of The Price is Right for CBS in 1959. His quick mastery of game show rules and ease in front of the microphone wore well with daytime audiences. He was subsequently hired as the second of three hosts of a To Tell the Truth knock-off called Play Your Hunch. During the interview portions of the show, Griffin impressed NBC's late-night talk show king Jack Paar, who eventually offered the former singer a semiregular substitute host slot on The Tonight Show. These stints, including a two week run after Paar left the show, drew surprisingly strong ratings. As a result, before they chose Johnny Carson for the permanent job, NBC seriously considered hiring Griffin as Paar's replacement. Instead, the network gave him his first daytime talk show, which they subsequently canceled after 26 weeks.
Rebounding quickly, Griffin signed on with Westinghouse, who syndicated his talk show nationwide. This version became a ratings hit. Part of the show's charm came via the host's interplay with sidekick/announcer Arthur Treacher. A former Hollywood feature player renowned for playing butlers, Treacher introduced Griffin with great affection, saying, “Now here's the dear boy himself, Mervyn.” When a guest dropped out, Treacher could regale Griffin's audience with stories of old Hollywood, offer a withering comedic insult, or charmingly express an opinion about his adventures in modern society. During the show's early run, Treacher became so popular, that he eventually lent his name to a fast food franchise—Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips. When Treacher died of heart failure in 1975, the show began changing formats and locations on a regular basis in an attempt to make up for the loss of interpersonal chemistry.
Although Griffin had his own low-key style, he often followed Paar's lead by scooping up some of his retired mentor's favorite guests, such as Dody Goodman, Jack Douglas and Reiko, Genevieve, and sprinkling famous authors and newsmakers throughout programs laden with movie stars and comedians. Indeed, Griffin made television history hosting the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Henry Kissinger, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, etc. Even counter-culture icon Abbie Hoffman appeared on the show, but his appearance was broadcast audio-only because the hippie provocateur was wearing a shirt made from an American flag. Griffin courted controversy more actively than his late-night rival Johnny Carson, but it should be noted that for every famous newsmaker on his program, Griffin featured dozens of appearances by the likes of Totie Fields, Monte Rock III, Charro, Rip Taylor, and dozens of other c-list celebrities that only he could showcase amusingly. Further, Griffin provided the first serious, continuing exposure for such up and coming comics as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Jerry Seinfeld.
In late 1969, Griffin was enticed to move his show to CBS and take on ratings king Johnny Carson. The program, basically a glitzier version of the Westinghouse show, easily beat out Joey Bishop and Dick Cavett's late-night chat-fests on ABC, but with far less CBS affiliates signed up for the show than NBC boasted, Griffin's show lagged far behind Carson's. Ironically, one of Griffin's chief strengths during this period was his director Dick Carson—Johnny Carson's brother—the former director of the Tonight Show. In February of 1972, Griffin left CBS and went back to doing a daytime talk-show, this time for Metromedia, where he did episodes that were much more theme-oriented, until he retired the program in 1986.
Game Show and Real Estate Tycoon
Although Griffin stayed active making cameo appearances in movies, taping occasional television specials, and recording for Pat Boone's Gold label, he had no pressing need to work. A lover of puzzles, he began packaging game shows during the early 60's, including Wordplay and Jeopardy. For the latter—one of the most enduring game show hits in television history—Griffin's wife Julann came up with the idea to answer every statement of fact with the appropriate question. Griffin himself wrote the “thinking music” played while contestants wrote their answers, and the composition is said to have earned him over seventy million dollars in royalties.
Griffin's company also produced Wheel of Fortune, another long-running smash that appeared in network and syndicated versions. Originally hosted by Chuck Woolery from 1975 to 1982, the program really took off when Pat Sajak took over hosting chores and was aided by letter-turning Vanna White, whom Griffin personally championed. Another syndicated hit was a Dancing with the Stars forerunner called Dance Fever. In 1986, Griffin sold his production company to Columbia Pictures television for $250 million dollars and a continuing share of his shows' profits.
During the late 80's, Griffin grew bored with being idle and began a third career as a real estate mogul. In 1989 he made a decision which was recounted in his MSNBC.com obituary years later. “I said ‘I'm not going to sit around and clip coupons for the rest of my life.’ That's when Barron Hilton said ‘Merv, do you want to buy the Beverly Hilton?’ I couldn't believe it.” In the years to come, he would make headlines when he wrested control of the Resort International hotels and Casinos in Atlantic City away from mogul Donald Trump. Even Griffin's interest in horse racing proved profitable. In 2005, his colt Stevie Wonderboy won a $1.5 million dollar purse at the Breeder's Cup Juvenile Stakes. By 2003, his net worth was estimated at over $1 billion dollars.
Generous and cordial, the retired talk show host also worked hard for various charities, most notably serving as Chairman of the Board of the Young Musicians Foundation and deeding a $10 million dollar property to Childhelp USA. In 2007, just as his company completed the first week of production on a new game show, Merv Griffin's Crosswords, Griffin was diagnosed with a recurrence of the prostate cancer he had successfully beaten ten years earlier. The disease rapidly spread to other organs and the singer/actor/ composer/business tycoon and last of the great 1960's talk show hosts died on August 12, 2007. Divorced from wife Julann in 1973 after twenty years of marriage, he was survived by his son and business partner Anthony Patrick Griffin, who currently runs his estate.
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