I’ve always been a fan of comedians, and enjoy watching newcomers on the talk show circuit. In 1973, I started noticing a young Latino comedian named Freddie Prinze. Freddie was good-looking, very funny, and had a soulful look in his eyes that really got to me.
One night when he was on the Tonight show, he told Johnny Carson about this new series he was working on called Chico and the Man. The show sounded great, and Freddie was obviously proud and excited about it. He happened to mention that it would be starting on Friday the 13th, and made a bunch of jokes about bad luck, but I thought it was frightening him a little. Friday the 13th was always a lucky day for me, and I wanted it to be one for Freddie, too. I decided to write him a fan letter.
In the letter, I told him how much I enjoyed his work, and then told him that Friday the 13th was good luck. I also enclosed a copy of the poem “Desiderata,” one of my favorites and a good philosophy of life. I included my address and telephone number, too. I didn't expect him to use it, but, ever the optimist, I sent it anyway.
The show premiered and was an instant hit. I was thrilled for Freddie. Then, one Monday night in October, just as I settled down to watch Maude, my telephone rang. I was a little annoyed, but I picked it up and heard a familiar voice ask for Melissa Byers. I identified myself, and he said, “This is Freddie Prinze.” For a moment, I thought it was one of my friends goofing on me, but when he heard my skeptical tone, he uttered the familiar “Ees not my job!” and I knew it was really him. It turned out that my letter and the poem had reached him at just the moment he needed it. He had been a little down that day, and the letter and poem cheered him up. So, he called to thank me. We talked for about an hour that night, and he promised to keep in touch.
After that, I would occasionally get a post card and at least one more phone call. Then, I saw in the local paper that he was appearing at a nearby theater on his summer tour. I bought my ticket the moment the box office opened. Before the date, I sent a letter to Freddie in care of the theater, since I knew he was on the road and wouldn't get a letter sent to his home, and when he got in, he called me and made arrangements for me to meet him and Kathy backstage.
I took one of my closest friends with me, and we had an incredible weekend. The first night we were there, we went to the theater’s stage door and knocked. The gaggle of girls standing around laughed at us and said, “They won’t answer, but the door’s open – try to go in!” So, we did, and I gave the stage manager my name, and they whisked us in, leaving the girls outside gaping after us. Freddie greeted me with a hug and introduced me to Kathy, his manager Ron, and his secretary Carol. We had a few minutes to talk before the first show, and then we were taken to our seats. He did two shows that night, and we were given house seats for the second one. After that show, they had to be somewhere, so we planned to meet the following night.
The second night, we arrived at the theater before Freddie and his entourage, so we waited with the other fans. When Freddie arrived, Carol simply said, ?Melissa, Denise, come with us,” and we followed. Freddie didn’t say anything or even look at the people waiting for him, including us. As soon as the stage door closed behind us, He hollered back, “Hi Melissa!” Again, we had a few minutes to talk before the show, and I asked about how he chose material, stuff like that. It was great. He also kept talking to Kathy and the others about changing a sign. I had no idea what he meant.
After the show, they invited us back to the hotel to visit. They were staying at the Sheraton Valley Forge, which had a movie theater. The marquee read “Posse” and Other Side of the Mountain.” Freddie’s car, which was in front of us, stopped under the sign, and everyone jumped out. So, Denise and I did, too. We all boosted Freddie up to the sign, where he proceeded to change the “o” in “Posse” with the “u” in “Mountain.” The result was a much funnier marquee! Then we all ran back to our cars and went into the hotel.
The whole evening after that, Freddie went back and forth between chortling about the sign and worrying that they were going to throw him out of the hotel if they figured out it was he who had done it. It was a magical evening. Kathy took the pictures that accompany this story, but refused to get in any herself, because she was camera shy, beautiful though she was.
About two weeks later, I got a post card from Freddie saying that the tour continued to go well, and “Those chumps never even knew we changed that sign!”
What was it like to meet him? I was 15 at the time and I didn't even think we'd get near the dressing room. It was just surreal, I really couldn't believe it was really him, I kind of felt like it was a dream. I love to read other fan's stories also. The most amazing quality about Freddie was that he was a very easy-going -"normal", NICE person. He was not stuck-up AT ALL, not at all- which was surprising for someone so young who was rising in popularity so fast.
What struck me about him that night was the crowd's reaction to him. His "act" was so smooth, just as if you were hanging out with a good friend who was telling you what had happened to him the other day. Now that I'm older when I reflect on that night, I remember the crowd was largely non-latino and everybody was just rolling with laughter. There was so much fun and love in that room for that man! He was so down-to-earth, naturally funny and talented that you saw and felt his personality-his warmth & his charm all wrapped up in one handsome, tall guy. It seemed as though he had an older soul because he was so at ease in front of an audience & very mature for his age. And, what has impacted me to this day is that Freddie was a truly gifted person, so much so that you didn't see a Latino comic, or Latino actor - you saw Freddie first. And this is the kind of teacher I'll strive to be. I don't want my kids to see a Latina teacher..I want them to see me first. And that's why -when it is appropriate in any of my multicultural lesson plans, I always include him and remember him for the nice guy he was to a generation that was cheated out of knowing him.
My mom took me to see him perform at Club Bene in NJ when I was, I think, a freshman in HS. I was a very shy teen and completely in love with Freddie. I think I was in shock form teh time we left the house until the time we returned. I remember being so nervous that the milk I drank at diner actually curdling on my stomache! After his show, I grabbed my program & ran to the door to the backstage area. His bodyguard was there collecting all of the fans' programs for autographs & taking htem back for Freddie to sign. I just stood waiting patiently (sort of) for my paper to be returned to me. Next thing I knew, out popped Freddie, hand each of us our program back with a handshake, wink, charming smile & a "thank you for coming." I honestly don't remember anything after that but standing there crying! I don't even remember how I got back to my mom & our table. All I knew was that he was wonderful & that I'd never forget my experience forever... and I have!
A year or so later my mom, who was a nurse, began working at a new hospital and one night when she was telling her fellow nurses about my meeting Freddie & falling to pieces, one of the other nurses pulled her to the side & told my mom that she was Freddie's cousin. My mom (being the amazing person she was!) asked if it would be possible at all to get a personalized autograph for Christmas. His cousin said she'd be glad to, and told my mom how much learning about his fans' feeling for him meant to Freddie.
A few weeks later I picked up our mail on my way home from the bus stop. I saw this long, white envelope with handwriting I did not recognize. I also felt that there was something hard in the envelope. I opened it & you can just imagine my complete shock when I saw this bright pink Christmas card signed "for my #1 fan, love Freddie Prinze"!!!! I actually had to sit down on the curb & make myself start breathing again! Then I saw that there was another little envelope inside. I opened it up & saw a round charm on a necklace with my name & the date inscribed on side & my zodiac sign on the other. There I sat, crying like a big baby again! My best friend had to walk me home to my mother, who just smiled. That night I wrote Freddie this long thank you note and told him how much his time had meant to me, about the time he gave me his autograph, and how much I enjoyed his performances.
Two months later, my mom pulled up to my bus stop one morning & said, "I have something for you". She handed me a little box wrapped in white paper. She said, [Freddie's cousin] gave this to me for you. It's for your birthday. I opened the box & there I saw an ID bracelet inscribed "Forever Freddie" on it. I can't even begin to tell you how I felt! My mom said that Freddie was sorry that there wasn't a card, but that he sent word through his cousin to wish me a very happy birthday & that I was still his #1 fan. Wow! I picked up the cotton around the bracelet and saw the tiniest little piece of moustache hair. I think my heart actually stopped beating when I saw it. I carefully wrapped it up in a piece of the wrapping paper & put it in the box. Yes, I also still have that little treasure as well.
I continued to get little messages for a while from his cousin whenever he'd visit her, to say that he said hi & asked how I was doing. It gave me such a feeling of being special and of knowing what a truly special person Freddie was to take time for a little insignificant fan.
Today I measure celebrities by the couple of models I have been lucky enough to have had in my life, and often find them to come up wanting. There was a real respectability to the celebrities I have met. A kindness, humility and awareness on top of their wonderful talents. I will never, ever forget Freddie and am always so thrilled when I see other people honoring his memory as well.