The Day I met Jonathan Winters…and even made him laugh.
I’ve been in the antiques business for about 30 years on Nantucket, and I’ve met a lot of celebrities coming through the shop. Some are interesting, some are a bit surreal, but most are just folk who look a little familiar. Half the time someone else has to tell me who they are, and then explain WHO they are… I guess I’m just not in the loop. But there was that one time, the exception, the time I was thrilled and blown away… the time I met Jonathan Winters.
I was the manager of an auction gallery for many years, where every Thursday and Friday of the summer I would meet the auction previewers, dashing about the room answering questions, explaining the process, taking paintings off the wall, turning furniture over, and politely smiling at how many grandmothers used to own one just like it. It was educational and sometimes stimulating, but always exhausting. One particularly hectic Friday afternoon I had been on the run for hours, barraged by people demanding quick attention, my brain just about at the point of curdling into cotton candy, when a tall man appeared at my elbow, politely cleared his throat to get my attention and softly said “Excuse me?” I turned… and met Jonathan Winters.
I couldn’t believe it. Jonathan Winters. JONATHAN WINTERS! I was of course a fan. A huge fan. Ever since I first saw him on my parent’s old black and white Hallicrafters TV, oh it was probably on Ed Sullivan or Dean Martin, I was hooked! What little kid could resist this guy? Sure there were other funny people, but here finally was an adult that was zany and animated and loony and spoke to me! He saw things just the way I did, the way any six year old did. He was the coolest adult, the only adult since the Three Stooges, that was obviously on our team! He was a giant, an icon, a superhero…
He was standing right there beside me. Oddly enough, he looked exactly like Jonathan Winters. He was a tall solidly built man wearing a slightly old-fashioned checked sports jacket (like my Dad would wear at a country club). He had those chubby cheeks, receding hair, and a ferocious twinkle in his eyes. He was shy and soft-spoken. He asked with that voice in a very serious demeanor if I could tell him anything about this certain ship model that was in the auction. How old was it? What price would it likely bring?
So, in a very serious demeanor and steady voice, I answered his questions. Inside of course I’m whooping and hollering, doing backflips and bouncing off the walls, struggling to keep it together. The rest of the auction preview confusion faded away, and Mr. Winters and I had a great conversation alone in our own little world. I wish I could remember that conversation word for word. I told him about the model: what type of ship she was (a clipper), and her age (probably made in the 1950s or 60s). It was not a very good model. In fact it was a terrible model. I told him he shouldn’t buy it. He could easily find a better one. And we chatted. And I made him laugh. A couple of times. I made Jonathan Winters laugh!
A lady started hovering around us, a little impatient but not rude. She had her catalogue and was doing her “I’m next” dance. She obviously wanted to ask me a question. She looked a little familiar; she had probably been to the auction before but wasn’t really a regular. I was always good about fielding several questions at once so people wouldn’t have to wait… but I was talking to Jonathan Winters here! She left and came back, and again, and then interrupted us. She looked right at me and said “Excuse me, could I just ask a quick question about something back here?”
Jonathan Winters immediately responded with a deep frown and a very somber voice “I’ll be with you in just one minute madam. I’m answering this young man’s question right now. When I’m done with him, I’ll answer yours. I can only help one person at a time.”
She looked from me to him, and back at me. She started to get a very confused look on her face.
“You’ll just have to be patient Madam. I’ll answer your questions as soon as I’m done here.”
She’s fully confused now. Her expression said that she thought she knew who I was, that I worked there, and I was the one she should ask. Who’s this other guy?
He assured her that he would find her in the room after he finished with me. She wandered off slowly, more than a little confused. He turned to me and broke into a very naughty grin and winked. I told him he did a much better job than me, and begged him to take over for the rest of the summer. I said something else, can’t remember what, and he really laughed. A good old throw-the-head-back guffaw.
He thanked me and went on his way. I had goose-bumps. I can’t believe I met Jonathan Winters… and made him laugh!
The next day he bought the model with an absentee bid (I think it was a present for a little kid).
Ah, Jonathan Winters… we’ll miss you.