Bruce Hensley shares his encounters with Alex Trebek and Merv Griffin
People of Charlotte, please meet Bruce Hensley. Bruce is a Charlotte-based public relations executive with some pretty cool stories to share. He graduated from Myers Park High School in 1974, went to App State and designed and created his major in PR, joined his father’s Charlotte PR firm in 1979, and started his own shop here in 1985. He is chronicling some of the more interesting stories from his career. Bruce and his wife Jill run their boutique PR firm, Hensley Fontana, from their home in south Charlotte. They are the founders, owners, and operators of Queen’s Feast: Charlotte Restaurant Week.
Now let's get to know one of Bruce's amazing stories!
Let's start with the book The Answer Is to introduce your story.
I recently finished reading The Answer Is, the autobiography by Alex Trebek written in 2020 as he was taping his final Jeopardy TV quiz show episodes and dying from pancreatic cancer. Ardent fans of Jeopardy and Trebek (as I certainly have been for 36+ years) know that he did succumb to cancer on November 8, 2020, after being diagnosed in early 2019. His final taped shows were aired the week of January 4-8, 2021.
I found the book a fast, entertaining, and interesting read and think that even casual Jeopardy fans will appreciate his fascinating story. The first half recounts his life up until he moves from his native Canada to California to further ignite his successful and well-lauded entertainment career in the U.S. The second half addresses his stunning rise to fame and fortune as what he deemed a “second-level celebrity.”
What was it like meeting Alex Trebek?
I was fortunate to meet Trebek in a serendipitous encounter when he was touring the U.S. for Jeopardy promotional appearances in the early 1990s. I was visiting the “John Boy & Billy Show” in the WRFX radio studios on East 4th Street in Charlotte, and Trebek was leaving as I was arriving. I introduced myself to the then famously mustachioed Trebek, and we conversed for few minutes. He was both approachable and engaging as I politely fawned over my love for the skyrocketing quiz show. I told him that I very much enjoyed his work, and he lit up and thanked me profusely saying that it was indeed work—difficult work that he tried to make look easy—and recognizing that it is work is the greatest compliment he could receive.
As a couch Jeopardy player, how well have you played? What have you learned about the show?
I will continue to enjoy Jeopardy with the litany of guests lined up to host the show until a permanent replacement for Trebek is determined. I’ve never tried out to be a contestant on the show but have won hundreds of thousands of dollars (in my mind) over the years. Some days I do well; other days I scramble my brain wondering how these brilliant contestants have such obscure knowledge.
Merv Griffin created Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and brilliantly packaged them together to successfully syndicate an hour of primetime programming that is unmatched in TV game/quiz show history. Trebek details this strategy in his book and speaks fondly of Griffin, who did not actually have much hand in producing Jeopardy. He left those details to others. Griffin did, however, have tremendous involvement in the ongoing details (puzzles) for Wheel of Fortune. More on that later.
The Netflix series, Ozark, is coming to mind. How did you get involved in a riverboat deal?
In Fall 1992, our PR firm was hired by Merv Griffin’s Players Riverboat Casino to promote and publicize the impending arrival of a fortunes-changing addition (riverboat gaming) to Metropolis, a small town (population 6,700) on the southern tip of Illinois on the Ohio River across from Paducah, Kentucky. Gaming was new to the area, and this town was suffering from 30%+ unemployment. The new riverboat would be docked and disembark from a new facility on the town’s waterfront and was licensed for gaming only while cruising the river. It was projected to make a significant impact on the local economy with hundreds of new jobs created.
The Riverboat was slated to open to the public and begin operations on Saturday, March 13, 1993, after an intense publicity campaign with which we were charged. Until then, the biggest attraction in Metropolis, IL, was a 15-foot fiberglass statue of Superman on a roundabout in the middle of town. Superman. Metropolis. Get it? Moreover, this hideous statue was riddled with gunshot holes from locals and visitors who apparently wanted to see if Superman really was bulletproof.
In early February 1993, our PR team went to Metropolis to tour the almost-finished land portion of the gaming facility, review our publicity and crisis communications plans, and meet with Merv Griffin’s publicist, Warren Cowan, founder of Rogers & Cowan and one of Hollywood’s most powerful and innovative publicists. In addition to Merv Griffin, Cowan’s clients included Doris Day, Bette Midler, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and scores more of that ilk.
It was in that meeting that I learned I’d be accompanying Merv Griffin and his Players partners, the two Fishman brothers, and Merv’s assistant on a five-day publicity tour of the major feeder markets in a 250-mile radius of the new Riverboat destination. This whirlwind tour was slated for Monday, March 8- Friday, March 12, before the grand opening on Saturday, March 13. We would visit one feeder-market city per day and hold a news conference at whatever hotel we were staying in and visit various TV and radio stations in each city.
Meanwhile, the newly constructed riverboat would be paddling up the Mississippi River to the Ohio River from its shipyard in Jennings, LA, and it was also our responsibility to generate publicity as the riverboat cruised northward passing significant cities, locks, landmarks, and highway bridges toward Metropolis. Obviously, this was far before any social media, so all our publicity generation was done the old-fashioned way, via phone calls and faxed news releases and photo assignment requests. Email was not yet in vogue. We were successful, but I’d love to have a do-over with today’s social media tools and other digital outlets.
How did Merv give you the red-carpet treatment?
Our target cities were Lexington and Louisville, KY; St. Louis, MO; and Nashville and Memphis, TN, in that order. We were staying in the nicest hotels in each city and would hold a reception/news conference in each. We (the aforementioned five of us on this publicity tour) would all be flying on Merv’s private jet, a Bombardier CL-600 Challenger, probably a $25 million aircraft at the time. This is the only private aircraft in which I, at 6’3”, have ever been able to fully stand up. Merv had it tricked out with oversized leather seats, a large restroom, and a galley that served us breakfast every morning. It was staffed by a pilot, co-pilot, and a flight attendant. Limousines handled all our airport transfers and local media visits.
Mornings with Merv were from a distance. Why?
I don’t recall the hotel in Lexington. The property in Louisville was owned by some famous cigarette boat racer who also dabbled in horses, and the place was adorned with hundreds of photos of both. The hotels in St. Louis and Nashville were downtown in renovated historic train stations, and we stayed at the famous Peabody in Memphis. Every morning that week, we’d board this incredible aircraft and enjoy Merv’s favorite breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, and granola with coffee or tea. We all sat in large single seats behind Merv while he savored his breakfast, completed crossword puzzles in the New York Times and USA Today, and wrote and/or approved word puzzles for that day’s taping of Wheel of Fortune. Everyone was absolutely forbidden to see, or even stand near Merv while he was formulating, the Wheel puzzles.
What was Merv like and what's the history behind Merv's Jeopardy theme song?
Each morning flight that week only took about 45 minutes of total ground and airtime, and Merv knocked out breakfast, two crossword puzzles, and that day’s Wheel puzzles in that window! He was an absolutely enjoyable man on all fronts—sharp, witty, and engaging. At the hotel in Nashville, our group had dinner together, and after much fun banter, a great meal, and several bottles of wine, we all started humming the theme from Jeopardy. Loudly. Merv wrote that tune as a bedtime lullaby for his children. Upon his death in 2007, it was reported that his royalties from that tune had earned him about $3 million per year, totaling more than $80 million. I imagine his estate continues to enjoy that revenue stream. Merv began his career as a radio and big band singer. He had a #1 hit in 1950 singing, "I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts."
Your wife played a role in this story. Please share!
While I was gallivanting around the Midwest in a private jet, luxury hotels, and limousines with entertainment royalty, my associate (and now wife) Jill was back in Charlotte handling the heavy lifting of writing and sending news alerts and making the dreaded follow-up calls to media outlets and personnel we had targeted in each city. Additionally, she was tracking the riverboat’s progress on its way to Metropolis and pitching the appropriate photo opportunities therein. Meanwhile (pre-cell phone in every pocket), I’m having to locate pay phones in hotels to pester her about her progress. She did a masterful job of juggling the media and my sudden sweaty phobia that no media were going to show at the news conferences.
How did you end up in Graceland with Merv?
Of course, with Merv as the hook, our news conferences were successful, and he was a delightful, well-received spokesperson for his Players Riverboat Casino. Having hosted his own talk show, The Merv Griffin Show, from 1965-1986 on multiple networks and via syndication, Merv was still quite a draw. He hosted over 25,000 guests, including Elvis Presley on multiple occasions. As we were wrapping our news conference at The Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Merv asked me how much time we had before our local TV station visits. I said we had about three hours, and he replied, “Great, get in the limo. I knew Elvis, and I’ve never been to Graceland. Let’s go!”
As our limo pulled up to the entrance of Graceland, Merv rolled his window down and greeted the elderly woman attending the gate. She instantly recognized him and flipped out. Merv told her Elvis had been a guest on his show a few times and that he would like to see the singer’s famous home. She notified the property manager, and we were welcomed with a private behind-the-scenes tour of Graceland while Merv was regaling the staff (none of whom had ever met Elvis) with stories of “The King.” It was surreal and a beautiful snapshot of what a charming and neat guy Merv was.
Mother Nature revised the grand opening plans for the riverboat. Tell us more.
Memphis was our final stop on this five-city blitz. The riverboat had reached Metropolis, having generated a fair amount of publicity along its journey—in part because the river water levels were extraordinarily high, and the boat had to lower its smokestacks to make it under many bridges along the way, offering unusual photo opportunities by having them lowered manually via cables and hand cranks. Meanwhile, a huge snow and ice storm with record-low temperatures was bearing down on the region.
Alas, Mother Nature had the final say. The snow, ice, and frigid temperatures came quicker and were more severe than anticipated, and the river had risen even higher than expected. We reluctantly (but rightfully) cancelled all outdoor activities celebrating the most significant day in the history of this downtrodden town. We quickly got legal permission to keep the riverboat moored to the dock during gaming activity because of the rising water and extreme weather. We then came up with a clever idea to replace a frozen bottle of Champagne with two huge snowballs to throw at the bow of the boat by Merv and the governor for its christening. The snowballs were delivered via a big silver tray from the boat’s dining room, thrown by each christener and captured by an AP photographer who sent the unique photo op nationwide.
Inside the still-docked riverboat, guests were eating, drinking, and gambling their hearts out while the winter storm proceeded to batter the entire East Coast. I had friends/clients fly in from North Carolina as special guests. Upon landing in Paducah, their private aircraft had it tail elevators freeze up, creating control issues and nearly causing them to overshoot the runway. Coincidentally, airport ramp service parked their small aircraft under a wing of Merv’s big jet. By the time they arrived at the boat, they had successfully drowned their scary experience and were waiting to see me and meet Merv, who I don’t think they even believed was in attendance.
So, how does the story that featured Merv Griffin end?
While we were all sitting at a blackjack table enjoying the opening festivities, Merv came up behind us, put his arm around me, gave huge compliments for a job well done, and insisted he meet my friends who flew in from NC in such horrible weather. That was pretty gratifying, and a perfect ending to my week with Merv Griffin.
Visit hensleyfontana.com to learn more about Bruce Hensley!
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