Saturday, 14 March 2015
Years ago, Jim Backus and Henry Morgan had gone on the air with competition shows featuring the most amateurish amateurs who were utterly clueless about how bad they were. Neither show lasted long. Then came the late ‘70s and The Gong Show. Viewers stared in disbelief at what they were watching. The basic contest was overshadowed by odd, sometimes pointless acts, with an emcee whose behaviour was so bizarre that you wondered if he just didn’t care or had been introduced to some white powder just before air-time.
Occasionally, the nonsense was interrupted by Count Basie’s Jumpin’ At The Woodside and the camera cutting to a guy shuffling to the music on stage as the audience erupted louder than just about anything on TV at the time (and maybe before and after). Everyone started dancing. Minions off-stage joyously threw stuff at him. The whole thing lasted maybe a minute. His act that wasn’t an act was loved by the sane and not-so-sane. And that’s how the world was exposed to Eugene Patton, known better as Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine.
Gene’s death this week has been confirmed. He was 82.
He was the fourth of five children born to John and Beulah Patton. His father was a street worker in Oakland, his mother worked as a maid. In 1969, he joined NBC as a technician and retired in September 1997.
Someone in September 2003 posted a story about Gene from Pasadena Weekly on that increasingly irrelevant cubbyhole of the internet called Usenet. It’s a wonderful story. Gene deserved it. Read it below.
Movin’ on With a new set of feet, the always upbeat Gene ‘Dancing Machine’ Patton busts some new moves
By Joe Piasecki
A celebrity, a family man and a role model to hundreds, Gene Patton is certainly no ordinary guy.
He still lives in the same modest Altadena home he bought more than 30 years ago, even though Patton, now 70, captured the eyes of America moving and grooving as “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine,” a regular on the infamously wild 1970s television phenomenon known as “The Gong Show.”
On that program, regulars like Patton joined amateur acts that often crossed lines of talent and taste, and performers would be cut off when celebrity judges hit a massive Korean gong with a rubber mallet to signify the end of the act.
The former John Muir High School janitor rose from behind the scenes as his union’s first black prop man to the status of “national hero,” as the show’s producer and host, Chuck Barris, put it in his book “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” which recently turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.
It seems anyone who has known Patton will tell you that he never complained about anything, and maybe that’s what really makes him so remarkable.
Two years ago, Patton lost both his legs to diabetes in a long and painful process that could have broken anyone’s spirit, a struggle that recently ended in triumph when “The Dancing Machine” learned to walk again.
At one point in the process, plagued with excruciating pain for weeks while recovering from surgery, with scars that it seemed would never heal, it was Patton’s famous good attitude that probably saved his life.
“I didn’t know that there were 10 or 15 people there dying of cancer. … You think, man, I’m not doing bad at all. All that’s wrong with me is I’m getting a little shorter,” said Patton, who finally took his first new steps earlier this year with the help of life-like feet fitted to his shiny steel prosthetic legs. “For him to get up and walk is amazing,” said 24-year-old Merissa Haddad, a physical therapist at USC’s Pasadena Rehabilitation Center who has been helping Patton walk for a month and a half.
In fact, while learning to walk again, the always upbeat Patton took time out to lend his support to others going through their own traumas.
“He’s just a beautiful man, a great person. If you’re down or sad he’s one of those guys who can bring your spirits back to life. Knowing that a man can do that [fight to walk again] and call someone else … it’s amazing,” said five-time world champion pro-boxer Johnny Tapia, who Patton supported as Tapia recovered from a near-lethal drug overdose in January.
“He takes everything better than any guy I’ve ever seen,” said Darrell Evans, who spent 20 years in Major League Baseball and grew up with Patton watching his games at John Muir and Pasadena City College. Evans’ mother, Ellie, still lives in his childhood home, just a block away from Patton.
“The only way we got through it was he kept his spirits up,” said his daughter, Carol, 49, one of eight children Patton has raised.
But it’s friends like Evans and many others, including just about anybody who works or has worked at NBC, that Patton gives credit to.
“I always had a bright outlook on life, but let me tell you, it’s everybody pulling for you,” he said.
Dancing over the line
Not everybody was always pulling for Patton, who battled intense racial discrimination and hatred for much of his early life.
“If I would have been agreeing with the man upstairs, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in,” said Patton of racial prejudice.
Born in Berkeley at the height of the Great Depression, Patton grew up in a place unlike the better-known Berkeley of the 1960s—“a very conservative, funny-style town,” he called it.
Throughout his time at Berkeley High School, he and other students were largely prevented from playing sports and participating in other activities. As early as age 17, Patton faced several physical attacks and couldn’t get hired for any job because his high school sweetheart and eventual first wife, Carol Larson, was white.
“It was hard on both of us. The weather was bad—there was a lot of pressure on us,” said Patton of life with Larson, mother of two of Patton’s living daughters.
“The priest wouldn’t marry us in a Catholic Church, so we got married by a justice of the peace,” he said.
Though they’d stuck it out together for years, the couple divorced and Patton moved first to Mt. Washington to live in the home of his grandparents, and later to where he currently lives in Altadena after marrying Pasadena resident Doris Prince.
Prince came from the first black family in Pasadena, with ancestors who started the first black business here and even greeted touring presidents.
In 1964, Patton became a janitor at John Muir High School. There he became a role model for the kids, and the city’s biggest advocate for teen athletes, such as Evans.
“He was probably the biggest supporter of athletics at the school and seemed to enjoy it as much as anybody,” said Evans, who still visits Patton during holidays.
Patton remembers driving college recruiters to the playing field to see Evans play, and traveling with the team to support it.
“He was always around Pasadena sports. He never met anybody that didn’t like him. He’s a wonderful human being,” said longtime friend and former vice president of the International Boxing Association Bob Case, who met Patton at Muir.
It was at Muir that Patton would get his big break when he met Bob Carroll, who taught shop and technology classes in the school’s auditorium and would eventually land him his first job in television.
“That guy would quit sweeping and start leaning on his broom,” recalled Carroll. “He started asking questions and from then on he was sitting down being part of the class. Later, I said to him, ‘Jeez, Gene, you got too much on the ball.’”
Carroll, responsible for a few TV landmarks himself, enrolled Patton in PCC night classes for “technical theater,” and eventually gave him a recommendation that sold the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 33 on their first black union member in 1969.
Carroll had worked on the technical crew for one of the first remote television news broadcasts, the April 1949 attempt to recover 3-year-old Cathy Fiscus from an abandoned San Marino well. He also did electrical work on Klaus Landsberg’s remote live broadcast of the May 22, 1952, atomic bomb test in Los Alamos. He was the first to use the moving “follow spot” light, a technique that landed him a job with Bob Hope.
“He’ll take the heat and give it right back,” Carroll told union supervisors of Patton.
Gene soon started working in the NBC electrical shop, then as a prop man on “Laugh In,” and later “The Richard Pryor Show,” “Sanford and Son” and “CPO Sharkey.”
“You walked into the place and some people were cold and some were beautiful, you know,” said Patton, who retired in 1997 after 28 years in the union, several spent with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” “The majority of these guys bent over backwards to help me,” he said.
And then there was the money.
“I went out to NBC and after that became permanent I took a leave of absence from the school district, and that first week I made more on stage than I made all month working for the school district,” said Patton.
Still the same guy
“One day, during rehearsal, I saw Gene dancing by himself in a dark corner. The huge stagehand never moved his feet — just his body from the waist up. He was terrific,” wrote Chuck Barris in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” of his idea to put Patton on stage.
“He said I was such a good dancer he had to name me twice,” said Patton of Barris.
The rest is history.
“You watched him on TV and he made you laugh, and you wanted to get up and dance with him,” said Ellie Evans, a neighbor to Patton for more than 30 years.
“I used to just stare at the TV and crack up, like, what is this? I didn’t understand that people were watching him and knew who he was,” said Patton’s daughter, Carol, who remembers women asking for his autograph when they shopped around town.
“But he has one of those personalities … he knows everybody everywhere, so we’re used to that. That’s how we grew up with him. So when he started dancing I didn’t feel the difference because his personality didn’t change. He already had all that personality and knew all those people and did all those things.” Gene recalled advice he got from Richard Pryor, who he befriended as a prop man on “The Richard Pryor Show.”
“Don’t never let this business take that smile off your face, that twinkle out of your eye, and come in between you and your family,” he recalled Pryor telling him.
“He never changes his friends, he never changes his surroundings. We just enjoyed the ride,” said Carol.
And so did Gene.
As “The Gong Show” show got wilder and wilder, Barris would join “The Dancing Machine” in his wild gyrations as Patton’s fellow prop handlers would pelt them with props from off-stage.
“One time they threw a basketball and it bounced right off my head,” said Patton.
Barris recalls that taping in his book, writing that things got so wild everybody started throwing their jackets into the audience and singer and entertainer Jaye P. Morgan “ripped open her blouse, popping her tzts out on coast-to-coast TV. … Immediate consequences occurred to several of the cast. Gene Gene was the first victim. Jaye P’s tzts caused The Machine to take his eyes off an incoming basketball. The pass caught him full-force in the nose, making him bleed profusely.”
“Jaye P., she’s a sweetheart. Everybody loved Jaye P. because she was so funny and raunchy. She would flash upstage so nobody in the audience could see her, but all the crew could. … But I got hit with so much stuff,” he said.
Patton recalls how he and Barris shared a love for funny hats. But as for Barris’ recent claims of acting as a CIA agent since the early 1960s, he didn’t have much to say.
“If he was, he had the best cover in the world,” said Patton. “I heard through a guy across the street before the book came out, and thought, if that’s what he was doing, I didn’t want to know nothing about it.”
Family, friends, God
The joy of Patton’s successes came hand in hand with personal tragedies over the years, but he always kept dancing. During his rise to TV stardom, Patton’s two oldest sons were murdered, one at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, the other in Texas, and his third-oldest son died of a drug overdose.
Their pictures hang on the walls of his home, but in a different place from his photos with longtime friends, celebrity acquaintances such as Shaquille O’Neal, Jay Leno, the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald, astronauts, athletes and just about anybody he’s worked with over the years.
“We’ve been a very close-knit family with the tragedies we’ve had. It’s brought the family closer together,” said Patton of his children and eight grandchildren, ages 3 to 31.
“They were there at the big turnaround in my life.”
That big turnaround, the loss of his legs, was actually a 10-month ordeal that started when he dropped a heavy box on his toe.
That toe triggered an internal infection caused by diabetes that cost him first his right toe, then his foot, then his leg up to the knee. Then it cost him his other leg.
“The hardest part of it was I didn’t want to be a burden on anybody. I blame nobody for my situation or for any other situation. But I don’t want to see nobody have to suffer behind it,” he said of his illness.
In the meantime, Patton got around in a wheelchair as best as he could and inadvertently stood up for disabilities rights.
Last year, the Weekly reported Patton’s discovery that all the handicapped parking spaces had been removed from the Pasadena Macy’s store parking lot and replaced with a sign saying the space was for police parking only, a situation that police knew nothing about and Macy’s staff immediately corrected when pressed by reporters.
Last November, he received a $1,100 check from Macy’s corporate headquarters as part of a settlement.
Meanwhile, Patton credited his long-term recovery to family, friends, his doctors and a couple of ladies who helped him find God. When Patton’s youngest daughter, Bonnie, told members of her church, The Refuge Christian Center on North Lincoln Avenue in Altadena, that her dad was sick, they not only prayed for him, they came over to the hospital, then to the house, to do it.
“We showed him a lot of love. We just loved on him,” said Annette Nobles, an outreach counselor at the church for more than 15 years. “We encouraged his heart to help him walk again. … He’s a beautiful man, always on the upbeat.”
It only stood to reason that Patton’s first steps outside of a hospital would be into the church.
Naturally, he credits everyone but himself for his positive attitude.
Walking again took a lot of work, said physical therapist Haddad, with constant setbacks, mechanical adjustments to his new feet and steel legs, and a lot of stress on his mind and body.
After six weeks with his new legs, “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine” walks again, with the aid of canes or parallel bars.
And he’s only getting better.
“It takes a lot to recover from something like that,” said Haddad, but “Eugene’s got it and he’s got such a great heart. For him to have gone through it all and still carry smile on his face … he’s so inspiring, loving when he comes in. He never leaves without a great big hug, a kiss and a thank you. We can all learn from him.”