On Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, we lost a distinguished gentleman who made Los Angeles and California his home. I’m talking, of course, of our dear friend Dr. Jerry Buss, who after eighteen months with cancer lost his final battle.
Jerry Buss was born Gerald Hatten Buss on Jan. 27, 1934 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and little did he know the many battles that would lay before him and the challenges that would bring him dear to the hearts of many.
A former chemist and real estate investor, master minding the purchase of the Mary Pickford/ Douglas Fairbanks grand estate above the Beverly Hills Hotel from Mary Pickford herself. An all American businessman, he had had many achievements; left to the world in many ways other than his beloved Los Angeles Lakers basketball team.
I remember meeting Jerry in the cocktail lounge of his Palm Springs hotel along with my dear friend Stephen Papich. I was weekending at Stephen’s Palm Springs estate in the quiet and exclusive South end section of Palm Springs. It was a glamorous home on an acre, built in the early 1920s by an executive from the Ford Motor Company. Stephen had his friend Mel Lashley, the interior decorator to the movie stars, decorate it beautifully in the 1920s style with a black horseshoe shaped swimming pool in the front lawn to reflect the towering palm trees; at night the pool was lit with a black light which gave you the feeling of swimming inside a Peter Max poster.
We had a lovely dinner and Stephen asked if I would like to go to the Ocotillo Lodge cocktail lounge, just around the corner where we would surely run into the owner, Jerry Buss. As predicted he was there and greeted us warmly. Stephen and Jerry talked about the tragic death of the great and talented Miss Dorothy Dandridge and the night club act they had worked so hard to help bring her back into the spotlight and hopefully film and television roles.
Stephen had known Dorothy Dandridge since she joined the working team at 20th Century Fox to begin filming Carmen Jones with Harry Belafonte. Sparks flew between the two actors on screen, but Harry become infatuated with a Katherine Dunham dancer named Julie Robinson when Stephen invited her to the studio and introduced her to Harry on the set — then sparks really flew! So thanks to Stephen, Gina and David Belafonte are here because of that one afternoon chance meeting when he introduced the two.
I do not remember if the night club act Stephen and Jerry were reminiscing about was for Las Vegas or the infamous New York show, which unfortunately we lost Dorothy just before that opening night with a broken foot and blood clot, or as many have said, an accidental overdose. We lost a beautiful star and great legend.
I do remember they were talking about what fun she was to be around and such a good sport. Jerry was backing the show and Stephen was directing and choreographing. They needed her to look fantastic, so she and Stephen headed to Western Costume when it was still right next to the original front gates at Paramount Studios. They walked past Edith Head who was working at the center table, the heart of Western Costume, and they exchanged warm hellos and went directly into the enormous locked cage where there were racks and racks of movie star gowns from dozens of famous movies. There Stephen spotted a “Travilla” gown that had been designed for Marilyn Monroe for There’s No Business Like Show Business, a film Stephen had worked on at Fox with Ethel Merman, Donald O’Connor, Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, Johnnie Ray, and Mitzi Gaynor. The dress was from Marilyn’s first number in the movie called “After You Get What You Want, You Don’t Want It,” and it fit Dorothy Dandridge to a “T.” She and Marilyn were good friends and ironically, exactly the same size, so no fittings were necessary. Edith Head remarked it looked as if it had been designed especially for Miss Dandridge, a huge compliment to Dorothy from one costume designer acknowledging another designer’s work. I have a feeling after seeing the movie that the dress probably looked more stunning on Dorothy than Marilyn.
Anyway, that’s just a small side note to the many wonderful contributions Jerry Buss made to the world and he should not only be remembered just as a great loss to Los Angeles and the Lakers, but as a humanitarian who truly cared about people.