What do you do when you’ve been in the public eye for years, and then the spotlight starts to shift? The offers stop coming in, the lyrics get harder to remember, the lines on the face become harder to hide. If you’re like many aging celebrities, you move to Sarasota.
They’ve been doing it for years. Freddie Bartholomew, the great child star from the 1930s (David Copperfield, Captain Courageous) ended up in Bradenton. And I remember interviewing French bombshell Denise Darcel when she was living here back in the 1980s. She was trying for yet another comeback in a career that ranged from starring opposite Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz to working as a stripper. I found her a cheerful lady with an impenetrable French accent and an ample bosom.
These days we have a whole new crop of aging celebrities. Some manage this part of their lives with great aplomb. Their special aura continues to shine. Others, not so much. The flaws, the demons they’ve always had, take over and their lives become sad little news stories.
Let’s take a look at both kinds, the winners and the losers. As far as public esteem goes, first place goes to Dickie Smothers. He and his brother Tommy pretty much invented modern political comedy. Guys like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are standing on their shoulders. And yet when you talk to him today Dickie doesn’t seem to realize how important he’s been to popular culture.
He’s now 77, and his life in Sarasota has had its ups and downs. He’s candid about his addiction problems, but that’s all in the past.
He went bankrupt when the housing bubble burst, but then, didn’t we all. For a while he sold real estate. Today he’s a well-loved man about town, impeccably turned out in pastel suits and a bow tie, making speeches at luncheons or appearing on ABC7’s Suncoast View to push some cause. He’s got a new one—stopping old people from falling over. Believe me, that’s a big problem in this town.
I hesitate to put the Landers sisters on this list because they are not retired or even old, at least in Sarasota. Both are hovering around 60. I find their careers to be models of female empowerment. How frustrating it must be for such accomplished women to Google themselves and be directed to sites like celebritybrasize.com.
Encouraged by their mother Ruth, they parlayed their looks and talent into successful if not stellar careers in mainstream entertainment. Audrey, the eldest, wins by a slight margin the sibling rivalry competition. She was a star of Dallas and the movie of A Chorus Line, while Judy—whose image was more the “sex kitten”—worked mostly in guest roles on TV.
What makes the Landers sisters remarkable is they didn’t just sit around and wait for the phone to ring. They were always putting some project together, and still are. They produce movies and TV shows. They have a line with QVC. Audrey has a whole David Hasselhoff-like recording career in Germany.
The Landers women have a signature look: lots of honey-blond hair, great cheekbones and great cleavage. (Judy and Audrey appeared on the cover of Playboy, though the story didn’t include any nudity.) When you see them around town, the look is an exciting throwback to the 1980s, a look they helped define. They’re like the Gabor sisters coupled with the Von Trapp Family Singers. But for all their sexy glamour they lead lives of domestic tranquility.
Not so our next category of aging celebrity—the old rockers. Surprisingly, the town is full of them, and like all good rockers, they’re still getting into trouble. Let’s start with Rick Derringer. His career began with the 1965 classic “Hang On, Sloopy,” and he went on to work with everybody from Johnny Winter to Barbra Streisand. Back in the old days he was a bad boy, but in 1997 he became a born-again Christian.
Rick and his wife Jenda, also a singer, live in Ellenton, and these days he’s very involved with Roger Stone and Alex Jones and the alt-right movement. Politicians are always fighting over his classic song “Real American” and everybody from Trump to Hillary to Obama has used it for campaign rallies. And he loves guns. Earlier this year he was arrested for carrying a loaded revolver onto a plane. (The screener who missed it got fired.)
Brian Johnson of AC/DC lives on Bird Key with his wife Brenda. I wish he’d get arrested every once in a while, but his life is about as blameless as the Landers sisters. Not so Dickey Betts—one of the great rock guitarists of all time—or at least his wife Donna. They live in Osprey, next to the Bay Preserve property, which serves as a rowing center. I had no idea that rowing was such a noisy sport, but in March Donna called 911 and said the rowers were destroying her life. She then got a gun, went out to the end of the dock and began pointing it at them and cursing. This unhappy event earned her 30 days in the county jail plus court-ordered rehab.
Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge, whom I used to see in the bar at the Beach Bistro on Anna Maria, was pulled over for drunk driving one night on the way back to his house in Bradenton. (He insisted on a trial and was acquitted.) And the National Enquirer reported another incident in 2013 when he took a girl from Palmetto out to dinner and she swiped his wallet and then jumped out of the limo. Graeme got the last laugh, though, when the limo ran over her foot.
The saddest story of an aging celebrity in Sarasota is detailed in a new book, Sammy Davis Jr.: The Writer Who Saved His Estate, by Pamela Sherrod. She tells of the last years of Altovise Davis, Sammy’s widow. Altovise had a minor career as a singer and dancer; her big claim to fame was a co-starring role in what’s regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, the disco-themed Can’t Stop the Music with the Village People and Bruce Jenner. She moved here in 2005 with plans to open a dance academy called Mr. Bojangles and lived in an apartment on University Parkway, a far cry from the mansion she and Sammy shared in Beverly Hills. Sammy’s estate owed the government $7 million and she had just gotten out of rehab in Oklahoma.
Pamela befriended Altovise and was soon driving her to Publix and the bank and the storage locker where she kept her few remaining treasures from the old days, including the ring President Nixon gave Sammy when he visited the White House. The two women began collaborating on a movie they hoped to sell to Disney.
But Altovise suffered from dementia, and her life turned into a series of lawsuits with managers, false starts and bad business deals. Pamela stuck with her until she died in 2009 and talked her into making a LegalZoom will, leaving the estate—now worth $10 million—to Sammy’s son, Manny. In a famous court case, the do-it-yourself will was upheld as legal. It just goes to show—in Sarasota aging celebrities can and do go bankrupt and get arrested. But if they’re lucky, they can always depend on the kindness of strangers.