My Jonathan Winters Journey: A personal remembrance

By | April 14, 2013 at 9:55 pm | 4 comments | feature slider, Features | Tags: ,

As I got closer to turning 30, more and more I found myself trying to figure out who I am. I went to therapy, took part in Jewish events, attended comedy seminars and studied philosophy. I thought the answers were out there and perhaps lied in the wisdom of other people. I started interviewing people from all walks of life on my podcast. I talked to street performers, rabbis, plenty of comedians and even other interviewers but I didn’t find anyone I really felt similar to. I was trying so hard to find myself.

I always felt a special connection Jonathan Winters. We had a lot in common. I always connected strongly to his comedy (I also do characters). We both had a fascination with antiques and spent our free time painting pictures. About five years ago, I officially decided to make it a life goal to meet Jonathan. I was convinced that if I would ask him, he would know who I am and what my plan should be to achieve my dreams.

An opportunity for me to go out to Los Angeles came up and I figured this was my chance. I found a home in Beverly Hills I believed to be his. Before the end of my trip, I drove over there and rang the doorbell on the big metal gates. A dog barked but nobody came out. I was sure he was the guru for my life. After waiting for quite a while I finally came to terms with the fact that no one was home and it wasn’t going to happen for me that day. I wrote a nice letter and taped it to the gate telling Jonathan what he meant to me, who I was (as much as I knew) and leaving it off that I hope we meet someday.

It wasn’t until I was on my way to the airport at the end of that trip that I found out that I visited the wrong Jonathan Winters. The Jonathan Winters that I wanted to visit lived in Santa Barbara. I was pretty devastated. He wasn’t even going to see that note. I spent some time after that trying to see who I knew might know Jonathan. A few possible leads came up but nothing panned out. Four years later I was back out in LA. My girlfriend Kylie and I agreed we would go to Santa Barbara to accomplish my goal.

Then, we went to a party full of people from the comedy industry. I mentioned to someone I knew what I had planned to do with great excitement. She asked how I would know where he lived, and I said I was leaving it up to faith and fate to figure that bit out for me. She told me that she knew Jonathan and said to wait on going. She said she might be able to help me actually get a meeting with him. My friend gave me the name and number of someone who would put the two of them in touch to see if he could make it happen for me. The next day I eagerly called this guy who told me it wasn’t a good time to meet Jonathan because his wife had just passed away.

I didn’t want to take no for an answer, but I also didn’t want to defy what this guy had said. It would have been disrespectful to Jonathan and if it in fact was a bad time I had to put my plans aside. Kylie and I returned to New York. I wondered if I should let go of my dream to meet Jonathan. After all, he was 86 and sick and I had no idea when I’d be back in LA.

A few months later, Kylie and I decided to make a bold decision and move out west. We literally packed our car the night we decided and a week later had sub-letted our apartment for the remainder of its lease. From the day we arrived I said that this time I wasn’t going to ask permission to meet Jonathan. We were going to go to Santa Barbara and see how lucky we were. Two months ago, we had a few extra bucks and Kylie suggested we take a romantic weekend somewhere. I said I knew just the place: Santa Barbara!

We arrived in Santa Barbara on a Friday afternoon. Before anything else, I told her I had to see about meeting Jonathan. She asked me how I intended to do so. I had no leads and not the slightest idea about where he lived in what turned out to be a relatively big place. I didn’t have a plan but I was sure that we were going to meet. I just needed to ask around. We went to the Main Street in town and I started stopping random people on the sidewalk.

“Excuse me, sir,” I’d ask a stranger. “Do you know the comedian Jonathan Winters?”

“I know of Jonathan Winters,” some would say. Others would tell me no, but they knew he lived around there.

Finally, I asked a man who knew something. “Well I saw him about five years ago at an antique shop just two blocks up the road,” he told me.

At this point, Kylie who through this had been very supportive and patient, told me she didn’t want to spend the whole weekend bothering people on the street. This was an understandable and reasonable concern. We came to an agreement to give it an hour and after that get on with our weekend. Now the clock was ticking for me. We quickly headed over to the antique shop.

I decided to channel my inner Tin Tin and solve the case of the missing Jonathan.

At the antique shop, I asked the owner if he knew Jonathan. He said the name sounded familiar and asked me to show him a photograph. The store owner saw it and started laughing. “I know that guy,” he said. “He used to come in here before his wife passed away. He never used his real name. He’d come in dressed as a plumber as a firefighter always talking as whoever he was dressed as. He never broke character. I’d ship him stuff to his house, I don’t recall exactly where it was but I remember it being in Montecito Village. I haven’t seen him in years, though, and I’m not sure if he’s still alive.”

“He is still alive sir!,” I said, excited. “Thank you for the information!”

Kylie and I got in the car and headed over to Montecito Village. I was feeling kind of stalkery now but I didn’t care. Something in the universe told me I had to do this. When we got to Montecito Village I saw an elderly man getting into his antique car. “Sir, do you know where I might find Jonathan Winters?” I asked.

“Well,” the man replied, “I haven’t seen him in a while but when I would see him, he used to hang outside the La Fontaine coffee shop playing dominoes with some other older gentleman. They might know something there if you ask them.”

My hour was running out. I had an appointment with Destiny. We quickly drove to the coffee shop. I went in and asked the two women behind the counter if they knew who Jonathan Winters was. They asked for a picture, and when I showed it to them on my phone they said they hadn’t seen him in a long time. But, they wished me good luck in my pursuit.

Suddenly, my hour was up. I couldn’t believe that after five years, it just wasn’t going to happen, even though everything in the universe told me that I would. As Kylie and I walked out of the coffee shop, I turned around and caught the attention of all the patrons.

“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen,” I said, channeling a homeless man from the L train in my old neighborhood. “Does anyone here know Jonathan Winters? I’m a young comedian, a big fan of his and I’ve always wanted to meet him. I made a pilgrimage here solely for that purpose. Can anyone help me with this?”

There was a mumble amongst people and a few simple no’s. Discouraged, I headed back to the car with Kylie. A man walked up to me as I was getting in the driver seat. “I don’t know if this’ll help you at all,” he said, “but we have an annual antique show at the local convention center and it just so happens to be this weekend. I saw Jonathan there two years ago. I think if there was anywhere you’d see him that would be your best bet.”

With that, my girlfriend and I drove to our hotel. I tried to put meeting Jonathan out of my mind after that and we enjoyed our weekend in Santa Barbara which was very beautiful. I heard my mother’s voice in my head saying “Daniel, you need to start living in reality and stop being such a dreamer!” Perhaps she was right. It was a crazy idea that I was just going to go to Santa Barbara and fate would have me meet this hero of mine.

Sunday morning, Kylie and I had brunch at a vegan restaurant in town and decided it was time to head back to LA. As we drove down the highway we saw a sign for the antique show that the man head told me about. I didn’t think there was much of any chance that at this point I would run into Jonathan there, but as I mentioned earlier I also like antiques and I suggested we stop for a few minutes and see what they had. Plus I figured even a one-in-a-million chance is still a chance.

We pulled into the convention center parking lot and walked up to the ladies collecting money to get in. “Six dollars please,” the woman said. As I started to hand her the the money I said, “I hear Jonathan Winters used to come to these.”

The woman looked at me and said, “Yes, and as a matter of fact he’s here right now!”

My heart stopped. “When did he get here?,” I asked. “About five minutes ago,” she said. “There he is.” It was a miracle and I couldn’t contain myself. There he was: The greatest antique in the whole place. He was wearing a tan coat and a black cowboy hat and being pushed around in a wheel chair by a young blonde woman.

I went up to Jonathan and told him everything he meant to me. I told him who I was and all the things we shared in common and gave him a hug. He was very nice and very sweet. He seemed flattered and not creeped out which was a huge relief. He asked to meet some of my characters and I broke into some impressions for him and he seemed amused and did one back. Finally I asked for a picture with him and if he had any advice for me, he said “Yes… by your girlfriend a lunch.” I laughed, and replied “OK, what should I get her? He took a long pause, looked at my girlfriend then looked back at me and finally said, “a burger.”

That was it. That was the advice I’d waited years to get. Buy my girlfriend a burger!

Five minutes later, Jonathan’s aid rolled them out back to the car in his wheelchair. He really was only there for a 10 minute window and fate put us together during that time. I watched as she helped this old man, this hero of mine into his car and then watched as they pulled away.

My mind was racing with a million different feelings and questions as we drove back to LA. How could I be so right about the fact that I was going to meet him and yet so wrong about him having a message for me? There must’ve been something more to it. I had to have meaning! I had to find meaning in it!

I thought maybe it was him saying to take care of the woman you love because that’s the most important thing in life. I thought maybe the lesson was just in the power of positive thinking. And then it hit me: I found a little piece of myself that I had forgotten about. It was the part that believed in following my dreams and believed they can come true. It was a part of me that had gotten lost in 10 years of doing stand-up comedy and a whole lot of rejection and plenty of disappointment. The panicky voice in my head subsided for a while and I felt at peace with the world.

Jonathan had given me his address in the time we spoke and when I got home I wrote a really long letter telling him how much he meant to me and this time sent it to him at his real address. It was the closure I needed and I’m glad I got it. Jonathan Winters was a great inspiration to me and many other comedians. I hope his memory will live on for generations and that people won’t forget all the great work he did. I’m happy I got to meet him.

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Danny Lobell

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  • Jay Baker Col. USAF (ret)

    I had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Winters in early 1967 in Vietnam and basically spending the day flying around with him and the other three members of his USO troupe(which included Glen Ashe, a guitarist, Lyn Kellogg, a beautiful folksinger and actress, and the mother of Candice Bergen who was a singer. I and a friend went along for the ride as our unit was transporting Jonathan’s USO troupe in country. We first linked up in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh city and made several in-country stops. Jonathan sat between my buddy and me and put on a show pretending he was pilot throughout the flight. and he was a riot. On one of our stops he asked us to join him at the O club for a pre show reception for his troupe. He was a real gentleman and a patriot. I have a picture with standing next to him which I cherish to this day. What a great guy. God bless you Jonathan and the rest of your troupe who accompanied you on that special day for me.

    • dylan

      man! thanks for sharing that. and thanks for your service, Jay. my father is a Vietnam Vet. i have a lot of respect for you.

  • steve

    Really cool.

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