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Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Buddy Hackett, Bob Newhart and why I came to Japan


The man on my right is not comedian Buddy Hackett. But perhaps — if you're a little drunk and have an imagination — you might think he is.

The man on my left is not comedian Bob Newhart. But he is a little drunk and has an imagination.

He nudges me. "There's a column for you. You're at a Japanese baseball game and meet Buddy Hackett. He keeps buying you beer. It's hilarious."

Right. But before I can argue the finer points of hilarity, I am nudged again, this time by a memory from my youth, one that rises sharply from the depths of yesteryear to tell me something I should have realized long ago. Now, at a September game at the Seibu Goodwill Dome, the message flashes as clear as the ball/strike count.

. . .Buddy Hackett is the reason I came to Japan.

Bob Newhart is actually Japan Times baseball columnist Wayne Graczyk. You need neither beer nor imagination to see the resemblance. Wayne and I have made it a fall ritual to catch one late season game at Seibu. We chat, we pester beer girls and we pretend to watch the game.

This time that's OK as the Seibu Lions are only pretending to play. Nippon Ham is mopping the dome with them. We wave to summon a beer girl, but the man on my right catches her first. Yet — surprise — he hands his beer to me.

Now maybe the man has Buddy Hackett's bulbous nose and maybe, too, his ham hock cheeks. Beyond that he is just an old Japanese gentleman who has found the foreigners more interesting than baseball.

So I spend the next three innings trying to buy him drinks in return, but he orders two for my every one. I keep bowing, he keeps trying to shake my hand. He speaks no English and my Japanese is soon lubricated to the level of spitting. Six times he asks me where I'm from, always adding a fresh, "Ah so desu ka." in response.

"He's Buddy Hackett," says Wayne as the old fellow trips down the stairs to beat the late-inning rush to the train. "Absolutely hilarious."

I don't know what brought Wayne to Japan — possibly his love of beer girls. But the name, "Buddy Hackett," now works magic on my memory.

In which I am a little kid again. It is far past my bedtime, but my eyes are glued on our black-and-white TV set, one with rabbit-ear antennae. On the screen, talk show host Jack Paar is saying things that a small boy can't follow. I get only one word — "Japan." The man Paar is speaking with is Buddy Hackett.

Then there's a film clip — Buddy Hackett in Japan. The streets, the clothes, the people — everything seems straight from "The Wizard of Oz." Next Buddy is at some onsen getting a massage. He cracks a joke and the Japanese masseuse giggles something in return — maybe "Ah so desu ka." Then Buddy leaps up and chases her with a sponge, losing his towel in the process. The TV audience roars at this. . . .Or perhaps at some similar scene fogged by the decades of time.

That's it.

Buddy Hackett never ranked so high on my entertainment list. I knew who he was. I knew he lent a voice for Disney's "The Littlest Mermaid." I knew he passed away a few years back.

But in the re-discovery of that memory, I also knew what sparked my initial interest in Japan. It was neither a teacher in high school nor a trip in college. Those came years later. No, the interest was alive already, birthed by a wild scene of a fairy-tale place in which a wisecracking comic tickled the fancy of a wide-eyed little boy.

Weeks drifted by, the baseball season ended and I tried to track down that memory. Had I really seen such a show?

I spent nights surfing the net, Googling here and there. Buddy Hackett, Jack Paar, Japan — nothing came up. Few records remain of the Jack Paar shows, let alone tapes. The only tie-in I could find was that late night TV back then was not yet so shackled by the censors.

In time, I bumped across the e-mail address of comedian Sandy Hackett, son of Buddy. I took a flyer he might respond, which he kindly enough did, the very next day.

Sandy Hackett was a little lad himself then, but his memory says, yes, his father was in Japan, the entire Jack Paar gang was, and, yes, the story rang true with him.

And so. . . I have spent almost 30 years here due to a semi-nude bath chase involving a giggling Japanese girl and Buddy Hackett with a sponge.

Bob Newhart was right. . .

It's absolutely hilarious.



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