Saturday, January 26, 2008

Celebrity Death Watch

(First of two parts)

If you have found yourself wishing you could bring more to the conversational table than the minutiae of your day, perhaps this activity might fill a void. Celebrity Death Watch is designed specifically for busy moms on the go who are short on time, up to par with their computer skills and have a moderate sense of news judgment and an appreciation for current events.

First, a disclaimer. In its original form, Celebrity Death Watch was more of a crude, ill-monitored observation than an actual game. And I hesitate to call it a "game" because nobody wins, really; it's actually more of a conversation generator and a way to honor the famous people we have followed throughout our lives. I credit my mother for pioneering Celebrity Death Watch, as she faithfully watched the midday news and announced to me when I was about 7 years old that "you know, celebrities always die in groups of three."

While her theory certainly had its merits, it was flawed by a lack of parameters. What qualifies as celebrity status? How many days or weeks are permitted between deaths? Who monitors the count? The torch was passed, you might say, when my friend Elaine and I decided to formulate our own rules, which I am proud to say are airtight. They are simple and few, yet without holes:

* To qualify as "Celebrity," the name must be easily recognized by all participants.
* The death must have been publicized on TV, in a respected periodical (like People) or on the radio.
* To determine if the list of three is complete, all players must be able to name all three without prompting or Googling. This ensures that the time frame is reasonable and that we're not fudging on our standards.

E-mail is the preferred tool of communication. I have, for example, received e-mails whose contents are only "Leona Helmsley," or "Kurt Vonnegut." But some circumstances warrant a phone call. Like, when Heath Ledger died Jan. 22. "OK, this is serious. Heath Ledger was found dead in his apartment." Wow. That really WAS serious. Young. Seemingly healthy. Shocking, really. Even Mel Gibson played second fiddle to Ledger. (See The Patriot.)

We had just finished a Grouping -- Suzanne Pleshette, Wham-O founder and Sam the Butcher. And it was a particularly seamless Grouping. Dates of death were Jan. 17, 18 and 19, respectively. (Consecutive dates almost never happen.) Suzanne Pleshette had been the first, on Jan. 17, which was particularly hard on us Newhart fans. (What little girl could watch the original show and NOT want to be Emily Hartley, live in a high-rise apartment, teach elementary school and be surrounded by quirky friends? And that voice! Oh, to have that gritty, charming voice.) Oh, the memories this activity conjures up.

But Ledger's passing highlighted some slight rule-bending: Sam the Butcher isn't a name, but a character; and Wham-O founder isn't a name, but a career or point of notoriety. By unanimous decision, we knew we had to boot the Wham-O founder out of the roundup because nobody could readily recall his name. (This by no means diminishes his legacy--it's just that we have a set of rules we must follow. Not legalistic, but standardized.) Ledger, then, replaced the No. 2 death, making the final roundup Suzanne Pleshette, Sam the Butcher and Heath Ledger. (To learn how we resolved the problem with Sam the Butcher, read tomorrow's installment.)

The activity has its challenges. Two weeks passed after Mike Douglas and Bruno Kirby passed in August '06, and we almost lost interest. But when Glenn Ford died at the end of the month, and we were still able to name Douglas and Kirby, we had a Grouping. It was a very sad time, as I ADORED The Mike Douglas Show when I was a child, and Elaine had similar feelings toward Glenn Ford. Bruno Kirby was pretty cool, too, even though Elaine wasn't sure who he was.

A slightly different dilemma occurred the following month, with the passing of James Brown (12/25), Gerald Ford (12/26) and Saddam Hussein (12/30). Elaine didn't agree that James Brown belonged in the same Grouping with Ford and Hussein. I didn't believe that Hussein belonged with Brown and Ford. Ultimately, we decided that notoriety trumps occupation, so there you go, three in a row.

And lest you think this is a morbid pastime, be sure to read tomorrow's post: Secondary Games. You will find it informative, enlightening and nostalgic.