Most kids born in small rural towns assume life may never take them beyond their city limits. Born in a small beach town in North Florida, I was the fourth of four kids; two older sisters and an older brother. Life for me seldom reached further than an hour’s drive, but I always had a gnawing desire, albeit faint, to get into show biz. Hollywood, acting; it all seemed mesmerizing and exciting to me.
In junior high school we were required to take an aptitude test, and oddly enough, I scored highest in entertainment-related abilities. But to be honest, there wasn’t that much entertainment in Panama City, Fla. I always felt like it was, “Oh yeah, Jerry, you go to the movies every Saturday, so you're most likely to get into show biz.” When you’re a kid, that kind of logic works.
I grew up poor, but when everyone else in the community is poor, there isn’t anyone to measure "poor" against. When I moved into junior high school, a school with students bused in from the local air force base, I then had someone to measure against. The military kids had things that I didn’t – which was everything; new clothes, new shoes, money for food, and gadgets. Although in the mid-fifties, gadgets were simple compared with today’s variety. If you had a hula-hoop or cap gun, you were pretty much at the top of the gadget-food-chain.
My mom remarried when I was 14 and the new husband moved her to Arizona. Since I was underage, the move included me. In 1966 I graduated from Phoenix Union High School and began prelaw college classes at Phoenix College.
At the age of twenty I flew to Los Angeles to interview for a job as a tour guide at Universal Studios (they have since added the name “Hollywood” to differentiate from Universal Orlando, or Japan, etc.) I was hired on the spot, called my boss in Phoenix, and informed him I wasn’t returning to work at the grocery store. By the way kids, I don’t recommend leaving a job without giving notice. But summer was approaching and tour guide training started immediately. So we moved to Agua Dulce, California. (Try finding that town without a GPS.)
I loved working at Universal and quickly discovered, outdoor entertainment was right up my alley. After a short time, I was given the job of introducing live shows in the Entertainment Center, i.e. the Stunt Show, the Animal Show, the Marionette Show. Yes, the Marionette Show. It was very entertaining and the audience loved it.
A year and a half after my start in “show biz,” another adventure came my way. Uncle Sam invited me to join them for two years. Yes, the United States really did have a draft. Although it wasn’t my first choice at the time, I’m glad it happened, and that I had the opportunity to serve my country. Funny thing – when determining what job I should have, the Army reasoned that since I was a show announcer at Universal, I should go to “announcing school” in the military. I didn’t know there was a calling for that sort of thing on the battlefield, but I was sent to Ft. Huachuca, AZ, for training. The only thing was, the Army had moved the school to the east coast several years earlier. Somebody forgot to tell the Army that the Army moved the school. I anticipated moving to the east coast, but the person assigned to hand out jobs, reasoned that I should be a reporter for the local base newspaper. It was the closest job they had to show announcing. It was that kind of reasoning that helped us not win the Vietnam War.
I was discharged after two years and returned to Universal. It was the slow season, and since my old job was already taken, I was assigned to the wardrobe department. I handed out costumes to Frankenstein, Woody Woodpecker, and tour guides. But, I was glad to be back in “show biz.” After three months the boss came and thanked me for handling the wardrobe job with the right attitude, and said he was moving me to host one of the live stage shows – based on the TV series, Adam-12.
It was a fun show that involved taking 25-30 people from the audience, putting them in costumes, rehearsing, then videotaping their performance. We edited their scenes into an existing episode from Adam-12 and played it back on closed-circuit television. They loved it … and so did we.
Over the next many years, I hosted (or as we called it, directed), over 32,000 live stage shows that included themes based on the TV show Emergency, the movie Airport 77, a show called The Great Chase, and Star Trek. I also had the opportunity to write, edit, direct, and produce many of the shows. I later became Entertainment Manager and managed the daily operation of shows. Did I mention we had a great time? I loved going to work every day.
In the early 80’s I hosted a live show three days a week with Joan Embrey at the San Diego Zoo, and did shows at Universal three days a week. It was great fun and very exciting, especially for my family who went with me to San Diego each week. In the early 90’s I went to Orlando and helped with the opening of Universal Studios Orlando. It too was a great time. In the midst of all this, my wife Pam and I co-wrote a stage play called David, My Son. It was a wonderful experience.
After my return from Orlando, I was assigned the job of coordinating a portion of the opening day ceremonies for the Ronald Reagan Museum and Library – an event where, for the only time in history, five US Presidents were together at the same time. It was a moment frozen in time to see Presidents Reagan, Bush, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, walking five abreast across the museum courtyard. Goosebumps! A couple of weeks after the event I was invited to President Reagan’s office to meet with him. The event was one of the highlights of my career.
My wife, Pam, and I live in Southern California. We have been blessed with four wonderful children and seven grandchildren. When looking back on my years at Universal, The Show Biz Quiz game show, the roadshows, the Zoo, etc., all filled with fun, excitement, and often spectacle, there was always an unsettling reality that everything was temporary. Not that I was in danger of losing my job. My career at the studio was secure and exciting. But I knew someday it was all going to end, not just the job, but life. No one lives forever. So then what? There had to be more than just hosting, writing, and directing shows.
The crux of my life boiled down to one event, one decision that marked the essence of reality. That one thing in life that really was important? Answering the question, “what happens when we die,” is kind of an important question to consider.
I grew up in-and-around the church, so I had no problem believing in God, or Jesus Christ. “So,” I wondered, “would believing in God get me into heaven?” Then, much to my surprise, I discovered that the Bible says, “the demons believe, and tremble.” So obviously, believing there is a God isn’t what saves anyone.
The problem for me, and everyone else, is that we are all sinners. Sin! Hmmm. Our sin is what separates us from a holy and sinless God. So what to do about it? God, of course, always has solutions, never problems. And I found out that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life so He could pay the debt for my sin. His death satisfied God’s righteous anger against sin. There’s a song that goes something like this, “I owed a debt I could not pay. He paid a debt He did not owe.” Him in my place! Wow!
Again, what to do? I had to put my trust in Him as the One who could satisfy God’s requirement for sin. When I did that, the burden of sin was lifted from me and transferred to Christ. That made sense to me, because I knew if God required a perfect life to get into heaven, I was hopelessly lost. I found that God’s only requirement from us is a humble, repentant heart to receive forgiveness and eternal life.
I know many folks dismiss the idea of religion, or the Bible, or God. I guess I did too for the first twenty-six years of my life. But, like it or not, I knew Jesus made claims that we all have to address. It was clear that He claimed to be God, that we are all sinners, that He alone can save us, and that we have to come to Him in faith. I reasoned that His claims were either true, or false. If false, then the evolutionists are right and we become nothing. It all just ends. To me, that seemed illogical. But, if His claims were true, eternity is a long time, and hell is a desperate place to spend it.
I admit I was never in the running for class valedictorian, but fortunately God chose the simple way of salvation – I read in 1 Corinthians 1:27. (That’s kind of my go-to-verse when I want to make myself feel better.) But, I chose to believe what the Bible said about eternal life and Jesus Christ. I found He is the answer to life – He is what’s truly important.