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A wild, wild night with Conrad

Actor's Auburn visit recalls fond memories
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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His 1960s tough-guy cool intact, Robert Conrad entertained an Auburn audience Saturday with tales of the "Wild Wild West" and an acting life spanning nearly five decades. Conrad, 70, pulled up a chair before an estimated 350 people onstage at the Placer High School Auditorium and was quick to establish the no-nonsense persona that he indelibly etched on TV series like "Hawaiian Eye," "Wild Wild West," and "Baa Baa Black Sheep." "If you're under 40 and you know who Robert Conrad is, you had a misspent youth," Conrad joked. "If you're over 40 and don't know who Robert Conrad is, you're stupid." With News 10 anchor and longtime friend Jennifer Smith providing many of the questions, Conrad provided an insider's perspective on his spectacular "Wild Wild West" stunts ("Over a four-year period, no one's done as many and probably never will again"), his first big break (being hired as a James Dean lookalike outside a Chicago theater to tout "Giant"), and his acting influences (James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart). Conrad even recounted - good-naturedly pointing his fist heavenward - how "Wild Wild West" co-star Ross Martin appeared on "The Tonight Show" and when asked whether he did his own stunts, replied "No, I do my own acting." Before the event Conrad had said he was open to most any question. But he did balk momentarily when Smith asked to "tell us about those tight pants." "No, I'm a grandfather of 20," Conrad noted, before relenting. Split pants were a regular consequence of the notorious James West costumery and Conrad admitted at least one "wardrobe malfunction" made it onto prime time TV because the fight scene was too good to pass up. In that instant, he had accidentally been hit on the head with a real chair rather than a breakaway one, got mad, and retaliated by smashing the breakaway chair into the extra's jaw. In all, Conrad played Secret Service agent James West in 102 episodes, while also starring in timeless TV classics "Hawaiian Eye" from 1959 to 1963, and the 1970s series "Baa Baa Black Sheep." Conrad, an Alpine County resident, appeared in Auburn to help raise funds and draw attention to efforts to purchase and restore the State Theater. Plans are to turn it into a medium-sized performance venue, at an estimated cost of about $6 million. Businesses now located at the building are expected to be there for several more years as the restoration effort moves forward. Before Saturday's "An Evening With Robert Conrad" event at the auditorium, local residents were given the opportunity to meet Conrad at a VIP reception. Many, like Big O Tire manager Dan Luper, had vivid "Wild Wild West" memories and a special allegiance to the two-fisted, tough-talking James West. The 44-year-old Luper said that when he played "guns" way back when, he and his friend were James West and sidekick Artimus Gordon. "Robert Conrad was so calm, cool and collected," Luper said. "He personified the macho good guy." Placer County Water Agency Director Lowell Jarvis said "Wild Wild West" was one of his favorite shows during the 1960s. "It was like an old-time 007," Jarvis said. "It was when TV was in its hey-day." Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, said he fondly remembers "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and got a kick out of Conrad's commercials for batteries. But Leslie's favorite program from the Conrad list of series is actually an obscurity - "High Sierra Rescue," which ran for less than a season in the early 1990s. "I've really enjoyed his acting," Leslie said. "He's kind of a man's man." Saturday's event also featured an auction of a leather "governor's jacket" donated and autographed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bidding reached $4,000 and the jacket was bought by Auburn's Horst Bendzulla. Drummer Jason Mackenroth, with the assistance of five members of the River City Drum Line, provided a stirring opening with an eight-minute percussion suite. The drum performance by Mackenroth, who has toured with singer Henry Rollins, was followed with a audio-visual retrospective of Conrad's career. Conrad punched through a paper wall to make his entrance. Auburn attorney Dave Mackenroth, whose friendship with Conrad resulted in the actor's visit, said the event provided a chance for Auburn and the Performing Arts Center plan to gain some well-deserved attention. "It's designed to help keep Auburn in the spotlight as a vital community," he said. The Journal's Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.