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Jubilee Special: Dan Rowan, John D. MacDonald and a Royal Encounter

July 1, 2012

As it is Jubilee year, I thought I might share with you a charming anecdote by the American comedian Dan Rowan about his meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. I only discovered who Dan Rowan was when I was doing some research on the American crime writer John D. MacDonald and found that the two men were friends and a book of their correspondence, A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald 1967-1974, was published in 1986. I acquired a copy, and it quickly became one of my favourite books. I’ve blogged about it before here and here. Dan Rowan was a nightclub comedian who with his friend and professional partner, Dick Martin, hit the big time with the success of their television sketch show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. At the advice of mutual friend Virginia Caldwell (wife of writer Erskine Caldwell) Rowan and MacDonald became pen pals, despite having never met before. The two men quickly become close friends, and their letters are thrilling, funny and moving to read. In some ways their friendship is unequal, with MacDonald being the more senior figure, and Rowan is somewhat deferential to the writer whose Travis McGee novels he had admired for years. They discuss many subjects, but the bulk of the correspondence concerns the pressures Rowan experiences of being involved at every level in a hugely successful television show. At the height of their fame in 1972, Rowan and Dick Martin were  invited to host the Royal Gala Variety Performance. After the show, when Rowan met the Queen and Prince Philip he was surprised at how much they seemed to know about him.

Now there was pandemonium backstage as we were all lined up according to someone’s sense of importance. Well, not all, since the acrobats and several others were on the back line craning necks, to be introduced to ER II. Until then I was not nervous but all of a sudden noticed a certain clamminess in the palms. Dick and I were first in line and he was standing on the wrong side of me so that when Sir Lew Grade, who had arranged the entire affair, came along just ahead of H.M. he mistakenly introduced Dick as “Dan Martin” and I am astounded to report that H.M. smiled at Dick, looked at me as she took my hand and said to Sir Lew, “No, this is Dan. That’s Dick Martin.” She held my hand for a time, released it and instead of moving on as I expected, stopped and stared at me for a moment and then said, “And you have come all this way to do this for Us?” “A pleasure, Ma’am,” I gallantly replied. “Do you do this sort of thing often?” “No, Ma’am.” She waited. “We are usually too busy.” I waited. “All this way,” she murmured. “It certainly was very kind of you.” She hesitated and then moved down the line and shook hands with others, stopping again further down when she spoke to Richard Attenborough. A fine actor. He had made a cameo appearance with the Comedians.

Next was Prince Philip who also held my hand a long time, and then clapped his other hand over it and said, “What is this hideous nonsense I hear your show is going off the air?” I was again very surprised and stumbled in answering, “Not at all, Your Highness. We start again this year for the sixth season.” He dropped my hand and said, “Jolly good. That show keeps me home.” And from all I heard rumored around London, the Queen would be glad of anything which kept this playboy home. Well, there’s more but it just occurred to me that you’re both commoners and couldn’t understand it. Ho hum, must buzz off now and polish my tiara. More later if you’re good.

Dan

This story seems to capture everything that still fascinates us about monarchy forty years later. The Queen is disarming, Prince Philip unguarded in his remarks, and Dan Rowan’s fascinated but irreverent tone seems to be just right. MacDonald wrote back:

You know, that was one fine letter too about the Queen and all. […] I want to hear more about the dandy little Queen. When are you coming to tell us. We wait impatiently here (we commoners). I hope you haven’t been such a fool as to wash your hand.

Three months after the Gala Performance, Rowan and Martin were a guest of President Nixon at his La Casa Pacifica home ‘the Western White House’ in San Clemente. Nixon had guest starred on Laugh-In during the 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon must have held the two comedians in high regard as they performed a sketch for him as part of his private birthday celebrations in 1973. In fact, it was only when I began researching this post that I discovered that the Royal Gala Variety Performance that Rowan writes about is different from the annual Royal Variety Performance. The distinction is that in a Gala performance the artists are picked at the specific invitation of the Monarch, thus explaining why the Queen and Prince Philip knew so much about Rowan. Sadly, Dan Rowan’s career went into decline after Laugh-In ended in 1973, but it is remarkable to discover that while the show was still on the air, just how many fans in high places Rowan had.

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