Revisiting Andy Williams

I interviewed singer Andy Williams, who died Tuesday, in 2011 before his appearance at the annual Judy Garland Festival in Grand Rapids. The thing that sticks out is that I was advised to call the Moon River Theater in Branson, Mo., and I thought that was so weird: That a phone would ring in this theater and that Andy Williams would be, like, tinkering with the sets and then just pick up this phone and say “Hello.” (This is the way all interviews work, so I’m not sure why it seemed so strange at the time).

Here is his obituary.

Here is the story I wrote for the June 16, 2011 edition of the News Tribune:

Young Andy Williams spent time in Judy Garland’s presence just after she stepped off the yellow brick road.
As a teen, the pop singer was a member of the chorus for various Garland film projects at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she had gone after she shed her sisters and built her solo singing and acting career.
“Like everybody in the world, I thought she was the greatest thing,” Williams said in a phone interview from his theater in Branson, Mo. “She was absolutely wonderful.”
Williams, 83, will receive a lifetime achievement award during the 36th annual Judy Garland Festival this weekend in Grand Rapids. He will appear for a book signing from 12:30-1:30 p.m. Friday at the Judy Garland Historic House and later that night will be honored at an event at Wendigo Lodge, where he will show footage of Garland when she appeared on “The Andy Williams Show” in the 1960s and answer questions.
Williams refused to tell any anecdotes about Garland, who was born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922 and lived in Grand Rapids until 1926.
“You come to the thing and you’ll hear it then,” he said.
The Judy Garland Festival starts today and runs through Saturday and includes a party for “Wizard of Oz” munchkin Karl Slover, a showing of Garland’s gowns by collector Michael Siewert and a stage production of “Meet Me in St Louis” by the Grand Rapids Players.
Coordinator John Kelsch said the festival’s board gives the award to stars who worked with Garland.
“We decided to go with Andy because he worked with Judy on television,” he said.
Past award winners have included Mickey Rooney, June Allyson and Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West. Last year’s winner was Jane Powell. Each of the recipients has traveled to Grand Rapids for the festival to receive the award.
“All of these people really admired Judy and that’s why they made the trip,” Kelsch said.
Williams is the keeper of the recordings of the variety show he hosted for about 10 years. Guests included a steady stream of A-list talent: Bobby Darin, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and more. This gig in Grand Rapids has been a chance to go through old footage.
“I’m always surprised at how good it is,” Williams said. “How good the quality of it is, the sound and the video and everything. Since I own all of the shows, I took very good care of them. I had them cleaned up, as they say. Made them digitalized so that the sound and the picture is very clear and it looks like it was done yesterday.”
Williams has the Moon River
Theatre in Branson, where he will perform with Ann-Margaret in the fall and then do a run of his annual Christmas show.
He keeps up with the pop music scene and claims to like Kanye West, Michael Buble, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.
“I even like Selena Gomez and I don’t even know who she is, since he likes her,” Williams said, referring to Bieber, who has been romantically linked to the young star.
When it comes to what it was like performing with the singers he had looked up to when he was in the early part of his career, Williams compares himself to a recent winner on the reality talent show “American Idol.”
“In retrospect, it reminded me of Scotty (McCreery), who won American Idol,’ ” he said. “He’s 17 years old and he acted like he was 90. He acted like he belonged there. He did a duet with Tim McGraw and he was just like he was as good as Tim McGraw.”
Two years ago, Williams published a memoir, “Moon River and Me,” in which he revisited his life, from his childhood in a small town in Iowa to singing at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral to his ex-wife Claudine Longet, mother of his three children, who was convicted of misdemeanor negligent homicide in the death of Olympic skier Spider Sabich in 1976.
It also has a few Garland moments.
“It was easy to write about Judy Garland,” he said. “She was funny and had a great sense of humor and she had talent that just bubbled over.”