published Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Ready for Reeg? TV force of nature coming to Chattanooga's Life Boomers & Seniors Expo

IF YOU GO

What: Life Boomers & Seniors Expo

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6.

Where: Chattanooga Convention Center, 1150 Carter St.

Admission: $5 at the door or showclix.com/event/3863846/listing

Information: timesfreepressevents.com/life/2014

He had an AMAZING showbiz dream!!! It's STILL happening!!!

Regis Philbin, entertainment industry force of nature, is too courtly to shout in conversation, but he really does speak in all-capital letters. And if anyone deserves to, he DOES -- and surely WILL in Chattanooga's Life Boomers & Seniors Expo.

"What's Chattanooga like? It sounds beautiful! But do you think people there know me well enough to see me?" Philbin asks by phone from his Connecticut home.

Despite his decades in show business, it's endearing to hear Philbin wonder about the extent of his celebrity, which will be on full-wattage display at the fifth annual Life expo, produced by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and set for Saturday in the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Along with Philbin, who's scheduled to take the stage at 3 p.m., the expo showcases products and services to help seniors and baby boomers live and age well, a topic on which Philbin is an expert. The expo also features live music, cooking demonstrations, free health screenings and other entertainment.

Consider: Philbin began his career as an NBC page at "The Tonight Show" in the late 1950s when Jack Paar was host, then landed a job as the show's announcer after Johnny Carson joined in 1962.

And he allegedly has a great anecdote about an encounter with Carson when the TV icon was his boss. Carson was so feared by his staff, Carson famously joked his staff writers were trying to copyright the words "cold" and "aloof" to use in their memoirs. Philbin says he won't tell the anecdote until he's at the Life expo. He wants fans there to know he's sharing something special just for them.

From "The Tonight Show," he later increased his national presence as co-host of the late-night "Joey Bishop Show" from 1967 to 1969. From 1975 until 1981, he hosted the morning show on Los Angeles' ABC affiliate.

In 1982 he moved to New York and landed the host job of the locally aired "The Morning Show," which three years later morphed into "Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee" and went national in 1988. In 2001, Kathie Lee Gifford left and Kelly Ripa joined, making it and "Live! with Regis and Kelly." Philbin then won new generations of younger fans when he hosted the U.S. debut of the primetime game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and guest starred on the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother."

Philbin became such a national treasure, when he announced his retirement in 2011, the relentlessly snarky David Letterman took time on his "Late Show" to read a Top 10 List of reasons he loved Regis. Letterman also appeared on "Live!", grabbed the clearly astonished Philbin and kissed him on the mouth.

"I am the only person David Letterman has ever fallen in love with," Philbin says solemnly. "I can't figure it out."

Philbin, who has won admiration for his ability to engage audiences on both game and talks shows, first met Letterman in the 1980s, when Philbin was still hosting the LA morning show.

"When Dave was a young comedian, he came out to Hollywood to try out his bits," Philbin said. "He wanted to find a niche in TV but wasn't sure what that was. He talked to me about my show and my experiences."

It's easy to see why Philbin is a good talk show guest as well as a host. His charm put even the nerve-wracked contestants on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" at ease. He has the dry wit that prompted him to invite buddy Donald Trump to sing a duet of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" on "The Regis Philbin Christmas Album" in 2005.

Although Philbin celebrated his 83rd birthday Monday and is supposedly retired, he continues to criss-cross the country, sharing witty anecdotes and songs -- yes, he has released several musical albums. (After Chattanooga, he appears with his orchestra in Corpus Christi.)

Born and bred in the Bronx, Philbin has achieved a happy marriage with his wife Joy for 44 years, and a career that spans generations. And yet he admits that the one show he is most recognized for these days is one of his later appearances. In 2008, he did a cameo on "How I Met Your Mother" in an episode about the search for New York City's best burger. The episode is often ranked in fans' top 20 favorites.

"More people stop me on the street to tell me they loved me in 'How I Met Your Mother' than anyone who recognizes me for my shows with Kelly or Kathie Lee," Philbin says. "The funny thing is, I really don't have a favorite New York burger. What I really love are hot dogs, especially hot dogs from Nathan's."

He is particularly amazed about the recognition because he ignores most social media, not bothering to post on Facebook or use Twitter.

"I can't Tweet. What can I say that fits in a Tweet?" he says with a laugh.

Perhaps recession-era millennials and boomers find Philbin relatable because he won success via hard work and often financially precarious gigs. When Philbin was the sidekick on the "Joey Bishop Show," they were going head-to-head against "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," whose ratings obliterated all competition. Exasperated, Bishop secretly convinced Philbin to engage in a crazy publicity stunt to boost their ratings; Bishop would insult Philbin repeatedly on air; they would fake a huge fight during the show and Philbin would storm off yelling.

"Joey said the audience would be glued to the set each night, watching to see if I would come back instead of watching Carson," Philbin recalls, sounding as skeptical now as when Bishop pitched him the idea. "Instead, I was glued to the set wondering when I could get back to work."

Philbin graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a sociology degree, which he put to use in 1957 working as a TV journalist in San Diego -- no writers, no support staff, no cameraman. But he had good story instincts, and he knew what he really wanted to be.

"I told the station, 'OK, I'll do the news for you Monday through Friday, but let me have a little entertainment show on Saturday night,'" he says.

At the time, Philbin had heard about a young comic named Don Rickles who did something that sounded a bit weird -- he insulted the audience and got huge laughs.

"Rickles was coming to San Diego to perform for a furniture store owners' convention and expected about 2,000 people. Instead, there were about 10," Philbin remembers. "They sat around a conference room table, waiting for him to talk. I put the camera on one wall. Rickles started questioning and insulting the guys. He was hilarious. They laughed like wild men. I had gotten a rising star on film."

CBS executives trekked out to California to meet Philbin and watch his show in person.

"Zsa Zsa Gabor was my guest that day," Philbin says, referring to the blonde bombshell who was then starring in hit movies and a regular guest on TV talk shows. "After the interview was over, Zsa Zsa went up to the CBS guys and said, 'I LOVE him. You should give him a show.' Maybe Zsa Zsa got me the job."

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.

about Lynda Edwards...

Lynda Edwards has covered just about every beat there is while working for The Associated Press, PBS as a Frontline and Nightly Business Report associate producer, Gannett in the heart of Louisiana Cajun country as well as newspapers in Miami, Tucson AZ, Colorado and Arkansas. She has freelanced for The New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, Vogue, Rolling Stone and The Washington Monthly. While at the ABA Journal, she won a Fourth Estate Award, Lisagor ...

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