By Lew Harris
Los Angeles Magazine
So there was this crazy loon, in a red leotard, with a blue-and-white cape proclaiming him to be ‘Captain Freedom’,
address a crowd of hearty Britons in London’s famed Hyde Park, trying to convince them that they should want a San Fernando Valley to call their very own.
“We have taxation without representation”, he said.
No one answered. (Though a few did appear dumbfounded.)
“God save the queen!” he intoned.
“And God save you,” came a lone reply. Well, at least that was something. And as our caped invader stepped down from his soap box, to a smattering of applause, the crowd moved on to a rabid discussion of Communism versus Nazism several yards to the left. Which left Captain Freedom aka Sweet Dick Whittington, forgotten, hyperventilating, shakingly grabbing his street clothes from a friend and slipping a pair of jeans over the lepord pale, and stuttering, “That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
Not our Sweet Dick? The ballsy soul who actually phone the prime minister of Israel one day, on the air, to offer advice? Who hung a paint-by-number painting in the Louvre…men’s room? Who called the queen of England a few years back to congratulate her on a TV show? And who earlier this month, as his fanatical listeners surely know by now, actually flew over to London to present a proclamation to Her Majesty (during the Silver Jubilee yet) to trade Scotland, which is seceding from the UK, for our esteemed Valley, which wants to secede from LA? (“We’ve come to declare our allegiance to thequeen.”)
And lest you think this just another harebrained, cockamamie (Cockneymamie?) Whittington scheme, the proclamation was signed not only by the Board of Supervisors, the city councilmen representing the Valley and the representivies of 24 Valley chambers of commerce, but even by the two Valley state senators – even Alan Roberts, which may give you some kind of turncoat mayor he might have been.
“I’ve done some nut things,” Whittington admits – for how, after all, could he deny it? – “but this makes a comment. The people in the Valley are feeling ripped by Los Angeles County; they’re not getting returns for their tax dollar. And if this attracts some attention, it will achieve what we hope.”
Attracting attention, of course, was the easy part. Like back in Hyde Park. There, back in civvies – and a bit more at ease holding a microphone – he tapped interviews with passersby and bobbies on how they felt about joining the San Fernando Valley (“the what?”). Or at 10 Downing Street, knocking on the prime minister’s door – July 4, no less, which no one there seemed to notice. The PM’s doorman promised to accept Whittington’s queen-bound Proclamation, but Sweet Dick, alas, had only one copy, so he promised to send a Xerox. A British bystander simply commented, “That’s the Americans for you.” An American bystander commented, “I’m from Los Angeles. That’s Sweet Dick Whittington? I listen to him all the time. What’s he doing? Trading what? Oh. Why, of course…..”
Then just up the street to Whitehall, where, when one of the red-coated Horse Guards refused (natch) to answer his queries, Sweet Dick queried the guard’s horse who, perhaps smitten with the prospect of being heard in Hollywood, actually whinnied in reply. So elated was Sweet Dick by the proceedings – and especially by the quote straight from the horses mouth – that he ran down the street, cape aflutter, laughing, laughing and clapping.
An hour later, that precious tape, still inside the Sony recorder, was lost on the train to Windsor Castle.
“With radio,” Sweet Dick says, “it’s all in the imagination. We could have faked all this, but this is just a bitch to do. I don’t like getting out in costume, but it’s still fun.”
What put the bug in his head was that he wanted to go to Wimbledon, and the idea was a natural. Except that he arrived in London one day too late. In tow, was his entire morning crew – David Mandelbaum, sportscaster Joe Buttita, traffic Pamela McInnes, the real Ed Ciel and, yes, Wendell (of “you’re on probation, Wendell” fame). The goal: To give the queen his proclaimation and, along the way, to get a potpourri of comments on, as he put it, “Why this fool is walking around in a leotard” – all for playback later on his morning show. As some kind of testament to Whittington’s popularity, listeners sent him cakes and sweet rolls the whole week preceding the trip to tide him over on the plane, and some 70 frantic fans came to the elusive West Imperial Terminal of LAX to bid him adieu.
In fact, his exit – in costume – from a bathroom in the terminal’s waiting room left the place abuzz with, “That? Oh, that’s just Sweet Dick Whittington. You know….” Little did the folks realize that inside this costume was not the confident radio personality but a slight man who insist, “It’s very difficulty for me because I’m shy around strangers. I’m hoping that chutzpah and charm will carry me though because I’m a nervous wreck”.
How does he explain his phenomenal success? “Dignity. I don’t acre who gets the last line. People feel comfortable with me…I’m not as comfortable with them, but that’s not important. When the listener realize I really did go to London and walk around in tights, it’s what I want.”
Says Mandelbaum, “He gets into it so much that he actually believes it – that’s the only way he can get through with it. He becomes his part. If he’s playing Mickey Mouse, he looks in the mirror and he is Mickey Mouse.”
Not that the comics book allusion was a loose one. At Windsor Castle, spirits up despite the discovery that the whole 10 Downing Street episode had been lost, Sweet Dick was once again in costume, his street shirt and pants tucked away in a ‘Queen’s Silver Jubilee’ handbag. As he walked from tourist to tourist, asking if this person knows if the queen is in residence, if that one knows her last name, hardly anyone even noticed. Except a group of British children who sang, as he approached, “Da da da da, da da da da….Batman!”
Really into it, he headed towards the kids, Wendell holding the remaining tape recorder, when he was stopped by
another bobby, who, naturally, inquired as to just what this Captain Freedom though he was doing. Why, taping a radio show of course. For America. But you can’t do commercial taping or filming inside Windsor Castle; you have to leave. And then a gleam in the eye: Could the bobby sign this here proclamation?
Why, he’d have to read it first. So Sweet Dick unrolled the scroll and read the proclamation – that they would just trade off, Scotland and the San Fernando Valley.
“No, I can’t sign that, sir. But I can give it to the queen.”
“To the queen?”
“Well, not personally. But, at the very lease, to her secretary.”
The queen’s secretary? Well all right! The decision was made, bobby A35 was given the scroll, Sweet Dick donned his street clothes and, mission-impossible accomplished, the party left. Indeed, Captain Freedom had taken a losing situation and turned it into a winner. Again, gleefully clapping his hands, he tapped himself up top. “Sometimes I love my head.”
There is one footnote. It happened in Bangor, Maine, where there was supposed to be an hour and a half layover on the way to London from LA. Except it wasn’t an hour and a half. It was only, it was belatedly announced over the loudspeaker, 45 minutes.
Last seen, Sweet Dick/Captain Freedom was relieving himself in the john. When the flight was called, the plane was filled…except for one seat. One empty seat in the entire 707. Dick Whittington‘s seat. Nobody knew where he was. The airport was searched and the pilot announced, after the first 25-minute wait, that he was only going to hold things up eight more minutes – and he wasn’t going to let anyone off the plane to do any hunting. Even Wendell, who had taped every word the pilot had on the way to Bangor, was too nervous to catch these momentous ones.
Finally, with one minute to go, in he walked – thankfully, in his role as mild-mannered radio personality and not Captain Freedom. The rest of the passengers cheered. Even the ones who had never heard of Sweet Dick Whittington.
Where had he been? Why, he tad taken a cab to a bar near the airport. It had just struck him funny. He had to have a Beer in Bangor.
The ABOVE page is from a magazine called The Big Valley from 1977. I don't know where I got this, but thanks. Anyways there's only one page here. Sorry about that!
Soon after this article went up on this site, Wendell posted a follow-up on his former blog:
"An aging radio fan (NOT ME) has put up a GeoCities (how 1997!) site in tribute to semi-legendary broadcaster and my former mentor “Sweet” Dick Whittington, including a reprinted magazine article documenting one of his stunts while I was his Assistant/Gopher/Sidekick.
Sweet Dick and Wendell in London. Yes, I am the “Wendell” in the article AND I’m in this picture (left -ed.), standing to the right, trying to hide a tape recorder under my jacket from the London bobbies guarding 10 Downing
Street. (They didn’t allow recording devices at the Prime Minister’s front
I may yet find him a better webplace for his little fansite, but in the meantime let me point out that (a) I was NOT responsible the lost cassette; that was Dave the Engineer’s fault, and (b) I did not record the “beer in Bangor” incident because my recorder’s batteries had run down after all I had recorded at the LA Airport send-off and on the flight (and
Dave the Engineer had all the batteries, so I blame him again).
And that was a PG-rated ‘edited’ account of the Bangor incident from the
Los Angeles Magazine writer – who went on to become, among other things, editor in chief at E!Online – and who got a free ticket to follow this adventure because we’d made promotional trade-offs with the airline and a London hotel for a dozen people – because one of the other ‘extra people’ along for the trip was Dick’s then-girlfriend, who requested to be kept out of the article, even though the real reason for their disappearance was so he could “bang her in Bangor”.