Merv Griffin dead at 82

There’s a big black and white picture of Merv Griffin in Elizabeth Jardina’s San Mateo home, a gift from the realtor who sold them Merv’s childhood home.

As Elizabeth, a former ANG features writer and now Sunset magazine researcher, tells it, she could hardly wait to get the opportunity to meet Merv and tell him that he was living in his house.

Merv died today at 82 after a long battle with prostrate cancer.

Merv was born in San Mateo, the son of a stockbroker, on July 6, 1925. His aunt, Claudia Robinson, taught him how to play the piano when he was just 4 and soon he was staging neighborhood productions on what is now Elizabeth’s back porch.

“Every Saturday I had a show, recruiting all the kids in the block as either stagehands, actors and audience, or sometimes all three,” he wrote in his 1980 autobiography. “I was the producer, always the producer.”

At first, Merv stayed close to his hometown roots. He studied at San Mateo Junior College and the University of San Francisco before bagging college for a gig as a vocalist at KFRC radio in San Francisco.

It was there that he caught the ear of another Bay Area bright light, Joan Fontaine, who was married to RKO honcho Wiliam Dozier. Merv soon chucked the Bay Area to seek his fortune and while touring, grabbed Doris Day’s attention, which led to hs film career.

After some success, Merv moved on to host a TV talk show in 1962 and stayed on for more than 20 years. He sang, schmoozed and mostly just listened. He would always say in interviews that “if the host is sitting there thinking about his next joke, he isn’t listening.”

Here’s a few clips from his show, including Whitney Houston’s TV debut, courtesy of YouTube:

While the talk show was all good fun, he made his fortune in the game show world. After a suggestion from his then-wife, Julann, he came up with the idea for “Jeopardy” in the 1960s and “Wheel of Fortune” in the 1970s. He later sold the rights for $250 million in 1986 but retained a share of the profits.

Merv went on to become a real estate tycoon, spiffing up such landmarks as the Beverly Hilton.

Merv and his wife divorced in 1976 after 18 years of marriage. He never remarried. He is survived by his son Anthony, 49, daughter-in-law, Tricia, and two grandchildren.

Oh, and Elizabeth finally got a chance to meet Merv a few years ago when he came back to San Mateo for yet another hometown boy honor.

She mentioned that she had bought his childhood home, and he countered with the fact that the family had lost that home after his father’s fortunes tumbled in the years following the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression.

Perhaps that’s what sparked his drive that turned a small town boy into Hollywood heavyweight.

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