As talk radio and cable news stations celebrate the life and achievements of legendary host Larry King, here’s a story you won’t hear, one that King himself called a “really weird night.”
Not only was I there, I sort of caused it.
This was when I was a TV-radio columnist in Phoenix, before I got to Houston to further my journalism career, this long slow climb to the middle.
Phoenix talk radio station KTAR-AM announced it was holding a roast of its two main hosts, Pat McMahon and Preston Westmoreland. “Pat and Preston” were the top two talkers in Phoenix, McMahon in the morning and Westmoreland in the afternoon. They were dominant, sort of like KTRH’s current morning-afternoon duo of Michael Berry and, well, Michael Berry.
The station lined up a star-studded array of Phoenix radio and TV personalities to roast McMahon and Westmoreland. But the headliner clearly would be the evening's host … Larry King, the Mount Rushmore of talk shows all by himself. The event was set for the sold-out Phoenix Civic Plaza ballroom. Tickets were $50, benefiting Valley Big Brothers.
About a week before the roast, Larry King called me: “Look, I’m hosting this thing and I’m supposed to introduce all the people on the panel and insult them a little. I don’t know them. Can you write a few lines about each one for me? You know how roasts work.”
Wait, you want me to mock the local people on radio and TV? The people I cover every day? I can say all the things about them that the newspaper won’t let me?
Yeah, I can do that. Like Frank Costanza says at Festivus: “I got a lot of problems with you people.”
I’ll be a lot braver when it’s Larry King saying what I’m thinking.
The night arrived. King welcomed the audience, gave some introductory remarks about McMahon and Westmoreland and told a couple of his well worn stories. Then it was time to start the roast.
One by one, King read my lines introducing the roasters. The local celebrities did some tame jokes about McMahon and Westmoreland, and the night rolled along. There were a few hushed murmurs when King said something a little crueler than the spirit of the event. Poor guy didn’t have a clue what he was saying about people he didn’t know who they were.
Then it was time for King to introduce Rita Davenport. And that’s when just another night turned memorable.
I don’t remember much about Davenport, except that she hosted a daytime talk show on an independent local station. I may have watched five minutes of her show in my life, but that was enough for me to give King some lines which, as things developed, may have been a tad harsh.
I do remember this part: Davenport wore a pretty colorful gown that night and had her hair done up like Dairy Queen. As King read my lines, he glanced over at Davenport walking toward the podium and cracked up convulsively.
He shook his head, “Every town has one … here’s yours!”
King sat down and fired up a cigarette. This was before his many heart attacks. True story, he once told me that he enjoyed smoking so much that he smoked in the shower. He showed me how he could spin around and switch hands so his cigarette didn’t get wet. He was Cirque du Soleil — two packs a day.
Davenport hovered over King, leered at him and ripped him a new one — how dare you come to my town and talk about us like that. This wasn’t good-natured ribbing or roasting, Davenport was livid. King kept his head down, dragged on his cigarette, and took the tongue-lashing, except when he would glance up and start laughing again.
Needless to say, the mood in the room grew dark. A few minutes later, King stood up, apologized for having to leave early for some reason, and walked out. He had lost the room.
The next morning I met King for breakfast at his hotel. Soon as I sat down, he said, “What the hell was that? Who was that woman? That was a really weird night.”
I said, “That was Rita Davenport. She’s very popular here. Why did you say all those mean things about her?” The last time I talked with King was a few years ago. He still mentioned the roast in Phoenix.
I caught up with Westmoreland this week, asking what he recalled about that night.
“I just remember there was something very awkward that happened with Rita Davenport. I didn’t know that Larry left,” he said. Now he knows.
Westmoreland quit radio several years ago and got into real estate, but not just ordinary homes and buildings.
“Today I’m a unique property specialist with my wife Nancy at Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty in Carefree [Arizona]. My first big sale was the historic and famous Boulder House in North Scottsdale, a house built in a pile of rocks. I sold it to a Native American tribe for $4.8 million. That got me started selling unusual properties like gold mines, secret ranches, and houses on cliffs. It’s quite an adventure.”