HOLLYWOOD TENNIS DOES SOCKO BIZ - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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Those friendly star-studded games they put together on weekends out in filmland are not always what they seem. In any case, the action can be pretty fast, both on and off the courts

It has not been a boffo year for Hollywood. The tides of economic recession and retrenchment—as they are wont from time to time—lap against the hillside and canyon enclaves the stars call home, and the sound of dropping options is heard in the land. The prospects for immediate improvement are, as Variety might say, iffy.

But if the business picture in the picture business is bearish, there has been no apparent letup in the town's hectic social pace. Previews still must be attended, the best restaurants and bistros patronized, the favored spas frequented to keep up the appropriate facade of optimism and chic. Above all, the sporting show must go on. And, in Hollywood's case, that means tennis, the game that's everybody's racket.

As played by Hollywood's net-setters, tennis is more than good exercise. Agents have been known to play their way into a deal or a producership on the court of a studio head. Many a promising actress (Raquel Welch for one) has found a fetching courtside manner as remunerative as two seasons in summer stock. If Britain's battles are won on the playing fields of Eton, Hollywood's are often settled on the middle courts of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club.

The tennis court as a connection has been used since Hollywood's heyday. People still remember the tennis afternoons at Jack. Warner's house in Bel Air. The procession of hungry actors and actresses who snapped up invitations to his Sunday games was as eager as any that showed up for command performances at Buckingham Palace. "The food was always great, the setting fabulous, the girls first-rate," says one veteran of those glorious weekends.

William Randolph Hearst's magnificent castle at San Simeon was the site of many a star-studded doubles match in the old days. Hearst used to invite trainloads of celebrities for weekends of relaxation and tennis. If you explained that you had no tennis clothing along, Hearst would have a selection of new togs brought out and then would show you to a collection of dozens of tennis rackets from which you could make your choice. Dick Powell once recalled how Hearst kept much younger and more agile players hopping from sideline to sideline with his accurate placements, while handling most returns without moving more than a few steps. The Chief seldom lost.

Besides the opportunity tennis offers for solid show-biz contacts, it has always been a big game in Hollywood for the image it projects. Loring Fiske, a tennis pro and veteran of the Hollywood tennis wars, remembers how Clark Gable pursued a youthful image by having his still photographs show him in tennis clothes. "He had long since given up the game," Fiske says, "but he was trying to create the image of virility and vitality."

Not that all tennis in Hollywood is strictly for show. Most games, once started, are usually for blood, and the players are as eager as actors at option time—which many of them turn out to be. They may go to extraordinary lengths to gain advantage over rivals. One builder was told by a film mogul to make his tennis-court surface very fast. "I'm not that good," the executive said, "but I occasionally make a great shot, and I like to make sure it's not returned." Another sport had his net cut off a few inches above the ground, just enough to distort his opponent's perspective. His excuse for it was that the gap at the bottom of the net made the recovery of balls easier.

Ringers are frequently recruited. One San Diego tennis pro recalls being flown up as a partner in a doubles macth involving a Bel Air businessman. "It cost him as much to hire me as he won on the match," the pro recalls. "As far as I know they've never imported anybody from Australia, but it's only because they haven't thought of it yet."

Mrs. Bernie Tabokin, organizer for the town's most important social tennis tournament, Tennis and Crumpets, says of player enthusiasm: "They'll try anything to win. One father tried to enter his son as his partner in a 40-plus group we organized." His son was 16.

Sometimes a player lies about his prowess for other reasons. One aging actor from a pioneer TV cop show plays tennis well enough to win any of his club's senior events, but he refuses to enter. "He'd rather take on the 20-year-olds and risk a heart attack than admit he's over 50," says his pro. Says another observer of Hollywood tennis: "It's like watching a school of barracuda at feeding time."

A strict and well-defined pecking order attends nearly every aspect of tennis in the show-business colony. Whom you play with and where you play are every bit as important as how good, or how good a sport, you are. Dropping in at a public tennis court some evening on your way home from the studio is acceptable, but only if you don't make a habit of it. And when you get ready to join a tennis club, you'll want to keep the peculiar priorities of Hollywood tennis firmly in mind.

The Los Angeles Tennis Club is one of the best. It features a sprinkling of good movie names (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Charlton Heston), but most of its members are solid burgher types—doctors, brokers and businessmen. None of them are Negroes (although Arthur Ashe holds an honorary membership) or Jews. The entrance fee is $2,000, and dues are $30 a month.

A few blocks away is the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, which—despite its snitzier name—ranks slightly lower on the show-business tennis totem. It is a no-nonsense tennis club, with a low-key, Howard Johnson-type clubhouse and a tight membership (150) that includes some of the gold-plated names of the town: Richard Zanuck and Dean Martin, for example. A perennial attraction is Gilbert Roland, who plays there daily.

For those who don't belong to a tennis or country club (Riviera and Hillcrest are two of the town's more popular country clubs), there are always the courts at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which veritably bubble with social activity and gossip. Here pro Alex Olmedo, the genial Peruvian and past Wimbledon champion, gives lessons to all comers for $20 an hour. Taking lessons from Olmedo is yet another status symbol around town. The hottest names among local teaching pros are Olmedo and Pancho Segura, formerly the resident pro at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. If he's in town and in the mood, Pancho Gonzales has been known to hit a few to VIPs. To remark that Gonzales is your tennis pro is comparable to letting slip that Jackie and Ari were your houseguests in Palm Springs last winter.

Well-known pros make out well financially. Patty Heard, who headquarters at the court of toy inventor and renowned eccentric Jack Ryan (whose residence is an English manor house, with moat, fire engine and 120 telephones), enjoys a nourishing clientele that includes Polly Bergen, Gary Crosby, Marge and Gower Champion, Dyan Cannon and Barbra Streisand. Miss Heard's schedule is as mind-boggling as her host's domicile: she claims to have 539 clients and to give as many as 25 lessons a day and to be booked a year in advance.

Even when you take lessons from a top pro, tennis remains a tough game to master, and so most of Hollywood's busiest personalities aren't its best tennis players. Paul Newman, who likes tennis and takes lessons, is described by Fiske as "a fair player, but nowhere near the class of a Dabney Coleman or Lefty Brown." Dabney and Lefty are actors, too. They are not as busy as Newman.

Currently one of the circuit's greatest social successes is Joianna Ogner, the pretty blonde wife of a tennis-playing Volkswagen dealer from Bel Air. Known as the Perle Mesta of Hollywood's tennis crowd, Mrs. Ogner took up the game with a vengeance eight years ago. She now plays on a $50,000 hand-finished court at her Bel Air home and has achieved a reputation for having this year's In place for social tennis. She has even put together a little red book with the names and numbers of more than 300 prospective tennis partners.

The secret of Mrs. Ogner's success as a tennis hostess may be her charm, her wealth or the fact that she draws some of Southern California's top-seeded tennis amateurs to mix with her show-biz and society guests. It is not unusual to find UCLA's Haroon Rahim and the Bruins' doubles ace, Steve Tidball, smashing tennis balls to one another or to Mrs. Ogner's guests on her sumptuous court. Her crowd also consists of husband Irv, the Volkswagen man, Dinah Shore, Actors Jim Brown and Vince Edwards, Actress Elke Sommer (known affectionately as "The Brute" for her smashing returns), and pros like Olmedo, Segura, Tony Trabert, Tom Okker and occasionally even Gonzales.

Mrs. Ogner's weekly routine is centered around tennis. Her phone begins ringing early in the week with calls from people fishing for invitations to games the following weekend. She relies mostly on her red book for assembling her groups. "You look over the names and see whom you haven't seen in a long time and whom you'd like to know better, and you decide." By Wednesday the choices are made, the weekend booked.

Saturday is men-only day. "They're very serious and don't want to mess around," says Mrs. Ogner. Sunday is for mixed doubles—still serious tennis, but more relaxed. Lunch is served on the terrace overlooking the court, or in the 40-by-40-foot game room with wet bar, billiards table and a glass wall that provides a view of the court. Beverages, hard and soft, flow all day (her Coke and beer bill runs over $150 a month).

Tennis mixes here are not chance affairs, no matter how casual they may seem. She almost never matches a good tennis player with a poor one, unless the poor one happens to be a "fantastic-looking woman." She's found that "great tennis players don't mind playing with a girl who plays badly if she's pretty. A charming woman makes an interesting day." But, Mrs. Ogner says, "If a girl isn't pretty or interesting or a terrific tennis player, she's not invited." She tries to get players together in combinations that stimulate interest, "whether business, romantic or tennis," she says. "Stockbrokers are often good tennis players. People are always bringing them over. They nose around a bit, find out what business the rest of the crowd is in and if they have money. They'll play with someone they're trying to make a connection with even if he's got one foot in the grave."

As Hollywood's crème de la court, Mrs. Ogner is often the target of some agile social climbing, including one producer whom she describes as "the world's most charming man, who won't have anything to do with you unless he can use you in some way." The producer in question, she says, got the backing for a TV pilot he wanted to make (still unsold) during a tennis afternoon at her court. "We all know about his reputation," she laughs. "But when he uses you, it's with roses, so you don't really mind. Besides, he's a terrific tennis player." There are also the huntresses. "One girl calls me regularly to find out if Paul Monash, the producer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is playing," says Mrs. Ogner. "If he is, she appears as if by magic."

Some are invited to the Ogner court but never get back. Such banishment may result from refusing to play in a match with one of her other guests, for "dogging" a match, for failing to phone when they can't make it, or for being rude. Less serious, but irritating to the hostess, is turning up without your own tennis balls. "You'd be surprised how chintzy some people get when it comes to buying a can of balls." She estimates she spends $70 a month on tennis balls alone.

Mrs. Ogner is far from chintzy herself. In addition to her weekly blowouts, she hosts part of an annual tennis bash for the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles—a week-long club tourney sponsored by the Tennis and Crumpets group. Overall, the Ogners spend an estimated $700 a month on the game. (Even her largess has its limits. She put a lock on the phone in her game room when her bill hit $1,000 one month last winter.)

Among the more than 200 privately owned courts in the Hollywood-Beverly Hills area (the tennis court has long since replaced the swimming pool as a symbol of social arrival) are a dozen or so that attract the climbers and the already-got-theres. Jack Hanson, the former ballplayer who owns Jax sportswear and the popular Beverly Hills disco The Daisy, is enjoying a run of West Coast tennis swingers this season. Hanson and his wife Sally hold court in a lavish Beverly Hills home that once belonged to Pola Negri.

Sunday is the big day at the Hansons', and on any given weekend you're likely to find the likes of Dean Martin's son Dino, Actor James Franciscus, Producer James (Lolita) Harris, Producer John (Watermelon Man) Bennett, Producer Michael (Joanna) Laughlin and host Hanson playing their hearts out, for the love of the game and a little side bet. For this is one of the main attractions at the Hanson court. Though he disparages the amounts that change hands at his tennis sessions, Hanson acknowledges that winners usually leave his court a lot happier than losers.

"It's not much," says Hanson of the wagers. "Just $25 a corner."

One tennis buff who doesn't get invited to the Hansons' insists that the only reason Hanson gets good players is that he offers them membership in The Daisy. Hanson denies it. Whatever the lure, some of the game's brightest lights gambol on the Hanson court—Charlie Pasarell, Segura and occasionally Gonzales. Hanson also sees to it there are plenty of pretty girls on hand.

In addition to the weekend games, the Hansons throw two big tennis afternoons on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. For these events some 200 of Hollywood's most beautiful people gather in the garden in semiformal wear (Jax slacks are not in keeping) to enjoy an elegant catered buffet and watch some high-stakes tennis. All the players donate $50 to $100 for the privilege of playing, and the winners—last July Fourth it was Wendell Niles Jr. and Actor Chris Connelly—take home the pot, which has run as high as $1,800.

Dinah Shore's court in Beverly Hills has been the site of recent stellar gatherings that included Spiro Agnew, movie czar Jack Valenti, Ashe, Gonzales, Rod Laver and anyone else who means anything in town—in or out of tennis. Miss Shore also has the distinction of having been the first victim of an errant Agnew smash. She caught a vice-presidential serve in the eye during a game in 1969. He didn't bean Doug Sanders until the following February.

Most people—even the beautiful ones of Beverly Hills and Bel Air—are content with one tennis court. Jerry Ohrbach of the department-store family is twice blessed, with a court beside his Holmby Hills house for weekday games and one at his place in Malibu for weekends. Most of the fringe benefits of social tennis—lunches, free-flowing drinks, betting and beauteous starlets who watch and are watched—are absent at the Ohrbach courts. "We don't go in for any of that stuff," he says. "No nonsense. Just tennis." To play in this high-performance setting, Ohrbach has put together a group that includes fellow department-store magnate David May, Actor Philip Reed, Beverly Hills Councilman Fred Leopold, Jack Kramer, Dick Savitt and Hank Greenberg.

Another familiar face around the court is tennis pro Bob Harmon, who occasionally plays in Ohrbach's foursomes. Ohrbach explains, "We try to make the game as good as we can. Harmon could sweep up the court with us if he wanted to, but he plays to our skills." Occasionally, when the Ohrbach game is short of good players, he calls on Hillcrest Country Club pro Don Lutz and, when they're available, Kurt Niklas, president of the posh Bistro restaurant in Beverly Hills, and comic Dan Rowan.

For those looking for side action with their tennis, the court of Robert Evans, production chief at Paramount Pictures, offers fertile prospects. Evans, who headquarters in a million-dollar house in Beverly Hills with his wife Ali MacGraw and their newborn son, enjoys putting his money where his game is—that is, pretty high. His Calcuttas and side bets are legendary. The latter average $100 to $250 a set but have been known to get up as high as $1,000 when the competition is stiff. When it was rumored recently that Evans might be shaky over at Paramount, some of the luster went off his games, despite the high rolling that goes on there. "You can always tell when you're slipping in Hollywood," observed one wag. "You have trouble getting a decent foursome."

Jennings Lang, a Universal City Studios vice-president, draws a mixed bag to his court in Beverly Hills. The players usually tend to be business types, with a sprinkling of actors and actresses thrown in for spice. At Charlton Heston's place a favorite partner is Sam Match, a former pro who now sells stocks. The games at the Heston court are described by one man who's played there as "strictly tennis...no broads or anything like that." Heston is reportedly sensitive about his game, one reason he plays with Match most of the time. A partner who took him on at his country club recalls how Heston quit one losing match abruptly when a covey of girls gathered around to watch.

Robert Stack, Kirk Douglas and Dean Martin also have courts but don't play as much as the Hollywood tennis activists. Martin used to bring in pro Tommy Cook to teach, but with the Martin children now pursuing their own show-business careers, the court has fallen into disuse.

A boost up the social ladder is a distinct possibility if you play at Director Richard Brooks' house, or at the court of Producer Ray (Funny Girl) Stark and wife Fran. A woman player can do worse than one of Mrs. Robert Stack's ladies' games or an afternoon of tennis at the Edgar Bergens', though the pace is markedly slower and the average age visibly higher.

Joan Ross, an ex-actress now married to Producer Frank (The Robe) Ross, adds a certain élan to her tennis afternoons by leashing her pet cheetah, Kubo, to a nearby bush while her guests are playing. Saturday is the big social mixed-doubles event here, accompanied by a lunch, archery and swimming. The cheetah tends to keep the ball in play. In one game, recalls Producer Norman Lloyd, an errant shot bounced the ball right at Kubo's feet. "We all watched it for a long time, and finally we broke into an argument over who was going to go get it." Besides Lloyd, Mrs. Ross has such players as Jacques Bergerac, Dinah Shore, Producer Sam Goldwyn Jr. and Actress Eva Gabor and husband Dick Brown. Eva's sister Zsa Zsa joined them once. "Zsa Zsa kept the shade throughout the game," Mrs. Ross recalls.

The rating list of prospective players on the local tennis circuit is every bit as closely watched as the overnight Nielsens. The most sought-after guests are young men like Ron Preissman, a literary agent and real-estate heir. "Ron meets all the requirements," says one hostess. "He's a nice guy, young, good company and an excellent tennis player." Preissman was a nationally ranked junior at 15 and now gets at least five invitations every weekend. "On Saturdays I'll play at Dino's at 10, then go to the Ogners', play and have lunch, then around 4:30 I go over to Bob Evans'," he says. It's more of the same on Sundays, only on different courts, through a rigorous 15 sets every weekend.

Another guest without whom no status tennis match on the circuit is complete is Wendell Niles Jr., an ex-football player on the coast and the son of the wealthy former radio announcer. Niles receives more than 20 invitations a week to play tennis but is particular about where he plays. "I usually accept only four. Dinah's, Bobby's [Evans], Charlton Heston's and Jennings Lang's. Oh, I play at other places, especially if I'm trying to make a business deal, but those are the courts I prefer." Niles is one of the circuit's better players, despite the fact that he doesn't have a court of his own. "With 20 invitations a week, who needs one?" he asks.

Zimbalist is another "most wanted" guest, as was 20th Century-Fox ex-boss Richard Zanuck before he was toppled from his studio perch.

What is your status-minded Hollywood court-hopper liable to be wearing, and playing with, these days? Most of the ladies pick their tennis outfits from such posh toggeries as Tennis Anyone in Beverly Hills. Grace DeWitts, the owner of Tennis Anyone, says it's not unusual for a woman to come in and spend $600 in half an hour of shopping—on anything from a "see-through" hand-crocheted tennis dress ($70) to a kangaroo-skin racket cover ($15). Traditional tennis whites are by no means de rigueur in Hollywood. "People here often like a touch of color," says Mrs. DeWitts. "A little red trim, green tops—it depends. When you own the court, you can wear any color you like."

Not everyone who plays there considers the Beverly Hills-Hollywood tennis circuit that glamorous. Though Michael Laughlin is welcomed on the best courts, he remains unimpressed. "I think tennis in Los Angeles is a bit chintzy. When you think of the beautiful grass courts of the East, of the elegant Queen's Club in London—the place is fabulous and costs only $7 a month—you can hardly be impressed by the Beverly Hills Tennis Club and its five concrete courts."

Sam Goldwyn Jr. echoes Laughlin's sentiments. "Years ago my parents filled their court with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Jean Harlow...those people just aren't around anymore. And nobody has taken their place."

Finally, there is another set that lives in the area and plays tennis, but is never seen on the courts of the town's beautiful people. This is what one tennis swinger calls "the Junior League crowd," and it holds itself distinctly aloof from the show-biz bunch.

Yet, despite such snubs, despite the paucity of oldtime glamour, despite the apocalyptic visitations—the fires, floods, earthquakes and plunging Dow Joneses—that have vexed Hollywood lately, the game goes on. The ping and plonk of tennis balls hitting concrete and nylon still can be heard from behind the forest-green tarps that shroud the courts along Beverly Drive and Coldwater Canyon. It's just as though nothing had happened. Nothing at all.



THREE STYLES of Hollywood tennis and tennis attire are shown off by Actress Elke Sommer (left), Actor Gilbert Roland, Singer Dinah Shore.