Balelo was one of the deep-pocketed buyers featured on the show that depicts storage-unit auctions. The former owner of a chain of thrift stores, Balelo had a knack for bargaining and finding treasure among trash.
Nicknamed “Rico Suave” for his flamboyant style, Balelo once hosted a live auction right before Halloween while dressed as Superman. He carried a “man purse” (or “murse”), which he considered his good-luck bag; the murses became so popular with fans that he later sold them on eBay.
Balelo also was instrumental in helping Nicolas Cage recover a mint-condition copy of a 1938 Action Comics book that was stolen from the actor’s storage locker. The comic book was valued at $1 million.
Balelo owned Balelo Inc., a business that specializes in asset liquidations and closeout sales. Until recently, he ran a gaming store called The Game Exchange. Although Balelo loved working — “My work is my hobby nowadays” — his favorite past-times included flying private planes, listening to music, hanging out with friends and going to Vegas. A strong competitor with a no-holds-barred attitude, he was best known on “Storage Wars” for beating the competition by showing up to auctions carrying more than $50,000 in cash.
Balelo was arrested over the weekend for alleged possession of a controlled substance. He was reportedly distraught after being released from jail.
One of Balelo’s employees found his body inside a business warehouse in Simi Valley, Calif., on Monday morning. Armando Chavez, senior deputy medical examiner, refused to provide any information as to Balelo’s cause of death. An autopsy will be conducted on Feb. 12.
–This obituary previously appeared in The Huffington Post
[Update - Feb. 13, 2013: Balelo's death has been declared a suicide by the Ventura County medical examiner's office. His body was also found in a business warehouse in Simi Valley, Calif. An earlier report stated that he was found in his home garage.]
Acclaimed filmmaker and essayist Nora Ephron, who almost singlehandedly defined the romantic comedy genre of the 1980s and 1990s, died on June 26 of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia. She was 71.
Born in New York and raised in Beverly Hills, Ephron was the daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Desk Set.” Though life at home was often difficult — her father was in and out of mental hospitals and her mother was an alcoholic — writing became the family business. Nora and her sisters, Delia and Amy, all grew up to become screenwriters while her sister Hallie became a journalist and novelist.
After graduating from Wellesley College and working briefly as an intern in the Kennedy White House, Ephron moved back to New York City. There she toiled in the mail room at Newsweek, launched a satirical newspaper and became a reporter for the New York Post. Over the next four decades, Ephron would pen essays for numerous publications — including Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and The Huffington Post — and develop a reputation as one of America’s best known humorists.
Ephron began working on screenplays in the 1970s after penning a rewrite of William Goldman’s script for “All the President’s Men.” Although her version was not used in the final film, the experience gave her the opportunity to begin writing for the big screen. Concerned that Hollywood wasn’t ready for films by or about women, however, Ephron decided to try her hand at directing as well. Her directorial debut was “This Is My Life,” co-written with her sister Delia, and starring Julie Kavner as a single mom who wants to become a stand-up comedian.
Ephron’s stories featured strong female characters, realistic heroes and a charming blend of humor and romance. Her tales of happily ever after were often scorned by critics, but they found a devoted audience of female moviegoers who were always eager to see the latest Ephron “chick flick.”
Hollywood also honored her creative achievements with three Academy Award nominations for screenwriting (“Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Sleepless In Seattle”). Ephron’s most recent film, “Julie & Julia,” based on the life of Julia Child and a New York-based blogger who aimed to emulate her, garnered Ephron more than a dozen award nominations and earned Meryl Streep a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress.
When she wasn’t toiling on a script or a directing a film, Ephron also wrote several plays and essay collections, including “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which topped The New York Times bestseller list. In her final years, she continued to publish essays on a variety of subjects, from aging and feminism to politics and food.
“You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can’t put things off thinking you’ll get to them someday,” Ephron told NPR in 2010. “If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”
Ephron wed three times. Her first marriage to novelist Dan Greenburg ended in divorce. Her second marriage to investigative journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame also ended in divorce after she learned he had cheated on her with a mutual friend. That experience inspired her to write the 1983 novel “Heartburn,” which was later adapted into a feature film starring Streep and Jack Nicholson.
Col. Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr., a legendary TV personality and Marine, died on June 23. Cause of death was not released. He was 86.
The Detroit native always wanted to be a broadcaster. In his teens, he worked the microphone as both a bingo caller and a carnival barker. But McMahon’s chance to break into show business was put on hold by World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and served as a flight instructor and test pilot. When the war ended, McMahon used the G.I. bill to study drama and speech at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. To support himself during that time, he hawked vegetable slicers on the Atlantic City boardwalk and the Midwestern state-fair circuit.
McMahon’s first broadcasting gig was in radio, but soon he turned his attentions to the up-and-coming medium of television. He played a circus clown on the show “Big Top,” hosted more than a dozen programs in Philadelphia and tackled announcing duties for the music showcase “Bandstand.” Just as the networks came calling, however, McMahon returned to active duty to serve in Korea. There he flew 85 reconnaissance missions in the Cessna OE Bird Dog. He eventually retired from the service with the rank of colonel.
After he returned home, McMahon joined “Who Do You Trust?” a game show originally hosted by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. The newer version was hosted by an up-and-coming comedian named Johnny Carson, and McMahon was hired to be the show’s announcer. When Carson was offered the opportunity to take over “The Tonight Show” in 1962, McMahon went with him.
For three decades and 6,583 shows, McMahon introduced Carson with the trademark opening: “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” He would then sit on Carson’s right and serve as his sidekick. Through skits and celebrity interviews, standup routines and musical numbers, McMahon always kept the tone of the show light with his humorous commentary and hearty guffaws. And when Carson retired from the show in 1992, McMahon did as well.
Despite a talent for playing second fiddle, McMahon enjoyed standing in the spotlight. In the 1960s and 1970s, he emceed the game shows “Concentration,” “Missing Links,” “Snap Judgment” and “Who Dunnit?”. From 1983 to 1995, he hosted the amateur talent show “Star Search,” which helped launch the careers of numerous entertainers, including Britney Spears, Drew Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, LeAnn Rimes and Sinbad. McMahon co-hosted “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” with his old friend Dick Clark, and helped raise millions during the annual “Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon.” McMahon also lent his voice and likeness to dozens of commercial advertisements, most notably as the pitchman for the American Family Publishers’ sweepstakes.
McMahon’s adventures in Hollywood were so extensive that he penned two memoirs — “For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times” (1998) and “Here’s Johnny!: My Memories of Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship” (2006) — as well as the nonfiction book “When Television was Young” (2007). His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 7000 Hollywood Blvd.
Privately, McMahon had a reputation for being a hardworking, stand-up guy with a penchant for imbibing. He played Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, at the 1978 Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, designed his own vodka and published “Ed McMahon’s Barside Companion,” a book that offered a “blend of ’round the bar games and bets, spirited stunts, jokes and tricks.” He even became known as “Mr. Budweiser” when he served as a spokesman for that beer company.
Celebrity suited McMahon, but fortune often slipped through his fingers. The last few years of his life were spent mired in pain and financial difficulty. In 2002, McMahon sued his insurance company, alleging that he and his wife Pamela were sickened by toxic mold that had spread through their Beverly Hills house. The McMahons also blame the mold for the death of their dog, Muffin. They won their legal battle a year later and received a $7 million settlement, but the money didn’t last for very long.
A fall in 2007 caused McMahon to suffer a broken neck, which required two operations. The pain from this injury kept him from working for nearly two years, which meant the unpaid bills quickly piled up. He even faced a possible foreclosure on his home, but was allowed to remain in the residence thanks to the kindness of strangers and private investors who learned of his troubles. In an attempt to make light of his situation, and to make extra money, McMahon appeared in a commercial with once-bankrupt rap artist MC Hammer. The ad, which aired during the 2009 Super Bowl, promoted a cash-for-gold business.
McMahon married three times and was father to six children. When asked by Larry King how he wanted to be remembered, McMahon said, “I don’t plan to have a headstone. I hope to be floating in the sea…but if I had a headstone my epitaph would be: ‘He was a good broadcaster and a great Marine!’”
Maila Nurmi, an actress and artist who became the queen of the B-movie scene in Los Angeles, died on Jan. 10. Cause of death was not released. She was 85.
Born Maila Elizabeth Syrjaniemi in Petsamo, Finland, Nurmi immigrated to America when she was just a toddler. Although she grew up in Ohio, Nurmi moved to New York in her late teens to try and break into show business. The actors and artists she met in Manhattan persuaded her to change her name and head to Hollywood. For Nurmi, the trappings of stardom were simply too enticing to pass up.
While auditioning for roles, Nurmi worked as a chorus girl and pin-up model. In 1953, she won a costume contest at the annual Bal Caribe Masquerade, an event that brought her to the attention of KABC-TV Channel 7 program director Hunt Stromberg Jr. He tracked her down months later and offered her a job as the host of a late-night horror program.
That’s how Nurmi became Vampira, a gothic enchantress reminiscent of Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons. Each week, the Black Madonna of Hollywood would appear on camera wearing a slinky black dress, blood-red lipstick and darkly mascaraed eyes, and introduce fright films like “Revenge of the Zombies” and “Devil Bat’s Daughter.”
Although “The Vampira Show” was canceled after about a year, Nurmi became a cult figure among B-movie buffs. Her legions of admirers launched fan clubs in her honor all over the world. Many felt she inspired the character of Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family,” which premiered about a decade later. Nurmi, however, believed her dark persona was stolen by Cassandra Peterson, an actress who created the horror movie hostess Elvira. She even filed a $10 million lawsuit against Peterson for pirating her trademark image, but lost the court battle.
Nurmi later appeared in several B-movies, including “Sex Kittens Go to College,” “The Beat Generation,” “The Magic Sword” and “The Big Operator.” She also made a memorable appearance in Ed Wood’s 1959 cult classic, “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” But these pictures didn’t pay the bills, and Nurmi was forced to support herself as a linoleum-layer, carpenter, housekeeper, clothing designer and antique shop owner. More recently, she painted pictures of Vampira that she sold on the Internet.
Privately, Nurmi was a self-described psychic with a talent for clairaudience, and a passionate advocate for animals rights. Her life story was chronicled in the 2006 documentary “Vampira: The Movie.”
Science is fun for everyone. That’s the message Donald Jeffry Herbert tried to convey to millions of children as “Mr. Wizard.”
Herbert made the subject of science seem both mysterious and magical. His weekly, half-hour educational program, “Watch Mr. Wizard,” which aired in black and white on NBC from 1951 to 1964, introduced young viewers to the joys of conducting experiments with simple household items. With the help of his young assistants, Mr. Wizard explained what makes a cake rise, how water comes out of a kitchen tap and why seashells sound like the ocean. He even showed kids how to cook a hot dog with a battery.
“Watch Mr. Wizard” won a Peabody Award and three Thomas Alva Edison National Mass Media Awards, and was reinvented on Nickelodeon in the 1980s as “Mr. Wizard’s World.” In both programs, Herbert eschewed a lab coat and professorial attitude. Instead his informal approach to teaching made science accessible, and instilled a sense of wonder in his audience. “Over the years, Don has been personally responsible for more people going into the sciences than any other single person in this country,” George Tressel, a National Science Foundation official, once said.
Born in Waconia, Minn., Herbert always had a passion for the theatre. In high school, he played the lead role in the school play; in college, he was the director of the Pioneer Players. He graduated from La Crosse State Teacher’s College with a degree in English and science, then spent the next several years honing his acting skills. He worked as a stage hand and actor for the Minnesota Stock Co., did summer stock with Nancy Davis (Reagan) and performed as magician and master of ceremonies in Winnipeg, Canada. He had just moved to New York City to break into the big time when World War II put a hold on his show business plans.
Herbert enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, and graduated from his training as a pilot and second lieutenant. He was shipped overseas, where he completed 56 bombing missions over northern Italy, Germany and Yugoslavia. For courage under fire, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters.
Upon his return to the states, Herbert moved to Chicago, where he worked as an actor, model and writer. He taught radio writing at the Chicago Radio Institute, and developed programs based on interviews he captured on his portable audio tape recorder. Many of those interviews ended up on the radio show “It’s Your Life.”
When Herbert created an early version of his “Mr. Wizard” show and presented it to potential advertisers, none of them were interested. Once he turned the program over to producer Charles Power, however, “Watch Mr. Wizard” found both a sponsor (The Cereal Institute) and a home (WMAQ, Chicago’s NBC affiliate). During its first year on the air, Herbert produced 28 live episodes. The following year, 1952, he produced 39 “Watch Mr. Wizard” episodes and began appearing on CBS as a progress reporter for “General Electric Theater.” After profiles of Herbert appeared in American Boy magazine, Science Digest and TV Guide, thousands of Mr. Wizard Science Clubs formed in the United States.
NBC canceled “Watch Mr. Wizard” in 1965, but Herbert continued his campaign to educate the youth of North America. He went to Canada and produced “Mr. Wizard,” a TV show that was carried on the CBC nationwide. He received grants from the National Science Foundation and The Arthur P. Sloane Foundation and used the money to make the “Experiment Series.” Herbert wrote/illustrated articles for the “Science for the Classroom From Mr. Wizard” series, and penned several books, including “Mr. Wizard’s 400 Experiments in Science” and “Mr. Wizard’s Supermarket Science.” He also created more than 100 “How About…” reports that were freely distributed to television stations.
In 1986, Herbert received a Golden Anniversary Award from Ohio State University, and a “Distinguished Television Science Reporting” honor from AAS/Westinghouse Science Journalism Awards. Five years later, he was given the Robert A, Millikan Award from the American Association or Physics Teachers for his “notable and creative contributions to the teaching of physics.” When he received the Council for Elementary Science International’s Science Advocate Award in 2000, an audience of 1,000 science teachers gave him a standing ovation.
Herbert died on June 12 of bone cancer. He was 89. Less than a week after his death, the U.S. House of Representatives honored him for his “profound public service and educational contributions.”
• Watch the Opening Credits for “Mr. Wizard’s World”
Benjamin “Bob” Clark, the Hollywood film director behind “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story,” died on April 4 in a car crash. He was 67.
Clark was born in New Orleans and raised in Birmingham, Ala., and South Florida. He won a football scholarship to Hillsdale College in Michigan, but turned down offers to play professional football in order to study theatre and creative writing at the University of Miami. Clark worked as an actor and stage director in several Miami playhouses after college, then entered the movie business as a low-budget filmmaker.
Clark originally specialized in horror movies and thrillers, directing pictures such as “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things,” “Deathdream,” “Black Christmas” and “Murder by Decree.” He switched to comedies in the 1980s, a move that brought him both fame and fortune.
In 1982, Clark directed and produced the sex farce, “Porky’s,” a film based on his experiences with five high school buddies in the 1950s. “Porky’s” earned an estimated $150 million domestically and spawned two sequels: “Porky’s II: The Next Day” and “Porky’s Revenge.”
The following year Clark co-wrote, produced and directed “A Christmas Story,” a coming-of-age film about a young boy’s quest for a Red Ryder air rifle. The picture only earned $19.3 million at the box office, but Generation X loved it. Today, “A Christmas Story” is considered a holiday classic, one that airs for 24 hours straight on TNT every Christmas Eve.
After the huge success of the “Porky’s” franchise and “A Christmas Story,” Clark’s career took a left turn. He spent the next two decades directing nearly a dozen feature films and TV movies, most of which were flops with critics and audiences. He also earned two Golden Raspberry Award nominations for worst director for the films “Rhinestone” and “SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2.”
In the early morning hours of April 4, Clark and his youngest son Ariel were traveling in a 1997 Infiniti Q30 on the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades, Calif., when they were hit head on by a 2007 GMC Yukon that steered into their lane. Ariel, a 22-year-old college student, musician, juggler, gymnast, actor and part-time card dealer, was also killed in the crash. Both men died at the scene. The driver of the SUV, Hector Velazquez-Nava, and a female passenger were transported to UCLA Medical Center with minor injuries.
“I had the extreme pleasure of working under Bob Clark early in my career,” said producer Peter Billingsley, who starred in “A Christmas Story.” “From that memorable experience, Bob became a great friend and mentor whose influence has guided me both personally and professionally. He will be sorely missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”
• Listen to a Tribute From NPR
• Watch Clips From “A Christmas Story” [Update - April 19, 2007: Hector Velazquez-Nava, the 24-year-old illegal immigrant who crashed into Clark and his son, killing them both, was arrested and booked on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, operating a motor vehicle without a driver's license and gross vehicular manslaughter. He pleaded not guilty to two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.] [Update - April 20, 2007: Clark was slated to receive the 2007 Golden State Award on April 21 for excellence in directing at The California Independent Film Festival. Officials at the festival say they plan to honor Clark's career by turning the event into a celebration of his film work.]
Richard Jeni, a standup comedian who regularly toured the country and starred in several HBO comedy specials, committed suicide on March 10. He was 49.
Born Richard John Colangelo, the Brooklyn native graduated from Hunter College with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Growing up in Bensonhurst, he enjoyed making people laugh by doing Redd Foxx routines. In the 1980s, he adopted the stage name Richard Jeni and began performing his act in small bars and comedy clubs in New York City. Recollections of his Catholic boyhood, commentary about political and social issues and sarcastic observations of his romantic difficulties appealed to audiences and soon he was playing to sold-out crowds all over the country.
Jeni came to national prominence in 1990 with “Richard Jeni: Boy From New York City,” a Showtime special that received three nominations for Cable ACE Awards. When its follow-up, “Crazy From the Heat,” aired two years later, it attracted the highest ratings in the network’s history.
In the early 1990s, Jeni began writing and performing comedy specials for HBO. His show, “Platypus Man,” won a Cable ACE Award for best standup comedy special, and formed the basis for a sitcom of the same name. That program, which ran on UPN, was canceled after one season. Jeni’s final HBO special, “A Big Steaming Pile of Me,” aired during the 2005-2006 season.
When he wasn’t on the road, Jeni regularly performed on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and later with Jay Leno. He made guest appearances on the TV shows “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Married: With Children,” and wrote material for the 2005 Academy Awards. On the big screen, Jeni earned laughs as Jim Carrey’s best friend in the box office hit, “The Mask,” and landed small roles in “The Aristocrats,” “National Lampoon’s Dad’s Week Off” and “An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn.” Jeni also hosted A&E’s “Caroline’s Comedy Hour” for two years, performed at the White House, won an American Comedy Award for Funniest Male Stand-Up and was ranked on Comedy Central’s List of 100 Top Comedians of All Time.
Earlier this year, doctors diagnosed Jeni with clinical depression and suffering from bouts of psychotic paranoia. On the morning of March 10, police responded to a 9-1-1 call from Jeni’s long-time girlfriend, Amy Murphy. When they found the comic in his West Hollywood home, he was alive but gravely injured from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face. Jeni died less than an hour later at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
“He was a beautiful person, an incredibly brilliant and talented man, and in the end, unfortunately, I think his brilliance might have played a part in what happened,” Murphy said. “He said he just didn’t believe anything was going to make him get better; he didn’t see it happening.”
• Jeni’s MySpace Page
• Listen to a Tribute From NPR
• Jeni on Political Extremes
Walker Edmiston, a veteran actor and puppeteer who worked in Hollywood for six decades, died on Feb. 15 of complications from cancer. He was 81.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., Edmiston always had a talent for mimicry. One of the first voices he mastered and performed for his family was that of actor Lionel Barrymore. After World War II ended, Edmiston moved to Los Angeles to study acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse and break into show business.
Edmiston was performing in a play when someone overheard one of his impressions. The 21-year-old actor was then introduced to animation pioneer Walter Lantz, who needed a replacement voice for the cartoon character Wally Walrus. Through that job, Edmiston met producer Bob Clampett and landed a $75/week gig providing voices and working a hand puppet on the classic kiddie show “Time for Beany.”
Once “Beany” ended its run, Edmiston served as the replacement host on “Fireman Fred.” His witty ad libs and creative puppetry wowed children all over Southern California, and earned him the opportunity to host his own kiddie show. “The Walker Edmiston Show,” which aired on local television in the 1950s and 1960s, featured puppets such as Calli the Cat, Kingsley the Lion and Ravenswood the Buzzard.
Over the next 20 years, Edmiston continued working in children’s television, providing the voices of characters on shows created by Sid and Marty Krofft. He gave voice to Dr. Blinkey and Orson the Vulture on “H.R. Pufnstuf,” Sparky the Firefly on “Bugaloos,” Enik on “Land of the Lost” and Sigmund Ooze on “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.” His first credited role in TV animation was as con man J. Montague Gypsum in a 1962 episode of “The Flintstones.” Edmiston later lent his vocal talents to numerous cartoons and animated films, such as “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends,” “The Smurfs,” “Jem,” “The Gummi Bears,” “Transformers” and “The Great Mouse Detective.” In recent years, he voiced Ernie the Keebler Elf on cookie and cracker commercials.
When he wasn’t doing voice work, Edmiston acted in a wide variety of TV shows, including “Maverick,” “Green Acres,” “Get Smart,” “Batman,” “The Monkees,” “The Wild Wild West,” “The Big Valley,” “Gunsmoke,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Dallas,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Knots Landing.” He spent nearly 20 years performing on “Adventures in Odyssey,” a radio series produced by the conservative nonprofit group Focus on the Family, and recorded two records: “Mr. Grillon,” a parody of “Gunsmoke,” and “I Dreamt I Saw Khrushchev (in a Pink Cadillac),” a novelty song released in 1959. Edmiston did half of the song in the Russian premier’s voice and the other half as Barky the Dog.
• Watch a Commercial Featuring Edmiston as the Voice of Ernie the Keebler Elf