The Kidnapping

Reading time 5 minutes

It was Friday evening, April 1971.  The phone rang.  The voice on the other end said, “Hi Russ, this is Bob Cummings, from Hollywood.  I want to make sure that you watch the morning show on TV, next Monday morning.  Your uncle Fred and I will be guests at 9:00 AM, eastern time.”  Bob was getting some dental work done by my favorite uncle, Fred Miller, and Bob’s favorite dentist from Altoona, Pennsylvania.  Bob had a plan and wanted me to see it, without fail.

But first, I’ll explain how I knew Bob Cummings. We were introduced by my uncle Fred, who wanted us to know each other, since we both had common interests in airplanes and motor homes. Bob was a flying instructor officer for the US Army Air Force in 1942. I had been flying for about 15 years, but had not as yet bought my first motorhome. I was still deliberating on which kind to buy.  At the behest of my uncle, I wrote to Bob and asked his opinion.

He replied immediately with a hand written letter, describing the things I should know.  He related several happenings to me, which were riotously funny. I felt like I was reading a script for his TV syndicated sitcom, “The Bob Cummings Show”, popular in the 70s.

I must first tell you one part of his letter, not relevant to this story.  On Bob’s first motorhome trip, across country in the late 1960s, he parked his motorhome in a Chicago shopping center parking lot. The temperature dropped to 25 degrees during the night, and the heater ran out of propane and stopped working. The plumbing lines froze, including the holding tank black water dump valve. That might be understandable. There’s just for a little spice to the story. While he and his then fourth wife, Mary Elliott, were starting to leave the parking lot in the unheated motorhome, he discovered they had been intentionally blocked.  A gang of rioting demonstrators blocked them in with two cars, front and back. The participants decided to rock his motorhome back and forth, in an effort to turn it over.  He was saved only by the arrival of the fire department that scattered the crowd just before it rolled over.  But that’s another story.  Back to uncle Fred and Bob.

Fred’s son, (my cousin), Emma the housekeeper and Bob were all in on a. They rescheduled all of uncle Fred’s patient appointments in the dental office. Since his son was also a dentist, he covered the rescheduled patients.  Emma packed Fred’s suitcase and quietly smuggled it into Bob Cummings’ rental car. Fred would have all he needed for a good week’s vacation, one he didn’t know he was going to experience.  Bob convinced Fred to take a ride in his new twin-engine model Super 18 Beechcraft. That’s why Bob called me, to make sure I would see the show. It was Fred’s 75th birthday.  He was about to celebrate it on a national TV morning show from Orlando.  Bob was featured as the invited guest for Monday morning, and Fred would be his sidekick guest.

Bob many times impersonated an “old timer” on his TV show. He introduced Fred as the model for his character. Fred instantly became a celebrity.  He even hammed it up with an exaggerated old-timer act himself, that he used to entertain family and friends.  He was a big hit.  Members in the audience asked for his autograph, including the TV host’s. It was an exciting unexpected happening for Fred.  Until the day uncle Fred died, he repeated that story to anyone who would listen, included all of his patients. He was now a celebrity.

Uncle Fred had been the guest speaker at a dentist’s convention in England. He regaled the British audience with special dental techniques and his trip to Florida with Bob Cummings.  The Hollywood movie actor was well known in England.  Fred’s favorite question after his appearances was, “Did you see me on TV with Bob Cummings?” At the end of the convention, Fred died while boarding his airplane in London returning to USA.

Robert Orville Cummings, (Bob) died at age 81 of kidney failure.  During his movie career, he won an Oscar for the best single actor performance.  I never met him personally, but we were pen pals, and I have his autographed picture.  I remember his saying one time, “Hey did you see me on TV with my dentist, Fred Miller from Altoona, Pennsylvania?”