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The Column: Death of '50s heartthrob Tab Hunter prompts meditation on names

Credit for the tinsel-izing of otherwise perfectly good names goes to Hollywood talent agent Henry Willson.

Actor Tab Hunter, with actress Tuesday Weld, at

Actor Tab Hunter, with actress Tuesday Weld, at a dinner reception in Los Angeles on July 27, 1959.  Photo Credit: AP

Arthur Gelien died earlier this month at 86. Long gone are Roy Harold Scherer and Francis Timothy McCown. Once, they were big.

Gelien became Tab Hunter. On the screen, Scherer was Rock Hudson. McCown gained fame as Rory Calhoun.

Credit for the tinsel-izing of otherwise perfectly good names goes to talent agent Henry Willson, according to The Associated Press.

“We’ve got to find something to tab you with,” Willson supposedly said to Gelien. “Do you have any hobbies?”

“I ride horses. Hunters,” Gelien said.

“That’s it!” said Willson. “We’ll call you Tab Hunter.”

A genius, this Willson. A star was born.

In the 1950s, young women eagerly risked atrial fibrillation to see Hunter, blond and boyish, in movies like “Battle Cry,” “The Burning Hills” and “Damn Yankees!”

He was, as the obituaries said, a heartthrob, for sure. One year, fans sent 62,000 valentines.

Much later, Hunter acknowledged he was gay and wed movie producer Allan Glaser. Being “true to myself” would have been “impossible in 1953,” the actor said in his 2005 memoir, “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star.”

Things have changed, and for the better. You have to keep the faith. Here’s to progress.

Let’s get back to names. My own — Frederick — may be slouching toward extinction.

The Social Security Administration reports that in 2017, “Frederick” ranked No. 494, which amounts to 0.030 percent of all male births – in other words, not even close to 1 percent of all male births. Only 580 boys began life as Fred.

Other names from the Fab 1940s likewise are slumping.

Stanley was No. 702 last year. Jerome, 837. Ernest, 967. Arnold didn’t even rank in 2017, according to a Social Security Administration website, but was 901 in 2004. Earl last showed up in 2006 at 992. Sidney? Most recent figures provided by the government were for 2013. Poor Sid straggled in at 948.

Sorry, fellas. Looks like we’re cooked.

That they perhaps were naming one of the last Freds in U.S. history probably did not occur to my mother, Winnie, or father, himself Frederick John Bruning.

Dad was not a boastful man but Winnie and Fred had waited 16 years for their first and only child. No doubt, my father thought it only fair that he claim naming rights.

Winnie apparently felt the same.

On one disconcerting occasion, Mom and Dad said that, if a girl, I would have been “Winifred.”

I must have been 13 or 14 when this startling disclosure was made one evening. “Winifred? Really?”

Information so potentially damaging must never fall into the wrong hands, I thought. If the news leaked, neighborhood wisenheimers would re-brand me “Winifred” on the spot. Disaster.

To be honest, Fred wouldn’t have been my first choice, either, had anyone asked.

Nevertheless, I coped.

Helping was the popularity of the name among young people my age at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Prospect Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. At the time, the congregation was sturdily German — Werner Jentsch served as pastor; Henry Bottenberg played the organ — and it seemed as if there were Freds in every pew.

In the mid 1950s, some pals and I had the idea of forming a rock-and-roll group. Bill Boesenberg was lead singer of the Mello-Teens. Crooning discordant doo-wops in the background were Fred Boehm, Fred Palm (Swedish-Slovakian, but we made an exception) and me, Frederick John Bruning Jr.

We had no more success as a vocal ensemble than we would have as a touring band of trapeze artists. The name Fred proved to have no particular audience appeal.

Where was Henry Willson when I needed him?

“Freddie boy, we gotta’ do something about the name,” he would have said. “No sizzle, if you get my drift.”

“I get your drift, believe me, Mr. Willson.”

“You have hobbies?” the agent might have asked.

“Stamp collecting,” I would have answered.

“Anything else?”

“I built a hi-fi from a kit.”

“Who made the kit?”

“A company called Knight.”

“Bingo,” Willson would have rejoiced. “Kit Knight! Kit Knight and the Mello-Teens. Top Ten, here we come.”

It would have taken a voice transplant as well as a new name to make that happen. As a singer, I was a terrific stamp collector.

Besides, I have always wondered how celebrities adjust to first being, say, Alphonso D’Abruzzo and subsequently Alan Alda. Is there psychic damage? Are you sometimes D’Abruzzo and others Alda? Are you both? Neither?

Exhausting.

This is not the time of life for identity issues. For better or worse, I’ll stick with Fred. I almost have him figured out.

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