Maybe it was the lousy 50 bucks he got for recording the multimillion-selling "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts" back in 1949.
Or maybe it was the measly $119 a week he pulled down for hosting "Look Up & Live!," an early, early Sunday-morning religious TV talk show in the mid-'50s.
Or maybe it was the entire year of 1956, when he sat by his non-ringing phone in dismal downtown Manhattan, contemplating poverty and the end of his show-biz career at age 31.
The exact moment that 63-year-old Merv Griffin bucked up his courage a la Scarlett O'Hara and decided that he would never be poverty-stricken again has been lost in time. The point is that he decided.
Nowadays, he sits out in the tennis pavilion of his walled-in Eden in Beverly Hills and laughs about those days when people could take advantage of the ambitious Catholic kid from San Mateo. His familiar cackle rises above the racket of contractors hammering and drilling and remodeling the 10,000-square-foot mansion he picked up through probate for a mere $5 million last year. MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman and his wife, Edie, live up the block. Denver oilman Marvin Davis and his wife, Barbara, live across the street.
"I couldn't retire if I wanted to," Griffin said. "The areas I'm involved in are so varied. It's not just the performing aspects of my life."
Griffin could definitely afford to retire. According to Forbes magazine's annual roster of America's richest 400 individuals, Mervyn Edward Griffin is worth about $300 million--give or take a few million. His net worth is up $65 million from 1986, according to the magazine. That was the same year he sold his Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola for $250 million.
"That price has never been confirmed," said Kimberly Wells, Griffin's publicist.
"I'll confirm it--and there's more to come," Griffin interrupted, nibbling at a slab of pound cake.
There are four Griffin movies in pre-production. There are his four radio stations, the nation's largest closed-circuit TV system and his extensive real estate holdings, all overseen by his wholly owned Griffin Co. There are "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!," the cash-cow game shows he invented and owned under the Merv Griffin Enterprises banner. When he sold Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola, he kept a little something for himself, though--a five-year agreement that requires Griffin to continue personally coming up with the consonants and vowels that Vanna White flips over for Middle America.
"I mean, I work for Coca-Cola under an employment contract, and I still do the puzzles on 'Wheel of Fortune' and I still supervise both 'Wheel' and 'Jeopardy!'," he said.
Griffin may easily be one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood, but ego does not live on currency alone. That's why he's back on the tube tonight at 10 with a schmaltz-talk hour airing over NBC entitled "Secrets Women Never Share." He pops up again Tuesday as one of the co-hosts of "The 12th Annual Circus of the Stars." His 23-year-old son, Tony, appears as a trapeze act on that CBS special, which airs at 9 p.m.
And it doesn't stop there.
He did a stint with old talk-show rival Johnny Carson last week on "The Tonight Show," plugging his upcoming return to network television for the first time in 16 years. He's producing a made-for-TV feature entitled "Wheel of Fortune--The Movie." And he's still trying to peddle a Big Band pilot called "Cocoanut Ballroom" featuring the one-time Freddy Martin Orchestra singer conducting his own musical group, the Mervtones.
"If we ever sell it (as a series), maybe we'll shoot in the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton," he said. "It's got a huge ballroom and it'd make a perfect setting!"
And why not? It won't cost anything. Griffin's latest purchase, which cannot be discussed "for contractual reasons," according to Wells, is the deed to the 578-room Beverly Hilton Hotel. After losing out to the Sultan of Brunei in a bidding war for the Beverly Hills Hotel in October, Griffin outbid a consortium of Japanese businessmen for the Hilton flagship three weeks ago. He is rumored to have paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million for it.
"The first thing we're gonna do is get room service down from 45 minutes to 12 minutes," he joked.
In the meantime, Griffin's not waiting around for the networks to wise up to the marketability of "Cocoanut Ballroom."
"I made it, but I can't get anybody to buy it because they're so concerned with demographics that they're afraid it might skew . . . now there's a great show-business word . . . skew 'old.'
"So network people come and say: 'Well, if you add younger people to it, maybe.' But it was such a departure from everything that you see on television right now. We did it and it's a one-hour show. The most remarkably entertaining show. But, you see, networks are committed to demographics and research and that's why everything you see on television in the way of entertainment is the same. Because they research it."