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Just a 'Garden Party' : Tribute: Worldwide fans converge on North Hollywood to celebrate the rock 'n' roller who died in a 1985 plane crash.

April 10, 1993|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That terrible night when Ricky died, Lola Wuttke buried her face in her pillow and cried her eyes out. No matter that she was a 47-year-old woman with a husband and family, she wept like a teen-ager--the way she did the first time she heard the singer's twangy ballads.

Because this was Ricky Nelson. Crooner. Guitar plucker. Golden boy. Heart swooner. Snap. Just like that, he was dead at age 45 after a fiery plane crash in Texas while en route to a New Year's Eve performance in 1985.

On Friday, the tears still welled in Wuttke's eyes as she met at a North Hollywood hotel with scores of other Nelson fans for an "International Garden Party," a celebration of the life and times of the singer and television heartthrob who came to represent the pre-British-invasion American rock scene.

The Virginia woman had recently tasted some heartache of her own. In recent months, she lost her husband, her mother and her younger sister--the stuff of a Ricky Nelson tear-jerker.

"Whenever I was really down, I would just listen to Ricky's records and he helped carry me through," said Wuttke, now 54, wearing a pink dress and a matching Minnie Pearl hat with a pink rose. "Times have been tough for me. But I know that if I didn't come to pay my respects to Ricky, my husband would have come down from heaven and kicked me one good."

Such is the devotion of the fans who flocked to Los Angeles for a three-day Ricky-Fest sponsored by the Ricky Nelson International Club of Great Britain. They came from Australia and London, from West Germany and Wales, Norway and North Carolina, from Tuscaloosa and Tampa, each wearing their Ricky T-shirts showing that boyish grin, humming their favorite Ricky songs, flaunting autographed Ricky glossies, recounting Ricky recollections, and shelling out big bucks for Ricky memorabilia.

Nelson, who grew up in millions of American living rooms on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" television show before becoming a teen-age rock 'n' roll idol, had sold 35 million records and had 17 Top 10 hits by age 22. Although his career dipped after the show's demise, the singer is alive and well, strumming his guitar, in the hearts and Walkmans of his thousands of fans worldwide.

"But we're not crackpots," said Harry Kershaw, a former police officer and vice president of the British fan club. "We're not like the Elvis Presley people who maintain that the King is still alive somewhere. We know Rick's dead. In fact, he's buried right near here in Forest Lawn Cemetery."

That cemetery plot is part of the Saturday tour that will take Ricky fans--many of whom are making their first trip to the United States--through the highlights of Ricky Land. That means the Walk of Fame to see his star. To Hollywood's Hard Rock Cafe to ogle his guitar, to Hollywood High to see where he plucked his first notes. And perhaps to the house where the television show was filmed.

Peggy Ann O'Neal, the club's U.S. vice president, described Ricky's appeal.

"I just identified with this burr-headed little kid. He was a product of my era," she said. "I fell in love with him before I ever heard his silky voice. And as he moved on to rock and country and everything else, I just grew up with him."

As with other fans, she was hit hard by Nelson's death.

"I would just play his records over and over," O'Neal said. "My family would laugh at me because I just felt this huge sense of loss. The club enabled me to identify with people who feel like I do. We're not a bunch of ditsy, screaming women like those Beatles followers. We've become good friends."

And rabid fans. Some have named children after Ricky. Others have decorated living rooms solely with pictures of his image. Still others listen to no other music than Nelson's 53 albums and 300 songs. In Norway, they still sing along to a Norwegian version of his 1970s hit "Garden Party"--translated, of course, to "Kjendis Party."

For many British fans, Nelson's popularity lies solely within the music, because the "Ozzie and Harriet" television show never played before such island audiences. But in Australia, Rick was a member of the family.

"I was glued to the television when he came on. I would just lock myself in my room and ogle at him," said Australian Sylvia Heffernan. "He was just a charismatic and quiet-natured young man. Sure, he wore blue jeans and wiggled his hips. But he was acceptable to mums and dads. Not like that Elvis."

Speaking of Elvis, the King look-alike Chance Tinden of the Antelope Valley showed up at the Ricky bash because he felt a kinship with Nelson fans.

"Elvis and Ricky were friends," said Tinden, who has appeared in Europe, the United States and Japan in eulogy to Presley. "They were icons of the 1950s. But while Elvis was the mean old king of rock, Ricky was softer, the gentle boy next door.

"He was the good compared to Elvis' evil. And I think it's important to celebrate the both of them."

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