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The End Game : Guessing which celebrities will pass on is sport for 'dead pool' players.

August 23, 1995|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While thousands of teary-eyed, tie-dyed fans were bewailing Jerry Garcia's death, Gary Sherwin of Huntington Beach was congratulating himself for spotting the Grim Reaper over Garcia's shoulder eight months ago.

It's the same way Don Poole felt upon learning that beloved actress Jessica Tandy died last September.

While actor Hume Cronyn was tenderly mourning his wife of 52 years, Poole was patting himself on the back.

"It's not like I could have prevented it," the 34-year-old advertising executive from Denver says, chuckling. "I certainly didn't cause her death."

No, but he did celebrate it in a strange fashion, as do pockets of people nationwide who take part in one of the most ghastly pastimes ever devised.

The parlor game goes by different names in different places, but "dead pools," or "ghoul pools," seem to be growing in popularity as this morbid millennium wanes.

They play it in Orange County. They play it in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle and Denver. They play it in Glen Arm, Md., and Audubon, Penn.

Writers, politicians, lawyers, librarians, psychologists, teachers, dentists, housewives--all manner of people participate, and few sound repentant.

Rules vary slightly from pool to pool, but the grisly gist is generally the same.

On Jan. 1, each player makes a list of 10 famous people unlikely to last until Dec. 31.

(To make it sporting, players often kick a few dollars into a jackpot, as with an office football pool.)

At the end of the year, whoever's got the most cadavers wins.

Most pools are discreet; some are deeply secretive. Commodities traders in Chicago are said to be underground players, while a small New York newspaper reported last year that employees of the Cigna Insurance Co. are closet "Deadheads."

"Today, everything is fair game for humor," Poole says. "I think it mirrors the culture, that not much of anything is taken seriously anymore."

On the contrary, many pool players are intensely serious.

Webb Matthews, a Denver editor whose bumper crop of six corpses took first place in a nationwide pool last year, keeps meticulous celebrity necrologies, along with a tip sheet on who's feeling under par.

In his personal death data base, Matthews notes the suddenly canceled concert, the bestowing of a Lifetime Achievement Award, the wracking cough.

"We've even got them broken down into several categories," he says. "Bad Liver: Mantle, Nabors, Crosby. Guys Who Can't Live Without Their Longtime Mates: Cronyn, Jimmy Stewart."

After a successful 1994 in which he forecast caskets for Ezra Taft Benson, John Curry, Randy Shilts, Joseph Cotten, Burt Lancaster and Cab Calloway, Matthews says he is stuck this year with a roster of 90-year-olds who refuse to go.

Last week, he chastised himself bitterly for not picking Phil Harris, the lovable bandleader and Jack Benny sidekick who died at 89.

"He was the last guy off our list," Matthews groans. "I should've gone with my first instinct."

Tasteless in the extreme, dead pools may do more than mirror a tasteless culture, sociologists say.

After years of deifying celebrities, society may be due for what Wall Streeters would call a "correction."

"We want to give [celebrities] all this attention," says USC professor Leo Braudy, author of "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History." "But at the same time, we resent them for taking all this attention. This is the audience getting the power back."

While there have been dead pools dating at least as far back as the 1920s, the time is ripe, experts say, for some irreverent rebellion against Hollywood's monolithic myth-making machine.

"Any time a celebrity is brought low," says C. Allen Haney, a University of Houston sociology professor who specializes in death and dying issues, "the common man can rejoice."

Rejoice is something like what Los Angeles public relations executive David Dickstein did upon learning that TV's wholesome matriarch, Harriet Nelson, succumbed to congestive heart failure at her Laguna home last October.

More satisfaction followed with news that singer Cab Calloway--he of the cheery "Hi De Hi De Hi De Hi" mantra--suffered a severe stroke and died last November.

In the months ahead, Dickstein will be closely watching the skin tones and public schedules of Mick Jagger, Adam Rich, Tiny Tim, Spiro Agnew, Alec Guiness, Abe Vigoda, Gene Mauch, Jane Withers, Rose Marie and Red Buttons--"a darling man, and I hope he doesn't, but I just have a vibe."

Foretelling the demise of Calloway and Nelson gives Dickstein a slight edge against his sole pool opponent, the Garcia-guessing Sherwin.

Uniquely, the Dickstein-Sherwin pool doesn't run annually, but in three-year cycles. Also, it's a small affair, a one-on-one competition between two highly competitive friends.

The idea for the pool was born 11 years ago, when Dickstein and Sherwin were strolling the Seal Beach Pier, contemplating la morte.

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