Living life to the Maxx

Half the fun of this job is running into people like Maxx Fairbanks.

Maxx introduced himself via email. He’d spotted an article in last month’s issue about the filming of a movie here called The Gypsy Moths. He wanted to pass along his own connection with it, which went something like this:

In 1968, when the movie was made, he was a crop duster and part-time photographer living near Lake Afton. One of his friends, an attorney and “consigliere” to one of Wichita’s most prominent business families, heard that Burt Lancaster, star of The Gypsy Moths, was jogging at the Southeast High track every morning to take off a few pounds. Maxx headed over to the school to snap a picture. As it turns out, he couldn’t bring himself to bother the star of The Birdman of Alcatraz, Elmer Gantry and other hits.

However, he added, a few months earlier he had taken photographs of a local dancer who managed to get a small, non-speaking part in The Gypsy Moths. And she parlayed that role into a job in Las Vegas and, later, the movies.

Something about Maxx’s email – probably his use of “consigliere” – intrigued me, so I asked if I could publish it as a letter to the editor. Maxx said yes, also agreeing we should probably not specify exactly what kind of movies the dancer had found work in.

A few days later, Maxx showed up in person to talk about a completely different topic. He had an object to sell. Only it wasn’t any ordinary object, it was the butcher’s block from Larcher’s, the storied upscale grocery that operated on Central Avenue back in the day. He wanted to know if we would consider selling the butcher block on commission.

I should mention here that Maxx looks a little like the aforementioned Lancaster in his later, Atlantic City days. Shades, silver hair, white shirt and pants — you get the picture. Regarding the butcher’s block, I said I’d think about it. 

That business conducted, Maxx told me a little about his life, in which many interesting things have happened. 

An Oklahoma native, Maxx left for California after high school for a summer job at Disneyland. When that ended he worked for the Beverly Hills telephone company, which took him into the homes of Doris Day and other movie stars. 

Bitten by the acting bug, he made his way east to New York City to study the craft. He was there just long enough to audition a kind of Stanley Kowalski scene for a couple of acting coaches. They told him he was terrible.

He moved to Wichita and worked as a crop duster. Some oil men hired him to fly them around in a Beechcraft Twin, which was more lucrative than crop dusting.

He met a lot of lawyers, businessmen and other interesting people flying. One day, for instance, he heard about a sweet little PT-22 airplane for sale. He telephoned the seller, who had Maxx meet him in Valley Center. Maxx offered to write a check on the spot. The seller responded that he didn’t want any so-and-so check, jumped in his Cadillac and sped off. My God, one of Maxx’s friends told him later, that was famed Wichita underworld figure George Poulos, and the plane was probably stolen. A few weeks later, a newspaper story appeared confirming that fact.

Maxx got married. When a son arrived, his wife convinced him that photography was a safer business than flying, so he opened a studio, which paid the bills for decades. He did the usual wedding and high school portraits and also produced calendars for oil companies featuring attractive young women wearing less than your typical roustabout. He had the best models in Wichita. He was lucky in that respect.

After his first wife died, in 1989, Maxx married again. He and his young wife traveled quite a bit, then returned to Wichita to open a nightclub on West Central called Bogie’s. Maxx furnished the place with forged autographed photos of movie stars and a piano that he claimed had appeared in The African Queen, the 1951 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. It was all in fun, although some people actually took photographs of themselves with the piano. Eventually, some of Maxx’s young staff had too much fun and the place closed down. That marriage ended.

Which brings us back to the butcher’s block, which you see in the accompanying photograph. After Larcher’s closed, it was acquired by one of the store’s best customers, a local lawyer and gourmand. Maxx inherited it from him.

I’ve decided to take Maxx up on his offer, mainly because I want to see the butcher’s block go to the home of an appreciative foodie. Heck, I’d buy it myself if our kitchen and checkbook had the room. Maxx wants $2,000 for it. He says he’ll make a sizeable donation to the active age if it sells. I believe him.

If you’re interested, you can reach him through me at joe@theactiveage.com.

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