DAVIDSON – Smiling wide, the skin around 84-year-old Jim Kerr’s eyes crinkles when he recalls early days spent as an actor and performer in Hollywood.
Born in Lynn, Mass., Kerr went to high school with Harry Agganis, a star quarterback at Boston University and later a baseman for the Boston Red Sox. He’s interviewed in a 2012 documentary about the athlete called “Agganis: The Golden Greek-Excellence to the End.”
Now an art teacher with the Davidson Parks and Recreation Department, Kerr’s first love was music.
As a young man, he was a protégé of one of the three major disc jokeys in Boston, Alan Dary.
“He would take me on record hops they’d have in different towns, and I would go and sing,” he said.
On one such trip to The Lenox Hotel, Kerr met famed Italian-American singer Tony Bennett.
After graduating from Suffolk University with degrees in art and education, Kerr served in the Army during the Korean War, singing for the troops. He later attended Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design on the G.I. Bill.
“I had a tuxedo with a serial number on the back of the lapel, and I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ as part of the last act,” he said.
Eventually, the performer journeyed in 1956 to Palm Springs, Calif., to live with his sister and work at a men’s clothing store.
While sitting at the bar at the Rossmore Hotel, Kerr received an opportunity to sing on stage, resulting in a nine-month performing gig.
He was quickly signed to Bob Hope Enterprises, leading to appearances on “The Tonight Show” and at the 1961 Academy Awards.
“I knew someone who knew Clark Gable,” he said. “He told me Clark Gable was a character. If he didn’t like a date he was with, he’d throw his false teeth on the table while they were eating.”
Kerr also created a comedy duo with Jamie Farr, who went on to star in “MASH.”
A skiing trip resulting in an ankle injury still haunts him. Set to sing on NBC’s “The Revlon Mirror Theater,” he had to cancel and watch his replacement.
“I’m watching this guy go like this with his legs,” he said, flowing his hands together. “That guy, Elvis Presley, took my place.”
Kerr also met Frank Sinatra in 1956 at a Palm Springs hotel.
“Frank came up in a black, convertible Cadillac, whizzed in with the top down,” he recalled. “I shook his hand and told him ‘you’re the greatest.’ He had blue eyes that looked right through you.”
“Whatever Jim has done, he’s excelled at,” said friend Ray Zeman. “In Hollywood he’s excelled. He was in the automotive industry and excelled in that area, and in the sports world, too.”
Kerr and his wife, Shirley, moved to Davidson in 2003 to be closer to their son, Gary, and grandson, Mitchell.
The whole family is helping with Kerr’s watercolor reception, which will include $3,000 worth of door prizes.
“I think I’ll sing a patriotic song like ‘God Bless America,’ that night,” Kerr promised.
Want to meet Jim Kerr?
Jim Kerr is showcasing his art students' work in the exhibit "The Beautiful World of Watercolor." The exhibit opens with a free reception 6-8 p.m. June 7 at Davidson Town Hall, 216 S. Main St.