With a new set of feet,
the always upbeat
Gene ‘Dancing Machine’ Patton
busts some new moves
By Joe Piasecki
A celebrity, a family man and a role model to hundreds, Gene Patton is
certainly no ordinary guy.
He still lives in the same modest Altadena home he bought more than 30
years ago, even though Patton, now 70, captured the eyes of America
moving and grooving as “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine,” a
regular on the infamously wild 1970s television phenomenon known as
“The Gong Show.”
On that program, regulars like Patton joined amateur acts that often
crossed lines of talent and taste, and performers would be cut off
when celebrity judges hit a massive Korean gong with a rubber mallet
to signify the end of the act.
The former John Muir High School janitor rose from behind the scenes
as his union’s first black prop man to the status of
“national hero,” as the show’s producer and host,
Chuck Barris, put it in his book “Confessions of a Dangerous
Mind,” which recently turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.
It seems anyone who has known Patton will tell you that he never
complained about anything, and maybe that’s what really makes
him so remarkable.
Two years ago, Patton lost both his legs to diabetes in a long and
painful process that could have broken anyone’s spirit, a
struggle that recently ended in triumph when “The Dancing
Machine” learned to walk again.
At one point in the process, plagued with excruciating pain for weeks
while recovering from surgery, with scars that it seemed would never
heal, it was Patton’s famous good attitude that probably saved
“I didn’t know that there were 10 or 15 people there dying
of cancer. … You think, man, I’m not doing bad at all. All
that’s wrong with me is I’m getting a little
shorter,” said Patton, who finally took his first new steps
earlier this year with the help of life-like feet fitted to his shiny
steel prosthetic legs.
“For him to get up and walk is amazing,” said 24-year-old
Merissa Haddad, a physical therapist at USC’s Pasadena
Rehabilitation Center who has been helping Patton walk for a month and
In fact, while learning to walk again, the always upbeat Patton took
time out to lend his support to others going through their own
“He’s just a beautiful man, a great person. If
you’re down or sad he’s one of those guys who can bring
your spirits back to life. Knowing that a man can do that [fight to
walk again] and call someone else … it’s amazing,”
said five-time world champion pro-boxer Johnny Tapia, who Patton
supported as Tapia recovered from a near-lethal drug overdose in
Family and friends are amazed at his constantly joyful disposition.
“He takes everything better than any guy I’ve ever
seen,” said Darrell Evans, who spent 20 years in Major League
Baseball and grew up with Patton watching his games at John Muir and
Pasadena City College. Evans’ mother, Ellie, still lives in his
childhood home, just a block away from Patton.
“The only way we got through it was he kept his spirits
up,” said his daughter, Carol, 49, one of eight children Patton
But it’s friends like Evans and many others, including just
about anybody who works or has worked at NBC, that Patton gives credit
“I always had a bright outlook on life, but let me tell you,
it’s everybody pulling for you,” he said.
Dancing over the line
Not everybody was always pulling for Patton, who battled intense
racial discrimination and hatred for much of his early life.
“If I would have been agreeing with the man upstairs, I
wouldn’t be in the position I’m in,” said Patton of
Born in Berkeley at the height of the Great Depression, Patton grew up
in a place unlike the better-known Berkeley of the 1960s —
“a very conservative, funny-style town,” he called it.
Throughout his time at Berkeley High School, he and other students
were largely prevented from playing sports and participating in other
activities. As early as age 17, Patton faced several physical attacks
and couldn’t get hired for any job because his high school
sweetheart and eventual first wife, Carol Larson, was white.
“It was hard on both of us. The weather was bad — there
was a lot of pressure on us,” said Patton of life with Larson,
mother of two of Patton’s living daughters.
“The priest wouldn’t marry us in a Catholic Church, so we
got married by a justice of the peace,” he said.
Though they’d stuck it out together for years, the couple
divorced and Patton moved first to Mt. Washington to live in the home
of his grandparents, and later to where he currently lives in Altadena
after marrying Pasadena resident Doris Prince.
Prince came from the first black family in Pasadena, with ancestors
who started the first black business here and even greeted touring
In 1964, Patton became a janitor at John Muir High School. There he
became a role model for the kids, and the city’s biggest
advocate for teen athletes, such as Evans.
“He was probably the biggest supporter of athletics at the
school and seemed to enjoy it as much as anybody,” said Evans,
who still visits Patton during holidays.
Patton remembers driving college recruiters to the playing field to
see Evans play, and traveling with the team to support it.
“He was always around Pasadena sports. He never met anybody that
didn’t like him. He’s a wonderful human being,” said
longtime friend and former vice president of the International Boxing
Association Bob Case, who met Patton at Muir.
It was at Muir that Patton would get his big break when he met Bob
Carroll, who taught shop and technology classes in the school’s
auditorium and would eventually land him his first job in television.
“That guy would quit sweeping and start leaning on his
broom,” recalled Carroll. “He started asking questions and
from then on he was sitting down being part of the class. Later, I
said to him, ‘Jeez, Gene, you got too much on the
Carroll, responsible for a few TV landmarks himself, enrolled Patton
in PCC night classes for “technical theater,” and
eventually gave him a recommendation that sold the International
Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 33 on their first
black union member in 1969.
Carroll had worked on the technical crew for one of the first remote
television news broadcasts, the April 1949 attempt to recover
3-year-old Cathy Fiscus from an abandoned San Marino well. He also did
electrical work on Klaus Landsberg’s remote live broadcast of
the May 22, 1952, atomic bomb test in Los Alamos. He was the first to
use the moving “follow spot” light, a technique that
landed him a job with Bob Hope.
“He’ll take the heat and give it right back,”
Carroll told union supervisors of Patton.
Gene soon started working in the NBC electrical shop, then as a prop
man on “Laugh In,” and later “The Richard Pryor
Show,” “Sanford and Son” and “CPO
“You walked into the place and some people were cold and some
were beautiful, you know,” said Patton, who retired in 1997
after 28 years in the union, several spent with Johnny Carson and Jay
Leno on “The Tonight Show.” “The majority of these
guys bent over backwards to help me,” he said.
And then there was the money.
“I went out to NBC and after that became permanent I took a
leave of absence from the school district, and that first week I made
more on stage than I made all month working for the school
district,” said Patton.
Still the same guy
“One day, during rehearsal, I saw Gene dancing by himself in a
dark corner. The huge stagehand never moved his feet — just his
body from the waist up. He was terrific,” wrote Chuck Barris in
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” of his idea to put
Patton on stage.
“He said I was such a good dancer he had to name me
twice,” said Patton of Barris.
The rest is history.
“You watched him on TV and he made you laugh, and you wanted to
get up and dance with him,” said Ellie Evans, a neighbor to
Patton for more than 30 years.
“I used to just stare at the TV and crack up, like, what is
this? I didn’t understand that people were watching him and knew
who he was,” said Patton’s daughter, Carol, who remembers
women asking for his autograph when they shopped around town.
“But he has one of those personalities … he knows
everybody everywhere, so we’re used to that. That’s how we
grew up with him. So when he started dancing I didn’t feel the
difference because his personality didn’t change. He already had
all that personality and knew all those people and did all those
Gene recalled advice he got from Richard Pryor, who he befriended as a
prop man on “The Richard Pryor Show.”
“Don’t never let this business take that smile off your
face, that twinkle out of your eye, and come in between you and your
family,” he recalled Pryor telling him.
“He never changes his friends, he never changes his
surroundings. We just enjoyed the ride,” said Carol.
And so did Gene
As “The Gong Show” show got wilder and wilder, Barris
would join “The Dancing Machine” in his wild gyrations as
Patton’s fellow prop handlers would pelt them with props from
“One time they threw a basketball and it bounced right off my
head,” said Patton.
Barris recalls that taping in his book, writing that things got so
wild everybody started throwing their jackets into the audience and
singer and entertainer Jaye P. Morgan “ripped open her blouse,
popping her tits out on coast-to-coast TV. … Immediate
consequences occurred to several of the cast. Gene Gene was the first
victim. Jaye P’s tits caused The Machine to take his eyes off an
incoming basketball. The pass caught him full-force in the nose,
making him bleed profusely.”
Upon hearing the passage read back to him, Patton only laughed.
“Jaye P, she’s a sweatheart. Everybody loved Jay P.
because she was so funny and raunchy. She would flash upstage so
nobody in the audience could see her, but all the crew could. …
But I got hit with so much stuff,” he said.
Patton recalls how he and Barris shared a love for funny hats. But as
for Barris’ recent claims of acting as a CIA agent since the
early 1960s, he didn’t have much to say.
“If he was, he had the best cover in the world,” said
Patton. “I heard through a guy across the street before the book
came out, and thought, if that’s what he was doing, I
didn’t want to know nothing about it.”
Family, friends, God
The joy of Patton’s successes came hand in hand with personal
tragedies over the years, but he always kept dancing.
During his rise to TV stardom, Patton’s two oldest sons were
murdered, one at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, the other in Texas, and
his third-oldest son died of a drug overdose.
Their pictures hang on the walls of his home, but in a different place
from his photos with longtime friends, celebrity acquaintances such as
Shaquille O’Neal, Jay Leno, the Doobie Brothers’ Michael
McDonald, astronauts, athletes and just about anybody he’s
worked with over the years.
“We’ve been a very close-knit family with the tragedies
we’ve had. It’s brought the family closer together,”
said Patton of his children and eight grandchildren, ages 3 to 31.
“They were there at the big turnaround in my life.”
That big turnaround, the loss of his legs, was actually a 10-month
ordeal that started when he dropped a heavy box on his toe.
That toe triggered an internal infection caused by diabetes that cost
him first his right toe, then his foot, then his leg up to the knee.
Then it cost him his other leg.
“The hardest part of it was I didn’t want to be a burden
on anybody. I blame nobody for my situation or for any other
situation. But I don’t want to see nobody have to suffer behind
it,” he said of his illness.
In the meantime, Patton got around in a wheelchair as best as he could
and inadvertently stood up for disabilities rights.
Last year, the Weekly reported Patton’s discovery that all the
handicapped parking spaces had been removed from the Pasadena
Macy’s store parking lot and replaced with a sign saying the
space was for police parking only, a situation that police knew
nothing about and Macy’s staff immediately corrected when
pressed by reporters.
Last November, he received a $1,100 check from Macy’s corporate
headquarters as part of a settlement.
Meanwhile, Patton credited his long-term recovery to family, friends,
his doctors and a couple of ladies who helped him find God.
When Patton’s youngest daughter, Bonnie, told members of her
church, The Refuge Christian Center on North Lincoln Avenue in
Altadena, that her dad was sick, they not only prayed for him, they
came over to the hospital, then to the house, to do it.
“We showed him a lot of love. We just loved on him,” said
Annette Nobles, an outreach counselor at the church for more than 15
years. “We encouraged his heart to help him walk again. …
He’s a beautiful man, always on the upbeat.”
It only stood to reason that Patton’s first steps outside of a
hospital would be into the church.
Naturally, he credits everyone but himself for his positive attitude.
Walking again took a lot of work, said physical therapist Haddad, with
constant setbacks, mechanical adjustments to his new feet and steel
legs, and a lot of stress on his mind and body.
After six weeks with his new legs, “Gene Gene the Dancing
Machine” walks again, with the aid of canes or parallel bars.
And he’s only getting better
“It takes a lot to recover from something like that,” said
Haddad, but “Eugene’s got it and he’s got such a
great heart. For him to have gone through it all and still carry smile
on his face … he’s so inspiring, loving when he comes in.
He never leaves without a great big hug, a kiss and a thank you. We
can all learn from him.”