One of the first columns I did about crashing parties was tailgating at Qualcomm Stadium. It was ironic that I ran into Dion Rich, who looked at me as a mere amateur. You see, the 74-year-old longtime Point Loma resident has crashed hundreds of parties as well as eight Oscar ceremonies, 14 Olympics, 30 Super Bowls, the Kentucky Derby winners' circle, the Playboy Mansion, Frank Sinatra's memorial, and many, many more. He crashed sports events in 1961, when the Chargers played at Balboa Stadium.
I asked what advice he could give me, and he said, "When you crash parties, you should dress the part, play the part, look the part, act the part, and do not hesitate."
"If you hesitate, that gives them a chance to ask for a ticket or ask who you are?"
"Exactly. And if you're thrown out, don't let that deter you. Go back through a side door, a back door, through the kitchen — whatever you have to do to gain entrance. And always eat immediately upon crashing, because I know from past experiences it feels a lot better to get thrown out on a full stomach than an empty stomach."
"Have you ever crashed an event and were disappointed they didn't have better food?"
"Oh, a lot of times. But you've got to take into consideration that it's free. At Super Bowl VII, at the Miami Dolphins' victory party, it was the worst food I've ever had in my life. They had small tuna sandwiches and liverwurst sandwiches. It was really bad."
There's a book about Dion's life called Confessions of the World's Greatest Gate-Crasher.
He gave another reason that victory parties and locker rooms aren't the best places to crash. "Yeah, in the 1983 World Series, Eddie Murray was spraying everyone with champagne. I was soaking in it Baltimore won, so they were all excited. But the cleaning bills for my clothes were too high."
"How did you get into the locker room?" I asked.
"I went right in with the media. Back in those days it was so easy. They weren't really looking for gate crashers. At the World Series in Los Angeles, when they beat the Yankees — it was about 30 years ago, maybe 40 — 1 crashed the World Series, but I wanted to crash the locker room. I said to one media guy, 'Excuse me, sir, could I have your media credential for a crippled kid in San Diego?” He gave it to me. I go down to the locker room, and I'm on the podium, on television. It's the announcer, the manager, and me. The media guy looked up and said, 'How's the crippled kid in San Diego?'"
"You mention in your book walking in with media people and almost getting caught, until a lady thinks she recognizes you/'
"Yes, they were asking me for my ticket. And I always have my excuses ready. I might tell them my wife has it. I might say I was looking for a restroom. Or that I lost my ticket. Just as I'm getting ready with an excuse, a woman says, 'Mr. Lavelle, is that you?' I said, 'Yes it is.' She put the credential around my neck. That shows where luck and timing also plays a big part. I feel bad for Mr. Lavelle, although he'll show his ID, and it won't be a problem for him getting in.”
"Do you ever feel bad that you aren't paying to go to events?"
"I don't feel bad, because the events I crash are sold out So I couldn't buy a ticket, and they aren't losing money by having me in there. And when two guys threw me out of the Oscars once, when I was sitting right behind Jack Nicholson and Steven Spielberg, I told them they should have had those seat fillers in the empty seat, and I wouldn't have been there."
When I saw the hundreds of pictures Dion has of himself with different celebrities, I asked him about the nicest people he's met. He says, "Wayne Newton was so nice and personable. And O.J. Simpson.
That was years before the murders. He was friendly and cordial. In one picture of me at the Academy Awards, I was wearing an O.J. shirt. I had friends recognize me on CNN with it."
"Haven't you made it on other television shows because of your crashing ability?"
"Oh yes. I can't remember them all. Inside Edition, Court TV had a show, and Jenny Jones. A bunch of them."
I saw a close-up shot of him and another football great who's been in the news recently: Joe Namath. Namath recently checked into rehab for alcoholism.
He was interviewed by a female reporter at a football game and repeatedly told her he wanted to kiss her. Dion says, "He's one of my all-time favorites. Such a nice, common guy. Common as lint in a belly button."
"Anybody who wasn't nice?"
"Yeah, a lot. I don't really want to say, since this will be in print. But Lauren Becall I mention in my book. I was going to have my picture taken with her and put my arm around her. She said. Take your hands off me!"'
Although this doesn't have as much to do with his party crashing, I asked him about Pete Rose. Rose has a book out where he finally admits he bet on baseball, which is the reason he can't get into the Hall of Fame or get a job coaching. Dion says, "Tommy Helms, one of his coaches — he and I go back to when the Padres were at Westgate Park. I used to pal around with those guys. Well, the Reds were in town to play the Padres. We were having breakfast at the Town and Country Hotel, where the team was staying. Rose leaned over and asked, 'Are you going to the track today?' I told him I was and he handed me $1,400. He said, 'I want you to put this to win on the only filly in the eighth race. I don't remember her name, but she's the only filly in the feature race.' I told him I wouldn't do it without the name of the horse. He went to the gift shop and got a paper and looked. He said, 'It's Fitzgerald's Place.' I thought to myself that there are 12 horses. If Rose has one, that gives me the other 11.1 decided to book the race myself, like a bookie. His horse was ten to one. On the backstretch, his horse moved into first place. I was thinking I might end up owing him $14,000. About 75 yards away, the horse lost steam. Came in seventh. I pocketed the $1400."
"I see a picture of you and Dennis Conner."
"I had to crash two boatyards. I had to go underneath a barbed-wire fence, getting my jeans wet, to get into the boatyard to get a picture with Conner. Also made it to his party and helped disassemble the Stars and Stripes."
Dion has photos in his book of every star you can think of. When commenting about Gwyneth Paltrow, Claudia Schiffer, Nicole Kidman, and Brooke Shields looking great in the photos, he said, "One of the prettiest was Halle Berry. But I don't have the picture. That was one they actually took the film out of my camera and kept. That was at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. The same LAPD sergeant threw me out of the Academy Awards and the Emmys."
When crashing events, Dion says, "You should move slowly but quickly. Don't look them in the eye. Olympic events are easier because you have a lot of volunteers. Other times, the rent-a-cops are easy. The hardest event was actually here in San Diego at Planet Hollywood's grand opening. The week before. Junior Seau had a party there. I was actually invited to that. Inside, I cased the joint.
I've learned fire exits are no good because they only open from the inside by a push bar. But you can check out all the side doors and the kitchen. I found a front porch with a door near the men's room that led to a balcony. I made a rookie mistake. A door said 'Employees Only.' That doesn't bother me at all, so I went In. I found out the manager's name and went to talk with him. He was at all the Planet Hollywood openings, and I started telling him I wanted to work a trade with him so I could attend the opening.
He said, 'What are you doing back here? No, no, no. I don't have any use for any trade.'
"The next week at the opening, I was surprised by the hoopla. There was media, bleachers for people, and you needed tickets. I would've been ashamed If somebody saw me in the bleachers at a function like this. A friend of mine gave me a name to use at the front. The name was not on the register, and at that moment the manager recognized me and told me I wasn't getting In.
When he walked back inside, I tried again. He spotted me again. This time, he got two yellow-coat security men, and they marched me arm-in-arm out onto the street. I walked around to Fourth Avenue. A street sweeper appeared holding a small radio station credential. He asked who wanted it. He wanted $20 for it and I gave him $10. I rushed home, put on a neckchain I got from the pressroom at the Lillehammer Olympics, and walked in. I ate, drank, and took pictures with celebrities. It was a great time. I finally saw the manager when I was leaving. I waved and said, 'Nice party, pal.' The look on his face..."
I asked him if he ever brings people with him. He said, "Two times I brought a girlfriend and didn't get in either time. That was the last time I ever brought anyone along. It's easier by yourself for so many reasons. I can get stopped by security by myself and just play dumb. And for me, that's easy."
Dion has snuck his way into the Turf Club at Del Mar and had his picture taken with many celebrities. He has also made it into many winners' circles. He slips under the gate as the race is finishing and all eyes are on the horses. When the posse from the winning horse starts walking over, he joins them.
And he's been in lots of photos with those winners. But the photos that get me laughing are the three he has of himself carrying the winning coaches of Super Bowls off the field. There's John Madden and Chuck Knox. His most famous photo, though, shows him carrying Cowboys coach Tom Landry.
"That was Super Bowl XII in 1978. Red Miller was the coach of the Broncos and a personal friend of mine. I walked onto the field with the players. One of my secrets is to stay in one place and not look conspicuous. I stayed in the same place. I have a photo from the first Super Bowl, standing there as they give the trophy to Vince Lombardi. The NFL had distributed a photo of me, and they learned my true identity. So I was more cautious. In the fourth quarter, I knew the Cowboys would win. I went over to Tom Landry's side. I moved only when the ball was in play and all eyes were on the field. I try to get near the head coach so a picture appears on TV or in the newspaper. Just as the game ended, Dallas defensive tackle Larry Cole and I grabbed the coach at the same time and put him on our shoulders. The picture was on the cover of the Austin newspaper when Landry passed away. That photo was in many papers all over the world, and it's in the Football Hall of Fame. It's also on the cover of a sports almanac that has photos of Pele, Ali, Reggie Jackson, and local hoopster Bill Walton, who won a championship with Portland. The weird thing was, when Denver coach Red Miller, who made this possible, came across the field to congratulate his opposition, he sees Tom Landry on my shoulder right there in the middle of the Superdome. His jaw dropped, and then he smiled as we ran off the field."
After 9/11, when the Super Bowl was in San Diego, things got more difficult. The NFL sent him letters telling him it would be trespassing. And more and more stories appeared about Dion Rich's escapades. A Sports Illustrated columnist came to town to watch him sneak in. He said, "Dion was inside in six minutes. It was pure art. Like Fred Astaire walking into his own kitchen."
Dion said, "The NFL has me on the top of their list, along with Hugh Hefner."
"Why Hefner?" I ask.
"Because of the NFL cheerleaders being exploited in Playboy. Speaking of Hefner, I crashed a party at the Playboy Mansion. I got on the media bus at UCLA. When they set up in his yard, I knew my cover could be blown, so I went around the side. I made it into the mansion eventually, and when I went to use the bathroom I saw his closet, and his robes. I took one, put it on over my clothes, and handed my camera to a man who had just finished washing his hands. He snapped the photo of me in Hefner's bathrobe."
I see photos of three local sports legends: baseball great Ted Williams, Fallbrook resident Duke Snider, and the late boxing great Archie Moore. Dion says, "That was at a roast they had for him here in San Diego that I crashed."
Dion hasn't always had to crash events in San Diego. He's owned a number of sports bars over the years and been a ticket broker. He's met many athletes that way. He was also a commercial tuna fisherman for nine years.
One time he doesn't sneak into events is when he takes 50 handicapped kids to Padre games. It might be hard to get all of them inside without paying for tickets.
What should've been one of the hardest crashes came easy to Dion. It was in Beverly Hills. He got in and met President Clinton. Even though cameras weren't allowed, he got a photo. The Secret Service ended up paying him a visit. Dion says, "Yeah, they talked to me for about three hours and pumped me pretty good for information. I looked them in the eye and told them all the things they did wrong."
Another thing that could've gotten him into trouble was the party he crashed on a boat. "That was the Galaxy, a big ship docked here. I crashed the party but left before the boat left. I could've stayed on, but that would've been a federal offense."
Sometimes people threaten Dion with charges, but nothing ever comes of it. There's a funny letter from the Motion Picture Academy after the Oscars. They talk about him trespassing and about all the picture frames he had in his pocket (which were part of the goodie bags for guests). He responded with a letter saying, "They were left on the table, and the waiters would've gotten them if I didn't."
As we were wrapping up the interview, he told me he was going to be interviewed by a radio station in Seattle. He's also got a flight in the morning. He's heading to Houston for the Super Bowl — hence all the interview requests. A friend called him as I was leaving.
I heard him say, "Look for me on TV. Or in jail."