Memories from the makeup chair

Enterprise resident Dennis Parks and his dog Toshi sit for a photo outside his home. Parks is recogninzed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for his work in makeup artistry.

For Enterprise resident Denny Parks, this Memorial Day conjures images of Hollywood legends, musical pioneers and some of the most influential politicians in modern history. Parks knew some of the most famous people of the 20th century and was the last person to touch the bodies of several beloved celebrities before they were laid to rest.

William Dennis Parks was a Valentine’s Day baby, born in 1943 in Newnan, Ga. When he was a third-grader his family moved from Georgia to the scenic splendor of Joseph, Ore., where he graduated high school in 1961. His academic achievements from Joseph High School are highlighted by an appointment to Boy’s State Representative and as a recipient of the American Legion Citizenship Award.

After high school graduation, Parks moved to Redding, Calif., and began pre-dental studies on the campus of Shasta College. He couldn’t see it then, but his start in California would soon lead to training and mentorship from some of the world’s finest educators and artists.

Parks worked part-time as a paramedic and ambulance driver in Redding while studying pre-dentistry, and also began an apprenticeship in mortuary science at Shasta.

His studies led next to the Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif., where he “side-stepped” into Stanford’s surgical technician program, a position offered to only the nation’s most elite pupils.

His final accomplishment in the halls of academia brought a degree in mortuary science from the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. The degree hangs on the wall in his Enterprise home today alongside numerous awards and recognitions from the Who’s Who of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.

Parks then took his knowledge of the human body and began training in makeup artistry under the tutelage of Hollywood’s most famous, the brothers Monty, Bud and Wally Westmore. The Westmores were part of a legendary family dynasty that dominated the field of makeup artistry in Hollywood cinema. They were responsible for expanding the art and creating makeup techniques still in use today. All the brothers served long careers with the major motion picture studios from the 1930s through the 1970s.

This unique university education and artistic training gave Parks a great understanding of human form, laying the path for his life’s work and earning him an introduction to some of the world’s most influential people.

After training under the Westmores, Parks came home to Joseph for a visit. During his visit home, he met Italian model Michel Montelbano, whose image during the late 1960s and early 1970s has been viewed in magazines the world round. It was through his association with Montelbano that he started his show business career in Hollywood, Fla.

Parks began as the makeup artist for Jackie Gleason in the Florida studio, and in addition to the big man himself, Parks also did makeup for the guest stars appearing on Gleason’s variety show.

Some of the most notable to sit in his makeup chair were John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rock Hudson, Robert Young, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Red Skelton and Bette Davis along with those from the modern generation including River Phoenix, John Candy, Billy Idol, Ricky Nelson, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand.

When asked about the personalities of some of the most famous, Parks says that John Wayne was a happy, easy-going, laid-back man and compared his character to Wallowa County’s most beloved Hollywood star, Walter Brennan.

As for Gleason, Parks said that he was usually at least a little tipsy from his love of fine scotch and that he was a loveable, cut-up sort of character.

Not all of his brushes with greatness were pleasant ones.

“I could tell he was troubled,” Parks said of River Phoenix. “So many of the young people who get all the glamour don’t know how to handle it.” He speaks with sadness and remembrance of Phoenix who overdosed on drugs at age 23 and collapsed on the sidewalk outside of the Viper nightclub in L.A., Halloween of 1993.

As for trouble, none gave Parks more than Barbra Streisand. “She’s the only one I ever really had problems with,” Parks said.

Parks’ memories of the famous extend further than Hollywood and even reach beyond the realm of the living. As a mortician, he prepared the bodies of some of the most well-known celebrities, using the delicate hand of a surgeon and the loving, sensitive touch of an artist.

His work in mortuary embalming and makeup, like his work with the living, reads like a who’s who of American pop culture and U.S. politics. Parks was the last to touch the bodies of Ronald Reagan, Nicole Simpson Brown of the notorious OJ Simpson case, Kim Novak, Bill Lear (inventor of the Lear Jet), Benjamin Cushman of Cushman Scooters, Irene Ryan and he was called in for his artistry to restore the beauty of Jayne Mansfield so admirers could have a final gaze of her as she was laid to rest.

Parks and his partner were the ones to lift the body of Robert F. Kennedy from the floor of Los Angeles’ Century Plaza Hotel where he lay after being assassinated on June 5, 1968.

Today, Denny has come home to Wallowa County to continue his bout with prostate and skin cancer, an illness diagnosed in 2007.

When first diagnosed with cancer, he moved to Boise for treatment where his association with greatness continued. During that time, the legendary 2007 Boise State Broncos football team came to his aid. Today, beside a wall full of accolades, Parks holds up his Bronco 2007 year-ending memorial booklet with the signatures of every player and coach from that magical season, which ended miraculously with the undefeated Broncos holding the Fiesta Bowl trophy.

With his illness, Denny speaks about the possibility of this Memorial Day being his last. He has a strong support system from family and friends who love him, and the possibility of his being here next year is high.

When someday, William Dennis Parks does depart this earthly life, he’ll leave a legacy to Wallowa County, as one of our own who became considered by those around him as the finest artist in his field. And he’ll be welcomed into the afterlife by the royalty of American culture.

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