MOHAVE VALLEY — Mel North, a fencing master who has been a jack of all trades throughout his eventful life, moved to Mohave Valley earlier this summer, and the 94-year-old is eager to share his expertise with anyone who is interested.
North worked as a swim supervisor at the West Side Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, where he taught fencing before becoming the sport’s head coach at UCLA in the mid-1950s.
The West Side Chicago native had no idea fencing would open so many doors upon his introduction to the sport nearly 90 years ago.
Chicago, known as the Windy City, showed little warmth for North when he discovered fencing at a local community center during the days when Al Capone owned the town.
“It was jammed,” North said of the newly created spaces to keep youth off the streets and out of trouble. “A guy came up to me and said, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to play something?’”
North suggested swimming but was turned down because the activity was full. Instead, he was directed to a corner to wait.
“So, I sat there by a stairway that went up to a loft and I heard this, ‘cling, cling, cling. Bing, bing, bing’ guys yelling and stuff,” North recalled. “So out of curiosity I went up there, I opened up the door and walked inside and the guys said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I don’t want anything. I just want to watch what you’re doing. What is this?’ He said, ‘This is fencing.’ I said, ‘Oh, what is fencing?’ He said, ‘It’s a sport.’ Then he said, ‘Now sit over there.’ ”
The 10-year-old was out of place in a room full of people 18 and older and the instructor was less than enthused about humoring a kid and attempted to send him on his way, more than once, North said.
“I said, ‘I like this.’ He said, ‘You can’t. You are too young.’ I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ I was that type of kid,” North said with a laugh. “He said, ‘OK, let’s see what you can do.’”
North, who had never held a sabre, impressed the surly instructor with his natural ability.
“He stopped me and said, ‘All right kid, who do you take lessons from?’ I said, ‘I never even saw this before. What are you talking about?’ He said ‘You want to fence?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want to fence.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll give you lessons if you wash the floor before we come up,’” North reminisced. “Boy, my hands were so cut up, but I did it.”
His inauspicious introduction to fencing would lead North to a 22-year reign as UCLA’s head fencing coach, a head coaching position with the U.S. Olympic fencing team in 1956, behind the scenes roles in legendary movies such as “Spartacus” (1960) and “The Mark of Zorro” (1974), and helped him develop relationships with numerous movie stars and celebrities.
“Fencing has given me the opportunity to travel, to understand life very much the way life actually is, not everybody’s good, not everybody’s bad,” North said. “You talk about the good people, the bad people in every sport.
“It gave me an opportunity to make a living and to do what I wanted to do, and I found that I was always trying to help people gain confidence in what they were doing. I had tremendous confidence. I guess because of where I came from.
“I traveled to Russia, everywhere you could possibly imagine. I would never be able to do that being a kid from the old West Side of Chicago.”
California, and Los Angeles in particular, embraced the cheeky Chicagoan.
“I got a call to go down to Universal Studios and do some gladiatorial stuff as an interview as it were,” North said. “We went down there, we banged around, we had on some of the crazy stuff and they said, ‘Fine.’ And we never heard from them again.
“Then a couple of weeks later, I got a call, ‘Come on in, help do some of the choreography.’ ”
Choreography for “Spartacus” was North’s introduction to movies but much of it wasn’t used because “Spartacus didn’t have that much fencing.”
North met movie star Tony Curtis for the first time during the filming.
“He was a very handsome man, but he was a man,” North said. “He was very young then.”
Hollywood’s leading man was a fan of fencing and invited North to spar a bit one afternoon as he was getting ready to call it quits for the day, North recalled.
“I said, ‘sure.’ And we went over to one of his stages — I think it was stage four — and we fenced some sabre,” North said. “We actually fenced and he was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. He was a wonderful fencer.”
North said Curtis had previous fencing experience and was an accomplished sabreman, as he had studied with Joseph Vince for years.
A decade and a half later, North worked on the movie “The Mark of Zorro.”
“They used most of my choreography,” North said. “The scene where they take the picture of the court jester.”
North had a small acting role in the “The Mark of Zorro,” but his main contribution to the film was the training of star Frank Langello who played Zorro.
“I brought in about a dozen of my fencers from UCLA — all tall kids — to be the people who did the exercises in the beginning of the movie, where I was part of it,” he added.
His fencing expertise helped him develop relationships with Hollywood heavyweights, such as Curtis, Alan Alda, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone,
“(Rathbone) was an accomplished fencer,” North said. “He was really something.”
North’s success at UCLA and his Olympic coaching experience developed his persona, which opened more doors for him.
When asked if his team won the gold medal, North said: “Are you kidding? We were lucky we existed in those days.”
North said the Soviet Union, Ukraine, France, Poland, Hungary and Italy had the best teams in 1956.
“That has changed over the years,” he added. “During the past four or five Olympics, our kids have been winning gold, silver — everything you could imagine. Fencing finally got some backing — money.”
North’s UCLA teams “were only allowed to fence up and down the coast,” he said. “We were only allowed to go to the NCAA twice. We came in 11th of about 38 schools.”
Princeton, Yale and Harvard were the top teams in the country when UCLA went to the NCAAs during his tenure.
“They were the money schools,” he added. “They were going for about 100 years.”
North taught more than 100 UCLA Bruins to fence and he’s proud of all of them.
“These guys were the greatest in the world,” he added. “Some of them have gone on to do wonderful things.”
North’s Bruins “dominated the West Coast, as they were virtually undefeated: 19 individual and team championships, posting 362 wins, 18 losses, and 174 consecutive wins,” according to North’s biography on IMDb. “His high school students won 14 high school championships and many medals. North’s teams medaled 11 times in the national championships. With more than 30 finalists ... Foil, Epee, Sabre and women’s Foil, winning the overall high-point trophy six years in a row.”
During his first stint at UCLA, North rubbed shoulders with legendary head basketball coach John Wooden and NCAA and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
“John Wooden was a wonderful, wonderful guy, I can tell you a little story about him. Everybody revered him, of course,” North said. “I went to get my mail one day, and I heard, ‘Coach North,’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And it was John Wooden. He said, ‘Come on in here ... Sit down, please.’ And I was thrilled to death to meet this man and he called me in his office and I sat down and he said, ‘I just have a few words to say to you.’ And I said, ‘OK, what is it?’ And he said, ‘You run your team or it will run you — leave.’”
Jabbar was named Lew Alcindor while at UCLA from 1966-69.
“He used to come into my office, my office was in Pauley Pavilion and in order to get down to the basketball locker room there was a doorway near my office where you’d go down the stairs,” North said. “He would come in and he’d say, ‘Good morning Coach.’ He’d bend over (all 7-foot-2 of him), walk in and one day he said, ‘Do you mind if I pick up one of your swords?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t care.’ So, he got up there and he was prancing around and I showed him how to come en garde. And he said, ‘It’s electric, right?’ So, I hooked him up with my best fencers, who were already champions. (He) got up against them and he waxed every one of them.”
When he first met Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend’s first comment to the fencing master was, “Oh, he’s a boxer with blades,” North said. “We talked and I kind of bragged, ‘I was a Golden Glover in Chicago,’ and Ali said, ‘I’m going to show you the Rope a Dope.’ Then he took a swing at me, and he come so close and then stopped. He had that kind of control. I’m going, ‘This guy is going to kill me.’”
North said he visited Ali’s home about a half-dozen times and the legend felt comfortable enough to joke around with the fencing master.
“Muhammad called me and said, ‘I want you to be my bodyguard at this roast.’” North recalled. “I said, ‘Muhammad, what are you talking about? I’m half your size, your bodyguards are three times my size.’ He said, ‘I want you to be here because I want you to be here.’”
While living in Denver, North said, he ran into former NFL All-Pro Lyle Alzado when he was with the Denver Broncos in the late 1970s.
“Lyle was wonderful,” North said.
Perfectly timed encounters have defined North’s life. Almost immediately upon his arrival to Mohave Valley, North hooked up with someone whom he’d met briefly three decades before.
Mohave High School head fencing coach Kevin Greene, who has been at the helm for the T-birds since 1988, was thrilled to find out North was in town.
“We were reminiscing earlier,” said Greene, who was visiting with North during the Mohave Valley Daily News interview. “I met him 32 years ago. I met him when I first started learning how to fence at the Air Force Academy.”
Greene’s instructor, Gary Copeland, was named 1999 U.S. Olympic Committee Fencing Coach of the Year and has served as U.S. National Team coach on more than 20 U.S. national teams, according to the Northern Colorado Fencer’s website. He is currently assistant director of the U.S. Fencing Coaches College at the U.S. Olympic Training center in Colorado Springs.
“(Copeland) brought us down from Colorado State University,” Greene said. “It was an open, so there was many schools there. And Gary was kind enough to introduce me to Mel.”
North did not remember his first meeting with Greene, but the Mohave head coach understood how difficult it would be to remember that first encounter.
“Of course not, I was a faceless person out of 10,000 people in a single year,” said Greene. “I didn’t realize that Bullhead was such a fencing mecca for retirees.”
“Incalculable” is how Greene described North’s potential influence on Tri-state residents’ participation in fencing.