The fishiest business in Hollywood is no longer movies, and Allan Beck’s got it by the tail. The 35-year-old marine biologist has hung out his shingle as fish doctor to the stars. And because stars are suckers for the latest luxe, Beck is grossing nearly half a million dollars from his expanding empire of aquarium and pond design and fish medicare. The finny little favorites of Paul Newman, Telly Savalas and Barbra Streisand are Allan Beck patients. So are the fish of Sammy Davis Jr., who quipped that he wanted “colored” only. Elizabeth Taylor, before she became Mrs. John Warner, asked Beck to color-coordinate the fish with her living room. Liz, he also claims, stashed her diamonds in an urn at the bottom of the tank.
Beck, born on Long Island, moved to Southern California with the family (his father was a civilian employee of the Navy) when he was 12. Fascinated by fish and animals, he majored in biology at Valley State College (after he didn’t make veterinary school) and was working toward a master’s when he got the chance to buy a fish maintenance service with 27 accounts. “I never had any trouble keeping my fish alive, and everyone else’s were dying,” he says. “I thought it was a good business for me.”
Since 1972 Beck has built his Coral Reef Inc. clientele to 400 and employs 17 service assistants. The come-on is his guarantee: “If we can’t keep your fish alive and well, we’ll replace it for free.” Which is a pretty good deal for a customer who has spent $10,000 for a koi (a Japanese carp). To make sure the fish stay healthy, Beck and his aides make house calls, day or night. “We’re just like paramedics for fish,” Beck says, tapping the 24-hour hot-line beeper he carries in his shirt pocket. Also, he admits, “I have a million dollars of liability insurance.”
On his calls, Beck carries a little black bag with penicillin (for eye infections) and copper sulfate (for parasites). Sometimes, like pediatricians, he finds the trouble is with the parents. One panic call came from a woman who reported that her sick fish didn’t respond to chicken soup. One couple telephoned at 2 a.m. to ask why their fish were winking at them. They must have been high. “Fish don’t have eyelids,” explains Beck. (Fish don’t get lonely either, he notes, so clients don’t have to buy them in pairs.) Many owners come home, turn on the lights and discover their fish lying at the bottom of the tank. “They think they are dying,” says Beck. “Actually the fish just went into shock when the lights went on.” Of course, Beck does lose a patient now and then. When nine or 10 of singer Jim Stafford’s favorite goldfish succumbed, he consoled him self by composing the melancholy You Can’t Love a Fish.
Beck also designs elaborate saltwater tanks (he calls them “underwater entertainment centers”), which go for $6,000, as well as aquariums in a treasure chest, brass diving helmet or jet plane canopy. These days he’s hawking the Zenlike delights of outdoor ponds that run as high as $200,000, including waterfalls and caverns. “Turn off your TV and turn on to nature,” he urges. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Kenny Rogers have already taken Beck’s bait.
At home in Granada Hills, Allan, his wife, Beata, and their two children, Michele, 4, and Courtney, 3 months, have little time for fish-watching. He never knows when that bleeping bleep will go off in his ear. “But that’s why we’re so successful,” Beck says. “No one else gets up at 3 a.m. for a sick fish.”