Here's what I read last night at WYSIWYG. I actually opened with a short, ad libbed riff about working at Who Wants to be a Millionaire and, during an Aaron Spelling-themed celebrity show, meeting Bernie Koppel (Doc from The Love Boat), Robert Urich, and Andrea from 90210 in addition to sharing a meal with Regis Philbin, William Shatner, the show's producers, and three nuns. (Regis, a proud product of Catholic schools, had invited them backstage when he saw them in the audience.) As that story sounds like the set up to a joke but has no punchline, I dug a little deeper for a story from my past. My delivery was a little more conversational, stand-up-style than what you'll read, but in essence everything is the same.
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Part of my nonchalant attitude about famous people comes from the time I spent in close proximity to a virtual alphabet soup of A, B, and C-listers as the marketing director of a Broadway and live entertainment series based at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. As part of my job, I spent a lot of time with many of the stars of our touring shows and saw all kinds of behaviour from the good – Claudia Schiffer offering to buy me an ice cream cone following an appearance by David Copperfield at the CNN center – to the bad – one unnamed celebrity screaming at my coworker after he found that his dressing room at the Fox had been painted white, not yellow as was outlined in the rider to his contract. I learned to stay out of the way and not get too involved.
Perhaps that’s why I have no real stories of sleeping with any celebrities. I declined Claudia Schiffer’s offer to share dessert, citing lactose intolerance. I once went on a date with the lead female dancer in that staple of PBS pledge drives, the Irish step-dancing sensation Riverdance, and spent the whole evening concerned about my posture.
I do, however, have one story where I played a supporting role in the major fucking of a minor celebrity. And that’s what I’ll share with you tonight.
(Full story after the jump.)
My job is to come up with innovative tie-ins to promote shows playing the local theaters. With an alternative radio station, I arranged for a free rent giveaway to publicize the Atlanta premiere of Rent. (You know, because Rent is so alternative.) When Damn Yankees came to town I scheduled the cast to sing the national anthem at a Braves game at Turner Field.
I was particularly proud of a French revolution themed menu item promotion I arranged with local bistros to promote the touring company of Les Miserables – my most brilliant being a tomato juice, vermouth and gin cocktail called the Guillotini.
But when State Fair, a little-known Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, is scheduled in Atlanta for a week-long run, I know I have my work cut out for me. State Fair is hardly a brand-name musical, almost the bastard child of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. It was at one time a movie and had only recently been adapted for Broadway; hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as The Sound of Music or South Pacific. With no falling chandeliers or helicopters landing on rooftops, it’s going to be a tough sell in these parts.
My one hope is to capitalize on the fame of the show’s star, John Davidson, who at the height of his career not only appeared as a guest on ensemble-based TV shows such as The Love Boat and Love, American Style, but also guest-hosted The Tonight Show dozens of times, back when that sort of thing happened. He emceed perhaps the most famous incarnation of Hollywood Squares, the one with Jim J. Bullock as the center square and Shadoe Stevens as the announcer. But perhaps John Davidson’s greatest claim to fame was as a host, with Cathy Lee Crosby and Fran Tarkenton, of That’s Incredible!, the show that featured real people doing, yes, incredible things, such as a guy who could catch bullets in his teeth and an acrobat who jumped over cars speeding at him at 60 mph. A reality show before the genre existed, the show was not only famous for coining the phrase “Please don’t try this at home,” but also gained notoriety for the six people who were alleged to have died trying to get on. Joe Rogan and Fear Factor have nothing on John Davidson.
So now my task is to find the best way for John Davidson to promote State Fair. There are no incredible stunts in the musical, and Davidson plays a somewhat dimwitted Iowa farmer named Abel Frake, not a charming TV host, so making a logical connection between the show and its star’s career is a dead end.
Scanning the Atlanta Journal-Constitution one morning, I find what I think will be my salvation. In the events calendar I notice that the North Georgia State Fair, an annual celebration of livestock and stick-mounted fried food, is scheduled to open in nearby Marietta just one day before the show’s opening at the Fox. It’s a marketing tie-in miracle, I think, the very definition of that marketing buzzword, synergy. At touring production of Oklahoma! playing Tulsa should be so lucky.
The North Gergia State Fair’s opening night is to be celebrated with a giant concert, thousands of people enjoying music in an open-air ampitheater. My plan, which I arrange with both the fair’s organizers and John Davidson’s people, is to have John plug the show by addressing the crowd briefly before introducing the headlining act, the Charlie Daniels Band, of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” fame. The fair wins by having a celebrity grace its opening night and the musical wins by having the show promoted to a captive audience.
I pitch the story to the newspapers and TV stations and am able to set up an interview and photo session with John Davidson to take place on the fair’s midway right after his appearance. Everything is falling into place.
The night of the concert I’m picked up by a black stretch limousine. John Davidson, dressed in attire appropriate for both his stage role and a night at the state fair – blue jeans and a neatly tucked flannel shirt – emerges to greet me. His hair is even more perfect than his headshot had suggested. Having read his bio I know that he is 55, but his head betrays no evidence of his middle age. His smile is so bright, it’s as if his teeth have gotten out of the car before the rest of his body.
He offers me a seat in the back of the limo and I oblige, despite a company policy that usually forbids administrative staff from sharing limo space with show talent. I take his kind offer and when I climb in the back, I see that we’re not alone.
I’m introduced to John’s eleven-year-old daughter, which is not that unusual, I think. Who wouldn’t want to take his kid to the state fair?
But what’s most surprising to me, are the three men who are also in the back of the limo, all dressed in the denim and flannel combo sported by John Davidson. It’s as if I’ve not entered a limousine, but a travelling John Davidson cult.
During a quick introduction, I learn that these three men are fellow cast members of State Fair, and have all flown in early to attend tonight’s event in Marietta. Having only arranged for backstage passes for myself and John Davidson, I’m a little confused to be sharing a limo ride with so many people. But they aren’t here to ride the tilt-a-whirl or play skee ball.
“We were thinking we would sing a number from the show,” Mr. Davidson tells me as the limo pulls away from my apartment complex.
Even though I think this is a terrible idea – thousands of country music fans are not going to change gears for a Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty – I say nothing.
Celebrities, I have learned, are a stubborn lot. Especially ones with long and varied careers in show business. Logic is not an easy thing to impart upon them.
I had experienced this all too well only weeks before, when I accompanied Jasmine Guy to a local department store to sign autographs and promote the touring production of Chicago, in which she was starring as Velma Kelly.
Jasmine’s manager had insisted that music from the show be played over the in-store speakers, even though I had cautioned that the only music we had was from the Broadway revival recording, which did not feature Jasmine nor any member of the touring production.
At the store, when Jasmine finally heard Bebe Neuwirth’s voice instead of her own piped through the store, she looked at me and in the politest possible way said, “Change the fucking CD.” With that, I became the first person since Duane Wayne to be chewed out by Whitley.
So if I can see a few steps ahead of John Davidson that night in the limo on the way to the North Georgia State Fair, it’s only because I’ve been burned before.
“I’ve already arranged everything with the fair,” I tell John Davidson and his entourage. “We should probably stick to the original plan.”
“It shouldn’t be a problem,” he says. “The song is only a few minutes long."
This is all happening pre cell phone (at least for me) and I’m unsure how I’ll communicate this change in plans to the concert’s organizers before we arrive. I grasp at ways to get John Davidson to change his mind. “Well, I didn’t arrange for the right sound equipment,” I say.
“It’s not a big deal,” says John Davidson. “The song is a cappella.”
John Davidson tells me that he and his three fellow cast members will harmonize to a song called “More Than Just a Friend.”
“You know, I’m not sure the crowd will be in the mood for a love song,” I say.
“Oh, it’s not a love song,” he says.
“No. It’s an ode to a prize-winning pig.”
This stops me cold. The opening act for the Charlie Daniels Band - which in case you don’t know them is a country group most famous for a spoken-word song about a man squaring off against Satan in a dueling-fiddles battle for his soul - is now going to be a group of four men sharing one mike in a love song to livestock.
We arrive at the open-air concert and are greeted by one of the fair’s events managers. Over the noise of one of the warm-up bands, I can barely hear myself talk but am somehow able to communicate the change in plans.
“Oh, God,” Dwight says. “Is he sure?” From his reaction it’s as if I’ve said that John Davidson plans to take off his clothes and body-surf, nude into the crowd.
“Well, it’s his funeral,” he says. He leads us backstage and quickly abandons me to handle this disaster on my own.
Standing in the wings, I peak out to the assembled crowd. f you were in need of extras for a live re-enactment of the movie Deliverance, this would be the place to find them. There are more Confederate flags dotting the ampitheater than I imagine littered the battlefield at Gettysburg.
And there I stood. In a Wenn diagram with two circles, one representing those who attend the North Georgia State Fair and those who attend touring Broadway musicals, I am the only point of overlap, a solitary, northeastern Jewish theater fan swimming in a sea of stars and bars. Like a scene in a movie where the hero hears voices repeating the ominous signals he should have heeded before, the sentences “It’s a cappella” and “It’s an ode to a prize-winning pig” float around in my head, echoing over and over.
Finally, it’s time for John Davidson and company to go on.
“Well, consider me fucked,” he says. Only he doesn’t say this. What he actually says is “Well, wish me luck.” He bounds on stage and grabs the mike from a stand.
“How y’all doing?” he says turning on some faux-southern charm, although I don't think he's from Georgia. Someone in the crowd yells “fuck you.”
Unfazed, a real professional, John Davidson continues. “You know, there’s nothing more important in this world than a good friend. And nobody knew this better than the songwriting duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
What an opening, I think. From the looks of this crowd, the only duo they’re probably familiar with is Smith & Wesson.
“I’m John Davidson and my friends and I are going to sing a little number from State Fair, opening at the Fox Theater Thursday night. It’s called ‘More Than Just a Friend.’”
I’ll save you an entire re-enactment, but I will treat you to this sample lyric from the song. You can only imagine how well it went over that night in North Georgia.
SUNG: Soo-eee. Soo-eee. Soo-eee.
You can only imagine how well this went over. The crowd isn’t just booing, they are yelling all sorts of insults of the questioning-the-performers-sexuality variety at the top of their lungs.
Davidson and company finish up the song with one barberhop-style held-out harmony of soo-eeeeeeee and the crowd erupts not unlike I would imagine a stadium full of British football hooligans.
And poor John Davidson. His eyes are now as red as his teeth were white. Adding insult to injury, the normally indefatigable host, a man who once sat behind Johnny Carson’s desk for nights on end, tosses his mike down on the stage like he’s trying to break open a coconut. This provokes the crowd even more. Beer cups fly on stage. Flags are waved even higher than before. When I hear a group of people near the stage declare in unison, “the South will rise again,” I fear that I will be responsible for the first Broadway-inspired riot south of the Mason-Dixon line.
John Davidson makes a beeline to me, waiting in the wings, outpacing his fellow castmembers, who are left momentarily stranded as Charlie Daniels and his bandmates take the stage. I'm paralyzed with fear. I wonder if I’m going to get punched by a former gameshow host.
“Doug that was a terrible idea,” John Davidson says as he storms past me.
That’s it? That’s the worst he’s going to say to someone who is indirectly responsible for almost getting him killed? I’m flabbergasted, until I see him take his daughter by the hand and walk out to the fair’s midway. It’s one thing to slam a mike down in a fit of rage in front of thousands of drunks, but it’s another to unload your anger in front of your teenage daughter. Classy move.
I look beyond this touching scene and see the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and a crew from a local television station, who arrived right as John Davidson had taken those first fateful steps on stage.
I immediately launch into crisis mode. I corner the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter. “No one needs to know about this part of the evening, right?" The reporter volunteers to chase down John Davidson and runs after him. I’m left standing with the three denim and flannel-clad State Fair cast members, who are ashen and blank-eyed, as if they just stood in front of a firing squad whose guns jammed at the last minute.
The car ride back is silent. At least it is to me because I’ve been banished to the front seat, and the divider looking back on the passengers has been raised. I can only imagine what is going on behind me.
“How’d it go,” says the driver, a man in his 40s dressed to the part in a black suit and black cap.
“Not good,” I say. “They got booed off the stage.”
“I was wondering what all that noise was,” he says.
Thirty minutes later the limo stops at my apartment. The evening has been such a disaster, that I’m surprised the driver is even allowed to come to a full stop before I’m dropped off.
At the state fair, I had been afraid for my life. Now, at least, safe within the gates of my apartment complex, I’m only afraid for my job.
The next morning I wake up early. I run outside and grab the paper, furiously flipping through the pages until I find the Arts & Entertainment section.
There’s the article, on page B1. In a small picture at the top, John Davidson, embracing his daughter, smiles broadly as he hoists his daughter into the air, the lights of the fairground behind him. Here's what it said:
Davidson gives crowd advance taste of ‘State Fair.
A lovely moment of synergy occurred just after John Davidson bounded onstage at the North Georgia State Fair. Promoting his appearance in the musical ‘State Fair,’ the actor and television personality joked and jawed with an audience gathered to see the Charlie Daniels Band.
Joked and jawed. That’s a charitable way to describe slamming a mike on stage like Roger Daltrey.
It was clearly not a musical theater crowd, and some rowdies in attendance hooted. But when Davidson launched into a barbershop quartet with three cast members, the park momentarily became the rural Iowa of the musical’s setting. A Ferris wheel glittered in the background, the smell of cotton candy hung in the air and all the world was a stage.Saved! I call the reporter to offer my thanks. I call my boss. Most importantly, I call the florist. I order a bouquet to be delivered with five copies of that morning’s paper to John Davidson’s hotel. At that point in my life I had probably never sent flowers to anyone except my mother on mother’s day and there I was on the phone with FTD arranging for a bouquet to be sent to a ticked-off TV personality. “Dear John,” I have the card say, “All’s fair…” I’m hoping the former variety show host will appreciate the pun.
That night, at the opening night party in a function room at the Fox Theater following a sold-out performance of the show, I’m still a little nervous to see John Davidson. Has he seen the paper? Did he get the flowers? But when he enters the room, the face I last saw scowling at me in anger is now back to its high-wattage brightness, the room lighting up when he enters and the party guests breaking into a round of applause.
John Davidson, daughter in tow, approaches me and extends a hand.
“Truce?” he says.
“I knew it would all work out,” I say with fake confidence as we shake. “I’m just sorry you had to go through that.
“No, it was a good idea, in theory at least. And what’s more important is that we got the ink,” he says. Ink! He’s talking to me like I’m one of his show-biz buddies, like the show was covered on the front page of Variety. All is good.
John Davidson flags down my boss. “Doug’s gonna be a real star,” he says. I’m impressed. The man suffers one of the most humiliating moments of his life and career - almost getting lynched by fans of the Charlie Daniels band - and still finds room to compliment me to someone else.
Now that’s incredible.Posted by Doug at March 22, 2006 05:14 PM