Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Audience of One

I sent a postcard to New York in the summer of 1991. It was lark: be part of the audience for the taping of Night After Night (NAN) with Allan Havey. Allan was a stand-up comedian who landed a gig as one of the rotating hosts of the original comedy channel. The program changed from a clip show with occasional guests to a full-fledged night time chat show by the time I made my informal inquiry about seeing the taping. I thought my chances were poor because of the unique audience seating arrangements. It was an audience of one.

What set the audience of one (AO1) apart was that they made you part of the show. You got camera time and chat time with the host. Best of all, it was a great excuse to visit New York.

I worked in Kansas City as a part-time announcer for KFKF radio that year. I didn't have any money but I had lots of spare time. It's easier to find money than find time, so I travelled that summer. My college chum David Mitlyng got married and I was at another friend's house in Los Angeles when I received the call. Night After Night arranged for me to attend the show in early October. Travel and accommodations were my responsibility. I said yes and planned to stay with a former college roomie Michael Bassin. I was excited about visiting New York. I hadn't been since the summer of 1974 when I was nine.

My flight landed at LaGuardia in the middle of the day and Michael, who worked in Queens, wasn't able to pick me up. The original plan was to take the subway into the city and meet him there after work, but I got antsy waiting in the terminal and scouted a route from the airport to his office in Queens.

I got as close as I could on the carry-bus that ran a route between LaGuardia and Kennedy airport. They stopped at the Jamaica, Queens bus station. I should have known I was in trouble when I was the only passenger who departed at the stop. The bus station functioned in name only. There weren't any buses there to speak of, or taxi cabs either and I started to perspire a little under my sports jacket. Looking up and down the main drag of this ethnic neighborhood, I was perhaps the only white guy within eye shot, except for a toothless man outside the bus station.

I did my best to play it cool. Was I a white guy from Kansas carrying luggage and cash through a depressed neighborhood after making a critical error in transportation planning, or a seasoned traveler with local business to attend to? I tried to adopt the demeanor of the later and lucky for me; my luggage didn't suggest a tourist. I packed a Nike Gym bag for my four days abroad. Maybe I was on my way to work out at one of the venerable borough gymnasiums or boxatoriums. Perhaps I was a gangland mule moving some goods. I might pull this off.

"You need a cab?" a young man with glasses asked me about 30 seconds after the carry-bus departed.
"Yeah," I said with a casual nod.
"Follow me," and we walked around the corner. There was no cab and my mouth went dry. The man unlocked his maroon Toyota Camry. My gypsy cab adventure had begun. That sounds better than saying I was hitchhiking.

I tossed my gym bag in the backseat and jumped in the front with the man. I gave him the address of the warehouse in Hollis (home of Run-DMC). I'd never been there before, but I acted like it was no big deal.

"Just visiting?" the man asked.
"Just gettin' back," I said trying to prevent an unscheduled stop at a dead end street down by the shoreline. Technically it was true, I was returning, although I omitted the crucial detail that it was my first visit since Nixon's waning days in office.

It occurred to me that my trip, if not my life, was in the hands of this unknown person as we rode in silence through moderate traffic. He looked harmless enough; African American in his mid 20s, horn rimmed glasses, short hair, about 15 pounds over weight. For all I knew, he was taking me to a chop shop in The Bronx where I'd be the new blow-torch bitch for the day.

We entered a less commercial section of town and turned into a parking lot. I didn't want to seem stupid so I got out. The fare was seven dollars. This was deemed a bit steep when I conveyed my story later, but I was so happy to avoid death and dismemberment that I gave him an extra two dollars on top of that.

Here is Michael Bassin's recollection of the Hollis warehouse location:
This was the job that was in the worst neighborhood in the world. They used to dump stolen cars in our parking lot and set them on fire. On top of the entrance was a piece of graffiti..."I love you Kenyetta". The guy must have broken up with her. Soon it was replaced with "I love you Nilsa".

Michael and I drove into Manhattan after a quick tour of his office and a conversation with yet another K.U. college crony, Mark Lipsitz. Mark and Michael's job was to sell CDs to record stores. This particular company distributed a lot of new artists, and artists that were outside the mainstream, but had a dedicated fan base. Two of the artists they were distributing at the time were Steve Vai and Roky Erikson. Michael's apartment was in the heart of the Wall Street area, in the same block as the historic Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington made his farewell address. The view was spectacular. We were surrounded by skyscrapers, and within walking distance of the World Trade Center and Battery Park.

Michael lived with his girlfriend Annie. They had a nice loft apartment on the fourth or fifth floor of a decent building. The first thing I noticed that night was the silence. I was prepared for an all-night noise fest after I stayed at the Edison Hotel on Times Square on my previous trip, but it was quiet in the financial district at night. Michael complained that it was too quiet. Unlike other NYC neighborhoods, there were relatively few places within walking distance of Wall Street that were open at night.

That evening we went to a reception at the Espace restaurant on 16th street West of Union Square. I recognized the name from the ads they ran in Spy magazine. I don't remember the reason for the reception. I was just glad to be out in New York.

The next day I had all day to explore New York. My TV appearance wasn't for a day or two. Michael and Annie departed for work and I was totally free in the city. I contacted the AO1 coordinator, Pete Slack, and got directions to the HBO downtown studios. I'm not sure about this now, after 14 years, but it seemed like it was on the west side, in the 20s or 30s, just off the 6 train line. I made a dry run to make sure I could find the place before I had to be there. Later that morning I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I saw the Egyptian temple, the Frank Lloyd Wright room and some artifacts from one of Michael Rockefeller's New Guinea expeditions. The Met was great. So was the MOMA. They had an incredible exhibition of Monet's water lilies. Three huge panels filled an entire room. I also saw Dali's famous Persistence of Memory painting. It was tiny! And somebody snuck in a nude photograph of Madonna. It was tiny!

I also visited the museum of radio and television. What a rip that place was. They didn't have anything. The first floor was basically a backdrop for V.I.P. cocktail parties. The only exhibit was a few Al Hirschfeld drawings on the wall. In another area they screened non-stop episodes of the Danny Thomas sitcom Make Room for Daddy. Sorry, I wasn't a fan of the show. The one section of the museum that showed promise was the video vault where you used a primitive online catalog (remember this was 1991) to select a program from the archives for screening. I tried three different titles from their catalog and none of them were available. Each time I inquired about a title, the staff gave an excuse why I couldn't watch it. They told me many of the titles were archived off-site and I'd have to come back. It was a disappointment.

We dined out several times and the most memorable place was the Rose of India restaurant on 6th street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. The place was tiny but they decorated it with Christmas lights and Niagara Falls commemorative plates. Best of all, it was very reasonable price-wise.

Another evening I met my Uncle Blake and Aunt Dixie for dinner. Uncle Blake worked for Chase Manhattan bank, right there in the Wall Street area, and they had a house in Westchester County. They met me at Michael's apartment and we walked up Wall Street, turned left (west) and walked by St. Paul's Churchyard and Chapel on our way to the World Trade Center. This was my first visit to the WTC complex and I was impressed. The lobby was huge and we stopped to visit briefly with a Russian vendor who had a cart full of little nesting dolls. Uncle Blake picked the restaurant for us. It wasn't at the top of the tower. It was in one of the surrounding hotels. We had a very nice conversation and meal and it was great seeing those two again. That was the last time I saw my uncle. He died a few years later. I'm glad I got to visit with him and walk around lower Manhattan with him. He really loved the city.

I caught the subway the next day at Battery Park. The park also had plenty of hot dog vendors. One lesson I learned about getting a soda from any street vendor was always use the straw. Those cases of coke sit on loading docks with rats and you never knew what might have stepped on or crawled over the can top you were purchasing. One did not sip a coke right out of the can. That was disgusting.

Taping day was a lot of fun. I arrived at the same time as a stand-up comedian (I don't remember his name) who was filling in for John Stewart on Short Attention Span Theatre. I was bummed that John wasn't going to be there. I did see a very pregnant co-host Patty Rosborough in the hall. After meeting Pete Slack, I sat in the green room and filled out the audience of one questionnaire. It asked me to come up with a slogan for the show. I wrote down "If you can't behave, be Havey". I got a tour of the studios and it was a compact operation. Night After Night, Sports Monster, and Short Attention Span theatre shared the same studio. Onion World, The Tommy Sledge show, The Sweet Life, and The Higgins Boys and Gruber show were all history.

The celebrity interview that day was the legendary character actor and 1974 Oscar nominee for best supporting actor Vincent Gardenia. I saw him getting made up in the (aptly named) make up chair.

I had no idea what to expect when taping time arrived. I took my seat in the audience of one section, two movie theatre chairs behind a velvet rope, and the rest of the cast and crew filtered in. When I met Allan the first thing that struck me was how soft his hands were. Either he moisturized regularly or he's never done a day of hard labor in his life. Either way, it made him eminently qualified for talk show host.

I had a wonderful time on the show. Nick was stationed directly to my right and it struck me that he had one of the greatest jobs a guy could have. He parlayed this job as announcer sidekick into a similar gig on the short lived Dennis Miller talk show in 1992. During the program Allan engaged me in several exchanges, we talked about my gypsy cab ride, he made fun of me for being a disc jockey, and he especially liked the slogan I came up with for the show. Nick also was very friendly and we joked about football and Garth Brooks. He also mentioned that he'd been to the Rodehouse Bar in the theatre district the night before. I'd also been there on that trip, although we'd gone on a different night.
Other NAN trivia -

* Allan smoked.
* Halfway through the taping they stopped down for a 15 minute break.
* The control room was shoe horned into a closet adjacent to the studio.
* The Robin Byrd show taped in a different studio in the same building.
* The Elvis Costello postcard from the Higgins Boys and Gruber refrigerator was displayed in somebody's cube in the office.
* Vincent Gardenia died 14 months later.
* Comedian John Hayman, who later played the bubble boy on Seinfeld, appeared in a bit on the show.
* AO1 people did not get make-up (unless you did it yourself).
* The actual date of my appearance was either October 2nd or 3rd, 1991.

Vincent Gardenia was there promoting what would become his last film, The Super. He was an interesting guest and he admitted that he'd never seen the Havey show. Allan asked if they could get Vincent a copy of the program. I found out later they gave him my copy. So I didn't get a copy with my parting gifts. I did get an awesome T-Shirt and hat with the Night After Night logo.

As the show ended, Allan asked me to tape a promo for the show. They turned the camera on me and asked me to say something to the effect of "Hi, I'm audience of one member Fowler Jones saying remember, if you can't behave, be Havey!" I couldn't believe it. For a moment, all eyes were on me. I went from Blow-Torch bitch to Comedy Central pitchman in less than three days. That's not a bad for a Kansas hitchhiker.

The show aired across the country that night. Michael's lower Manhattan cable outlet did not carry Comedy Central. I didn't get to see it until I got back to Kansas City. I never saw the promo I taped so perhaps it didn't pan out, but I'll never forget my AO1 experience.
They also reran the program about a month later. I got another call from Comedy Central a few months later. The show was organizing a special Audience of One party and I was invited. Regrettably, I had the time but even less money than before and I declined the invitation.

I hoped to parlay my appearance into some kind of tangible career benefit back home. As a newcomer in radio, I learned that shameless self-promotion was no sin. I sent out a press release in advance of the second showing, and I hoped somebody would offer me some full time work. Barry Garron, Radio-TV writer for the star, used it as an item in his column, but the bonehead misread my copy and called me a stand-up comedian. It's obvious he wasn't a regular NAN viewer. I've been called worse, and I shouldn't complain, it did lead to one job offer. I got a call from the local Kansas City chapter of the cancer society. They were holding a big fund-raising banquet and needed an emcee. It didn't pay anything and I'd have to rent my own formal wear, but that's not why I declined the gig. Cancer ain't funny. God bless the emcee that can walk that tightrope between appropriate tone for a cancer event and making the audience laugh. It's like doing a eulogy where the occasional moment of levity goes a long way to break the tension. I wasn't up for the task.

One other Night After Night memory. Perhaps the funniest Comedy Channel promo they ran for the show was an excerpt from a visit by actress Elizabeth Shue. They tossed a ball around the studio and Allan chided Elizabeth to put some mustard on her throw. She winged it at him and hit him right in the jewels. His reaction was hysterical.


brengibble said...

Hi, I can see that it's a year after you made your original Night After Night post, but I just thought you might like to see the commercial you mentioned with Allan Havey and Elisabeth Shue. I've just made it available at YouTube, so if you want to stop by, I hope you enjoy it!

Anonymous said... to back up my portion of this story with some fact. Check out thias link. It is teh link to 187-07 Henderson Ave inHollis NY. You can click on teh street level view. It's still written there...I love you Nilsa. If you look can see that it used to say Kenyetta. The building was Important Records Dist. It is now Verizon.

Anonymous said...

The link: