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I was a Burt Reynolds look-a-like

February 23, 2011

My 15 seconds of fame on the short-lived Martin Short Show

At the former Graumann's (now Mann's) Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles

On Friday, April 14, 2004, I finally got my 15 seconds of fame just like Andy Warhol promised. It all started outside Mann’s (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre along Hollywood Blvd. when a young man came up behind me as I was trying to fit my hands into those of Humphrey Bogart.

“Wanna be on the Martin Short Show?” he asked with his eyes constantly surveying the Walk of Stars for new prospects. “It’s a chance to be in the audience. I guarantee you’ll get in.”

“I hope so,” I replied sarcastically. I had already heard a rumour that the CBS talk show had been nominated for an Emmy and cancelled in the same breath. And this before it even made the small screen in Marty’s Canadian homeland.

I was reluctant to take the pass. I knew it would take forever to get over to the CBS Studios on an LA city bus. Anyone who says Hollywood is the ‘fast lane’ is wrong. You will be lucky to find a bus driver who actually knows the right bus connections in this sprawling jungle of suburbs.

I finally said yes and miraculously got to CBS early by taking a cab. Luckily I scored an honest driver from Bosnia nicknamed Hairo which he said meant good faith. I hadn’t been so lucky the day before when a former merchant seaman turned cabbie from Odessa, Russia, ripped me off for at least $10.

The early arrival gave me time to visit the “CBS Store” where one could buy a Nanny T-shirt, a Friends coffee cup, a CBS Sports jacket or a 60 Minutes baseball cap.

“It’s Studio 46,” the young man at Mann’s had said. “Be there at 3:45 p.m.”  When I walked through the security fence, I found a line-up of stargazers waving the same yellow pass I had. Yellow gave me more status that those unfortunates holding red or blue.

Everyone was neatly and efficiently herded on to a row of backless benches by men and women wearing CBS security or public relations uniforms. There we waited until cued to move toward the studio.

When the cue came, each colour was prodded out into the vast CBS TV production lot and steered toward a cavernous building. We went through a metal detector where more security guards took our bags and cameras, then on to another set of benches.

While waiting a veteran of the TV show audience circuit gave us some friendly tips. “You have to clap a lot in these shows,” he explained. “It’s part of the deal. You get in free but you have to clap on demand.” Sounds fair, I thought.

“But be careful!” he warned. “If you clap too hard your hands will start to hurt, ‘cause you’ve got to clap a lot. And if you don’t clap they can throw you out.” O.K. So I’ll clap…a lot.

“Does anyone have to go?” asked a young man in a red CBS blazer. “We want you all to go now because we don’t want to interrupt the taping of the show. So everyone follow me.” Now we are on Romper Room.

When we finally got into the studio, it became clear that ‘yellow’ passes meant we had front-row seats. Great! There I was sitting in safari shorts and shirt in front of two “Applause” signs and five ceiling monitors surrounded by hundreds of studio lights.

Three floor cameras were at the ready and the usual jean-clad techies hung around with their headphones dangling from their necks waiting for a producer or director to cue them to tape.

From the moment we sat down, many of us anxious and excited, we were pumped for action. Our job was to make like we were Marty’s biggest fans. In fact, this was the only show we could get tickets to watch. Our first option had been the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, of course, but it was in “hiatus”. That’s studio jargon for ‘not taping this week’.

The canned music was loud and obnoxious—Little Pink Houses by John Cougar Mellencamp got a group of four young women bouncing. They turned out to be from Toronto, although their school-girl enthusiasm made us think they were trying out for bit parts on Felicity.

A heavy-set man beside me asked if I thought “she,” pointing to a young woman, ”has had a boob job.” I pretended I didn’t hear and was rescued by the arrival of the audience controller, call her Penny.

“O.K. everyone,” she said tossing a hand through her back-combed head of blond hair. “Boy, have we got a revved up crowd here today. Listen, our job is to really show Marty how much we like him. O.K.? So let’s try a big practice welcome for Marty.”

We responded like trained seals. The “demographically correct” band, that’s what Penny called it, soon replaced the canned noise with a tuning session. Then the drummer pounded his bass drum and the main spotlight went to the green door from which Marty would soon appear. We burst into ecstatic applause, whistles and screams.

An usher came over to tell one man to take off his cap while in the studio. Another CBS rule. Then it was time to welcome Marty for real. Well, for the live-to-tape session anyway. And did we give him a welcome. Hoots and hollers from all 150 of us. The four Toronto women draped themselves in a maple leaf flag. It was thunder and lightning for our favourite Winnipeg-born comedian making good in Tinsel Town.

I’m not sure Marty even noticed the Canadian flag. If he did, he made no comment about it during the taping. He went straight into his monologue, then took giant steps back to his easy chair while the cameras crowded in close so we had to watch the show on the monitors. So much for being in a ‘live audience’.

When Marty introduced his first guest, another Canadian made good named Norm Macdonald, there were a few boos from the audience. I’d never seen the Norm show, a big hit apparently, but someone thought it was worth a boo or two. That didn’t go down well with Marty. He waved Penny over during one of the frequent breaks in taping and did a lot of frowning.

“Your energy is terrific. Keep it up,” she said afterwards. “But focus more on the clapping than the booing. O.K.?”  Penny was a pro. She handled the situation perfectly. But Marty’s attitude hadn’t pleased the Canadian women.

“He was too impersonal,” they said later. “It doesn’t have to be that way. We saw Craig Kilborn last night and he was really interactive.” Poor Marty had struck out with the home-town fans.

After the break, he continued talking to Norm about his success, his mother and his being fired from another show. Then Norm looked out at the audience and pointed directly at me. Perhaps he had run out of things about himself to talk about.

“Hey, that guy really looks like Burt Reynolds,” he said. I turned to the overweight man next to me, the boob watcher, and suggested, “He must mean you.”

“Yeah, he does look like Burt. Can you get him on camera?” Marty said. Sure enough the camera trained on me and everyone applauded and laughed, except the veteran show-goer, the clapping expert.

He just stared at me in awe. Then he leaned over looking far too serious and said, “You’re famous, man.” I would have done anything to trade places with him. He had  obviously paid his dues in hand-numbing applause.

Penny corralled the people who had told mostly bad jokes during the breaks in taping. They all got prizes, probably some of the slow-moving stock from the CBS Store. Probably the 60 Minutes stuff left over since The Insider.

The rest of us, feeling slightly used, were once again herded out of Studio 46, past the metal detector and through the metal fences into a parking lot in the middle of Hollywood.

Oh, as for my career as a Burt Reynolds lookalike, I’m afraid it’s on hold at the moment.

This story first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.

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