THE SHADOW CIRCUIT

There is an area of show business that I call the Shadow Circuit. What it is people in the public eye, be it politics, arts, entertainment fields, who come to a city to appear before a closed audience at conventions, business meetings, private functions, employee thank you parties, etc. In and out and the public has no idea they were ever in town. Sometime the public is aware of the appearance, but unless they belong to the sponsoring organization, or are big donors, they can’t attend.

To work the Shadow Circuit, the person’s name must appear on a list bookers have which is available for potential clients.

I don’t recall ever seeing Bob Hope appearing before the general public in the Twin Cities in my lifetime, but he was in St. Paul on the Shadow Circuit in 1984. He cracked jokes at the dinner honoring the 80th birthday of Herb Carlson, founder of Radisson Hotel chain, among other ventures.

He talked with the stagehands for a long time, after he asked ‘Just who is this old fart I am suppose to be best friends with’? He ate the dinner, gave a funny spiel about his ‘old friend’, and left.

Before he got into the limo that replaced the Winnebago dressing room he stopped to say goodbye to the stagehands and praise us for doing an honest days work, not like what he had just done. Lying about knowing a total stranger, just for a couple bucks and something to do.

And sometimes it more than a couple bucks. Margaret Thatcher, after she retired as British Prime Minister, let it be known, through an agent, that she would be touring the US on a speaking tour. The Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce was only too glad to be included on her stops. I worked the Iron Lady’s talk.

When I handed in the stagehand bill, the Finance Officer laughed at the small amount compared to what was paid for Thatcher to appear, 70.000 plus expenses for a 45 minute talk.

While I worked Shadow Circuit gigs with the likes of Maya Angelo, Eisner the CEO of Disney, countless politicians, and advocates pro and con on the issues of the day, entertainers were the largest group on the Circuit. Many of these entertainers I had also worked in public concerts.

Recently the National Rifle Association, NRA, the largest gun lobby in the U.S. held their annual Convention. This homage to guns was a few days and a few miles from the latest massacre of school children by a shooter armed with legally purchased guns. Both the convention and the killings took place in Texas, a state where the politicians have made the purchase and carrying of guns of all ilks, almost mandatory.

The entertainment as always was booked via the Shadow Circuit.

But when the news of the killing broke, the entertainers began to cancel out of the gig in respect of the poor children. The first to exit was singer/songwriter Don McLean, followed by the others. Lee Greenwood was the last to walk.

Rudy Giuliani offered to sing ‘God Bless The USA’; but the NRA told him just to send ‘thoughts and prayers’ like all good GOP politicians do, and canceled Entertainment Night.

Now for entertainment they only had the stand-up comic, Donald Trump, who did his usual shtick but adding a litany of the names of the murdered children, followed by a dance, before breaking into his Big Lies routine.

I worked McLean once in concert and one on the Shadow Circuit. Greenwood I worked numerous times on the Circuit.

I worked McLean at a Guthrie concert just prior to the start of the Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent tour. McLean’s recording of his song Vincent was used as background during a segment of Van Gogh’ paintings projected on the screen. The recording was also played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

I worked McLean also on the Shadow Circuit for the Dayton Department Store at their annual fashion show to raise funds for the Children’s Hospital. At that function, he sang his biggest hit, American Pie. When I suggested to Eric, the Event’s manager that McLean should also sing Vincent, Eric said he never heard it. I told him that another title for the song was Starry, Starry Night. Eric wasn’t familiar with that either. But a few years later, McLean’s recording of it was used in a segment of the fashion show.

That show also featured Brooks Shield, emceeing off the Circuit. I am happy to report, she is as beautiful in person as in the media. And her personality and warmth are genuine.

In praising the exit of McLean from the convention, one comment was why did he ever agree to sing there in the first place. Well, an appearance at a Shadow event in no way endorses the event’s purpose. Like stagehands, (I worked events at the NRA Convention when it was held in Mpls., and had to hold back my feelings throughout the event.), people working the Shadow Circuit do so to make a living and project their job.

Don McLean had recently suffered a mental break-down that resulted in domestic violence. I image the Shadow Circuit was his only source of work.

The Shadow Circuit was the main source of work for the last entertainer to pull out of the NRA Convention, Lee Greenwood, for a good many years. I worked his show numerous times. He is a favorite Shadow Circuit singer for conservative groups who pride themselves for their love of God and Country.

His show is about 45 minutes of C&W and then a black-out just long enough to trip the kabuki drop and the lights come back up to a backdrop of his gigantic US flag.

Lee busts loose with his biggest hit, ‘God Bless The USA. The crowd goes wild. At show’s end the audience is happy and Lee pockets easy bucks on the Shadow Circuit.

By walking out, Greenwood has the most to lose. An ultra right winger who is a main-stay at Trump rallies. An avid gun lover who said in his press conference on Fox News, ‘That weapon killed children’.

Pro gun advocates never forget that kind of talk. He’s going to have to do a lot of singing at Trump rallies to get back in their good graces.

Shadow Circuit bookers find entertainers people like to hear and see, singers who once were big and now…The one that I always enjoyed the most was Chubby Checkers. The audiences loved his singing and dancing and his getting everybody to join in on the Twist. Heck, he almost had me dancing several times.

Another favorite booking was Frankie Valli singing the Four Season’s hits. This was prior to the musical, ‘Jersey Boys’ opening on Broadway in 2005. The musical features the songs and lives of the Four Seasons. After the musical made it big, Frankie and his three cohorts were back on the concert circuit, too big for the Shadow Circuit.

PS: Frankie does not speak with a falsetto voice. His voice is gravely and has the gruff of New Jerseyites. He is also easy to work with.

Some entertainers use the Circuit to show off talents that are not evident to the public. Jim Belushi, actor and younger brother of the great comic actor, John Belushi, fronts his R&B, The Sacred Hearts. (I have no idea as to why he choose that title.) For years, it was a frequent booking on the Shadow Circuit.

Jim Belushi’s musical talent, like his acting talent, is in the so-so range. His biggest asset is his the fact he is John Belushi’s brother.

But show biz is in his rear view mirror thanks to his new vocation that pays better and not much hard work. He is a California State Sanctioned cannabis grower. John would be proud of his kid brother.

Not all Shadow Circuit acts are appreciated though. I worked Doug Krenshaw, the Cajun Fiddler at a closed event. He was big in Louisiana and some of his work was getting national air time. He got a big applause for his playing, but then he decided on a little comedy relief and told, what he thought were a few funny jokes. They might have been funny in the Mississippi Delta, but in the head waters of the river, they were way too raw for the audience. They booed him off the stage.

Backstage I could hear the booker shouting at Krenshaw for using that language. And all the while the booker was screaming in worse language than what Krenshaw had had used. I never worked him again and if he still managed to work the Shadow Circuit, it would have been events in Bayou country, where he just got honored in the Louisiana Hall Of Fame.

Another example of riling up the audience was Joan Rivers in a Shadow Circuit booking for Jewish Women’s Charity Drive. When she asked, ‘Can we talk’, she talked in some very unladylike language. She went so far as to think since both she and the audience were Jewish, she was free to revert to old Jewish stereotypes. She even tried to get humor out of the Holocaust. Raunchy, racist, and tasteless, she ignored the boos and kept on digging her hole deeper.

One of the committee members ran backstage and tried to turn off my lighting consul, thinking it it controlled the mic. When she walked off stage she gave the audience a middle finger salute.

Rivers got a lot of boos and I bet a lot of bucks for that Shadow Circuit event. And a big red warning flag to any bookers via the Shadow Circuit.

I worked her show in a theater venue…once. Her public concert made her Shadow concert seem tame; but since the audience bought tickets, they should have known what kind of show they were in for.

Big companies use the Circuit for various reasons. Target Stores had a yearly event where they brought in managers of their stores from all over. The event was rich with name singers, who were releasing new CD’s. Some of the biggest names like Tony Bennett or Celine Dion would release a CD, say with tens songs and also a CD sold only at Target stores with four additional songs on. Always a lot of talent appearing before a closed audience.

Best Buy, in the years of their orginal founder, used entertainers off the Circuit for parties. For non management employees Best Buy corporate campus was turned into a festival. Free food, soft drinks, bands for dancing, and several big names like Lennie Kravitz. The management had their party in the Convention Center with food and drinks and rows of arcade game and big time entertainment. One year, Elton John headlined. Elton John… and the public never knew he was in town.

In 2007, Tom Collins, of Champions on Ice fame, rented the Target Center for a birthday party for his wife, Jane. The biggest array of greatest figure skaters in the world came and performed before the closed audience of family and friends of Janie. Everyone present knew that it would be Janie’s last birthday. She died a few months after. After the death of his wife of 41 years, Tom Collins sold Champions On Ice.

I never thought I would ever write anything in my blog praising Cosby but I have to give the devil his due. Nobody worked the Shadow Circuit like he did. He mastered it.

When he was offered a Shadow Circuit event, he contacted Mystic Lake Casino, and arranged for a day or two of two performances per day. Next, a call to Minneapolis booker to get several days of two a day performances in a Minneapolis concert venue

He was an easy sell, did not need much advance publicity, sure sell out every performance, not many stagehands.

For stagehands it was apiece of cake to set up and take down. Even on spots it was a snap. Pick him up as he came on stage. Once he sat down, you could lock down the light because he never moved until the end. His show lasted about an hour and another started an hour later. Two performance pays in the time it usually takes for one regular show.

For Cosby, it was also a snap. Sit in an easy chair, smoke a big cigar and repeat some of the old stories he has told, recorded, written in books, for years.

A Shadow Event that generates another dozen or so performances! And for over a decade, he did this n in the Twin Cities three or four times a year; and he worked Shadow Events all over the country. Cosby ruled the Shadow Circuit…until!!!

The names and faces that were on the Circuit since I worked it may have changed, but it is alive and well yet today; and it remains a big source of income for entertainers, celebrities, and stagehands..

ON ICE PART III

The other of the big three ice productions came about when Maurice Chaflen took his ten year old roller blade touring show, Skating Vanities and converted the idea to an ice show, Holiday On Ice. It differed from the other two in that it had several productions traveling all at the same time and it carried it’s own ice making equipment, which meant they didn’t have to confine the tours to cities with ice arenas in the US or around the globe.

Holiday began it’s US operation in 1945. The first international company was called Ice Vogues and started with a tour of Mexico in 1947 and toured Mexico and South America. In 1956, the name was changed and Holiday On Ice now toured all over the globe.

Except for a few years when Sonja Henie joined the company, the show did not use big name skaters. It featured the spinning wheel, skaters linked arms one by one, ending in the spokes of the wheel skating from a central hub. Each performance ended with a kick line and fireworks.

To attract a new audience the reviews introduced kiddie themes like Bugs Bunny, Peter Pan, Ali Baba, and the like, the first of the costumed ice show that led to today’s Disney On Ice.

In 1964, the North American show was sold to Madison Square Garden, leaving Chaflen as owner of Holiday International, which grew to have three companies traveling around different countries at the same time breaking new ground in Russia and China. The US version ended in 1985, but the International shows are still touring.

Tom Collins, a Canadian skating champion, joined Holiday, and when his skating days ended, he and Morrie Chaflen started Champions On Ice. No sets or chorus lines. Just figure skating champions performing the routines that brought them fame.

Morrie Chaflen sold out his share to Tom, but not until he married Tom’s sister, Martha, also a Canadian champion skater.

At first Tom could use only amateur champions but when the rules were changed to allow professionals he brought in names like Brian Boitano, Katrina Witt and Michelle Kwan, and every big name skater in the 40 years he had Champions. Sometimes he used skaters that hadn’t made their mark yet, just talent and promise. One such promising youngster was 12 year old Dorothy Hamil.

When he staged his final tour in 2007 and sold his company, shortly after his wife died, he was regarded as the most powerful person in figure skating.

Tom’s father had been a gold miner, but never found a mine as rich as his son found in figure skating. He was grossing over 50 million a year. But when he was sitting backstage talking to hands like myself you would think he just one of the guys.

But Tom Collins wasn’t one to sit back and enjoy retirement. He went on tour with Neil Diamond and revolutionized the selling of swag at concerts. No more just a CD was for sale. Tom had T shirts and caps, posters and autographed pictures. Swag was now big business. He went on tours with other performers and bands. His brother, Butch, had been working for me as a stagehand and Tom got him involved in selling Swag for Sesame Street Live whose headquarters are in Minneapolis, and I lost a good hand in Butch.

The big shows of Ice Follies and Ice Follies are now just show business memories like Ziegfeld Follies and Vaudeville. Their time maybe over but they broke ground in figure skating. They proved there was a market for skating shows, and a career for skaters even if they never became household names giving a reason for the hours needed in the grueling task of becoming a figure skater. And they introduced the art of figure skating to a new audience, an audience that continues to support the ice shows that followed.

The people behind ice shows, past and present, had for the most part, one thing in common, ice skating was a big part of their life since they were old enough to have skates laced on.

But one of the biggest mover and shaker in the business was a non- skater, Morris Chaflen, a true entrepreneur. Chaflen, ‘call me Morrie’, was a man who dove into things without worrying about the depth of the water. Once you met him, you never forgot him.

Morrie grew up in Minneapolis. He was still in knee pants when he started his first business, selling newspapers and candies on a street corner. His first big-boy enterprise was a combination pool hall and bowling alley.

I knew a lot about hawking newspapers and playing pool. That’s how I grew up, not shooting basketballs or ice skating.’

In 1947, he and his partner, Ben Berger, bought the Detroit Gems, a professional basketball team, to Minneapolis and renamed it the Minneapolis Lakers. Luck of the draft brought them George Mikan when the Chicago team he played for two years folded. Mikan helped establish the NBA into a major sports organization and was name the Greatest Basketball Player of the 1st half of the 20th Century.

In 1957, he and Berger sold the team to Bob Short, another Minneapolis entrepreneur and politician, who moved the team to Los Angeles, three years later’. It broke a lot of hearts including your truly.

Yeah, Short was always running in state or federal elections. Running but never winning. Maybe some voters figured he’d sell them out just like he did with the Lakers. You think?’

Morrie was active in politics also. A behind- the- scenes worker. Never a candidate. In 1944, he was in the liberal arm of the MN Democratic Party when, under the leadership of Hubert Humphrey, merged with the larger MN Farmer Labor Party. He became friends with Humphrey from the time Humphrey came to study at the University of Minnesota and he worked for Humphrey’s city, state, and federal campaigns, as Humphrey went from Mayor of Minneapolis, to MN’s Senator in DC, to Vice President under Johnson, and back to Senator. The two remained close throughout their lives.

US Senator at that time, Hubert Humphrey met with Morrie Chaflen at the 1958 Brussels’s World Fair and the meeting resulted in a warm up of the Cold War and the beginning of the Cultural Trade Treaty between the USA and Russia as it was originally intended to be.

When Hubert worked out that exchange of the Moscow Circus and Holiday On Ice, a lot of people said it wouldn’t work, but we showed ‘em. Up til’ then it was just we’ll send you a piano player and you send us a cello player. After we went to Russia, the exchange went big time with theater groups, museum things, opera, and ballet. Just think, without ballet companies coming over, all those dancers never would have defected.’

Humphrey had purposed that the US would send over the Ringling Brother’s Circus with America’s famous clown Emmett Kelly, even though Kelly was no longer with Ringling. In return, Russia would send the Moscow Circus with it’s great clown, Popov. The USSR said da and nyet. They would send Popov and the circus to the US, but they wanted Holiday On Ice, instead of a circus…and it had to bring everything including the ice making equipment and the machine that shaves the ice.

Without asking Chaflen, he quickly signed the agreement, He knew Morrie would be more than happy to take the show to Russia. Humphrey had a caveat though. The first stop on the tour would be a week’s engagement in Minneapolis, MN where he started his political career.

Soon after the Russian adventure, Holiday broke the barrier of another closed nation, China.

Chaflen traveled around the world with his Holiday On Ice shows playing before European Royalty and World leaders like Nikita Khrushchev, and a Who’s Who of celebrities at the time like Princess Diana and Elvis Presley.

Morrie lived a life he never could have imagined as that ten year old kid standing on that corner in Minneapolis back in the day.

But it also had two tragedies that could have had driven him into a life changing depression, if he had been a weaker man.

On St. Patrick’s Day 1960, his wife, Martha Collins Chaflen and their three children, ages 2, 6, 7, were flying to Miami when the plane broke into pieces in the air and crashed. Morris Chaflen’s beloved wife and children were among the 63 people who lost their lives in that still unexplained horror.

On Oct 31st, 1963, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Arena, just as the opening night performance of Holiday was into the finale, a leak from a LP tank, stored under the bleachers, was ignited by an electrical short and blew up, killing 81 and injuring some 400 more. Morrie was not there and none of the cast or crew were hurt; but the fact that there was 81 deaths and so many of the over 4,000 in the audience, and a statement from the sheriff stating that if the show had not started 15 minute late, the deaths and injuries would not have been as great, hit Morrie hard.

Criminal charges against six of the arena’s staff were dropped after more investigation. The arena reopened and hosted a cattle show six weeks later, and The Beatles a year later, followed a month later by a return of Holiday On Ice, which broke the arena’s attendance records.

It took Morrie quite awhile to get back to being the easy going person he was before, but slowly he reverted to the man who was so much fun to be around. He remarried and had two sons with his second wife. He lost his ownership in Holiday International by a court ruling over a stock issue. He started Chaflen International and dabbled in various businesses. He died in 1949 at the age of 72, a year after the death of his good friend, Hubert Humphrey.

Morrie was a natural story teller, and you never forgot him or his stories. He loved to sit backstage and regale young stagehands like your truly.

Now did I ever tell you about…’

You probably heard the story before but any story Morrie told was worth hearing again. He had a twinkle in his eye and just a slight accent. He used his hands in telling a story. He could have had a career as a story telling comedian.

He had that gift of entertaining through the art of telling stories that seems to be second nature to those who lived in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Like the Boston barber, Max Nimoy, father of Leonard Nimoy, who told stories of living in and escaping from a shtetl in Ukraine.

And like Myron Cohen who came to the US from Russia at the age of two. Cohen was a traveling salesman who endeared himself to his customers by telling them funny stories. He was talked into performing at comedy clubs and soon became a household name because of his appearances on the TV variety shows of the 50’s.

And like Zero Mostel,’If I were a rich man’, who, when cast as the original Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof’, balked at the concept that the original stories by Sholem Aleichem, who lived in a shtetl in the Ukraine before coming to the US, being ‘too Jewish’ to succeed. Using stories he heard from his father of life and dreams of the inhabitants of an East European shtetl, he crafted the Fiddler we know today. And over the years his Tevye was adhered to by actors like Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy among others.

Morrie’s favorite story was what happened on that first Russian tour. It also is my favorite Morrie story.

I took off running. They weren’t going to pull something like that on me. No way! But I pulled up in a hurry when the KGB’s answer to the Three Stooges came from behind the Zamboni.

Moe, with his hands in the pocket of his black leather ankle length coat, stood in the center of his two stooges. He had that come-on-I-dare-you look on his face.

Larry and Curly were wearing their black leather knee length leather coats. And each had a BIG pistol pointed at me.

Thinking back I should have been praying but at the time all I could think of was, “What in the name of Hubert Horatio Humphrey did I get into???”

Whoa! Whoa! Morrie’s story needs a post of it’s own.

Stay tuned for KGB AND THE ZAMBONI.