This is it! This is the big time, baby! Drop the baggy pants. Peg the old blue blazer. Kill the eyeglasses. Shape up! Get a hairstyle. Get a facial. You want to be a player, don't you? Here's your chance. Slip into a Hugo Boss jacket, a Bill Robinson shirt, a Perry Ellis tie! Smile! And remember -- eye contact is everything.
I was sitting in front of a mirror, getting a pep talk from this red-haired makeup artist, when all of a sudden a woman with bouncing gold earrings, a midwinter tan and a hip-as-tomorrow perm danced through the dressing room door, stroked my pancaked chin with her hot-pink fingernails and puckered her lips, as if to say, "Poopsie Woopsie." I knew, right then, right there, that I was trapped. I was in Big-Time TV Land!
"They're going to looooove you," the woman cooed. She had a transcontinental Carly Simon mouth, big white teeth. "Just be yourself! They'll love you."
Love me? Was that the point? I guess it was. This was TV Land. First and foremost, they gotta love you!
Of course, they never mentioned this back in Baltimore. I had worked several years as a contributing feature reporter and commentator for WBAL-TV and never, in all that time, had a news executive said a word about hairstyle, facial hair, style of dress, contact lenses, or being loved. Though maybe someone should have.
The point is, the scene in Boston was entirely different.
I was auditioning at a TV station there, and the woman who had just squeezed my cheek was the one who had arranged it. Someone had told her to call me because she was producing a new, supposedly improved, midmorning talk show, and she needed a host.
"Host? Me?" was how I reacted. "I haven't hosted anything, except Italian theme parties."
At the time -- 1987 -- the thought had never occurred to me. Be the host of a TV talk show? I was skeptical.
"Are you sure you've got the right guy?" I asked a week before the audition. "I'm mostly a reporter. I write. I tell stories. I've never anchored or hosted. I'm interested in documentaries, maybe a news magazine show, like a local '60 Minutes' maybe."
"Oh, yeah," she said. "You're the newspaper guy. . . . But you've been working in television, too, haven't you?"
That is to say: Lighten up, Jack.
That is to say: Unsnap the buckles on the "serious journalist" truss for an adventure in show biz. After all, wasn't I the reporter who, on WBAL-TV's "Live at Five," had shown Baltimore viewers what to do with leftover turkey after Thanksgiving? Wasn't I the guy who produced a story on his addiction to peanut M&Ms;? The guy who, for a story about the trauma of driver's license renewal, sat for a make-over and rented a tuxedo before getting his photograph taken? The guy who filed a story on the Nude Olympics, via satellite, from a Harford County cornfield?
Of course, it was all true. I had been producing sometimes serious, sometimes silly at-large features for WBAL. The station's moguls had propositioned me over lunch in Tio Pepe's in late 1979. They told me over shrimp in garlic sauce that, if I gave up my newspaper column and went into TV Land, I'd be a hit.
"I'm telling you," an executive producer once said, "you could be 5/8 5/8 TC a giant."
"A giant? Like who?"
"I'm talking Dan Rather-size giant."
Rather -- not!
I resisted the sweet talk -- and a contract -- and limited my TV work to free-lance assignments.
By the time of my audition in Boston, I still hadn't been the host of a thing.
"We want you to try it," the woman with the big earrings had said. She claimed the show would be a regional news magazine, not just another cheaply produced TV talk show that, in most American cities, passes for responsible local programming.
So there I was, in Big-Time TV Land, preparing for a 15-minute audition before a studio audience that had assembled at 7 a.m. and had already seen a dozen other would-be hosts and hostesses try for the part.
"The first interview is with a woman who is a Christian Scientist and whose child is dying from leukemia, but she refuses to allow the child to have medical treatment because it's against her religion," the producer said.
"It is?" I asked. "I mean, she won't? I mean, I don't know anything about this."
"It's a big case," the producer said. "A judge ordered the child to have medical treatment. You have five minutes."
"And I'm interviewing the mother?"
"Not really," the producer says.
"It's really an actress playing the mother."
I cringed. This sounded like yet another run-of-the-mill TV talk show, with the usual exploitative interviews. Odd-Duck Roundups, I call them. The warning light in my mind flashed: Geraldo! Geraldo! I saw myself interviewing gay truck drivers, small men who love big women, male strippers and guys who like to cross-dress on weekends. And, of course, I saw fame and fortune, a vacation home, a car phone! I was finally going to get my chance to be Maury or Sally or Oprah. One of those! Meanwhile, the serious journalist inside me screamed: Bill Moyers! Charles Kuralt! Ed Bradley! Had I no self-respect?
"OK," I said. "I guess I can handle it. What's the second interview?"
"Fish," the producer said. "Get ready, you're up next."
"What was that about fish?"
"We got a chef to do seafood recipes. Don't worry, you'll be great. They're gonna love you."
Suddenly, it hit me. There was nothing "new" or "improved" about this TV show. It was the kind of cheaply produced yap session we see on TV all the time. "Hello, Boston!" No one was interested in my input, or in my mind. They were interested in my shirt!
"Stripes are too tight," the director said, looking me over. "They're gonna drive my cameras crazy. You got a shirt without so many stripes?"
I changed into a pale-yellow Bill Robinson with a tab collar, and walked into the studio to meet the lions. The audience was glaze-eyed by the time I got there. Still, my future in Big-Time TV Land depended on them.
Well, actually, not on the studio audience as much as on a focus group, an assemblage of anonymous "average TV viewers" who would watch a videotape of my performance, then rate me. Consultants would tell the TV station executives how I "tested." And if I did not test well -- if they did not love me -- I'd be scratched.
What could I lose? Maybe I'd like being the host of a freak show.
"Now, here's your host," the announcer's voiced cracked through a studio speaker. A floor director led the audience in applause.
As directed, I stepped to a small red mark on the floor, directly in front of a camera, one of four in the studio. First thing I realized: no TelePrompTer.
Everyone knows what that means. Over the years, viewers have become savvy to the technical dynamics of TV. They know that, most of the time, men and women on TV don't make it up as they go. We read words that appear -- there was a time one would have said "magically" -- over a camera lens. But there I was -- no script. No TelePrompTer. No words. I froze.
"Cut!" someone barked. An old woman in the studio audience grumbled. They all looked like they want to slap me. They'd seen this act before.
"Calm down, you're doing fine," the woman with the big earrings said. "Just be yourself. And, Dan . . . "
"Don't forget to look into the camera."
"Tape's rolling," someone yelled. Music. Applause.
"Now, here's your host . . . "
I blew my entrance two more times. The fourth time, I managed a quick introduction, a superficial description of the issue, then sat next to the actress playing the mother of the child dying of leukemia. How that interview went I can't remember. However, I do remember sweating a lot, soaking my Bill Robinson and my Hugo Boss, a la Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News."
My last recollection of that audition was an interview with the owner of a seafood restaurant, a show-and-tell featuring fish that had been on the set, baking under studio lights, for more than four hours. Bluefish, halibut, sea bass, cod, haddock, flounder, clams -- they created a fragrance something foul.
I couldn't stand the stink!
Then, as instructed, I took questions from the audience. I held a wireless microphone up to a little girl, and of all the questions she could have asked, the one she asked was: "How do you tell the difference between a male lobster and a female lobster?"
L The pressure, the lights, the fish -- it all made me queasy.
Nightmare in TV Land.
I got a don't-call-us-we'll-call-you shove out the door. Never was I so happy to get back to Baltimore, to my newspaper job and my happy free-lance arrangement with WBAL.
I was confident that the show was doomed and that the world would be better for it, and that I had made a smart career move by blowing that audition.
Of course, had Boston offered me the job, I would have taken it. In 1987, such a gig could have paid about $200,000 a year.
Then again, I still wonder whether I could have committed myself to being the host of a TV show that even I couldn't watch.
As it turns out, Boston couldn't do it, either. The show was canceled after a few months.
Evening Sun columnist DAN RODRICKS is a WBAL radio talk show host