No soap for some pope merchandise


Pope John Paul II arrives in Denver tomorrow for World Youth Day, and already it's clear that U.S. merchandising efforts associated with the visit will be as tasteful as always.

You'll recall that during the pontiff's last visit to this country, in 1987, some far-thinking entrepreneur came out with the infamous Pope-on-a-Rope soap.

This was a natural fat and lanolin likeness of the Holy Father, which, while offending a vast segment of society, also sold like hot cakes at 10 bucks a bar.

That '87 visit also prompted those famous T-shirts depicting the pope with noted theologian, Clint Eastwood, along with the Dirty Harryesque caption: "Thou Hast Made My Day."

Then there was my personal favorite, the exquisitely tacky "Let us Spray" lawn sprinklers, which shot streams of water from a plastic replica of His Holiness standing with outstretched arms. (Don't tell me there isn't one still collecting cobwebs in your toolshed.)

Hoo, boy. And they say German and Japanese technology is far outpacing ours.

Look, those countries may be doing wonderful things with advanced computers and biochemical engineering and pollution-free fuels. But we're the ones that came out with the PopeScopes, OK?

How many other countries could invent a small cardboard viewing device and keep the price under a buck and a half?

Let's see the Albanians try to do something like that.

Thankfully, the pope's visit this time is far more low-key than his '87 trip, a nine-city, 10-day extravaganza that made the 10th anniversary of Elvis' death look like a quiet coffee break.

This time around, the good news -- if you want to call it that -- is that all papal-related merchandise will be officially sanctioned by the Vatican.

Apparently the Vatican learned its lesson from all the cheesy products marketed here during the pope's earlier visit, and now wants some degree of, ahem, quality control over these items.

So get this: According to Newsweek, the World Youth Day organizers have hired the same company that handles merchandising for the Rolling Stones to handle merchandising for the pope!

If you're like me, you're thinking: Oh, the Stones merchandiser! -- Well, that ought to ensure good taste!

Yeah, I can see it now: white satin jackets with two Fender Stratocasters in the shape of a cross proclaiming the pope's "Genuflect Across Denver -- '93 World Tour."

Or how about T-shirts showing His Holiness playing air guitar with a bishop's scepter in front of a packed coliseum?

Or windbreakers depicting the Stones onstage with the Holy Father shaking a tambourine with his arm slung around Keith Richards?

Pretty frightening, if you think about it. In all, though, some 350 products will be licensed on this visit. Sadly, a sculpture of His Holiness skiing, called Pope on a Slope, didn't make the cut, reportedly red-lining the Vatican's Taste-o-Meter. So I guess those quality-control folks are on the job, after all.

Along with unabashed hucksterism, of course, the pope's visit figures to trigger the usual massive media overkill. I look for the trademark snappy USA Today coverage ("62 percent of us say pope should jazz up his wardrobe!"), the People cover story ("John Paul II: He's Back -- And Better Than Ever!") and the lurid tabloid headlines ("Secret papal revelation: 'I can win Lotto any time I want!' ")

And it's probably only a matter of time before the most terrifying media event of them all takes place: the Barbara Walters interview.

I see it unfolding this way: Pope John Paul and Barbara are sitting on a rattan couch in the lobby of the pontiff's hotel.

It is early morning. The pope is obviously tired as his grueling four-day visit comes to an end.

Barbara, the canny old pro, lobs a couple of puff questions ("What's your favorite vestment?" "How many times have you seen 'The Ten Commandments'?") at the pontiff just to gauge his mood.

Then she serves up a trademark fastball.

"Your Holiness," she says, "we have known each other many years."

"Yes, my child."

"Even longer than I've known Cher."

"Yes, my child."

The pope smiles expectantly. Barbara leans forward and fixes him with those big basset hound eyes and her most earnest I'm-really-trying-to-understand-you stare.

"Your Holiness, Schwarzenegger or Stallone, which one does it for you? On the big screen, I mean."

I'm beginning to cringe already.

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