Wacky auditions seek the host with the most to promote Baltimore TALK of the TOWN


What about Bill?

"I take direction well -- I was married for 35 years," says the 61-year-old, retired, street surveyor. Maybe he could be the host of "The Downtown Baltimore Show," a series of commercials that will use a talk show format to promote downtown businesses.

What about Paul, the downtown trolley driver?

"You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss $9 goodbye," says Paul, one of about 300 people who auditioned Saturday and Sunday at Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion to become the host for the commercials. "I'm zany," Paul tells the milling mall crowd. "I'm rather much the zane."

Welcome to auditions for "The Downtown Baltimore Show," one facet of a $250,000 marketing campaign by the City of Baltimore, the State of Maryland and a group of businesses and neighborhoods. The idea is to promote downtown businesses and attractions through a series of concerts, festivals and open houses this year.

To advertise the campaign, three or four scripted commercials will be produced this month, says Jon Guidera of W. B. Doner & Co., the advertising agency producing the commercials.

That's where the host comes in. The person selected from this weekend's auditions will interview guests -- local celebrities, politicians or athletes, for example -- about why they like downtown Baltimore. The host will sit behind a desk and work with a sidekick, who will sit on a black, Gov. William Schaefer-approved couch. A panel of judges from the Doner agency will choose both the host and the sidekick this week.

'Looking for magic'

"We're looking for magic," says audition judge Phil Schneider, a senior writer at Doner. Translation: an energetic, fun soul who's madly in love with Baltimore and looks great on camera.

What about Kay? She looked great Saturday behind the talk show desk bantering with Baltimore-based comic Bill McCuddy, who pulled a Jerry Lewis by spending 14 hours nursing the candidates through their auditions.

"What new places in Baltimore would you show people if you were the host?" Bill asks Kay. "And please speak into the mike."

"I'm here from England. I've only been here an hour," Kay says. "The harbor looks nice, you know?"

Mr. McCuddy politely excuses Kay after her 2-minute audition on the talk show set next to The Sausage Maker in the Colonnade Market.

The weekend auditions attracted variety-packs of people: local jugglers, magicians and comics, hairdressers, nurses, insurance salespeople, the homeless, the jobless, mother-and-son acts, many schoolteachers for some reason, broadcasting graduates for obvious reasons and, of course, trolley drivers.

"This is about giving everybody two minutes of the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol talked about," Mr. McCuddy says. Of the 300 tryouts, he thinks about four or five people were "intrinsically funny -- people who had confidence and command at the desk."

"I thought we'd have more crackpots," says Mr. Guidera, who was an audition judge. "It's going to be a tough call."

The 30- and 60-second ads are expected to air next month on local radio and television stations. The commercials will be filmed throughout downtown Baltimore. Organizers hope the campaign will continue throughout the year in Baltimore and, perhaps, in Philadelphia and Washington.

But first they need a host. At the audition, contestants waited in chorus lines inside Harborplace. The audience -- about 50 people at any given time -- was, at times, pulseless. Bungee jumping looked easy compared with the contestants' cameo drills.

The front lines

"I think we should pick Bill," says Sarah Roy, who was signing up contestants outside Hooters restaurant. True, Mr. McCuddy was the people's choice to be host. "No, no. I'm busy that night," he says.

Using first names only, Mr. McCuddy helped screen-test about 300 people (no celebrities). A sample of the tryouts:

Sam: "I learned something about Baltimore. Never feed the pigeons. One dropped a load on my head." Harborplace is as quiet as a deserted church.

Stephanie: She's a student at Duke University. "They play [basketball today] at 4 p.m., so you better hurry," Mr. McCuddy says. "Why do you want to host the show?"

"I don't know," she says.

Herbie, on his background: "I was partially raised between Baltimore and Richmond."

Audience member Evelyn Moore is confused. "Partially raised? You mean they didn't finish the job?" asks Mrs. Moore, 69. "They talk themselves out of a job as soon as they open their mouths."

Sidney: Suggests one show should be a Jell-O wrestling match between Governor Schaefer and Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.

Mike: Mike hops on stage. "The world needs to realize Baltimore is a hopping place to be."

Ginell: "I should be host of 'The Downtown Baltimore Show' because I'm down-to-earth."

Mr. McCuddy says: "I get a down-to-earth feeling from you. What is that? A Chanel suit?"

Lance: "I love that camera, mister!" says the restaurant manager at Phillips.

Barry: The Harborplace street performer opens his audition by cracking his neck.

Jane: She says she deserves to be host because she lost her home in the California earthquake. Then, she loses patience with Mr. McCuddy. "I'm just sitting here, and you're doing all the talking." Crowd comes alive (sort of).

Gerry: "Some people are an accident waiting to happen," says Gerry, a 50-year-old Baltimore hairdresser, "I'm a star looking to shine." Audition judge Mr. Guidera smiles.

Gerry came Saturday but chickened out. On Sunday, she got behind the desk and didn't stop talking for two minutes. Her children made her do it, she says. Didn't she always tell them that it's better to try something and fail than not try at all?

After her audition, she was trembling outside Johnny Rockets hamburger stand.

"I just want to get out of here."

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