It's not 'Magic' yet, but it could be Debut: Earvin 'Magic' Johnson tries his hand at a talk show; the results are rough but promising.; Radio and Television

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Magic Johnson didn't live up to his name Monday night, but he at least left open the possibility that he could.

"The Magic Hour," Johnson's syndicated entry into the evening talk-show wars, made its debut with two high-powered guests (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Whitney Houston), a guy who sets himself on fire (does the L.A. fire marshal know about this dude?), a sidekick who brought nothing to the party, a music director with enough wattage to light a small town and a host who's so effervescent and so likable, he may just be able to pull this off.

But first, Johnson needs to work on some noticeable rough spots. For one thing, viewers aren't tuning-in WNUV, Channel 54, at 10 p.m. to watch a love fest. He and Schwarzenegger spent so much time complimenting one another, I half expected an episode of "Love Connection" to break out. Hey, we know you like each other, but let's get on with the entertainment.

Also, let's work on those question-and-answer sessions with the audience. Not a bad idea -- Monday's allowed Schwarzenegger to milk some laughs from a question about whether he'd ever considered changing his name -- but they need to be looser. And letting band leader Sheila E., otherwise one of the show's bright spots, ask a question was a mistake. The whole thing came off as fake and rehearsed.

And when one of your guests is Whitney Houston, get the lady to sing -- not just a single chorus in praise of Johnson, but a whole song or two. In fact, the only song she sang came during the commercial break; you know, America might like to have heard her, too.

As for "sidekick" Craig Shoemaker, who's supposed to handle the jokes: Magic, you don't need this guy. You're not a pro, but you can handle a joke well enough, and Shoemaker's stabs at humor -- including a quip that the Bulls' manhandling of the Jazz Sunday night was the worst beating caught on tape since Rodney King -- tended to hurt more than help.

On the positive side, Johnson's opener had a great guest list. There are few better talk-show guests than Schwarzenegger, whose self-deprecating humor always makes him a crowd favorite. And Houston's TV appearances are always fun -- told she was an inveterate vacuumer, Johnson challenged her to prove it. What she proved was that Whitney Houston may be the only woman alive who can make vacuuming look good.

Despite claiming opening-night jitters, Johnson seemed remarkably self-assured. The former NBA star may be a neophyte at the talk-show biz -- his interview skills definitely need work -- but he's an old hand at working a crowd. It's impossible not to like Magic Johnson, a reality "The Magic Hour" needs to exploit even more.

Given Johnson's popularity, one suspects the guest list for "The Magic Hour" will continue to be the show's strength; last night's roster included Harrison Ford, who rarely makes the talk-show rounds. And some taped bits showed promise, including one where Johnson asked people outside an L.A. theater to scream as though they'd just seen "Godzilla." (Godzilla doesn't scare me, one guy said, "I live in the 'hood.")

Johnson opened Monday's show by explaining that he was following in the footsteps of Johnny Carson, Arsenio Hall and Jay Leno. By leaving David Letterman off that list, Johnson made it clear the sort of show he wants -- warm, friendly, touchy-feely, without the barbed edge Letterman often uses on "The Late Show."

That could be a mistake, since there's no shortage of warm-hearted talk shows airing in the evening. But if anyone can pull it off, Magic Johnson can.

Remember the '80s?

Isn't it too early for a nostalgic look back at the 1980s?

Not according to TNT, which has labeled June 14-21 "Awesome '80s Week." A bunch of films from the decade that brought us Ronald Reagan, Madonna and the end of the Cold War is being commemorated with a series of period films ranging from 1981's "An Eye for an Eye" to 1988's "Rain Man." Also featured will be quickie interviews with such '80s icons as Anthony Michael Hall ("The Breakfast Club"), Boy George and Oliver North.

Among the week's movie highlights:

"Rain Man" (Sunday, 8 p.m.) earned Dustin Hoffman his second Best Actor Oscar, plus nods for Best Picture and Best Director (Baltimore's Barry Levinson). But the unheralded star of the film is Tom Cruise, as a self-centered car importer forced to share a cross-country trek with the autistic savant brother (Hoffman) he never knew he had.

"Back to the Future" (Tuesday, 8 p.m. and June 19, 8 p.m.) stars Michael J. Fox as a teen-ager who uses a souped-up DeLorean to travel back to the '50s, where his own mom (Lea Thompson) falls for him. Christopher Lloyd also stars.

"The Breakfast Club" (June 20, 4 p.m.) brings together Hall, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez as a group of high school kids brought together for Saturday detention. From writer-director John Hughes ("Home Alone"), the movie was supposed to star a bunch of young actors who could all become the next big things. None of them did.

"Trading Places" (June 20, 8 p.m. and June 21, 5: 30 p.m.) was the first great Eddie Murphy comedy and the one of the last great Dan Aykroyd comedies. Aykroyd is the pampered Wall Street rich kid, Murphy the jiving Skid Row panhandler, Jamie Lee Curtis the hooker with the heart of gold, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche the big-time financiers who wager with each other that they can turn Aykroyd's character into Murphy's and vice-versa. Great fun.

Fed up with Phoebe

I think I can speak for all those who watched last week's "Brady Bunch" marathon on Nickelodeon when I say: Let us all pray that we've seen the last of Phoebe Brady.

The concept, that Phoebe was the bad Brady, so mischievous and mean-spirited that she was edited out of the show once it landed in syndication, was cute enough. But the execution left me leaping for the off switch. The spots Nick at Nite aired, during which cast members recalled Phoebe and her exploits, were cute the first time around. But they kept airing over and over and over and over and over ... watching them became torture.

I, for one, gained new respect for Maureen McCormick and Eve Plumb, who resisted the urge to play along. Always knew Marsha and Jan had things on the ball ...

Madison's talk show debut

Joe Madison, who recently took over as program director at WOLB-AM (1010), kicks-off his new talk show at 3 p.m. Monday.

Among the scheduled guests the first week: Julian Bond, Aretha Franklin and Duke Fakir (The Four Tops). Set to be interviewed on Tuesday's show is Gary Webb, author of "Dark Alliance," about possible CIA involvement in the flow of drugs into the United States.

Madison's show is part of a revamped weekday lineup on WOLB, which will include Eric St. James (5 a.m.-9 a.m.), C. Miles' "Talk How You Like" (9 a.m.-noon), Madison (3 p.m.-6 p.m.), Bernie McCain (6 p.m.-10 p.m.) and Mo' Better Man (1 a.m.-5 a.m.).

Station management is still negotiating for talent to fill the noon-3 and 10 p.m.-1 a.m. slots. BET personality Bev Smith will fill the earlier slot on an interim basis, and the station is negotiating with Westwood One to air "The Jim Bohannon Show" at 10 p.m.

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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