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The Highlight Zone 'Monday Night Football' at ESPN's restaurant is a strange game. Berman's there. Gifford's there. But all your rowdy friends should go elsewhere tonight.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A RE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?!

Hey, bud, settle down. The game doesn't start for another four hours. And let's get something straight: You're not ready for some football. You're not close to ready. You don't know the rules.

That's right, the rules. Don't think you can just stroll into the ESPN Zone and grab a front-row table. This is "Monday Night Blast," the pre-game and halftime show for ABC's "Monday Night Football," broadcast live from the Inner Harbor. And this is serious prime-time television.

They're going to tell you where to sit and when to clap and how loud to clap and when to stop clapping and when to chant, "HE COULD GO ALL THE WAY!" during the halftime show.

They're going to hand you a list of the rules as soon as you walk in the door: "Please refrain from getting up, waving, holding up signs, or otherwise causing a disturbance." In other words, don't even think about acting like your average face-painted, beer-chugging, bratwurst-burping football fan.

Got a ticket? You're lucky. The ESPN Zone is open for business, but only 125 fans are allowed in the restaurant's "Screening Room," from which the show is televised. Early in the season, you could grab a front-row seat for $75. No more. Corporations gobbled them all.

Three groups bought all the tickets to last Monday's game -- a land development company, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association and Budweiser. Take it easy on the Bud, bud. Once the show starts, there won't be any bathroom breaks. It's in the rules.

Let's see, this is Week 14 of the NFL season. This game features Green Bay vs. Tampa Bay -- "the Bay of Pigs," Chris Berman used to call it, back when the teams stunk. You'll meet Berman, your "Blast" host, later. He's out back in the trailer.

Frank Gifford? Yeah, he's here, too, but don't blink. He and Berman are the stars of the 8 p.m. pre-game show. They flew in earlier today -- Berman on a charter, Gifford on a commercial flight.

Look around. This "Screening Room" is something else, isn't it? You won't see a place like it this side of a Las Vegas sports " book. The main television screen looks about the size of the Domino Sugars sign. It's surrounded by a dozen smaller televisions.

The equipment for tonight's show is already in place. There are five cameras, four tape machines, a Steadicam (carried around by hand) and a crane that holds Berman's TelePrompTer. It's amazing how many people (two dozen) and how much time (all day) it takes to produce pre-game and halftime shows that together fill exactly 19 minutes of air time.

Something new

Of course, this isn't just another football game. This is "Monday Night Football," a prime-time mainstay for 28 seasons. This is the first year ABC has produced a pre-game show, let alone one broadcast live before a cheering audience in a working restaurant.

"We started from scratch," says Bill Bonnell, the show's producer. "Everyone was very skeptical. We were messing with an American tradition."

And?

"We have exceeded expectations."

Speaking of expectations, don't count on a return visit from ABC next year. Although nothing official has been decided, an ESPN Zone is planned for Manhattan. Expect the show to move there.

But Baltimore still has a couple of weeks left. It's 4: 45 p.m. The trailer door swings open, and out bounces Berman, followed by the woman who does his hair and makeup. Not that it matters. There is only so much hair to work with, and only so much that makeup can do for a man whose appearance has been compared so often to Fred Flintstone that you half expect him to walk around barefoot.

Berman is, in short, a Regular Guy -- a little rumpled, a few pounds overweight, a television star who has the temerity to actually perspire when placed in front of a hot, bright light. He's also a five-time winner of the Sportscaster of the Year award and one of the country's most popular, funny and imitated sports announcers.

"What American wouldn't want to sit down and watch a football game with Chris Berman?" Bonnell asks. "He's like Elvis to these people."

The 43-year-old Berman started with ESPN in 1979, back when the network relied on Australian Rules Football and demolition derbies. He quickly developed a following for his goofy player nicknames -- Chuck "New Kids on" Knoblauch -- pop culture references and home run calls: Backbackbackbackback!

The day before, Berman spent 17 hours at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., emceeing two shows and watching as many pro football games as his eyes could handle.

"I'm exhausted," he says.

But there's work to do. Berman's stage in Baltimore is a stool that sits on a three-foot-high platform overlooking the customers. His first job is to chat with ABC affiliates in Tampa Bay, Milwaukee and Green Bay.

Gifford walks in. Time to rehearse.

"There's the big man," he says to Berman.

"How ya doin', Frank?"

Until this year, the 68-year-old Gifford would have been in Tampa Bay, preparing to broadcast the game with Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf. But he was replaced this season by Boomer Esiason and given a sidekick role instead on "Monday Night Blast."

His job consists, in its entirety, of sitting in an enclosed room -- called "The SkyBox" by the ESPN Zone people, but more reminiscent of a soundproof booth in a game show -- introducing a taped feature, then saying a few words after the story runs. He is on the air live for about, oh, 45 seconds. This is not heavy lifting.

After rehearsal, Gifford heads next door to Barnes & Noble, where he enjoys a pre-show coffee. He usually is accompanied by a security guard. It could not be determined if the guard is supplied by ABC Sports or his wife, Kathie Lee.

Outside the Zone, the guests gather. You would have an easier (( time slipping into a Security Council session of the United Nations than sneaking into the "Blast," so don't try.

At 6:30 p.m., the "Screening Room" opens. Guests are greeted with the biggest buffet outside an NFL training camp. Mounds of shrimp and crab. Slabs of tenderloin. Hubcap-size cookies. The buffet is decorated with poinsettias, holly and pine, and topped off with an ice sculpture of the ESPN Zone logo. Green Bay and Tampa Bay helmets sit on the ice. A Vince Lombardi cheese sculpture twirls in a sealed booth only slightly smaller than the one Gifford toils in.

"Think of yourselves as an audience of a talk show," the guests are instructed. "Please try to pay attention to the show -- that is, try to avoid getting into an active table discussion about your favorite player and the best place locally for crab cakes."

Well-dressed and well-mannered, the crowd follows directions. Imagine a quarterly stockholders' meeting with beer. They are well-behaved for one very good reason. They want to be on national television.

The "Monday Night Blast" offers guests 0.15 seconds of fame. When the show begins, the Steadicam twirls through a gantlet of fans sitting around the bar. Casandra Gjormand, a senior sales manager for the convention bureau, has a prime seat. She is ready for her fleeting close-up.

"Absolutely," she says. "It was just luck of the draw."

At 7 p.m., an hour before show time, Berman and Gifford are introduced. Gifford describes Berman as "the hardest working guy in this business and one of the best." Berman responds: "You got my check, didn't you?"

When they leave, Stephen Baranovics, a producer and the audience coach, assumes control. The crowd practices cheering, obeying when Baranovics lowers his arms. He could ask them to empty their billfolds or worship golden calves and this group might comply.

"This is just like being at the game," says Wayne Adams, who works for Fine Host Catering, which supplies food to the Ravens games. Scott Endy, a chef for the company, says, "I'm just excited to see Chris Berman."

Show time

Once the show begins, all he's going to see is Berman's backbackbackbackback, but it doesn't matter. As producer Bonnell puts it, "There's no greater adrenalin rush in the world than live television," and the guests are caught up in the excitement.

At 8 p.m., America sees a beautiful overhead shot of the ESPN Zone taken earlier this year from a helicopter. "Plausibly live," Bonnell says. Were it actually live, the shot would show dozens of members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians who walked off the job in a wildcat strike against ABC several weeks ago and have been locked out since. They distribute fliers at the Inner Harbor each Monday night.

The Baltimore crowd cheers, just like they were told, and Berman takes over. He deserves an Emmy for handling this. Imagine Dan Rather reading the news in a frat house.

"It makes it a little more difficult, to be honest with you," Berman says later. "You have to concentrate a little harder."

Berman hands off to Gifford, who finishes his piece and then flees Baltimore like a man being chased by tabloids. Crew members say he's home in time to tuck in Cody and Cassidy.

The game finally begins, and Josh Kampf, 20, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, retires to the restroom. Actually, you could retire there. A tiny, eye-level television greets visitors.

"That's the most comfortable [restroom visit] I've ever had," he -- confides.

A few minutes before halftime, Berman re-enters the room and Baranovics provides more instructions. The highlight is Berman's Top Ten plays of the week and his signature line, "HE COULD GO ALL THE WAY!" The crowd joins in, shouting the words.

Leaving nothing to chance, Baranovics has the crowd practice the chant and tells them when to expect it. The one moment that feels impromptu and fresh when you hear it at home is as scripted as everything else.

And then it's over.

In Tampa Bay, there's still a full half of football to be played. But here, the camera lights are shut off and technicians haul equipment to waiting trucks. Berman signs autographs and chats with fans; he truly is a Regular Guy.

Tampa Bay wins. It's a good game, but you couldn't tell that in the "Screening Room." Only a handful of people stay to watch the second half. As Don Meredith used to sing during Monday night games so long ago:

Turn out the lights, the party's over.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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