I live in a little town. It's the same town people such as explorer Richard Byrd and Patsy Cline came from: Winchester, Virginia. Winchester's claim of reknown is that it runs one of the largest apple-related festivals in the world on the first weekend of May.
Now, the cool thing about this festival is: the festival needs a Grand Marshal. And the Grand Marshal has a major requirement: fame. Occasionally the fame enters the realm of the TV Single Dad. 1999 was one of those years where the paths crossed.
In the winter of 1998, I found out that Dan Aykroyd was going to be the 1999 Grand Marshal. I was astounded: here was Dan Aykroyd, the protagonist of the mysteriously-cancelled Soul Man coming to my home town! How could I, the Chief Correspondent of a narrowly-focused website, finagle an interview? I called the festival headquarters and asked for Media Relations. "Speaking," said the woman on the other end of the line.
"I'd like to get a press pass for the Dan Aykroyd press conference." I tried it as a statement, because asking a yes/no question allows for 'no'.
"Hold on," she said. A long time on hold followed. That was it - - I was convinced she was going to shoot me down immediately.
"Who are you with?" she asked.
"TV Dads dot com" I said with a totally feigned sense of importance.
"Is that a publication?" she asked.
"No, electronic, as in news gathering." Ouch - a weak comeback. I grew convinced the answer would be 'no' and we could all get back to our lives.
"Okay," she said, "we'll have the pass ready for you on 'Game Day' when you stop by this office."
Wow, I thought, this would all go down in a little while. I took off from the DayJob(tm) and got ready for Game Day. Fresh batteries for the recorder, new roll of film for the Canon, batteries for the flash, typed-up questions, the works.
Friday, April 30, 1999 arrived with an awful discovery: in my haste to get home and get ready, I had left my notes and my recorder at work - 50 miles away! Raced back to the office, scooped up the gear, and headed back to Winchester.
I check in at the Apple Blossom Festival HQ. Sure enough, they've got my press kit, with the ribbon for my shirt and a car tag for the windshield. I was an officially-registered somebody. This was going to work! My son drops me off at the side of the church hall where the press conference was going to happen. "Don't be a goof," he suggests, as I'm loading up on media equipment. Don't be a goof - good advice.
I walk up to the church. Every door is LOCKED. I'm climbing over fences and around hedges trying to get in. Finally, I spot an alley leading to an open door. As I reach the door, two Virginia state troopers, with shoulders that would not fit through my front door, stop me.
"What do you want?" asks one.
"I'm here for the press conference," I say, and point at my little red/white/blue ribbon. The trooper carefully inspects the artwork on the ribbon (which looks like something you'd get for "Most Improved Den Attendance" at a Cub Scout meeting), and then he steps aside to let me through!
Wade Byard, the fellow running the press conference, comes up and shakes my hand. "And you are?..." he dangles the sentence.
"Jim O'Kane with TV DADS dot com," I reply. A guaranteed blank stare each and every time. Wade leads me over to the press pit - a sunday school room with what looks like a few poker tables scattered around the floor.
"Barry Lee is going to be interviewing the co-marshals first, and then they'll be available for ten minutes of questions," informs Wade. Barry Lee is the local morning radio guy who has a cable access show on the channel that normally shows the weather and school lunch menus. Generally, if you're somebody halfway famous and you're in Winchester, Barry gets first dibs on chatting it up with you.
So there I am, with the paparazzi of Northern Virginia. I sit down at one of the poker tables and start going over my notes. As I'm booting up my laptop, some guy sits down with two earnest-looking journalism majors.
"Say son," says the older gentleman, "can you get the Dow Jones on that thing?" He laughs. I tell him I could if I had a phone line. He laughed again. I finally figured he was just making small talk until these other guys set up their tape recorders. Turned out he was Gale Catlett, the basketball coach of West Virginia University, and seemed to be a little surprised I didn't recognize him. Anyway, the journalism boys got into major Chat Mode, so I eased out of my chair.
All during this, I was thinking I should have been taking more notes, and now that I'm writing all this down, I realized my guess was correct. I met Miss Virginia, but I forgot her name (although I just looked up her name and it's Nita Booth). She was telling me how exhausting it was to visit every county in Virginia, but that was her job. I wanted to ask her what she was going to do after her reign was over, but I didn't feel like I should be pumping her for info that wasn't going to wind up in a newspaper somewhere.
I met this other woman, a four-time Olympic gold medal swimmer (Amy Van Dyken), who was promoting the "Got Milk?" campaign. She had a tattoo of the Olympic logo on her calf, which I thought was interesting. I wondered if she was going to add a "Got Milk?" tattoo on the other leg, as she progressed through different careers. Anyway, her publicist was very nice, so I promised her I'd include a link to their website at www.whymilk.com.
So then Pat Boone walks in the door. I didn't even know he was a scheduled celebrity. I had no questions for him, so I reverted to my standard: "Who is your favorite Single Dad on TV?" He took it in stride but I think he had problems coming up with a witty answer. He got grabbed by another reporter so I didn't pursue. I thought of a question later for him that I was going to use on Dan: in a house full of women (Pat has four daughters, Dan has three), do you ever get to pick what's on TV?
Commotion, suddenly. A very tall blonde woman in a black suit and a low-cut white top walks into the room. Oh my, I thought, that's Donna Dixon: Mrs. Dan Aykroyd! Where's Dan? I notice one of the taller bodyguards surrounding Ms. Dixon has an awfully-full set of badges and ribbons on his vest. Then it clicks: THAT'S Dan Aykroyd. The two of them stride through the room and head for some offices in another hallway.
Okay, they're here. Nobody's marched in and told me I'm not a valid reporter and sent me home. So, time to figure out how to get this on tape. There's a couch and chairs set up on a small stage, where the Hagerstown station has a camera and a mike set up. Some of the reporters have put their recorders on the table in front of the couch. I figure, well, that must be what to do. I go up and put my recorder on the table, and press RECORD. They've got fifteen minutes to come out and start talking or I run out of tape.
I strike up a conversation with the local AM news station woman. I tell her this is my first live interview. I've done phone interviews, but never a face-to-face. She said she had been doing this for a few months and you get used to it. I offered her a card about my website, but she tells me she doesn't use the Internet. Wow. We pause, and wait for Dan and Donna.
Five minutes go by. I'm getting panicky and about ready to go up and grab my tape player, when suddenly Dan and Donna step out. Dan makes an opening announcement about how much he enjoys the people of Winchester and yadda yadda, and then the questions start. Predictable stuff about the Blues Brothers, and will there be a Ghostbusters III (answer: yes, it's in the writing stage - expect an announcement next year). The press conference is rolling along and I'm not asking my questions! I'm about to raise my hand when suddenly, there's a whistling sound from the table in front of the Aykroyds - it's my recorder! Donna Dixon picks up my recorder and shuts it off. I step forward, apologize, and step back. Dang! I ran out of tape. Quickly, I flip it over and record on the B side. I'm afraid to put it back on the table, so I just point it at them from about 5 feet away.
I have to ask my questions. My biggest worry is: what if he says, "no comment?" Do I let it drop? Do I ask it another way? No time to worry about this. I have to begin my interview...
Question about Soul Man: when it finished production at ABC --
Dan - Well, it was taken off the air.
Could you - TV Guide was saying you didn’t want it moved to UPN, UPN was saying that Wind Dancer was wanting too much money for your series - could you clear up what went on with the end of Soul Man?
Dan - Well, ah, actually, what happened there was - I was approached to do this show by a group of producers; the best in the business - It was a great premise: I liked the idea of playing a preacher, because I like to get up in the pulpit and sort of do a little lesson - I entered into the venture and creatively, it couldn’t have been better. It was a wonderful, creative experience writing-wise: I had a totally non-hysterical set. You know, that's the most high-pressure, hardest job in show business: doing a sitcom.
But about halfway through the season, I found out the producers were suing Disney. And then the show got taken off the air for five weeks.
So, the true and real story is that I got Disney to back off and let me out of it. Because I was not going to continue doing a show that they were not fully behind. They were ready to pick it up, and I had a meeting with one of the representatives and I said, "I'm not going to do this, because your executives don't like it. Why should I work?"
I held my breath: they could have held me to the contract. It could have been a nasty - I was going to go all the way: go to court. But, they didn’t pick up my option, thank God, and you know what? I’m much happier. This was not the life for me, although people liked the show. I'm a writer, musician, entrepreneur, actor, and Soul Man took eight months of my year - - and that's all I could DO in that eight months, and now I'm free to do so much, so many other things that are much more fulfilling and satisfying, honestly.
So, I was very fortunate, because the ratings kept on going up, and up, and up…and I thought, "now, I’ll be here for six years doing this thing!" But, you know, I challenged them, I confronted them, and they let me out of it.
Dan, during this whole answer, is getting more and more animated. Jeez, I think, I really hit a sore point with The Man. He was really getting into the topic.
Wade's getting annoyed that I'm soaking up all this valuable press conference time, so he announces that there's only two more questions and then they'll wrap it up. Two more softball questions about liking the area and what Donna is doing (yes they like Virginia, and Donna is raising three kids are the answers) and it's over.
At least, I thought it was over. Dan and Donna get escorted off the stage, and are being led out the door by the troopers and bodyguards. Dan sees me and leans forward:
Dan - What I told you was the TRUTH. That's EXACTLY what happened. If you talk to Jamie Tarses[ABC Entertainment President], she'll tell you a different story. But what I said was the TRUTH. And I would have taken it to court.
Wow. Dan Aykroyd wanted to tell me the TRUTH. How neat is that? I gave Dan my TVDADS.COM card. He read it and said, "Cool! I'll visit your site." Now, THAT'S groovy.
Closing time - all the camera guys slapped their gear into assorted bags and boxes and cleared out. I picked up my stuff and walked out to the exit corridor. There was Barry Lee, looking somewhat forlorn. Turned out Dan and Donna didn't have time to do his show. Dan signed a picture for him and left. Oh well, maybe Barry could nab Pat Boone for a one-on-one.
I walked out into the brilliant sunshine. The late-afternoon Firemen's parade was about to begin. Dan climbed up onto an antique fire truck. Several of the TV camera people lined up in front of him and Dan began speaking to each of them. He was cutting station IDs for them.
I wondered: could I get him to cut an ID for my website? I figured the worst thing he could do was say, "no." I edged forward as the last camera crew finished. "Dan, could you cut me an ID for my website?"
"Sure - what do you want me to say?" he replied
I told him what I needed and held up another business card so he'd get the URL right.
I thanked him and walked home. It was a beautiful day.