Dick Clark, the Healthcare Billionaire & My Worst Showbusiness Experience
Oh yes. Karma and I know each other very well. You see, there was a long time in my career that I would try to micromanage the universe. I would get an amazing opportunity based on my good name, do something to move it along faster, and Karma would pay me a visit …
… shooting myself in the foot and looking like an asshole. It took me years to learn that lesson. But Lady K has also taken care of me by balancing things out when I have been wronged. This brings us to the worst day of my professional life.
It was around 1996 and I was the comedy guest star in a production show where I met singer who we’ll call Dana Jones, a blond, Alabama, southern belle type. I think she referred to her father as “Big Daddy” and everyone used their first and middle names. William Scott, Bobby Ray … you get the idea.
It’s strange Dana and I became friends. I was a loud, Jewish, gay guy and she was a refined, Christian, southern girl. Although, get to know her and she can dish it out like the devil and nobody’s business … “bless her heart.” (That’s what southerners say after ripping someone to shreds.) I enjoyed her.
I was raised to hold the door open for a lady. And Dana was raised to let a man do it or it would be unladylike. One day we got to a door, stopped and I didn’t reach for it. We stood there for a few seconds until she giggled and said, “What are you doin?” I replied, “What? Are your arms broken? Open the door!”
Dana was also taught that a lady doesn’t go out without full hair and makeup. When I called her up the first time and told her to throw something on and let’s go see a movie, “throwing on something” took two hours. You gotta love her.
We had just met and were rehearsing for the show. During the rehearsal, Dana approached me. “Hi. It’s Zieg-feld, right?
“Yes,” I replied. “Like the Follies.”
The overture finishes and the opening number begins. I hear Dana in the corner trying to burn my name into her brain.
“Feld. Feld. Feld.”
She is cued for my voiceover introduction.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Michael Feld-man!”
That was a new one. I’ve gotten Ziegfield, Ziegler, Zigfled, Zigzeld, Figfeld, Zigfiled, and Seinfeld, but Feldman was now at the top of my list. She was embarrassed. It was cute. Because of errors like that and for other reasons, I now go by “Michael Paul” in most of my work.
I know what you’re thinking. What does any of this have to do with Karma and the “worst day of my professional life?” I’m getting to that.
Dana and I worked together again two years later. Following one performance, I was introduced to her best girlfriend and her husband, a man named Richard Scrushy. They had thick southern accents just like Dana. Richard was over the moon for my act. He explained that he owned a healthcare company and every year they did a huge national corporate meeting for the employees and stockholders. In between the weekend of meetings, speeches and awards they brought in star entertainment. Richard wanted to hire me and he gave me his card.
Dana later told me that he was in every Fortune 500 magazine for business, Better Home & Gardens, and every other aspect of the couple’s personal and professional life. Some other points of interest were: Richard was also a wanna-be musician and paid name performers to be in his band. He had a museum dedicated to himself in the lobby of his corporate office and he was paying for Dana to have studio time at Sony Country Music with access to the Sony Library. Lastly, I realized Richard’s company, HealthSouth, had been employing my mother in Philadelphia for a few years now. Weird.
I had performed many corporate events in the past. I knew how to do them. It’s a very different bird especially if you are not a household name where they know what they are going to get. Although, a synagogue hired Joan Rivers and they were offended by how filthy she was. HELLO? You hired Joan Rivers!
But when you are playing to a bunch of suits, it can be touchy. They generally do not want to let loose in front of their boss. Also, some bosses don’t want to be teased. It’s generally a good idea to do your homework on the company, i.e. what they do, where they came from, who their competitors are, and any of the more personal, inner office “water cooler” talk.
The other issue for a performer’s success or failure is placement of the entertainment within the evening. Everyone thinks the entertainment is the “big finish” and should go at the end. That is dead wrong. So not to go on a long, boring harangue, let me break the format down in a few key bullet points. Maybe you’ll have a better appreciation for the performer:
Room set up is important. Once I was told there was going to be a stage for me. They did not tell me it was separated from the audience by what seemed like a two mile long dance floor. People are morons.
The Act should go on after dinner, dessert, coffee, and the dishes are cleared away. People have ADD. You can never compete with food because people are animals, and waiters with clinking glassware are easy distractors.
The Act goes on before awards and speeches. Why?
Once people get their award, they want to get home and pay (celebrate with) the baby sitter.
After a whole evening the people are tired of sitting, they are drunk or have food coma. No way can they deal with another forty-five minutes no matter how big your name is or how good you are.
Chances are, the VPs or department heads will have prepared a skit or slide show that bombs and goes on way too long, thereby making the Act’s job harder to bring everyone back to the “land of awake.”
It never fails. Someone will make a speech that is so depressing or awkward, there is no recovery.
“D” is the worst and the nightmare of most performers. Every time I let the client force me into submission to do it their way, it was a train wreck.
Example) There was a period when this booker would keep calling to bring me in for Orthodox Jewish groups. When I told him, “Thank you but I’m not the act for you,” he insisted these were hip, contemporary people (that can’t be touched, don’t like Jewish jokes, let their kids run around, and will not laugh out loud).
These shows would never go well and then I’d get another call, “They loved you and want you back!” offering me more money to return.
The final booking was an event that insisted on giving out the big award before my act. I told them I wouldn’t be responsible for how the rest of the evening went.
Sure enough, the man took the award and then spoke about the Holocaust for thirty minutes. BRING ON THE COMEDY! The Holocaust? Why don’t we tack on abortion and slavery to round out the royal ass-fucking before I go on?
SIDEBAR: AS I WRITE THIS PART OF THE STORY, I’M ON A PLANE. AN ANNOUNCEMENT WAS JUST MADE LOOKING FOR A NURSE OR DOCTOR. NO ONE EVER CALLS FOR A COMEDIAN OR VENTRILOQUIST. I GUESS I SHOULD BE HAPPY. I’M SURE I’D JUST PULL FOCUS FROM THE PATIENT. — “Sure you’re dying, but what about me!”
I had learned a while back that you don’t take every job just because you’ll get paid to do comedy. If it’s not your audience, you’ll end up failing, rejected and pissing people off. Remembering what Rickles told me: “Find your audience.”
It’s very similar to why young actors feel so rejected. They audition for roles just because it’s their gender or eye color. Just audition for your type! Even if it means you are going out on fewer auditions.
The next week I called Richard Scrushy at HealthSouth headquarters. I told him that the show he and his wife enjoyed in the privacy of a casino show as a couple, might not be the right fit for a southern, corporate health care company. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and told me to name my price, and then transferred me over to my new point man, his company vice president.
I not only continued to express my concerns but, over the next few months, I sent them tons of material to review. I was assured they had seen it and it was all fine. So I named my price, sent the contracts, and it was all set. I’d be performing at the Dolphin Resort in Disney World for five thousand people.
Two months later, my mother got laid off. Out of the blue, my phone rings.
“Michael? Richard Scrushy here. Listen I just heard about your mother getting laid off and I’m embarrassed about it. I just wanted to assure you that I am handling this personally and your momma has nothing to worry about.” Click.
That week my mother was brought back to work. It’s not the same position exactly. In fact, she wasn’t really doing much at all. It was clear that, once my performance ended, so would her temporary gravy train.
Two months later, my assistant Sharon and I flew first class to Florida. (I don’t usually have an assistant. I just didn’t wanna go alone and the money was right!) We got to the convention space — a multi-media event spectacular three ballrooms long with lighting grids, IMAG screens, multiple cameras on dollies, sticks, and jibs.
Richard’s wife approached me, as she was in charge of the evening. She welcomed me, gave me the rundown of the schedule, then inquired what material I’d be doing. I told her I’d be doing the material she saw at the casino. Her eyes got wide and she said, “You can’t do that.”
My gut hurt. Attempting to keep my composure, I asked: “Well, why are we discussing this two hours before I go on? I sent tons of material for approval over the last six months!”
Richard walked in with security and his VPs. I walked through his security, stood in front of him and said flat out, “You do realize what I’m going to be doing tonight, right?” He assured me he did and it would be great. I didn’t believe it. I knew I was in trouble but I did everything I could do to cover my ass. Or so I thought.
Numerous sports figures were in attendance, clearly as eye candy for the awards ceremony and I was told I’d be opening tonight for singer, Amy Grant. I knew nothing about Amy but I found out later that she went from a Bible thumper to mainstream country music.
Up to this point, the HealthSouth conventions only booked musical acts. They had never used any type of act with theatrical cues. So, when they were running late in rehearsals because the wife cared more about what table the awards would sit on, my rehearsal was cut. This breach of contract created a larger problem later on. But I prepped the sound engineer and went to chill, eat, and shower.
When Sharon and I got backstage, we were told the evening was running late and I was asked to cut eight to ten minutes. No problem.
I entered the stage and began the set. It was a sea of people but I could only see pitch darkness with the exception of the first three rows. Richard and company were front row, center.
About ten minutes in, I saw that Richard was uneasy. I wasn’t bombing by any means. However with all the technology purchased for the evening, they had neglected to include a sound system to counter the delay of my microphone. The result was the audience sitting three convention rooms deep would hear my joke and respond one section at a time. There wasn’t one, big, group laugh at any one time, so to an untrained ear, it may have seemed like things weren’t going well.
At this moment Amy Grant had told the stage manager that the evening was running too long and she wanted to go on now. Generally when they want to cue a performer to get off, they blink a light or stand in the wing and give a “wrap it up” signal. In the worse case, they find a break in the act that sounds like a last joke and play the act off with some music and an announcement. However, these people had never dealt with a verbal act before. If my contracted rehearsal had been honored, they would have known I was finishing up anyway. Instead, they chose to simply stop playing my cues.
As an experienced performer, I assumed there was a technical problem so I started to stretch. They wanted me off and I was going longer. Every few minutes I’d ask the techs, “How we doin?” Nothing. No one talked to me. After five to eight minutes I was in a panic. I ran out of material, the room was quiet, and there was no way to end the set fluidly… that is, if they were even ready backstage! How could I know? They left me out to dry. Finally, I started telling the only joke that popped into my head, an old stock joke about a priest and a nun.
Two lines in, Richard Scrushy came bounding up on stage with a microphone cutting me off. “Okay that’s enough of that!” He put me in a headlock and turned our backs to the audience with a look of fire in his eyes, pushing me off stage. I played it off like a “get outta here ya crazy kid” type of thing.
Before I could hit the wing, he began an evangelical tirade against me. He called me trash. “HealthSouth doesn’t condone that kind of smut!” He went on for eight minutes.
The crew was pissed. I was freaked. Sharon and I grabbed our shit and ran to the hotel room.
A few things were going through my mind. The guilt by association via Tresa and my mother’s embarrassment, the rest of my money that was owed following the performance, and the out-of- body loathing and humiliation I had just experienced in front of 5000 people.
I called Dana. I knew she blamed me, thinking I had just been irresponsible. She was shocked and speechless. My mother was very upset and begged me to let it go, knowing I was still owed money. “But Michael,” she said. “They have deep pockets and big lawyers!” I told her I was an equal when we negotiated and I’m an equal now.
The next morning we were walking past members of the convention audience as we checked out. Some were also on our flight home. The stares were painful.
Funny though … some people were unaffected, asking if that was a part of the show. Others liked me and thought Scrushy was an ass. The rest smirked and muttered names at me.
I was numb as I walked into my apartment. The first thing I did was sit down at my desk and start writing the letter to the HealthSouth executive team. Three and a half pages outlining the six months of careful participation leading up to this event, the serious breaches of contract, and numerous acts disregarding our agreement that would have prevented this occurrence. Not to mention the fact that Richard Scrushy put his hands on me. I concluded by telling them I expected the balance of my fee to be overnighted and received by five o’clock tomorrow. I faxed it.
My mom begged me to leave it alone. But the next day I received a FedEx with my check and a simple note that stated, “We disagree with your assessment.” Well, what else could they say??
Weirdly enough, the next night I had a small, local 500-seat corporate booked. I actually had a great show. But my mother was let go from the company and Dana’s studio time ended.
For the next three years I was a mess. Gun-shy. I lost my confidence. Every time I’d hear a southern drawl or when a client would ask about my material I’d get IBS and be in the bathroom until show time.
Not long after that event, Richard Scrushy joined the ranks of Enron and other corporate executives when he was brought up on federal charges for fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, racketeering, and bribery. (If I had a voice I’d add piss poor party planning, but it looked like he was already in enough trouble…) The FBI sting turned many of his HealthSouth vice presidents against him. He served time. I love you, Karma.
You’ll be happy to know that, with time and experience I regained my confidence. Dana and I stayed friends, even after another unfortunate mishap when I suggested a quaint restaurant for her and a Sony Country Music exec’s NYC brunch. The new spot was adorned with local artists’ paintings. The week I was there, it was flowers and butterflies. I had no idea they changed out the artwork weekly. The day Dana and company went, it was black and white photos of gay, male erotica. Fuck.
(I ate there three times later that week…)
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