Hollywood may have too many award shows but everyone still wants to be a winner. 1,929 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hollywood – 1978
"And the winner is," heralded Artie Edgar, hesitating a beat in an effort to heighten the suspense.
Known mainly for his role in the made-for-cable comedy series, Geezers, Edgar had been tapped to emcee history’s first cable TV awards program, the Inter-Connected-Networks awards, or simply, the ICONs.
The program was being televised nationally on every cable channel, a joint effort to elevate awareness of the non-conventional fare now being offered by a myriad of new programming services.
The year was 1978, fifteen years before the cable industry’s first Emmy nomination. For its time, however, the ICON awards were the symbol of excellence in cable programming.
"The ICON goes to Burlesque Heaven," Artie Edgar gleefully announced.
A roar went up from the rear of the Beverly Wilshire ballroom where the rowdy production team of the newly crowned Best Program was gathered.
I leapt from my seat and was nearly smothered by the collective embrace of the assembled. I wended my way toward the stage, sidestepping tables and well-wishers en route.
By way of introduction, my name is Harry Granger and I like to think of myself as a programming pioneer, a much in-demand producer in a burgeoning new industry. And now the winner of the Best Program ICON, a brass and copper sculpture depicting a proud cable installer snapping a TV antenna in half with his bare hands. The ICON weighed in at approximately five pounds and stood eight inches tall.
When at last I reached the stage, I realized that someone other than I was already accepting the award, holding it high above his head, a big fat grin on his face.
It was none other than Marlon Fleuger, the Pastime Channel’s recently installed Head of Programming, a hapless peacock of a person, a former talent agent who had come to regard himself as the face of the industry’s promising future, an ego-maniacal, imperious lughead, whose blind ambition knew no bounds.
"I’m very moved," Fleuger exclaimed, his eyes moist with tears, his voice choking with emotion. "I’d like to congratulate the Pastime Channel and its outstanding team of executives who, along with myself, so rightly deserve this honor. I’ll cherish it forever."
Seeing me approach, he blew kisses to the audience, clutched the award to his chest and rushed offstage.
I stepped to the microphone but as I started to speak, the orchestra began playing loudly and a pair of security guards in ill-fitting suits grabbed hold of my arms and frogwalked me off the stage.
"It’s not his award," I shouted over my shoulder.
I spotted him backstage, brandishing the ICON while bragging about it to one of the network’s junior executives. I rushed to him and snatched it.
"It’s not his award," I said to the executive who stared wide eyed at me. Sensing she might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the executive fled.
Meanwhile, Fleuger leapt on me and wrestled me to the ground. And, in so doing, ripped apart the seams of his bespoke Bijan tuxedo jacket. "Shit," he moaned.
Yanking the ICON away from me, he screamed, "It’s mine, you bastard."
Then he raised it above his head and decked me with it.
"It belongs to me," he yammered, standing over me triumphantly.
"That’s a load of crap," I yelped, reeling from the after-effects of having been clobbered by the weighty ICON. "It belongs to the creators. The same way the Oscars, the Emmys and the Tonys do."
"Wrong," he countered. "I green-lighted the project, therefore I own it. And what’s more, Mr. Hotshot Producer, you can forget about ever working for the Pastime Channel again. You’re toast in this town."
After glancing furtively around to make sure no one was watching, he kicked me in the ribs and, as I struggled to regain my footing, he bolted for the exit and fled into the night, his frayed jacket flapping in the wind.
"He likes to give these talks," Marie Bufano exclaimed several weeks later, pointing to Fleuger’s office door in the Pastime Communications building. "Self-serving harangues delivered to affiliate reps, agents and writers on pitch visits. Actually, anyone who’ll listen. He even summoned the lobby doormen to inform them as to the importance of the damn thing."
"The damn thing being my ICON award?"
"And how he managed to win it against all odds."
"How he managed to win it?"
"Against all odds."
We were at Marie’s desk in Fleuger’s outer office. She had been his Executive Assistant since he arrived at Pastime a few months earlier. She had worked with his predecessor for whom I had produced a number of programs which was how we became friends.
"And here’s one I know you’ll enjoy," she added. "When he’s out of the office, he hides it. Locks it up. He’s terrified you’ll steal it."
"Steal it? It’s my award, for God’s sake."
"Not to hear him tell it. He informs everyone that it was his idea to do the series and that he threw you a bone when he agreed to let you produce it."
"That’s a lie."
"Of course it’s a lie. But he believes that if he says it often enough, people will buy it."
"Is the award in there now?"
"He’s out to lunch now. You want to see?"
She used her passkey to open Fleuger’s door and together we went inside. There, in the conference area, beside several overstuffed armchairs and a sofa, stood a glass display case with nothing on it.
"Here," Marie said. "Look at this."
A thin layer of dust covered the uppermost shelf, with the sole exception of a two by three inch square that was dust free.
Marie pointed to it. "That’s where he keeps the award when he’s in here."
"And he hides it when he’s not in here? Even though the office is always locked?"
"He’s an idiot."
She led me out of the office and bolted the door behind us.
I stood in front of her desk, head down, brooding. I had never heard of a business executive snatching a creative award. My bewilderment must have alarmed her.
"Don’t take it personally, Harry. He’s a vengeful narcissistic head case. He offends everyone."
I stared at her, resolve slowly creeping back into my gaze. "When does he plan to have another of these so called ‘talks?'"
She looked at me for a moment, then picked up her calendar. "There’s one scheduled for next Thursday at 11:30 a.m. with a contingent of salesmen from a North Carolina cable company. Ten of them."
"I guess I’ll just have to show up and steal it back."
"Yeah, well, good luck with that."
"Luck won’t have anything to do with it."
Burlesque Heaven was the creation of Lily Flower and Chubby Diggins, she a contemporary strip tease artiste, he a modern baggy pants comedian. Together they had ingeniously imagined a section of Paradise occupied solely by Burlesque luminaries: strippers, exotic dancers, top bananas. Their plan was to pay tribute to these legendary entertainers by replicating their most notable performances. The exotic dances of the renowned ecdysiasts Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand were to be showcased. As were the comedy routines of jokesters such
as Phil Silvers, Red Skelton and Milton Berle.
I had arranged for the show to be presented live in a St. Louis theatre, and later re-staged and filmed for television. Burlesque Heaven turned out to be a great success, first theatrically, then when it scored the highest ratings of any program in cable’s brief history. The creative efforts of Lily Flower and Chubby Diggins were masterful. So I enlisted their help in pulling off my scheme.
On the following Thursday, just as the North Carolina sales group was entering Fleuger’s office, the entire cast of Burlesque Heaven, led by Lily and Chubby, appeared from out of nowhere and joined them. The Burlesque delegation all wore costumes, the women in outfits ranging from designer ball gowns rife with spangles and feathers, to skimpy swim suits. The men were dressed not only in flashy tuxedos, but also checkered sport jackets over humongous baggy pants.
Chubby had on an oversized trench coat, a red fright wig and a black stovepipe hat. He was kinetic, gliding among and frequently jostling the salesmen all the while holding fast to a pair of helium-filled balloons.
"Rubber balloons," he cackled ceaselessly.
Fleuger’s office, while roomy, was no match for ten corpulent Carolinians and twenty plus members of a Burlesque troupe squeezed into it like sardines. Fleuger ventured out from behind his desk to greet the salesmen but was sidetracked by the antics of the Burlesque ensemble, whose boisterousness quickly infected the Carolinians. Believing it had been arranged by Fleuger for their enjoyment, the cable salesmen swiftly got with the program, joining the rowdy performers in a hastily improvised bump-and-grind dance number, accompanied by Louis Armstrong’s version of St. James Infirmary that blared from a boombox which one of the comics had with him.
Unnoticed amid the chaos, Chubby Diggins sidled over to the display case where the ICON award now rested. He reached inside his trenchcoat and pulled out the plastic statuette he had purchased at a souvenir joke shop, a replica of a human hand folded into a fist, its middle finger extended straight up into the air.
In an instant, he swapped the hand for the ICON, which he hid in the gigantic inside pocket of his trenchcoat. Then, stepping gingerly through the ongoing pandemonium, he slipped out of the office.
Shortly thereafter, bolstered by the cheers and whistles of the salesmen, the other performers bowed appreciatively and they, too, fled.
When sanity was finally restored and the Carolinians were calmed, Fleuger spotted the hand.
"Oh my God, it’s gone," he yowled, a pathetic cry redolent of an animal in pain. He raced to the outer office. "Where are they?" he screamed to Marie. "Where in the hell did they go?"
"Who? You mean the troupe?"
"Of course I mean the troupe. Where are they?"
Fleuger’s blood pressure was edging dangerously close to its boiling point. "Did they have the ICON with them?"
"You mean the award?"
"Of course I mean the award. Did they have it?"
"How would I know? They all waved to me, but I didn’t see any ICON award. Weren’t you supposed to be guarding it?"
Fleuger became apoplectic. Then, suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks and glared sightlessly at Marie. "It’s that son of a bitch Harry Granger. He stole it. Those Burlesque people. They did it."
Marie offered up her most empathetic look.
"Call security. Phone the police. I want those thieves arrested," he ordered.
Marie shook her head. "They’re gone."
"What do you mean, gone?"
"They’ve no doubt left the building by now."
"Then get someone from security to go after them. They have my ICON."
"Not possible. You have to know they had an exit strategy. You wouldn’t find them in a million years."
Fleuger deflated visibly. "Aw, hell," he gasped and staggered into his office, slamming the door behind him.
It was then that I surreptitiously appeared in Marie’s doorway and said, "Sorrowful little shit, isn’t he?"
She stifled a laugh.
I held up the ICON. "He’s so despondent. I’m thinking I should return it to him."
"Are you serious?"
Then, with the ICON in hand and a grin on my face, I made a beeline for the stairwell and vanished.