Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Me and Oprah"


By Peter Rodman


Sometime during the fall of 1991, I was boxing up my life, to move from my beloved 'penthouse' studio apartment in Chicago, to my just-as-beloved new beach home, in Santa Barbara.
Packing everything alone, I found myself entranced by the daytime TV shows, which most men never even see.

Apt. 3208, The Elm Street Plaza,  Chicago
Of course, there were Springer, Geraldo, and a few others…but Oprah Winfrey obviously stood out, as somehow above the rest.

By the third day of this exercise, I realized I’d just seen three consecutive shows depicting American men as the biggest losers on the planet.
In one show, Oprah actually featured “Men Who Beat Their Pregnant Wives." The next was ’Alaskan Hunks,’ and so on.
So I wrote her a note, simply saying, “Can’t you do any better than that? That’s what we expect from Springer, and those other guys, Oprah…not you!!!”

Fast-forward to six months later. I’d settled in to my beautiful new home out west, and was happily enjoying my first full-time west coast experience, when out of the blue, I received a call.
“Hello," said a voice from Chicago, “My name is Jamie, and I’m a producer for the Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“Uhhh..hi.”  (???)
“Oprah wanted me to call you, and tell you she received your letter--and she’s decided to do something she’s never, ever done before: An entire show, devoted to peoples’ letters!”

“That's great,” I said.  The truth is, I was covering up the fact that I'd completely forgotten about even writing it!
Once she got going, though, I figured she meant they'd just be reading my little note...which would be embarrassing enough, but acceptable...I guessed.
But 'Jamie' continued:
“Oprah wants you to videotape your letter at home, for the show!”
“Ohhhh,” I said, nonchalantly. “Well, to be quite honest, I only ever intended to write it--I never intended it, I mean I never imagined it as me, getting on the show! And besides, I don’t have any video equipment! So I really don’t think it’ll work.”
And that was that.
I figured I was off the hook.

The phone rang again, a couple hours later.
“Hi, Peter...Jamie!”
It was like we were old pals.
“Oprah says to go to any video or camera shop you like, and just rent whatever equipment you need…and she’ll pay for it!”
I said I’d try.
Yet another, more insistent call came--this time, putting a time frame on it. “She needs it by Friday.”
Now, if you’d like to skip the rest of the story, there’s a tape of my appearance on the show on facebook at the moment. Enjoy. 

But (can't ya guess?) there’s a lot more to it...

For one thing, I was working for a major airline at the time, flying overseas every single week. For another, my room mate (and best friend) John had a 9 to 5 job in town, and because we knew the old ladies on our Shoreline Park area block used to wonder if we were gay, we liked to...well...mess with 'em, a little.
When John got home from work, he’d step out of the car and I’d say, nice 'n loud...
“Is that you, Hon?”
Or he’d say, “Huu-uunn!!! I’m Hooo-oome!!!”

Believe me, despite the females coming in and out of our house at all hours of the night, that poor little old lady across the street spent many, many hours peeking through her blinds, desperately trying to 'suss out' the situation.
In retrospect, I guess we were a little cruel, that way. 
Okay, so that's the set-up.

Now...I’m home alone with all this rented video junk--which, in 1992, was not small.
I had tripods, all kinds of wiring, and a camera approximately the size of a refrigerator. (Okay, that's a slight exaggeration.)
But I did have one dilemna:
How’m I gonna film myself, talking to Oprah, without running around from behind the camera to the front of the camera, like an idiot, on national TV?
Beyond that, I had no editing equipment, so I had to make one tape, with the right 'take' on it.
Nobody was around; I wasn't gonna ask the little old spying neighbor-lady to operate this thing; and I hadn't made any new friends in Santa Barbara, yet.
I’d hosted my own TV show before, so I knew how stupid that would look.
I resolved to set up the camera looking out the side door, then go out the front door, and casually walk into frame, through the side yard.  "Hey, Oprah...!"
Mister Cool.
"Hey, Oprah?"
The problem was, it took me around ten 'takes,’ before I was happy with the result.
Alone outside in the yard, visibly talking to no one, but loudly saying, "Hey, Oprah!"

Imagine the lady across the street (and she was, believe me)...wide eyed, looking through her blinds as I obviously walked around the yard, ten times in an hour, talking aloud, to a non-existent person named, “Oprah.”
When I finished, I Fed-Ex'd the tape to Oprah in Chicago, thinking that was the end of it. (I’d been told the whole show was just going to be peoples’ letters on videotape.)
Next day, Jamie calls:
“Oprah wants to set you up with her girlfriend on the show!”
“Absolutely not.”

“...Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to embarrass myself or anybody else. No way!” I said.
How many of those things ever go well, on TV?  Besides, although I definitely have no right to be, I’ve always been prohibitively picky, in the ‘love’ department.
I stood my ground. Jamie sighed, and we agreed the video would be enough.
Then she called back again. “Are you sure? Oprah will pay for your date, and--”
“NO! I don’t think I could even imagine such a thing. I’m sorry. We’re just going to have to leave it at that, if it’s okay with you.”
When she called back yet again, Jamie had another idea:
I should just come to Chicago and “tell” my letter, on the show. “We’ll pay your airfare!” she said excitedly.
“Jamie, I work for the airlines,” I reminded her. “I fly free. And I hate to be a bad person, but I never wrote this letter intending anything like this.”
We finally struck a deal,  after she offered me three free nights in a luxury suite at the (then brand new) Meridian, in my old neighborhood, the Gold Coast of Chicago. I flew myself there.
When I got to my room, I couldn’t believe the care that had been taken, to make me feel comfortable. Fresh flowers, a selection of CDs “personally chosen for you by me, Oprah,” and meal vouchers for the whole long weekend.  Hard to imagine now, but in 1992, having a CD player in your room was pretty impressive, let alone having one stocked by Oprah.
I wasted no time contacting a recent girlfriend or two, and between lunch dates and catching up with old friends, made the most of a beautiful weekend in Chicago. By Monday, I began to see the other 'Oprah' guests collecting in the lobby.
There was a guy, also named “Peter,” who was in the end-stages of AIDS, as gaunt and frail a person as I've ever seen out of bed, and still breathing. I asked him what his letter had been about.
“I just wrote to tell her how inspired I’ve been, during these tough times, and everything she means to me.”
I just about broke down crying, right then and there.
Peter was the sweetest soul, and he knew it was over for him…but this would be his last hurrah.

Several other guests, including Mike and Melissa (whom you’ll see on the tape) shared their stories in the lobby, the morning we were to go to the taping.
When I got a free minute, I called my Mom, who lived in an apartment complex for the elderly in Ann Arbor. “Mom, it’s me!” I started. “Guess what! I’m gonna be on Oprah!!!”
My Mom loved me a lot, but after nearly 20 years of hearing all my 'razz-ma-tazz' about being on the radio,  TV, and in the papers, she could barely contain a yawn, at this news.
“I don’t really watch Oprah,’ she said.  Mom preferred old movies.

Now, a fleet of long black limousines was gathering around the block.
Poor Peter, the AIDS guy, was alone in his wheelchair, so I said, “Hey, Pete…why don’t we ride together!”
With that, Oprah’s frightened looking producer came scurrying over, to say quite firmly:
No!" she barked,  Every guest must ride in their own limousine!!! Oprah insists!!!”
And so we did.
At the show, we pre-planned guests were held away from the rest of the audience, already seated, until right before the taping began.  There are no accidents, on 'Oprah.'  Everyone who talks is carefully seated (and vetted) just before showtime. Some (like myself) are even able to negotiate a few free days extra, in Chi-town--though quite frankly, I was trying to talk them out of having me, which is why I was (inadvertently) sucessful, in getting so many extra perks.
As I walked by the front row, a girl whispered (loudly enough for me to hear it) “That’s him!”
I took a glance. Of course. That was Oprah’s ‘friend.’ (The blind date I'd refused.)
I breathed a sigh of relief.
Good decision, I thought.

The taping went well, and from that day (April 11, 1992) forward, I became friends with Mike and Lisa. We exchanged Christmas cards and occasional phone calls for nearly 20 years. I really related to his story.
Mike drove a UPS truck, and his 'beef' with Oprah, was that she acted like poor men should treat their wives especially nice, since they didn’t have money. His point hit home with me--and probably every other workin’ stiff out there. Anyway, a sweeter couple you’d never meet, so we hit it off well.
Poor Peter bravely recited his litany of praise for Oprah, although it looked like his head was literally going to fall off his neck.
When I got back home to Santa Barbara, my Mom called. Suddenly, she was very interested in my upcoming appearance on Oprah!
When does it air, again? Are you sure? What time is that on here? Do you know what channel?”
Apparently, she had casually mentioned it in the cafeteria, and all the old ladies went bonkers.
“Oprah!!! Your son is gonna be on Oprah???”
Mom being kind of a loner, this worked wonders, for her popularity at the Sunrise Apartment complex.
She began regaling them with stories of my life in media, adding that I was now flying overseas as a flight attendant, yada, yada, yada.
It felt good, to have made Mom happy.

After the show aired, my Aunts, Uncles, and cousins all called, with very sweet messages. I was especially amused when one said, in a new York accent, “Pete, ya did good...didn’t embarrass the family at all!”
Whew, huh!
But when I finally talked to Mom after it aired, she was a little...less than enthusiastic…and I just couldn’t figure out why.
It took some time, but I eventually realized that, since she had mentioned to her fellow seniors that I was a flight attendant, and my name was 'Peter', the old ladies must have figured, “Gay.”
And then...when Oprah kept repeating his name ("Peter") over and over on the show, the ladies almost certainly decided I was the other Peter, since they wouldn't have known me from Adam.
It all made sense, in their world--which was at least a generation before my own. 
But just as quickly as she'd found some much-needed positive attention before it aired, Mom was back in Awkward Land afterwards...and couldn't quite figure out why.
Neither can I, looking back on it--which is kinda funny, in a 'dated' sort of way.
And which goes to show, ya never can tell.

Almost a decade later, we were still laughing about it all.
A lot.

But I always knew 'the other Peter’ couldn’t have lived for very long after the show--and although his particular segment isn’t included here, that’s what I think of, when I think of my time on Oprah.
That, and my narrow escape from a disasterous, nationally televised blind date!

As I write this, it's been nearly twenty years, since the show aired.  I've only included a short excerpt here, pertaining to my own appearance.   But earlier in the tape, Oprah introduces the 'viewer's letters' theme by saying, "We've been doing this show now, for five whole years."
At the time, that sounded sorta monumental, believe it or not.
Today, I watched her very last syndicated "Oprah Winfrey Show."
Twenty five years.
As you see 'em come and go, the numbers make you feel old...but that's a 'nother whole column.
Godspeed, Oprah.

Copyright 2011 by Peter Rodman.  All Rights Reserved.

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