Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. Some have greatness thrust upon them. Me? I talk to greatness—mostly on the phone—so I can write articles with fun, fresh quotes, and encourage audiences to come support the arts in Montgomery County.
Hey, it’s a living. Well, sort of. My life as an arts-and-entertainment reporter is just one facet of my career as a writer—and I love it.
I love talking to anyone, honestly. The officer who pulls me over for speeding, the woman at the gym who’s vacillating about power yoga, the cheese-monger at Wegman’s. I once chose a vacation venue, sight unseen, after chatting briefly with the cabbie during Girls’ Weekend. (He was right—Rincon is awesome!) But talking with celebs requires a different mix of mental muscles.
Now, as far as I can see, there’s nothing even remotely “Fight Club”-ian about interviewing celebrities. Never talk about it? Au contraire.
First of all, the whole purpose of the enterprise is to get people talking: to get the publicity and raise the profile and find the audience to fill the venue that, when it’s not hosting celebrities, is doing mundane things like advancing the careers of as-yet-unknown artists, bringing the arts to underserved populations, keeping live theater, live music and the classics available to people that may not even know they want those things.
Second of all, like any good entertainment writer, I’m in it for the fun of it. The celebrities? For most of them, it’s just another day at the office, a job-related item on an overstuffed to-do list. I may be hyperventilating at the thought of actually speaking to Rick Springfield (if my eighth-grade self could see me now!), but Rick is probably exhausted, and completely over the idea of answering questions from faceless, breathless journalists like me.
That said—and Rick was perfectly cordial, by the way—some celebrity interviews are as thrilling as anyone could hope for. Joan Rivers—sharp as a tack and equal parts kindness and sass—gave me parenting advice. Carol Burnett left a breezy apology on my voicemail: “Oh, hello again, Chris, it’s Carol! Disregard that last call: I just checked. We’re talking on Wednesday!” Julio Iglesias asked about my husband and kids: “Why should we just talk about me?” he purred. (Oh, yes…Julio purrs!) And Mandy Patinkin responded patiently, even graciously, when I asked him (I had to!) to say it for me: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”
Peter Noone and Lily Tomlin. Nils Lofgren, John Oates and OAR. Such is the life of a community arts and entertainment reporter: One week you’re interviewing Hootie and the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan—the pride of Seneca Valley High School and an artist and producer in his own right—and the next you’ve got Betty Buckley or Judy Collins on the horn. What’s it like to have Bo Diddley call you baby, to listen rapt as Denny Doherty talks Barbra Streisand and Mama Cass? How do you sit opposite the legendary Daniel Schorr and deign to interview one of the world’s greatest interviewers?
That last one—Daniel Schorr—was hands down the hardest. He was talking Nixon and Khruschev in his inimitable NPR voice, while I was thinking “Wayne’s World” “We are not worthy!” Sweet Denny Doherty? I’m a second-generation The Mamas and the Papas fan; he was my favorite—a first class mensch.
If writers were classified like artists, you might call me a primitive: I ask ’em what I want to know, I write down what they say, I bow to greatness. And I’m pretty sure I can spot a phony when I hear one.
Not that there are many phonies at this level. Artists who go on the road and end up here in the hinterlands are almost always genuine about their art and their audience. And a lot of the time it’s the non-celebrities—the accomplished opera singer who mentors kids, the independent singer-songwriter, the tribute band front man who keeps a legacy alive—that end up leaving the most lasting impression.
Sometimes, the most accomplished performers are the most gracious—and the humblest. Sometimes, celebrities surprise you. Maryland native Wanda Sykes was courteous and professional, saving all the zany for her show. Tommy Makem, a folk musicologist whose serious countenance stared out at me from my dad’s album collection as a kid, burst cheerfully into the obscure Percy French song that name-checks my Irish clan the moment he got on the phone.
Brian Stokes Mitchell? A pussycat. Joan Rivers? A sweetheart who put my nerves to rest immediately—and then generously used her time to discuss up-and-coming young comics whose careers she followed and lovingly nurtured. And I’ll never forget how the brilliant composer Jason Robert Brown cemented his down-to-earth-nice-guy interview persona by sticking around to meet, greet and chat with every star struck theater kid who waited in line for their idol after “Songs for a New World” at Strathmore. Including mine.
Some share their greatness freely and easily. For me, that’s what it’s all about.