“Celebrity” is never a word I would use to describe myself. I was on national TV for over 30 years selling products on TV Shopping Channels and infomercials. Some of my peers use the “C” word for themselves. If it works for their fragile egos, that’s fine. I proudly use the terms of salesperson, writer and musician. They have always worked for me.
1. What’s for Dinner?
There were a few times in my life when I was reminded that I had a great deal of face recognition when I was in public. The first was in the early 1990’s. I had been on QVC for a few years at that point and thought it was a really great sales job, nothing more. One night, I was having dinner at an Olive Garden restaurant in the Philadelphia suburbs. (Nothing but the best dining spots for me.) I was with a woman whom I had just started dating.
People started coming up to me in the dining room wanting to speak with me and have me sign an autograph. It was fun the first few times it happened but then it started happening every couple of minutes. Soon there was a line at the table as our food arrived. The waiter, a very observant man, came to the table and asked me to stand up. As I stood, he announced to the room, “This is Steve from QVC everybody! Say hello!” They complied. “Good,” he said. “Now say hello, Steve, and sit down.”
After I sat down, the waiter continued, “Now Steve and his date are having dinner. Please let them dine in peace. I’m sure Steve would love to speak with you when he’s finished. He’ll speak with you in the reception area.” Sure enough, there were a couple of dozen people waiting in the reception area when we were leaving. It took about a half hour or so but it was better than having our dinner interrupted again. The whole incident made quite an impression on my date.
2. What the Hell am I Doing in Scranton?
Sales Magic, my third book, came out in 1993. It used analogies from the world of magic to make points about the sales process. The publisher arranged for me to do an extensive book signing tour. I flew to most locations, but drove to the local venues. One of them was a mall bookstore in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Scranton? It was about a 3-hour drive one way. But the same chain that was in Scranton had me doing signings in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, LA and many other major cities. So, in keeping with what an old boss of mine used to say, “Some days you get the turkey, some days you get the feathers.”
Even though it was 1993, the drive, which wound up taking a little over 4 hours, was my first clue that America’s infrastructure was in sore need of repair. The roads between Chester County and Scranton were awful. Pot holes, bumps, rough surfaces. The roads pretty much looked like my skin when I was 17.
I still arrived at the mall about a half hour before the signing was supposed to start. Scranton was extremely economically depressed back then and sadly still is. America’s shift away from a manufacturing economy hit them hard. Over half the stores in the mall were closed and the anchor stores, Sears and J.C. Penny’s were like ghost towns.
When I reached the bookstore, I saw a huge line going out the door and down the mall. The store manager told me there were over 200 people in line who were anxious to meet me. He added that most of them had come to him and said they couldn’t afford to buy my book at the time but would really like to meet me and get my autograph. He added that he told them they could meet me but I would only sign if they bought a book.
I told him if they wanted my autograph badly enough to wait in line at a mall with no heat (it was January and the main HVAC system was either broken or the landlord was saving money any way he could), I would be glad to sign. The manager agreed and we started.
People wanted to speak with me and get my autograph. Quite a few wanted a picture. It took a little more than 3 hours and we sold a total of 2 books to a crowd that had grown to over 300 before I left. One man had me sign a piece of paper and said he would put it in my book when he had saved up enough to buy it ($13.95). Having been that broke in my life (see my blog called “The Superman Fund”), I quietly arranged for the manager to give him a book that I bought. A few months later, he and his family sent me flowers to thank me and tell me that he had gotten a sales job and they were doing well. The note said my book had helped him sell, especially my concept of “The Benefit of the Benefit.”
His story made all the months of writing the book worthwhile. I hope it helped a lot of people the same way.
3. How Dirty is Your Carpet?
During one of our “50-in-50” tours, where we went to 50 states in 50 weeks, seeking out the best products from those states, we did a remote broadcast from the Bissell Carpet Cleaner Company in Michigan. Sadly, today they are just a warehouse for products made in China. But I’m pretty sure some manufacturing was happening back then.
The show was very successful (I’ve always said America loves to clean). When we finished, the facility manager asked if I would stay and sign a few autographs. I told him it was no problem and he led me to a table they had set up. The line of people wanting my autograph stretched around the entire building. It was 3 PM.
At 7 PM, the line still stretched as far as the eye could see. People were thanking all of us at QVC for selling so many of their products. They asked if I was okay and offered to bring me some food. I gave them some money and they went out and brought back pizzas for all of us. There were still a couple of hundred people in line.
The line finished at about 11 PM. Good thing as my signing hand was approaching something that I’m sure felt like the precursor to carpal tunnel.
4. Song Sung Who?
I like and respect Neil Diamond as a songwriter and performer. He has written some amazing songs and his performances are among the best in the business. Still, with all these credits, I would rarely go to see him in concert. A woman I was dating (the same one from the Olive Garden story) wanted to see him at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, so we went.
It was a great show and we both had a terrific time. He was even better live than I had heard. Neil give the audience everything he had. And the songs are legendary.
After the show, we were leaving “the blimp hanger,” as many performers called the 17,000 seat plus venue, a woman saw me and shouted out my name. This caused many other people to look in our direction and also start calling out my name. In a few moments, my date and I were being pushed against the wall by an ever-growing, obviously QVC-watching crowd.
I actually started fearing for our safety as they were pressing so hard that it was getting difficult to breathe. Luckily, a couple of security guards saw the melee, pushed through the crowd and managed to get them to stop pushing. They even escorted us out to the parking lot. As we got into our car, one of them asked, “Sir, may I ask who the fuck are you?” “Just a fan,” I replied and I tipped them for keeping us safe.
Someday, I hope to meet Neil and share this story with him…but maybe not since he’ll also probably want to know who the fuck I am.
5. Branson, MO – Where Show Business Goes to Die
In the same vein as the Neil Diamond story, another place I was mobbed was Branson, Missouri. Yes, Branson, a place I always called “Where Show Business Goes to Die.
Branson started off as a couple of Quonset hut country restaurants where the owners performed little musical shows for the weekend patrons. The Branson area was a popular stop for people traveling to and from the Ozark Mountains. In the late 60’s, a family named Presley moved their restaurant to the heavily traveled Rt. 76 in Branson. This became The Branson Strip, which now is home to over 50 theaters, many owned by famous (and not-so-famous) celebrities.
I saw a TV special about Branson in the mid-90’s and was struck when the film’s narrator said, “Outside of a few lackluster outlet and souvenir shops, shopping is at a minimum in Branson.” That sparked an idea.
What if QVC bought a theater there? We would convert it to half-theater, half QVC store. We would rent it out to the various QVC musical guests who were much more common in those days as well as any other performers who wanted to perform in Branson during the town’s salad days but couldn’t afford a theater of their own. But more importantly, we would have a QVC store. Maybe an outlet, possibly just a regular store featuring QVC merchandise.
As I watched the special, it was obvious that the people going to Branson were the same demographic makeup as the QVC core customer. I took the idea to a QVC Executive. He sent me on a “secret mission” to scope out Branson, possibly finding an open theater for us. I was to tell no one of the trip and report directly back to him. My James Bond fantasies were coming true. “Bryant, Steve Bryant…” Sadly, given the demographic of Branson, my “Pussy Galore” would be an octogenarian.
For some time, there has been a Branson airport and airline with direct flights from many parts of the country. When I arrived, I took a cab to my hotel, a nice place right in the middle of Branson’s Rt. 76 Strip.
As I tried to check in, I heard someone yell my name across the lobby. It was an older woman with her husband. Her scream attracted the attention of many other people in the lobby, also seniors. I started to be mobbed, literally. I was being pushed against the front desk by the crowd. It was the Neil Diamond scene all over again! It started to get painful as the crowd of older tourists pushed to get closer to me.
WTF? I sold stuff on TV. Again, I have never thought of myself as any type of celebrity. That didn’t seem to matter to the crowd of older folks, continuously repeating my name and pushing to get closer to me. The hotel’s lone security guard, who was older than the crowd, tried to help, but no one was listening to him. Hell, many of these people were old enough to have been union agitators in the 40’s and 50’s. No one was going to move them, especially a septuagenarian security guard.
Luckily, I have a booming voice when I want to use it. I yelled, nicely, at the top of my lungs, telling them that they were crushing me. It worked, they backed off and I could breathe. I signed autographs…yeah, I sold stuff on TV and I never understood the autograph thing.
After I finished signing and answering questions, I was able to check in. The desk clerk did ask who the Hell I was. “Barry Manilow,” I replied. “Steve Bryant is a pseudonym.” He was unimpressed.
For the next three days, I had to disguise myself with big hat, scarf and sunglasses to be able to maneuver in town. If I didn’t hide my identity, the lobby scene from the hotel would be repeated. (I was mobbed again at breakfast the next day. Had to eat all my meals in my room for the duration of my stay.)
I attended several shows, everyone from Andy Williams to no-name country reviews so bad they couldn’t have been booked in a really crappy dive bar. However, the theaters were packed every day and night. Many even had breakfast shows that were usually sold out. Branson was pandering to the internal clocks of its senior citizen tourists and it was working.
Given the fact that these people would mob a TV Shopping Host, I knew a QVC Theater/Store would really do well. I found a perfect empty theater and couldn’t wait to get back and submit my report.
Not long after I presented my Branson feasibility study, complete with figures to lease or buy the theater/store and the acts who would want to rent the theater space, we had a major management change. The person I submitted my report to was gone. I resubmitted it to the new management team but never heard anything more about it. I maintain it would have been great.
Today, some older big-name shows are going strong but the no-name entertainment is worse than ever. Most are on a par with a high school talent show. But the tickets are very affordable. Yakov Smirnoff is packing them at his breakfast show. Mickey Gilley’s Theater is very busy in the afternoon and evening. But overall, attendance is way down. Hopefully, as the economy continues to improve, so will the crowds in Branson.
I will never forget my three-day spy mission to “America’s Live Entertainment Show Capital,” their words, not mine. It did have one shining moment, though:
6. A Happy Tree Grows in Branson
Some people make fun of Bob Ross. His gentle on-air style and “happy little trees” made him a target of comedians and late-night TV hosts. I met Bob in the early 90’s on QVC. He was selling a how-to painting kit (what else?). I was amazed at the testimonial calls from people who had watched his long-running PBS Series, “The Joy of Painting.” Caller after caller was truly grateful to Bob for teaching them how to express themselves through painting.
I was impressed with Bob and his wife Jane. They were a combination of artists and business people. No nonsense folks, but still extremely “artsy” at the same time. Bob’s painting products did very well on QVC for quite a while, driven heavily by the seemingly endless glowing testimonials from his fans. He even managed to teach me how to paint a little. Well, at least after working with him my artwork didn’t look like a Rorschach Test.
One of the last times I worked with Bob, he told me he had been approached by some promoters in Branson, Missouri to do a live stage show there. Bob Ross and a live show in a Branson Theater? The place where show business goes to die? (My own assessment.) What would he do in this home of bad country music and even worse ersatz show business reviews?
Fast forward a year or so to my Branson trip as a scout for a potential QVC theater/store. While there, I happened upon the theater where Bob was going to do his show. Bob recognized me and I got to watch a rehearsal.
Bob’s performance was going to feature him painting a stage-sized mural from scratch while a full orchestra played classical and popular music. He painted in time to the music. It was weird, but interesting. Obviously, I had never seen anything like it before. No one had.
For the actual show, he would paint to a live orchestra. He used a specially produced recording for the rehearsal. His timing was great. His paint strokes were perfectly timed to the musical phrases and he finished right along with the orchestra. Again, it was weird but very interesting. I’m not the kind of person who would go to Branson for a vacation, but if I ever did, I would probably go to see this art and music extravaganza. Certainly, long before getting tickets to the “Billy Bob and the Corn Crackers” review.
The show never happened, probably for a number of reasons. I know Bob’s wife was diagnosed with cancer shortly after this and passed away in 1993. Bob died from cancer a couple of years later.
I have always wondered if the show would have succeeded. There are a few good shows in Branson, but most are just God-awful country performances with wannabe stars playing to a captive senior audience. Yakov Smirnoff does one of the most successful shows there at a breakfast buffet. Branson is an extremely strange place. Bob Ross would have given it an air of class.
Epilogue voiceover (Hey, if it was good enough for Quinn Martin, it’s good enough for me.)
Cue the William Conrad voice – “A sad, solitary man who feels a bit less lonely after these incidents. He’ll think back on these as well as other lines and crowds of people when many who know him continue to make him feel like a fugitive.”
© 2018 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.