Summer vacation. July. Indiana humidity. What’s an 8-year-old to do?
On one such day, I decided that I needed my own television show. That’s all there was to it. If there was anything I was missing in my life at the time, it was my own 30-minute chunk of airtime to entertain the masses. Simple as that.
Innocent youth is to be treasured. Today if you were to ask me how to get your own TV show, well sheesh, you’re asking the wrong person. I guess you should probably get some head shots done, check into getting an agent, maybe take some acting classes and get involved in area theater. Network with others and pack up and move to New York or Los Angeles. If you’re lucky you might cross paths with someone who can get you an appointment to go in and pitch your idea. Or perhaps you’re able to slip in during pilot season and get lucky.
But when you’re eight years old, the answers are much simpler than that.
I grabbed the TV Guide and thumbed to the first page. I don’t know if it’s still like this or not (who reads the TV Guide anymore?), but at the time when there were only 3 networks and a handful of local stations, they printed the mailing addresses for the local TV affiliates on the first page of “The Guide.” I used this handy reference to get the address of the ABC affiliate in Fort Wayne.
I look back now and find it amusing that I didn’t even bother with CBS or NBC. That’s how much of a big deal this didn’t seem to me. After all, ABC showed “The Muppet Show” every night at 7. Of course I’d choose them.
If I have one regret in my life, it’s that I never made a copy of the letter I wrote to ABC (or, as is their slogan, 21-Alive!). I don’t recall exactly what I told them or asked of them. I do recall letting them know I’d like to have my own show and it would be funny and zany and would include lots of pies-in-the-face (a necessary ingredient for any comedy to work!). I addressed the envelope, bummed a stamp from mom, and that was that.
Of course, I never bothered to tell mom and dad what I was up to. Why should I? They’ll be fine. I was always asking mom for stamps so I could send in rebates from Cheerios boxes or to submit ideas to Dynamite Magazine, so my necessity for a stamp was never questioned.
Which is why my mom was really confused the following week when ABC called the house looking for Ed Placencia. It never even registered with her that they were looking for me, and not my dad (one of the joys of having the same name, as I would grow up to discover). I was in the living room playing with my Matchbox cars (will the Rickety Manure Truck be able to beat the black sports car in the World Championship Adventure Race?!) when the phone rang. It’s all still very vivid to me.
Mom told whoever was on the phone that Dad was at work and then she became really confused. She kind of laughed and then told me that I had a phone call.
VOICE: Is this Ed Placencia?
VOICE: This is Jim Likens from 21-Alive.
ME: Oh, hi.
(Note my total lack of excitement. It’s not that I wasn’t excited, really, but that I did not find it out of the ordinary that they would be returning my call. I wrote to them and asked for something. Why wouldn’t they call back? Of course they would. So this is really no big deal.)
JIM LIKENS: I got your letter and we’d love to put you on TV.
JIM LIKENS: Unfortunately, we can’t give you your own show, but I’d love to come and interview you and put you on the News.
ME: (a little bummed, but airtime is airtime) OK.
JIM LIKENS: Why don’t you put a little something together, maybe five minutes, and we’ll be over on Thursday afternoon at 2:00.
ME: All right.
And that was it. Pretty simple, huh?
I hung up the phone, and returned to the adventures of Black Sports Car Vs. Rickety Manure Truck. Mom, of course, was going nuts. “What did they want?” She asked, still trying to process the idea that the TV station just called me.
“I can’t have my own TV show so they’re going to put me on the news.”
I don’t know how long it took for Mom to get out of me what was actually going on and the media blitz was on. Mom called the local paper to let them know I was going to be on the news (if you didn’t know I came from a small town, then that little move should let you know just how small it is).
In the meantime, I gathered my usual cast of characters I used in all of my neighborhood plays and productions. My little brother Ray and little sister Jaime. Naturally. I also needed Todd and Adam Sattison, brothers who lived across the street and whom Mom babysat in the summertime. They are always down to help (and if you saw Todd in my Terocus series then you know not a lot has changed). Finally I needed my good pal Dean Weimer. He would round out my cast and then we could start to rock and roll. Also, I would need a saxophone.
I decided for my TV debut I should go with something that was not only entertaining but also proven to entertain. There’s an old saying, “Write what you know” and even before I had heard that adage I knew it to be true. Which is why I decided we would be singing a song from The Muppet Movie, “Can You Picture That” by Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.
I would be playing the role of keyboardist Dr Teeth. Todd would be on lead guitar as Floyd. Jaime, of course, would be the bassist Janice and Dean would be stepping in as Zoot on sax (where in the world am I going to find a saxophone? I was pretty sure I didn’t have one in my bedroom closet which is where I kept all of my props (or, as most kids call them, toys)). Ray would be Animal the drummer, and Adam would be conducting us as Scooter.
Using the photos on the back of my Muppet Movie record, I began building the set and placing each of us where we belonged. Animal goes in the back….Janice off to the left…Dr Teeth on this side and Floyd on the other…just like in the photo. Of course, we didn’t have a piano or keyboard or organ for me to play. But we did have a bench that was in the shape of a semi-circle and the top was made of individual wooden slats which obviously looked like big piano keys. So now I had a keyboard. Todd had a toy electric guitar and my dad had a small acoustic guitar, so we were set in that section. I didn’t have a drum for Ray, but I did have a huge plastic bucket to turn upside down. And drumsticks were easy…there was a tree in our backyard and sticks were always more than accessible.
Still, I didn’t have a saxophone for Dean. But you know what? Not a problem. I had just the solution. I had a recorder. You know, the little annoying instrument every kid has in elementary school. Well, if you recall, a record came apart in three basic pieces: the mouthpiece, the main body, and the very end (or bell) where the noise came out. I simply popped the end off and duct taped it back on so it was bent up on an angle. Just like a saxophone.
We all listened to the song over and over again (“Can you picture…can you picture that”) and could sing along while we pretended to play our buckets and benches and recorders. We were ready to go. In my head I imagined we looked just like the Muppets. In reality, we looked more like The Little Rascals who didn’t realize how poor they actually were but could care less.
We lived in a cul de sac at the time and each house in the neighborhood had two or three children living there. They were all in attendance along with their most of their moms. The newspaper lady showed up and there was more buzz. Like a good host, mom served Kool-Aid. They watched as we put up our set on the back patio. Our instruments were in place. We had made a huge sign that said “CAN YOU PICTURE THAT” using some leftover wallpaper Dad donated and hung it behind us.
Soon the Channel 21 News van pulled into the driveway and a nervous hush fell over our yard. Are you kidding me, this was a big deal! None of us had ever been on the news or knew anyone who had and now all of that was about to change.
Jim Likens climbed out of the van along with his cameraman Rich Porter. They had a real TV camera! And one of those slates you write on and then slap shut when you yell “Action”. These guys were professionals and they were in my yard!
Jim introduced himself and asked what we were going to do. I let him know we were going to sing a song. He put mics on Todd and me, something I totally didn’t expect, I started the record and away we went. “Can you picture…can you picture that!” We sang along to the whole song and then Jim asked us to do it again. (Something else I never realized…music videos aren’t shot all in one take. Who knew?)
He had us sing the song three or four more times. During one of the takes he stood in front of us and read my letter aloud. During another take he interviewed me while the rest of the gang played in the background. If you wonder when I knew I wanted to be a movie director, I can tell you the exact moment. Jim asked us to do the song again and we did, only this time, the energy was really low, and understandably so. My cast was getting bored. They were sick of the song, the novelty of the TV camera had worn off, and nothing exciting was happening.
We finished and Jim Likens asked if we’d do it one more time. It wasn’t audible, but you could feel the gang as a whole inhale and let out a huge sigh. I was about to lose them. And that’s when I stepped out from behind my bench and talked to my cast, my band, my fellow dreamers.
I had no idea what directors are supposed to say and I had never been in a locker room when the coach gives a pep talk to the team so I had nothing to work from; no sound bytes to steal.
“Ok, guys, I think this is the last time he’s gonna have us do this so let’s have fun. Let’s pretend it’s the first time we’re doing it and really get into it. We’re going to be on TV so when people see us they should know how much fun we’re having.”
Eat your heart out, Knute Rockne.
We filmed the last take and everyone really stepped up. We knocked it out of the park and I was so grateful to my pals who brought their game.
“Can you picture…can you picture that!!”
And that’s when I knew what I really want to do is direct.
Jim Likens and Rich Porter left and our audience followed suit shortly after. The picture that ran in the paper the next day was Jim Likens kneeled in front of me, the microphone pointed at me and Rich Porter bent over getting the shot. In the foreground is The Band, looking on.
That night we all gathered in front of the TV to watch the 6:00 news. This took place long before VCRs were a household item, so we had to improvise. We all stood by the TV during the piece and Mom took our picture. Unfortunately, that’s the only footage that survives of the segment. Years later I called the station’s archives to get a copy and was told that they didn’t keep any of the footage and it had all been disposed of long before.
As I look back, there is one moment that stands out among all the rest. A few hours after we had filmed our piece and everyone had left I found myself in the backyard. I was standing in the grass where I had been while being interviewed. I looked down and saw something bright yellow in the grass, about the size of a marshmallow. It was a piece of chalk; chalk that was used on the slate to write down info such as “Take 1, Scene 1”. It is one of the few moments in my life I can truly call magical. I picked up the chalk and looked at it and felt like a kid in a fairy tale who just found a magic lamp.
I kept that piece of chalk for a long long time on my shelf. I would often look at it and just remember. Even though we had a number of photos that were taken on that day, it was almost like the chalk served as actual proof that day existed, it actually happened: I was on TV and got to live my dream of making people happy.