I had never heard of the annual National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention before being offered the job to play Spider-Man at the New World Entertainment booth at the show in Houston, Texas, where it was being held in February 1988. According to the NATPE website: This affordable three-day convention and marketplace is recognized throughout the world as a key media event. If you buy, sell, develop, finance, advertise, market or license content; implement technology; exploit rights; or leverage media assets, the annual Conference & Exhibition is the best place to be for success today and growth tomorrow. In other words, it’s a yard sale for new shows looking to get picked up in syndication or established programs hunting for additional affiliates.
New World, which had recently purchased Marvel from Cadence Industries two years earlier, was shopping its movie properties, including the recently released, racially insulting Soul Man with C. Thomas Howell playing a white teenager taking advantage of Affirmative Action laws by wearing blackface to get accepted into Harvard, where he falls for Rae Dawn Chong who never suspects the subterfuge; and its animated shows—which it acquired with its purchase of Marvel—such as Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. The company was also touting a new RoboCop cartoon which is planned to release later in the year. Given the in-your-face, extreme violence of the classic Paul Verhoeven political satire—the scene of Officer Murphy death is particularly acute—I found an animated interpretation to be an odd choice. New World went so far as to borrow a RoboCop outfit from Orion Films, which made the original movie, so they could feature the character at their booth along with Spider-Man. A fellow Marvel Personal Appearance actor, Dave, was chosen for the assignment. He, too, made Spidey appearances, as well as Captain America when the need arose.
The RoboCop suit came in a crate the size of a small East-European country and looked like a DIY automobile kit. One actually needed a socket wrench to put it on! Needless, to say, Dave wasn’t drinking much coffee at the show. Once on, the costume remained bolted to his body until the end of the day. Fortunately, the helmet was easily removable. Dave swore it was comfortable to wear, but when he removed the helmet after wearing the suit, it looked as if he’d just been water-boarded. Whatever unpleasantness the RoboCop outfit caused, it was never apparent in Dave’s portrayal of the character which was spot-on.
Still a relative virgin to convention-booth etiquette, I roamed the show like a Bedouin, bounding along the show aisles and in and out of booths with impunity. Little did I realize that mascots were verboten to move from their respective booths. And visiting a foreign booth was considered a severe faux pas. Staying in the booth may have crossed my mind before my initial jaunt, but the New World Entertainment booth was dead and the execs therein gave RoboCop and Spider-Man all the consideration of a bicycle at a car show. It was as if the characters were foisted upon them without their blessing. Instead of harnessing the power and attention that come from life-sized, animated representations of pop cultural icons to sell the product, the booth bigwigs escorted prospective clients past Dave and I without so much as a “Hi, Spidey!” regardless of the excited reactions of the clients they led. We were lucky to get an “Excuse me,” if we were blocking their route to the meeting area. Dave and I figured we’d would do more good as Pied Pipers, spreading the company’s word on the byways of the show floor, and leading potential buyers back.
Oh, who am I kidding? The NATPE convention is a celebrity candy store, albeit a B-list celebrity candy store with the occasional truffle, but one nonetheless. Studios go to great expense shipping in the so-called stars of the shows they are selling to schmooze with buyers. Most even provided Polaroids with them. My most exciting celebrity moment up to that point—barring meeting the creator of Spider-Man Stan Lee the year before—was meeting Bozo the Clown when I was a handful of years old, and that experience went pear-shaped when in response to his approach I screamed and fled like a Catholic at a mohel nudist colony. So when I saw celebs wandering the show floor like the cast of a George Romero flick, I had to partake in the carnage.
All at once, Norm Crosby, a former stand-up comedian of the Borsht Belt known for malapropism, who can be seen in original reruns of the Hollywood Squares, was Paul Newman in my eyes. Such groaners of malapropism as “Good evening, ladies and germs!” and “I resemble that remark” for a fleeting moment were like unto Shakespeare and now I had the opportunity to get my picture taken with this genius of jargon.
Speaking of Hollywood Squares, isn’t that the John Davidson, host of the new version of the venerable game-show classic, with show regulars John J. Bullock and Shaddoe Stevens? John J. and Shaddoe who?! Exactly. These were celebs that wouldn’t even make the cut for the Surreal Life. Yet, I had to get my picture with them.
I also plied the floor when not in costume, but it was more fun and garnered greater reactions as Spidey, the mustache I had at the time that made me look like I’d walked off the set of a 70s porn flick notwithstanding. What was I thinking when I grew that upper-lip merkin?!! The only thing more ill-conceived was my decision to pose as Spider-Man with Jake of Body By Jake fame . . . in biceps-flexing mode no less! As frail and pathetic as I look next to him, I should be thankful my meager muscles were concealed behind the free T-shirt I scored at the time. Of course, Peter Parker was initially portrayed as frail in the comics, and Steve Ditko, the Web-Spinner’s debut delineator, kept him more wiry than muscular when in costume. But his successor, John Romita began packing some meat onto Parker’s feeble physique and, though never depicted in the same weight class as the Hulk or Thor, Spidey has yet to return to the scrawny nerd he once was. Still, with the tromp l’oeil effect the suit cast—which made its wearer appear one dimensional and subsequently less substantial—standing next to Jake’s massive frame made me look like a child trying on his father’s shirts.
At least the costume also hid the ’stache. I shamefully have to admit that this was not the first time I had grown such a hirsute facial eyesore. Less than a half-dozen years earlier, I grew one for a musical review in which I was performing, entitled Broadway in the Park, at a summer theater production in Manchester-By-The-Sea, Massachusetts. What began as my being lazy and not wanting to shave worked for my role as a womanizer whose lascivious ways were but a defensive front for a sensitive soul in search of true love (No, I haven’t lost the plot. Bear with me. I promise that this will lead back to Houston… eventually). In the show, clad as an angel complete with halo and wings, I sang “Beauty School Dropout” from Grease. The mustache looked especially off-putting against the beatific backdrop. It was a song which I was already familiar having sung it in the small group of my high school’s glee club a few years prior, only sans facial hair.
So imagine my excitement when I espied Frankie Avalon, the song’s titular crooner in the 1978 mega-successful Grease movie adaptation, offering pictures to passing fans (See, we’re back…). I haven’t the foggiest what he was promoting, but he sat in an oversized director’s chair which served as a tableau for the photos. I recall telling him that the picture was for my mom, as if I was embarrassed to have my photo taken with him. I should have been more ashamed by drawing attention to his antiquated celebrity status with my comment. When I showed my mom the photo months later, she couldn’t have cared less.
Though never a fan of Who’s the Boss? I consider Taxi and Soap to be two of the best sitcoms in television history, so I was stoked to get a photo with both Tony Danza and Katherine Helmond as the shit-eatin’ grin on my face can attest.
The knowledge that Harvey Korman was a pain-in-the-ass on the set of The Carol Burnett Show and could be even nastier offset was unbeknownst to me at the time and would come as a surprise years later when it was revealed in various televised retrospectives which aired after his death in 2008. With Spider-Man, he was cordial and willing to have his picture taken. Korman—attending to promote Carol Burnett and Friends—is known more for his starring role on Burnett’s show and hilarious role as Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles. But in my eyes (or ears) Korman will first and foremost always be The Great Gazoo, the floating green alien that befriended Fred and Barney in the final season of The Flintstones, the series’ jump-the-shark moment. Had the series not ended that year, it surely would have the following one. It was as telling an indication that a show had outrun its course as the addition of Cousin Oliver to The Brady Bunch in its fifth and final season. The charm of The Flintstones was the zany predicaments the two leads found themselves in set against a prehistoric canvas. Though I loved The Great Gazoo as a stand-alone character, his ability to snap his fingers to ameliorate any problem coupled with his futuristic qualities was anathema to the series.
Oftentimes when gigging at a convention my badge would end up reading “Spider-Man,” which made for more than a few awkward moments to say nothing about blowing my cover when taking a break. But occasionally it worked in my favor. Such was the case when I met a young, eighteen-year-old Jason Bateman, who was at the show promoting The Hogan Family, the forgettable Valerie spin-off that changed its name after original star Valerie Harper left the show to be replaced with Sandy “Wheat Thins” Duncan. I never even watched Valerie never mind The Hogan Family, so how I recognized or gave a whit about taking a picture with Bateman baffles me. Again, the overpowering allure of NATPE held sway (Must… get… photo… with… celebrity…).
When Bateman saw “Spider-Man” on my badge, he was so excited he gushed over me like Carrie Bradshaw over a new pair of Manolo Blahniks. “You’re the guy in the Spider-Man suit? That is so cool. What’s it like to be Spider-Man? Do you know Stan Lee?” I barely had time for a few mono-syllabic grunts betwixt his excited queries. Meanwhile, Bateman held up the line of TV executives awaiting a picture with the young star for a good ten minutes. Finally, one of the suits at Bateman’s booth had to intervene. The picture was shot and we exchanged a heartfelt handshake before my departure. But I could overhear Bateman speaking with the next person stepping up for a photo as I left: “Do you know who that was? That was Spider-Man!”
Toward the end of the first day, I began to get the first inklings that perhaps my Spider-Man jaunts throughout the show were not acceptable. There were the occasional queries from other booth workers, unemployed actors, spokespeople and models dressed in various thematic dress, like the extras at the Body By Jake booth clad in workout gear and those in the Disney pavilion looking as if they’d just stepped off of Main Street at the Magic Kingdom. “Are you supposed to be in here?” “We were told that we couldn’t leave the booth.” Most were curious or didn’t care. Others were less accepting: “You know, you’re not supposed to be here?” But I was never approached by the show staff, nor admonished by the New World people, who were also not rebuked for their characters being out of line. So I was not deterred…
“Spider-Man! C’mere!” A booming voice echoed above the din.
I froze. Uh, oh.
“I said Spider-Man! Get over here!”
I was in the main central aisle. Beneath the mask, my eyes darted about, as my actions belay any concern.
“Wall-Crawling webbed wonder of the weak…over here!”
Finally, his voice stayed on the line long enough for my senses to trace, so to speak. In the distance, a good fifty feet away, standing upon a dais stood my assailant. Had he not been beckoning me with exaggerated sweeps of his arms, I might have missed him with my limited vision. I approached cautiously. Slowly, features emerged: black suit, shiny purple tie, glasses, big toothy smile… the Heat Miser hairdo clinched it. Don King was grinning like the Cheshire Cat, orating my approach like he were introducing his latest boxing phenom. “Here he is, ladies and gentleman… that hero of heroes… the arachnid arbiter of the unrighteous… the blue-and-red ridder of the repugnant…”
The alliterative epithets came ceaselessly, and senselessly, the more he bellowed. I don’t even think King knew what he was saying by the time I reached him. And it didn’t matter. His larger-than-life persona was infectious. He may have been an unscrupulous, double-dealing, unethical boxing promoter, as the stories attest, But I didn’t care. I loved the man. And he loved Spider-Man. I think he had the photographer take a dozen pictures before he gave me one. He was gushing and giddy and shook my hand the entire time. I half-expected him to Snoopy-dance around me at any moment. When I finally departed his side, his boisterous pronouncements began anew, but this time they weren’t directed to me or anyone in particular. “Spider-Man! I got my picture with Spider-Man! Can you believe it? Spider-Man!”
But my adventures at NATPE were about to take a disturbing turn…
Maybe it was the distance from the New World Entertainment booth, farther than I had gone to that point in the costume during the show. Maybe it was her booth’s proximity to Disney’s, which I was intending to visit to see if I could cop a shot with Mickey without their staff realizing it (A photo of Spider-Man and Mickey Mouse would have so upset Disney, but would have been ultimately cool in a Superman vs. Spider-Man sort of way). Perhaps I’d caught a wisp of a conversation about Bill Dailey signing autographs at her booth. Or maybe it was some pheromonal siren song she was secreting from her glands. But suddenly I found myself discovery the true meaning of Leave it to Beaver.
I was in the Telvan Productions booth, a syndications arm of Universal. I didn’t know this at the time. I just wanted a signed picture by Bill Dailey, Major Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie and Bob Newhart’s neighbor on his original eponymous TV series. I didn’t realize that Telvan also syndicated an update of Leave it to Beaver, called Still the Beaver (I guess Beaver Hunt was taken) until, as I kibitzed with the attendees in line, masking my intent on getting an autograph myself, I felt a hand slide down the back of my suit and heard a sultry, yet a vaguely familiar, voice say, “My, aren’t you nice.” I turned—shifting my body just before the hand crested my ass cheek—and found myself face-to-face with June Cleaver aka Barbara Billingsley.
Leave it to Beaver was a childhood love. It ran every morning before I had to leave for school and I never missed an episode, watching every moment from June seeing Ward off to work, and Wally and “The Beav” off to school during the opening credits to Beaver’s walk along the curb on his way home during the closing credits. I remember noticing the name of the hair stylist for the show one day, because she had the same first name as my mom, “Florence,” and a last name that appropriately fit her vocation, “Bush” (Come to think of it, it fit the title of the show as well, but I certainly didn’t realize that in elementary school.). Years later, while working for the media department as my work study while attending Boston University, I showed Psycho, and who do you suppose was the hair stylist for the Hitchcock classic? Florence Bush!
So there I was getting hit on by Theodore Cleaver’s mom. It would have been only marginally less disturbing had she just been a much older woman. I later discovered that Barbara Billingsley was born on December 22, 1915, which made her 71 years old at the time! I was a year out of college. But you wouldn’t know it. She looked amazing for her age. But she was only a few years younger than my grandmother!
She stood partially behind a counter with her back to a wall of the booth, so no one noticed her hand move along my arm when she ask me my name.
“S-s-spider-Man,” I heard myself stammer.
She pursed her lips and actually tsk-tsked me, before replying, “Oh-h-h, you know what I mean…”
Her hand started traveling down again, and I was in severe danger of my body putting me in a position where I couldn’t move from the booth even if I wanted to. Suddenly, the phrase, “Ward, haven’t you been a little hard on the Beaver?” had a whole new meaning.
With an agile hop backward, I a said, “I can’t tell you that. I have a secret identity to uphold,” then bound from the booth with my web-shooters still intact.
During my break, I came back to get Bill Dailey’s autograph. Billingsley was still there and it took all the self-control I could muster not to ask her for an autograph and, when asked who she should make it out to, answer “Spider-Man!” With my luck, she’d be even more excited. I understand that W.B. Mason look was all the rage in her time.