Thursday, 16 December 2010

Homer, Sweet Homer, With Tom and Johnny

Homer, Alaska is the kind of village (it fell far short of a hoped-for 4,000 in the 1990 census) where everybody not only knows everybody else but runs into them daily. I flew down there from Anchorage (half hour by air, six hours by circuitous two-lane roads up and around the Kenai peninsula) to look into the Tom Bodett End of the Road phenomenon.
The man who mans the light switches for Motel Six was down in L.A., so I settled for an interview with his piano-playing cohort, John Bushell, also known on radio as Johnny B.
“Meet me at the Etude Music School, across the street from the Junior High,” he advised.
“Bring me a tape of the radio spot on seat belts you did for the Alaska State Police,” I pleaded, ignorant as I was of everything the pair had done on commercial radio because it was never broadcast in Philly.
Etude is a warp out of a metronome. Arriving ten minutes early, I tiptoed around the room where musical instruments were sold to Homeric youth being prodded towards Culture, trying not to disturb the youngster doing plinky-plunk-level lessons for his teacher.
Johnny arrived with a coterie of moppets. It turns out that after graduating in media and drama from Boston U., Johnny had spent the first six of his years in Homer being the jack-of-all-arts teacher for the junior high across the street.
A feature story in the sprightly weekly, The Homer News, explored the theme of how likely fame was to spoil homeboy Tom. A sidebar story raised the potentially threatening story of how sad Johnny might become—always in the shadow of Big Tom.
Bushell is grateful rather than envious. He relishes having had to choose from among the hundreds of audition tapes for their hour radio series. Why did they quit? Burnout is the quick and perhaps too easy answer.
“Doing a new 20-minute story every week was a strain on Tom,” Johnny B recounts, “and getting the music ready was no picnic for me, either.” Tom’s tight contract with Motel Six was at first a stickier problem. Reports are that Bodett had to dip into his own book royalties to keep the series afloat.
Tom then became the folksy voice-under for Fox TV. Maybe you caught him on Fox’s Tom Night: “Hi, Tom Bodett announcin’ the world premiere of Tom Night, Thursday on Fox. We’ll sit around watchin’ ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Drexell’s Class’ and ‘90210,’ drinkin’ diet sodas, eatin’ high-cholesterol snacks.”
I was amazed to learn on the advertising page of the New York Times that all this final “g” droppin’ (calculated to bring down the wrath of high falutin’ Eastern elite elocution teachers) is the faux naïf tactic of a Lubbock, Texas smoothie named David Fowler, who turned Motel 6’s brain on; only the tonsils are Tom’s.
Lubbock and Homer are soul-mate-makin’ venues. And back in Homer, Johnny B unabashedly basks in the media spotlight cast by his much more famous media buddy. Like Bodett, Johnny B is a Huck Finn of the North, engagingly without pretense. The next morning, as I walked over to the Trailside Market from the Driftwood Inn to get the Anchorage Daily News, a jogger whizzed past me on the Sterling Highway. To my astonishment, he greeted me: “Hi, Patrick; can’t stop; Johnny B.”
Like I said, it’s that kind of a village.
The afternoon before, I was interviewing the curator of the mask show opening that night at the town’s astonishingly rich Pratt Museum. “Do you think the reporter who did the Bodett profile for the Homer News will be at the opening?”
“No,” she replied, “but there’s their art critic, Jan O’Meara.”
Bingo. I had sampled the collection of community responses to the infamous Valdez oil spill she’d just edited and self-published. In the current issue, she was reviewing an eloquent photo-essay by Linda Smoger on the mission generated by Homer residents to clean up Cape Mars as their own mitzvah for the Exxon ecological disaster. So we had a good deal to talk about besides masks.
As our palaver on oil spills and art wound down, I expressed my frustration that Bodett was in L.A. “Not any more,” she smiled, pointing to the just-returned writer slowly savoring the show with his son Courtney and wife Debi.
It was entirely characteristic of this publicity shunner that he was taking in the show alone with his family. (Visitors have taken to decamping outside his house to have their Polaroids taken; he has parried their unwanted attentions by posting a “NO VISITORS, PLEASE” sign.) Knowing his predilections, I asked if I could phone him the next day for an interview. Grateful for my reticence, he uncorked the unlisted number.
Homer prides itself as the Halibut Capital of the World (unlike Tom, who puts himself down playfully in a book bio as coming from Sturgis, Michigan, the Curtain Rod Capital of the World). Homer also has appended to it, reaching out into Kachemak Bay, the world’s longest spit (that’s five miles of sand, not spit.)
At its tippiest tip rests “Land’s End,” the village’s toniest spa. I decided to hitchhike out there, hoping to get a few more local angles on Bodett’s rep. well, as friendly and folksy as Homer may be, 26 vehicles whizzed by my thumb without so much as slowing down or blinking their lights.
“The Book Store” caught my eye. (Homer fancies the generic: “The Barber Shop” sits on the path to the Pratt Museum.) I joshed the lady proprietor, saying how nobody was leaving the lights on for me on the Sterling Highway. A 30-something woman in front of the Alaskana section sprang to the defense of the village. “I’m going down there to pump out my boat. You can ride with me.” Hey, thanks.
She introduced herself as Terri Lyons. “Holy cow,” I said, “I bought a sculpture of yours yesterday at Ptarmigan Arts.” It’s four pieces of wood funkily deployed as “Pink Salmon on Rye.” She confessed to having concocted a companion piece, “Halibut on Whole Wheat.”
Just as Terri was about to ferry me to Land’s End, who should phone “The Bookstore” but Tom the B himself. Seems his latest, The Big Garage on Clear Shot, had come in early to the Pratt. Had she ordered?
“Don’t hang up,” I hollered. I perpetrated my interview right there, on Bodett’s nickel. Heh, I’m a “Waste not, want not” Philadelphian. (Actually, phone calls are still only ten cents in Homer, slim compensation for $3.50 beers and $3.25 Tropicana quarts.)
As I was disappointing myself with a very mediocre Cioppino at Land’s End, a bevy of superannuators started to gather in the restaurant—for what turned out to be the quarterly bash of the Kenai Peninsula Retired Teachers Association.
Their leaders enjoined me to sit in—an illuminating pitch from two members of the Nature Conservancy on how to keep the Indians from giving clear-cut rights to the lovely stand of evergreens across the bay. And her husband even took me to the airport, where I killed time with KPRTA-ster Letitia Carter, who was waiting for her Cessna to be gassed so she could fly off.
Homer, Alaska, may be at the end of the road, but it’s the beginning of untold interesting serendipities.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 17, 1992

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