Monthly Archives: August 2006

City Hall — Council Antes Up Again



August 24, 2006 

As the city of Birmingham continues to lose population— both black and white—at an alarming rate, the Birmingham City Council remains unfazed. The Council instead focuses on doling out tax dollars to city-affiliated non-profit organizations that don’t appear worried in the least that businesses are fleeing the city for municipalities that actually know how to manage commerce.

One such non-profit organization is the Entrepreneurial Center, a business incubator in downtown Birmingham. Among the items on the August 15 Council agenda was the center’s annual $116,725 commitment from the city. As earlier reported in Black & White, the Council has already pledged $200,000 yearly from 2003 to 2008 to aid in the $14 million renovation of the entreprenurial center’s new location, the former Sears Building. One year ago the projected renovation cost was reported at $12 million by the Entrepreneurial Center’s Executive Director Susan Matlock. In addition, the Council last year voted to fork over $1.5 million to purchase the blighted $3 million Sears property, with the local business community contributing the remaining $1.5 million, according to Matlock.

Serious questions remain about certain businesses supported by the Center taking advantage of the city’s generosity before moving out of Birmingham. However, some members of the Council appear mainly concerned with the percentage of minorities using the Entrepreneurial Center. Councilor Steven Hoyt was the first to inquire about minority participation. In response, Matlock ticked off the percentages. “We’re at 50 percent in minority participation right now in the Entrepreneurial Center. Of course, that’s all minorities. But I also checked African-American males. That’s 35 percent [participation].” Hoyt said he was satisfied with Matlock’s response, but Councilors William Bell and Miriam Witherspoon pressed the issue further.

While the value and “economic impact” of the Entrepreneurial Center are nebulous, the funds requested to pay for it are very concrete.

“Ms. Matlock, what percentage of disadvantaged businesses, minority businesses are actually doing the contract work on the building itself?” asked Bell. Matlock responded that “we got it as high as 18 [percent] and then we ended up having to cut back some money on our roof [construction], and we lost two percent when we did that.” Matlock promised Bell that the Center was trying to increase the rate. (Council President Carole Smitherman later added that she was also “disappointed” with the minority participation on renovation of the former Sears Building).

Bell then asked Matlock what the annual $116,725 pays for. “We work with entrepreneurs who come to us for counseling to help them with strategic planning, to help them with business planning, to help them raise money,” she explained. “We do a lot of connecting with potential investors. But it also is the screening mechanism to identify companies who are looking to come into the business incubation center.”

Councilor Miriam Witherspoon was curious about the Center’s business recruitment efforts. “Fifty percent [being] minority-owned small businesses in your center may be impressive to you, but it’s not to me. Do you do recruitment or do they have to seek you out?” Witherspoon asked. “Oh, we do [recruitment[ all the time,” Matlock said. “We’ve been around for a while [since 1986], and we’re pretty well-known in the community. But we do a lot of going out and speaking to groups.” When Witherspoon asked what groups Matlock addresses, Matlock responded, “Anybody who invites us,” adding that she has spoken to neighborhood associations. When pressed for other groups, Matlock said, “All kinds of small business groups. It is a constant speaking opportunity, typically.” Matlock reassured the Council that she enjoys addressing organizations and promised Witherspoon that she would go to the western part of Birmingham “if I’m invited.”

Matlock could not answer Councilor Joel Montgomery’s query, which he has been asking for four years, about what the city receives in taxes from those businesses that have passed through Matlock’s program. “I do not track that. I do not get their specific information like that,” she explained. “What I do ask them for every year is what their gross sales are, what their gross investment dollars are, and what their employment is. And those are the numbers that we track. And from that we are able to look at economic impact.” She said that the economic impact on the community over the last five years is approximately half-a-billion dollars.



After naming two “success stories” affiliated with the Entrepreneurial Center, Councilor Roderick Royal admitted that his main problem with the business incubator was that many graduates of the program flee the city for greener pastures. “We can’t tell businesses where to locate, but certainly if they take advantage of city opportunities, we will want to encourage them to stay in the city,” said Royal. The councilor suggested that the Metropolitan Development Board and Operation New Birmingham might partner with the Entrepreneurial Center to help find space for businesses that outgrow the incubator as he praised the Center as a “good program.”

Councilor Hoyt concurred with Royal regarding businesses leaving Birmingham. Hoyt suggested that the contract be amended to require a report on the annual amount of taxes paid to the city by incubator participants. Royal refused to go along, instead urging the Council to simply allow Matlock to “agree” to provide the information on taxes. Matlock said she would be happy to provide the information but added that she was just following the procedure of other incubation programs around the country.

Adding that she is currently “mentoring an entrepreneur,” Councilor Carol Reynolds said, “Entrepreneurs are a different breed of people.” Reynolds urged area residents to drive by the Sears Building to check out the renovations at what has long been one of the city’s ugliest blights. “It is starting to be a new, vibrant, exciting, renovated facility that could spark economic development the rest of the way down First Avenue North into the western part of town.” She failed to add there is an abandoned field across the street from the former Sears property where vagrants congregate daily. A few months ago, a pair of vagrants was accused of burning down a warehouse two blocks from the Sears Building.

Councilor Valerie Abbott noted that Birmingham is recognized “nationwide” for its business incubator, which is “one of Birmingham’s big success stories.” That’s a far cry from her comments in last year’s Black & White article on the Entrepreneurial Center, when she said, “Once we’ve put as much heavy funding into something as we have the Entrepreneurial Center, they’re going to have to show they can come up with their end of the money. All taxpayers benefit from economic development but at some point these organizations need to fund themselves.” The City Council approved the Center’s funding, with Councilors Hoyt and Montgomery voting against.

Later in the meeting, the Council approved $527,456 to the Metropolitan Development Board “to provide services on behalf of the City of Birmingham which includes increasing and improving the economy of Birmingham through the attention of jobs and industry,” according to the wording of the resolution on the Council meeting agenda. The Council also voted $350,000 to Operation New Birmingham “to pursue racial harmony through racial justice and to coordinate planning and development of the City Center.” &

Possum Finds Happiness in a Small Town

Possum Finds Happiness in a Small Town

Country singer George Jones moves to Enterprise to spend his tender years.

August 24, 2006The small Alabama town of Enterprise, known for its monument to the boll weevil, is welcoming a new icon: country singer George Jones. And like the boll weevil, Jones has a history that once classified him as a destructive little pest. Jones is the new national spokesman for Ronnie Gilley Properties, LLC, a real estate management, development, and marketing organization headquartered in Enterprise. The development, scheduled to begin construction in the fall of 2006, includes 220 residential estate-sized lots featuring gated manors and moderately priced garden homes.

Jones and his wife, Nancy, have made numerous trips to the southeastern Alabama community (population 27,000), about 70 miles south of Montgomery and 90 miles north of Florida’s Gulf Coast. The couple reportedly plan to live in the community two to three months out of the year. “The more we visit, the more we seem to like it,” says Jones. The town is touted as “a safe haven from hurricanes, yet still close enough to feel the ocean breeze.” The housing development, to be called The Legends, is situated on 200 acres directly across from the Enterprise Country Club, and according to the Enterprise Ledger, Jones has already signed up as a member.

George Jones has lent his name to a variety of products, from sausage to bottled water to “gourmet” pet food. (click for larger version)

“I’m working on a jingle for Enterprise to coincide with one of my hits,” Jones said at an Enterprise press conference several months ago. “I like the fact that life is slower here . . . It’s a lot less traffic and it’s peaceful and that’s what my wife and I are excited about moving here. It’s a nice place.”

Ronnie Gilley Properties has constructed residential communities and commercial projects that include restaurants, hotels, neighborhood retail centers, and office buildings in southern Alabama for two decades. The company’s partnerships include country music stars Alan Jackson, Kix Brooks, Tracy Lawrence, and Darryl Worley.

Jones and his wife Nancy also plan to open the Possum Holler Restaurant, a meat-and-three cafe that shares the same name of a nightclub Jones once owned in Nashville. Stamping his name on products is nothing new for the man whom country music stars revere as the greatest country singer of all time (“Hoss, if we could all sound like who we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones,” the late Waylon Jennings once claimed). Jones has marketed his own brand of pet food, bacon, barbecue sauce, country sausage, honey, and “White Lightning” bottled water. Earlier in his career, he even considered marketing “Possum Panties,” with his face emblazoned on the crotch.

No one knows for sure how he came to be called the “Possum.” It may have derived from Jones’ unpredictable behavior, such as pretending to be passed out drunk before suddenly leaping to his feet to brandish a notorious temper (especially while married to the late-singer Tammy Wynette). The stories are legendary. He once drove a riding lawn mower 10 miles into Nashville to a bar after Wynette hid the car keys from him. On another occasion, police found Jones in a stupor in a Cadillac that was littered with whiskey bottles, empty sardine cans, and a life-size cardboard figure of Hank Williams, Sr., sitting next to him. His career appeared to be on the rebound until an appearance in 1980 with Tammy Wynette on “The Tonight Show.” Jones stopped midway through the couple’s duet of “Two-Story House” and confessed to a television audience that he couldn’t remember the lyrics.


No one know for sure how Jones came to be called Possum. It may have derived from his pretending to be passed out drunk . . . especially while married to the late-singer Tammy Wynette.

Enterprise can be thankful that Jones’ notorious wild days appear to be far behind him. But with the 75-year-old Jones, one can never quite be sure. After several years of reported sobriety, in 1998 he crashed his car into a bridge, blaming the wreck on a cell-phone conversation with his daughter. A half-empty bottle of vodka beneath the Cadillac’s seat suggested otherwise. Rushed to the hospital in critical condition, it was doubtful that Jones would survive this latest episode, as his long-abused liver was severely lacerated as a result of the accident. A couple of weeks later he walked out of the hospital, and two months later he was performing again.

People from across the United States are already making deposits to secure acreage in The Legends. Jones’ future next-door neighbor is reportedly a couple who recently won the Florida state lottery and contacted Ronnie Gilley directly to plunk down a deposit next to Jones’ lot, site unseen. “I just want to live next to the Possum,” the lottery winner said. &


City Hall — City Council Votes to Enter Film Industry



City Council Votes to Enter Film Industry


April 20, 2006

On April 11, the Birmingham City Council pulled one of its more jaw-dropping acts of tax-dollar appropriation (and there have been many) when it voted to give $5,000 to local filmmaker David Tucker to complete production of his movie Magic City. Tucker appeared before the Council to show a 90-second clip of the film. The previous Council had voted to verbally commit to Tucker’s initial request approximately one year ago. (Then-Council President Lee Loder recused himself from the vote at the time because his chicken-wing restaurant is featured in the film.) Councilors Valerie Abbott, Carol Reynolds, and Joel Montgomery opposed the first request for funding.

“How does this promote and showcase the city of Birmingham?” Councilor Valerie Abbott inquired. “In addition to the movie being titled Magic City, it implements how Birmingham came to be called the Magic City,” answered Tucker. “It was completely shot here in Birmingham, and all through the dialogue we’re talking about Birmingham. It places us in the ring as a contender to the film industry to let them see that we are doing movies in our city,” he said. Tucker added that Birmingham would be easily recognized since he filmed in the streets of downtown Birmingham, in the loft district, and around various local churches.

When pressed to further explain how Birmingham is showcased, Tucker elaborated, “The theme of the movie is a young lady who hypnotizes a young man to fall in love with her. But within that theme, we still talk about Birmingham and the Magic City, which is where they live. So it’s a play on words, with ‘magic’ and ‘our city’ being the Magic City. She hypnotizes him. It’s a very thought-provoking movie.”

Councilor Carol Reynolds informed Tucker that many Sidewalk Moving Film Festival participants also film in Birmingham, and they don’t come before the Council asking for funding to make their movies. “I just think it’s a little inappropriate,” surmised Reynolds.

In fiscal year 2004, the previous Council funded $30,000 to the county’s film commission. Abbott warned that other filmmakers might barrage the Council with requests for financial backing. “Since we have a [county] film commission, should filmmakers not be going to the film commission instead of the elected body of the city of Birmingham?” she asked. Councilor Roderick Royal said that since the previous Council had approved the funding, the current Council should fulfill that commitment. “I’m certainly interested in helping entrepreneurs,” said Royal. “If you mention the city as much as you say you do, I think we get a bang out of that, even if it’s just in a small way . . . I’m interested in promoting your career and promoting our city at the same time.” Royal added, “[The film clip] looks good, you’ve done a good job with your images, and the actors seem to be good actors.”

Councilor Stephen Hoyt, chair of the Economic Development Committee, was also impressed. “It clearly speaks to economic development. I think when folks go to the movie, then there are taxes that are taxed to that.” Hoyt then uttered the most ridiculous statement he has made during his short tenure since joining the Council in November 2005: “I think it’s wonderful. [We’re] always talking about young folks leaving Birmingham. Here’s one who stayed and is trying to make a difference. And yet we question him as if he stole some money somewhere. He hasn’t done that. I think he ought to be commended!”

Hoyt’s statement, which suggested that those opposing the funding were insinuating that the filmmaker’s request was tantamount to theft, clearly displeased Councilor Reynolds. She replied, “I believe that this young man is in the private enterprise of making money. Now if he would repay us this money . . . Councilor Hoyt just seemed to be a little threatening and disrespectful, and misrepresented some of the opinions given [by councilors].” Reynolds was the lone “no” vote. Councilors Joel Montgomery and William Bell were absent.

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Councilor Valerie Abbott explained her reason for changing her vote against the funding of the movie a year ago: “[Tucker] had come to us [previous Council] while we were in between the [now defunct] city film commission and going in with the county . . . And so, we committed the money to him already. And I originally voted against it, but I didn’t feel like, after we had made that commitment he had counted on, that it would really be fair for us to pull the rug out from under him . . . We had made a commitment. And I felt like that we should stand behind the commitment.” &

The Champ

The Champ

Teen swimmer stares down cystic fibrosis lap after lap.

April 20, 2006Thirteen-year-old swimmer Emily Schreiber refuses to be outlapped by cystic fibrosis. Diagnosed with the disease at age nine, she now struggles against a monster that progressively debilitates the human body, especially the lungs. Emily’s regimen is simple but impressive; she swims several miles a week.

During her ride back to Birmingham after a speaking engagement with sororities at the University of Alabama, she explained her passion for swimming.“You don’t have to think if you had a bad day or a good day. You just go out there and relax . . . I swim about an hour-and-a-half four times a week.” Emily has been addressing audiences for years as part of her effort to raise money for cystic fibrosis. “I get really nervous and my face turns red, but once I get going I do pretty good. The biggest crowd has been about 250 people, except for [being on] the radio.”

Cystic fibrosis is a recessive genetic disorder. Genes are inherited in pairs, with one gene from each parent. A person with CF inherits a defective gene from both parents. Individuals with a single faulty gene don’t usually have any noticeable CF symptoms and may not be aware that they have the defective gene. The most serious symptoms are glandular secretions of the respiratory and digestive tracts, characterized by the production of thick mucus. People with CF are prone to lung infections, often dying at a young age. The disease gets shuffled to the bottom of corporate research priorities due to the small number of the population that is afflicted.

Since her fundraising began, Emily Schreiber has raised well over half a million dollars for cystic fibrosis research.


“It’s an orphan disease,” says Emily’s father, Allen Schreiber. Schreiber started the board for the Alabama chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in 2003. “CF affects your pulmonary system. We’ve been fortunate that [Emily’s] lungs are still really good. Every kid is affected differently,” he explains. “I think swimming has obviously helped her have good lung- functioning. My sons are 17 and 15, and they can’t swim 100 laps,” he adds, laughing. “If you looked at me, you’d know [I can’t] swim a hundred laps . . . It’s a challenge for her. I’m proud of the fact that she’s not so worried about how fast she is, she’s just going to get it done. CF is one of those things which is up and down. You do well, then you have bacterial infections and you have to go into the hospital for several weeks or get on strong antibiotics at home. You do well for a while. The thing about cystic fibrosis is that it is a genetic disease. Every day it gets worse. In 1990, children lived to only eight years old. Now the median age is 34, I think. It’s still the number one genetic killer of children.”

Emily, presently a Mountain Brook Junior High seventh grader, began swimming with the Birmingham Swim League at age eight. She was inspired to raise money for CF by reading the book Karen’s New Bike, a story about a little girl who rides her bicycle to raise money for a library. Emily and her father started “Laps for CF” in 2005 but she swam her first “swim-a-thon” in 2003 with an initial goal of $3,000. She did 65 laps at Wald Pool in Vestavia and raised $60,000. The next year she swam 85 laps and increased pledges to $85,000. Auburn swim coach Dave Marsh took notice, and, in 2005, Emily took her show on the road to Auburn’s Martin Aquatics Center, the home of the top collegiate swimming program in the nation. With help from the Auburn swim team, Emily raised $212,000 that year. On April 8, 2006 she surpassed a $250,000 goal by $2,000 at Auburn. Emily swam 100 laps [66 laps equal one mile], attracting more than 1,000 observers to the fundraiser. The teen has also been featured in Sports Illustrated twice, where she was quoted: “Laps for CF is a way my bad news can be an opportunity in disguise . . . If not for me, but for others.”

Since her fundraising began, Emily Schreiber has raised well over half a million dollars for cystic fibrosis research. On April 22, Emily will swim 100 laps at the University of Alabama’s Aquatic Center at 1 p.m. The nationally ranked Crimson Tide swim team will be in attendance to log a few laps as well.

There’s no cure for cystic fibrosis, yet. But Emily is enthusisatic about the primary motivation behind her work: “Every amount of money that we make is to help somebody get better,” she says. After being thanked for the interview, the charming young swimmer replies with the cool, detached demeanor of a true champion: “No problem.” &

To donate, call 205-939-9675 or visit


Rocket Man

Rocket Man

An eye-witness account of the space shuttle’s July 4 launch.

August 10, 2006 

Five minutes from liftoff, space shuttle Discovery stood with Jules Verne-mystique on the launch pad three miles away. Breezes blew through the meadow where the press congregated, the ticking down of seconds on the huge digital countdown-clock providing dramatic flair. The next few minutes were sheer agony. This wasn’t the first launch day that I’d spent staring across the lagoon at the launch pad, wondering if NASA’s seemingly endless contingencies for liftoff would finally come together. The repeated disappointments of scrubbed missions had worn me down. An eleven-hour ride back home with nothing to show or tell would be a long ride, indeed.

Six seconds from blastoff, Discovery fired its three orbiter engines, and a mass of vapor clouds obscured the launch pad. (It’s an engine test of sorts; NASA can call off a launch within one second of take-off.) At “zero,” the blinding white light from ignition of the two rockets attached to the shuttle’s orange fuel tank forced me to put my sunglasses back on. There’s no turning back once the solid-rocket boosters are lit. I stared in awe. Ten seconds into flight, Discovery soared like a toy missile, an 800-foot flame trailing the spacecraft and glowing as bright as a giant welding torch. Accustomed to the commentary that accompanied every launch I’d seen on television for four decades, I found the image of the spacecraft climbing in silence disconcerting; the spectacle didn’t seem real. Suddenly, the slow rumble of pops and crackles of rocket ignition that television never captures swept over the meadow. My legs and stomach reverberated to a staccato pounding for the next minute as the roar grew louder and scarier, like a million July 4 fireworks shot off at once.

Space shuttle Discovery roars away in NASA’s first-ever July 4 launch of a manned-spacecraft. (click for larger version)

• • •

I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at sunrise on July 1 for the scheduled liftoff of STS-121 (Space Transportation System) Discovery. This was my second drive to KSC from Birmingham within a year. I’d yet to witness a launch. Forecasters predicted a 40 to 60 percent chance that thunderstorms in the vicinity would delay not only the Saturday launch, but also any rescheduled attempts during the next week. With a gnawing fear of imminent regret, I drove 11 hours straight to Cape Canaveral, prepared to spend a week awaiting liftoff.

Launch day is an unpredictable drama of lightning clouds, perpetual technical glitches on board the shuttle, and vultures gliding around the silent spaceship. Birds have become a threat to the shuttle at launch, so vulture traps are set around the launch pad. A five-pound vulture could severely damage the rapidly accelerating spaceship, just as foam falling off the fuel tank doomed space shuttle Columbia in 2003 by knocking a hole in the shuttle’s left wing within the first minute of blastoff.

The July 1 edition of the Orlando Sentinel revealed that e-mails circulated within NASA in recent weeks had warned that launching another space shuttle without guaranteeing the elimination of falling foam hazards was too risky. (NASA had removed the two primary foam structures on the external tank where the largest pieces had come loose.) NASA officials opposed to the launch did concede that improved camera and sensor capabilities now allow for closer inspection of the spaceship for debris damage. Should the shuttle be deemed too dangerous to fly back to earth, the crew could seek refuge onboard the International Space Station (ISS) until a rescue ship could arrive. (Columbia had been launched into an orbital plane different from that of the ISS and did not have enough fuel to change orbits.) Regardless, the launch of STS-121 Discovery was the first space shuttle mission where both NASA’s top safety official and the chief engineer’s objections to launch had been overruled by NASA’s top brass.

Weather is the one contingency completely beyond NASA’s control. Cloud updates are the most anticipated news on launch day. After blastoff, the space shuttle can become a lightning rod during a storm, actually capable of creating lightning when passing too close to storm clouds. Apollo 12 was struck by lightning 36 seconds after liftoff. The astronauts threw circuit-breakers to reactivate power to the Apollo spacecraft after the strike. Since then, lightning has commanded NASA’s attention. NASA will not launch if storm clouds are within five miles of the launch pad or within 20 miles of the landing strip at liftoff (should the space shuttle make an emergency return immediately after blastoff, the gliding aircraft becomes as vulnerable to high winds as it is to lightning).

Lightning too close to the emergency landing strip canceled the Saturday launch. NASA has only a five-minute launch window, the time available to launch Discovery so that it correctly lines up for docking with the International Space Station two days later. Fifteen minutes after the launch was scrubbed, the threatening clouds blew clear of the area in the typically unpredictable manner of Florida’s July weather.


Astronaut Piers Sellers inspects space shuttle Discovery for debris damage two days after the spaceship docked with the International Space Station. (click for larger version)


A rescheduled Sunday launch opportunity looked hopeless. Tuesday was more promising. A reporter asked First Lieutenant Kaleb Nordgren of the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron if he would recommend changing airline reservations to wait for a possible July 4 launch. “I can just tell you the weather. Take that however you want,” Nordgren laughed, slightly irritated. “Summertime in Florida is a very dynamic atmosphere, so that’s why we’re constantly monitoring.”

• • •

Sunday’s launch was scrubbed immediately after the astronauts had been loaded into Discovery. At the Sunday press gathering, Assistant Deputy Flight Director John Shannon said, “A lot of people light rockets on July 4, and I told the team before we left the scrub turn-around meeting what a great gift NASA could give to the nation to return the shuttle to operation on Independence Day.” When questioned if NASA was perhaps overly cautious about weather impediments, Shannon responded defensively: “Nobody is going to remember that we scrubbed a day or two. But if we go launch, and we get struck by lightning, that would be very hard to forget . . . If we’ve taken this much time, we’re going make sure that the weather conditions are right.”

Requesting a vulture-trap update, a reporter asked, “Are you freeing them now, or you’re going to let them sit tight (at liftoff)?” After the laughter had subsided, Launch Director Mike Leinbach replied, “The good news is bad weather keeps birds away. The bad news is it keeps the shuttle on the ground. We will go and inspect the traps today . . . and we will release every vulture in that trap.”

NASA post-launch press briefings are rarely dull. The satisfaction and sheer thrill of a successful launch was apparent at the briefing two hours after liftoff on July 4. Officials smiled and pumped their fists as the blastoff was replayed on the room’s large screen. Despite the display of emotions by his colleagues, Dr. Michael Griffin, NASA’s top administrator, remained unmoved, his ever-present smirk ready for reporters’ queries. When asked if NASA was being forthcoming about shedding foam during launch, Griffin replied: “What you are having is a nearly unique opportunity to see engineers at work, solving a problem in the midst of the problem, and having an opportunity to watch how it is that we work . . . what we do and how we go about solving our problems in the face of unknown unknowns.” When asked if he felt vindicated by another successful launch. “I certainly don’t feel a certain sense of vindication,” said Griffin. “We keep coming back to feelings. I’ll have time for feelings when I’m dead. Right now, we’re too busy”

• • •

Two seconds into flight, Discovery was traveling at 100 miles per hour. Less than a minute later, it was moving faster than the speed of sound at 750 mph, five miles above the earth. At one minute and 47 seconds, the space shuttle was 22 miles in the sky, clipping upward at 2,600 mph. The white plume of smoke from the flying shuttle lingered all the way to the ground, as if the fleeting spaceship were somehow still connected to earth. Twenty-one seconds later, the twin solid-rocket boosters, which had put on a dazzling fireworks display since liftoff, jettisoned from Discovery while flying more than 3,000 mph. An astronaut who had once ridden a shuttle into orbit smiled as she gazed skyward: “There is just nothing like that first time. It’s unbelievable to leave the planet that fast and to go that far . . . and they’re not even there yet.” &

Wayne Newton

Wayne Newton

The versatile performer chats about Elvis, the Rat Pack, and his feud with Johnny Carson.

April 06, 2006T
he man who defines Las Vegas appeared at the Alys Stephens Center on April Fool’s Day. With his 20-piece orchestra playing the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Wayne Newton bounded on stage singing “Viva Las Vegas,” a towering figure with a bluish black pompadour and a perpetual smile on his aging boyish face. “You can’t sit there with your arms folded, saying, ‘Go ahead, Indian, entertain me,” Newton, who is Cherokee, admonished the lackluster audience after his opening number. Two hours and a dozen more “Indian” jokes later, even the orchestra’s string section were snapping their fingers in time as Newton brought the crowd to its feet with his 1963 hit “Danke Schoen.” His set included a predictable “Mack the Knife,” his mother’s (she was born in Birmingham) favorite song, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and a haunting rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Wayne Newton has made a career parlaying an unsolicited role as a high-voiced showbiz freak of nature into that of a finger-snapping crooner known as “Mr. Las Vegas.” As a ten-year-old, he was playing steel guitar and singing with Grand Ole Opry traveling shows. Then, Newton caught the world’s attention as a charismatic 21-year-old heartthrob who sounded more like a woman than a man. He also became a target for Johnny Carson’s relentless jokes aimed at Newton’s sexuality. The feud with Carson went deeper, however. Newton bought the Aladdin Hotel and Casino a couple of months after Carson’s offer had been rejected in 1980. NBC reported that Newton’s purchase of the Aladdin had been financed by organized crime. Newton sued NBC, winning a libel suit to the tune of $19 million, but in 1990 a circuit court overturned the ruling against NBC. Newton spoke with Black & White before his April show about the libel suit, bailing Dana Plato out of jail, dating Elvis Presley’s girlfriend, and threatening to beat up Johnny Carson.

“I had a country music background, and I had a bit of a ‘50s and ‘60s rock background. That’s why Bobby Darin was such an inspiration to me, because he moved out of rock into a mini-Sinatra kind of bag.” (click for larger version)

B&W: I was surprised that you started out doing Grand Ole Opry touring shows.

Newton: I started in show business at the age of six, and I had a local radio show in Roanoke, Virginia, on WDBJ before going to school. And then I would do weekends in Bristol, Tennessee, and Roanoke and other towns with a traveling road show of the Grand Ole Opera [sic].

B&W: I don’t usually associate the Las Vegas-style Wayne Newton with Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Little Jimmy Dickens, and the Carter Family.

Newton: (Laughs) All my roots, musically, were well embedded in country music. It’s wild, because most people don’t think of me as country music, when in fact, the first instrument that I learned to play was steel guitar. That was before they had “pedal” steels (laughs).

B&W: Didn’t you turn down a headlining spot in Las Vegas to remain as Jack Benny’s opening act?

Newton: I was Mr. Benny’s opening act for five years. I was in Australia, and he came to see my show and invited me to see his matinee the next day in Sydney. He invited me backstage and asked if I wanted to be his opening act. I said, “Absolutely.” He gave me the opportunity to finally headline. I turned it down because I wanted to spend another couple of years studying with him. It’s those [old-school] guys who really ingrained a kind of, not only philosophy of performing, but certainly a philosophy about how to treat an audience. And when you’re not on stage, also how to treat an audience.

B&W: How has the proliferation of casinos across the country affected Las Vegas in terms of it remaining a tourist destination point?

Newton: It’s pretty interesting. Let me liken it to when Elvis, Frank, Dean, Mr. Benny, Mr. Burns, Sammy, and Bobby Darin were all alive and appearing in Vegas. People would ask me if it bothered me that all the other acts are playing here. I would say no, because one would draw a huge crowd of their own fans. And then, of course, those fans would go to catch other shows. So instead of it being that having gaming opening in other places diminishes the appreciation of Las Vegas, it’s worked exactly the opposite. The more [patrons are] inducted into the legal gaming atmosphere, the more Vegas is appealing to them. Everybody thought when Atlantic City opened up to gaming, that would really hurt Las Vegas in terms of the East Coast gamers. But it didn’t; it just helped. And I think that’s why Vegas is what it is today, because people have been introduced to gaming in a legal way without worrying about being cheated and that kind of thing, and that kind of mystique it carried with it for so long.

B&W: Why was Bobby Darin such an inspiration to you?

Newton: Bobby was the hottest thing in the country when I was coming up. I was at the lounge at the Copacabana in New York when I got my first break on “The Jackie Gleason Show.” I was a bag fan of “Mack the Knife,” and I was a big fan of “Dream Lover” and “Splish Splash.” We moved to Arizona for about six years; I really started moving out of country music then because the demand for Elvis was hot, Bobby Darin was hot. There was no demand for country singers playing steel guitar, so that’s when I started picking up the other instruments and started doing kind of a rockabilly-type music. That’s when I switched from steel guitar to lead guitar, frankly, just to keep working. When I started in the lounges here [in Las Vegas], I was 15, and we’d do six shows a night, six nights a week. You can’t sing that much; I don’t care who you are (laughs). So I kept developing the instruments in order to give my voice a rest. It was interesting, because when I came up here I had a country music background, and I had a bit of a ’50s and ’60s rock background. That’s why Bobby Darin was such an inspiration to me, because he moved out of rock into kind of a mini-Sinatra kind of bag. So he came into the Copacabana when I was in the lounge there. He had seen me on the Gleason show, which I didn’t know. He summoned me to his table, and he asked, “Are you recording?” I said no, and he replied, “Well, you will be by next Thursday.” So he was the first one to take me into a recording studio and gave me the kind of material that I ultimately ended up recording.

B&W: Did you think Kevin Spacey did a good job portraying him?

Newton: Well, it’s really tough . . . Kevin came to see me about a year before he made the film just to talk about Bobby and get an insight into Bobby as a human being. [The film] didn’t work for me, not because Kevin didn’t do a good job, but I felt it was more a showcase for Kevin’s talent than it was any kind of autobiography of Bobby because there was so much of it in the film that was not true and did not happen. So it’s tough for me to watch films like that. It was tough for me to watch films about Elvis. It was tough for me to watch the Johnny Cash film for the same reason. I knew all those people and they were friends of mine. And, of course, I saw a whole different side of them than maybe some of the rest of the world did.

B&W: Did you meet Elvis in Las Vegas?

Newton: No, we met when I was doing “Bonanza,” and he was filming on the Paramount lot at the same time. As it turned out, we were dating the same girl and didn’t know it (laughs). I was on the plane after my shooting, headed back to Vegas. He was on the same plane, and the seat next to me was empty. He got up and came over and sat down. I was a big fan of his, so it was a great thrill for me. He asked if I knew this particular girl and I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do. We’ve been dating.” And he said, “So have we.” So we both started to laugh and we both quit seeing her for the same reason. We remained really close friends from that point on. When I was nine, I auditioned for Ted Mack ["Ted Mack Amateur Hour"]. Elvis auditioned also, and both of us didn’t make the cut (laughs).

B&W: You posted Dana Plato’s ["Different Strokes"] bail when she was arrested?

Newton: I had never met her, and I was home watching local news, and it came on that she had been arrested, and the commentator said that no one had posted bail. Here is a young lady who is going through a tough time in her life and has made a million dollars for a lot of people, and none of them cared enough to even bail her out of jail. So I called my manager and told him to put up the bail for her. I don’t think she deserved that. We did meet afterwards. Then of course she went on her way, and continued the ways that ultimately led to her demise.

B&W: What was the outcome of the libel case with NBC?

Newton: Well, it was overturned in the Ninth Circuit in California, which is the most liberal court in the United States. There have been more overturnings of their overturnings than any other court in the United States. Once they overturned it, [the case] which [spanned] ten years, I’d had enough at that point. I felt that I had been vindicated for what they had said that I was guilty of. They really couldn’t make up their mind what I was guilty of. NBC was doing a favor for Johnny Carson. And what they were attempting to do was ruin my ability to be licensed. If that happened, the deal [to buy the Aladdin Hotel] fell back to Johnny Carson. At that point in time, I think he [Carson] represented 18 percent of their [NBC's] income.

B&W: Did you really threaten Johnny Carson face to face because he was making fun of you?

Newton: Yes, I did. I had done the Carson show many times. I walked in Carson’s office, and seated with him was his producer Freddie DeCordova. I said, “Mr. DeCordova, would you please excuse us.” And he got up and left, and I closed the door. And Carson’s jaw dropped and I went into a little speech about how many people I had tried to get him to stop that kind of nonsense because it had no basis in fact at all. And I just wasn’t going to put up with it anymore. I physically threatened him, and I meant it. I said, “If you don’t believe it, let’s just get it on now.” And he started babbling and muttering, and he said, “Wayne, I’m your biggest fan.” I said, “Don’t give me that crap!” I didn’t exactly use that word, but I think you can read between the lines (laughs). And then he said, “Well, you know I don’t write that stuff.” So that ended the malicious jokes about me. He never did it again.

B&W: Didn’t you play the Carson show after that?

Newton: Yes, but not when he was there. If Jerry Lewis was hosting, or if Mr. Hope was hosting . . . I preferred not to do the show when he was there.

B&W: Hanging with the Rat Pack bunch in the 1960s must have been fun.

Newton: Those guys, as much as they were party animals and enjoyed what they did on stage and the way they did it, the truth of the matter is that they were consummate professionals. It is true that they would do two shows a night and party for the rest of the night, and then jump on a plane and go to Utah to make a film. But that’s hard work, I don’t care what anybody says. &

Confessions of a Bicycle Thief

Confessions of a Bicycle Thief

In springtime, a boy’s fancy turns to breaking the law.

April 06, 2006

Thirty years ago, a pair of college pals and I got the bright idea to ride our bicycles to Pensacola during Auburn University’s spring break. But only two of us owned bikes. In 1976, Biggin Hall on campus was home to the school of architecture; industrial design students were assigned to the building’s basement. Tim was the friend without a bicycle. However, he was studying industrial design, and thus experienced at operating the assorted machinery and power tools that were part of his curriculum. The three of us lived on the same floor at Magnolia Dormitory. Aware that a student residing a couple of floors above us who was going home to Nebraska for spring vacation never locked his blue Schwinn to any permanent structure in the stairwell, instead looping a heavy chain and lock around the rear wheel and bike frame so it could not be ridden away by a thief, we decided in desperation to borrow his bike for our trip.

Aware that a student residing a couple of floors above us was going home to Nebraska for spring vacation, we decided in desperation to borrow his bike for our trip.

We loaded the Schwinn into the trunk of my Chevelle and drove through a deserted campus to the industrial design lab. We scouted for a campus night watchman making his rounds as we crept down to the basement machine shop with the locked-up bicycle. Shortly, an unbearably loud bandsaw-type contraption disrupted the silence of the ghost town the Auburn campus became between quarters. It took 15 minutes to cut the chain loose from the bike. The basement lab had windows that could be seen from the street. Should we be spotted sawing a locked chain off of a bicycle, we doubted that the security guard or any campus cop driving by would believe that we were simply borrowing the bike. Before we could finish, a night watchman walked into the room. Luckily, it was the campus security guard whom Joey, the other friend in our trio of bandits, and I knew from nights spent working on oil paintings in a building nearby. He recognized us and, amazingly, bought our story that we were slicing off the chain because we could not remember the combination to the lock.

The next morning, we drove to my hometown of Selma in the Chevelle with one bike in the trunk and two strapped on top of the automobile (Selma to Pensacola was a much shorter trip than bicycling from Auburn.) At sunrise the following day, we pedaled off on our adventure down Highway 41, a two-lane that led us to a county road, which took us to Oak Hill at the end of day one of our trip, some 50 miles. After stopping at a small grocery late that afternoon to inquire if there were any churches where we could spend the night (due to a drizzling rain), we were instead offered a stable in the backyard of the proprietor’s home a few miles away. Settled into our sleeping bags, we suddenly heard the grocery owner’s wife shouting at her husband from the house: “There’s damn rattlesnakes out there in that damn stable! Let those damn boys sleep up here at the house!” The remainder of the evening was spent on the couple’s stately front porch.

None of us had proper bikes for a 300-mile journey, and our pathetic 10-speed bicycles made the unexpectedly hilly terrain of southwest Alabama a grueling workout. Forty miles farther south by lunch the next day, there wasn’t much fun being had. We were in no shape to pedal all the way to Florida. Finally resorting to flagging down pickup trucks, we lied to an elderly man who pulled over to help, claiming mechanical problems. Three rides later, we arrived at sunset on the outskirts of Pensacola.

We spent the days riding, swimming, and scouting for potential shelter should it rain come bedtime. Each evening we indulged in cheap draft beer and loud bands knocking off Led Zeppelin and Stones covers at beach-front lounges. After midnight, sleeping bags were drunkenly hauled as close to the water as the tides allowed. Few experiences are more hypnotic and peaceful than drifting off to sleep outdoors as waves crash against the shore a couple of hundred feet away. The steady drone of the surf, the stars, and breaking whitecaps were mesmerizing, and a cure for even the worst insomnia. After three days of carousing the bars of Pensacola and sleeping on the beach at night, we headed back north.

The first day we got as far as Atmore, Alabama, without bumming rides. It began to rain. Not wanting to spend the money or violate the spirit of true adventure by getting a motel room, we went to the police station to see if they could suggest a free place to stay. They did. We were given a cell for the night but were told not to close the jail door; the morning shift would never believe our story if we had to ask the jailers to let us out because we accidently locked ourselves up. Having secured sleeping quarters, we walked to a city diner that evening, then went to see the film Shampoo at the town’s lone movie theater. Later, back at the jail, we laughed ourselves to sleep at the spectacle of spending the night in a jail cell with an open door—with a stolen bicycle in our possession.

Pedaling out of town the next morning, we discussed the plight of those locked up in the federal prison on the outskirts of Atmore as we cycled past the scary-looking penitentiary on the highway. The three of us wondered aloud what percentage of those locked up had bicycle theft on their rap sheets. Though taking a different route back to Selma, pedaling again became a strenuous bore, and we reverted to the same lies that had gotten us most of the way to Pensacola in the backs of trucks. By noon, we had reached Camden, about 20 miles south of Selma. While eating lunch at a local cafe, a woman in the next booth overheard us speculating about how long it would take to reach Selma. She was a photographer for the Auburn Plainsman, the school paper, and when she learned that we were Auburn students, she requested a photo with a caption detailing how three students spent their spring vacation. Forgetting we had a stolen bicycle from the Auburn campus, we failed to consider the consequences of having our picture splashed across the front page of the school paper.

One act of theft was enough to last me a lifetime. Tim had probably had his fill, too. Oddly, Joey soon began getting his kicks dressing in black from head to toe (including smearing black paint on his face), roaming the Auburn campus in the middle of the night to steal potted plants from outside stores and residences. He boasted of eluding the police on several occasions.

We got back to campus before the Nebraska kid returned to Auburn for spring quarter. The stolen Schwinn was returned to its proper place in the dormitory stairwell, as had been our plan all along. We even saved the butchered chain with accompanying lock, draping the chain across the frame and relishing the guy’s probable astonishment that his chain had been cut, yet his bicycle was still where he had left it a week earlier. &