America Meets Michael

by Rebecca Starkins

The time is not yet half past six on Saturday...anticipation mounts as we pull into the Maryland Public Television parking lot. There, in front of the entrance, stands a limousine...empty, of course, but...the three of us look at each other, one thought rapidly forming itself in our heads simultaneously. Could it be him???
 Out of the car we go, butterflies in our stomachs, our heads turning this way and that...a quick "hello, nice to meet you" to a few other fans arriving right behind us. Slowly, we approach the door...

...but alas, no, Michael has yet to make his appearance. Oh well, no matter!! All the more time for us to get acquainted with fellow fans, a rare opportunity over here in formerly "Michael who" land! Delightedly we discovered that many of us had "met" before on e-groups or on MBFC forum, and it was quite the experience to finally be able to put names to faces!

After our briefing on proper phone-answering etiquette, Phil made a quick appearance, greeting us all with a smile and a few words on Michael's trip. He seemed excited about it all, and happy to see so many of us there and ready to go!

And weren't we ever!!! Just before nine, we were shown into the studio, taking our seats at our posts for the night. Not that any of us were really prepared for what was to come...!!

A few short minutes later, in walks Michael, all smiles, looking relaxed and very pleased to meet us all (his suit was a fabulous pin-striped one, complimented by a lovely blue shirt and striking satin tie). Some had come as far as Washington state and southern Florida to see him, a fact that caused Michael to looked shocked, if ever so briefly!! He was evidently impressed that we had all traveled so far, and asked if we had ever met each other before. Our "no!!" wasn't quite what he expected, for although we had only just met, we seemed like friends nonetheless, joined by mutual interest and appreciation.

"Still not smoking," he told us. Roaring applause, standing ovation, and cheers of congratulations followed. What a perfect way to begin the night!

After a few more greetings from Michael, we were told it was almost time for our first break. Michael slipped off to the side, standing next to a camera, all set and ready to come on when called to do so. A commercial for the upcoming video was aired, and Blues Brothers came flowing for the first time over American airwaves. Michael, watching the scene from the side-lines, did a little dance for us, the grin on his face radiating towards us, exhausted though he must have been. His energy was incredible, his enthusiasm even more so, and his talent...all went straight into the hearts of us and the viewers at home.

Calls began flooding in as soon as we reached the end of the first segment of the video. While Michael and Rhea (the hostess) chattered away, discussing the Les Miz concert, Michael's appearance in the ALW celebration, and his many other successes, we fans were beginning to gauge the feelings of America towards this "new" arrival! Every caller I spoke with was immensely impressed with his versatility, his vocal ability, and his charisma. "Where did he come from," they all wanted to know. "Why have I never heard him before now?" Requests for fan club information were made. Many of them were enjoying the show so much, they pledged to receive both the video and the CD, although they had as yet only seen half the concert!! Taking America by storm is an understatement, for sure!!!
 Michael himself was "having a ball" (forgive the pun, I couldn't resist!), delighted at the responses and excited to see how busy the phones were! :-) Following the end of that pledge break, he disappeared briefly, only to return and chat with us fans!! He generously signed photos, gave hugs, and posed for individual pictures with each of us on a "love seat" in the studio. "What a cool couch!" he said as he sat there, smiling for the flashing cameras and talking with us.
 All in all, it was an extremely successful evening, for MPT exceeded their projected goal by a considerable amount. Michael was so pleased, he rewarded us all with a bit of a song. Standing among us, he took up a microphone and started singing "Help Yourself" to our delight!! What a guy!
 Even the workers at the studio were incredibly impressed by his friendly, unaffected, and easy attitude - unlike any "celebrity" they had ever hosted before! Our standing ovations (given more than once that evening!!!) and the energy created in the studio by the one and only Michael produced the comment that they would be more than happy to have us all back again!! :-)

  Night numero we move to the south...Washington DC at WETA - stop number two for Michael!!

As many of us were "repeat volunteers" from the night before, we were all charged and ready to give our Michael the same big, enthusiastic, and well-deserved applause when he entered the studio. We did, and he looked pleased, though tired, and understandably so. He explained to us how he had spent the day seeing the sights, in all the sweltering heat and humidity of Washington DC in August!! You have to give him a lot of credit for that alone!!!

But anyway, he talked with us volunteers a bit before being instructed to take his place with the two hosts. And suddenly...tragedy struck!! *gasp* A passing lightning storm had knocked out a transmitter...the screen was blank...and it was time for RAH to begin...but what to do?
 An impromptu interview with Michael was the solution, and as spontaneous and unexpected as this must have been for him, Michael handled it beautifully, appearing, as ever, at ease with the situation, delivering wit and charm with every answer. Twenty minutes later, the problem had been solved and the video began. Sighs of relief from the entire studio!!
 Caller response to the performance was just as enthusiastic as the night before. Callers rang in to inquire after the video and the CD, wondering where they could hear more! Some offered questions for Michael to answer, several of which he did respond to a bit later in the program.
 The studio atmosphere was quite different from the previous night. The two hosts were very serious, asking their viewing audience to please call in and pledge to support the station. Michael sat on the side, ready to answer any question that came his way. His wit still shone through as he laughed and joked a bit and then explained the significance of the Royal Albert Hall to the American viewers who were perhaps not so familiar with it.
 Between pledge breaks, when we were not on air, Michael again very kindly stayed in the studio to pose for pictures, sign autographs, and receive gifts. A very special gift for his study was presented on behalf of the American fans, reading "America, Michael Ball, 'We'll be there for you.'" Michael was visibly touched at this, and promised to give it a place of honor upon his return home.
 All too soon, the evening came to a close. Goodbyes and well-wishes for the remainder of his PBS "tour" were given to Michael as he headed out the door with Phil, after generously obliging us fans with more photos and autographs, weary though he was after two long days with so much to do. As we left a hour or so later, exchanging our own good-byes with fans and friends who were not able to travel up to New York, Detroit, or Connecticut, we all remarked on what a success the past two evenings had been - especially for Michael, who had stolen away the hearts of so many new fans in just a few short hours.

Tuesday saw the half-way point in Michael's visit to the States. WLIW in New York saw, for the first time, the one and only Michael Ball!!!
 We arrived about an hour early...time enough to get acquainted with a new set of fans and attempt to prepare for what was to come! A very enthusiastic group met us in the break room, all busy with preparations for Michael's arrival. Someone had had a cake made with Michael's picture on it and had driven it quite a distance just to be able to present it to him! Culinary art at it's best for certain! :-) The group had also arranged to have a yellow rose for everyone, which they planed to give him after one of the breaks.
 Finally, at a few minutes to eight, we were shown into the studio and took our places. All eyes were glued to the door...where was Michael?
 Suddenly...commotion in the hall...and in walks Phil...followed by Michael himself! Applause and greetings were given, as Michael smiled and told us how glad he was to see us all there! Not enough time for any real conversation yet, though, as the break rapidly approached and he needed to get into his place with one of the hostess.
 Now, the wardrobe selection for the two hostess and Michael was a bit of a wonder!! Coincidence, yes, but still...!!! Michael had on a soft pink shirt with a lovely tailored suit, looking marvelous (quelle surprise!). But the hostesses somehow had anticipated this color scheme, and matched it perfectly in their own pink ensembles! ;-) Towards the beginning of the broadcast, they joked good-naturedly a bit about this. Michael laughed and smiled a great deal as he told his stories, explained his video, and chatted with the hostess.
 After the second break, Michael very kindly consented to remain in the studio to sign autographs and take pictures. But this did not last long, as he was soon escorted by us all into the break room to receive his gifts. The look of astonishment and pleasure on his face when he saw his cake...!! He was truly surprised! When asked to cut it, he said he'd make a wish "which I can't tell you, but I think you all know" (and what is that, Michael?!). He accepted all of this attention so gracefully, smiling all the while, posing for pictures and everything.
 The studio atmosphere was very much like it was in Maryland. Everyone was very relaxed, laid back, and there to have fun. The hostesses were completely taken by him, the volunteers (not the fans, the regular studio volunteers) were all so pleasantly surprised at how "un-celebrity-like" he was! They really couldn't get enough of him!! There was a lot of laughing back and forth between the hostess, Michael, and those of us answering phones, both on air and off. Everyone really seemed to have been having a marvelous time.
 Towards the end of the night, during one of the final pledge breaks, Michael decided it was time to liven things up a bit!! "For those of you not on the phones at the moment," he divided the room in half, told his right side to say "dead, dead" when he pointed to us, and the left side to say "turtle, turtle," which we did, most happily, until Michael started to sing "New York, New York"!!! Needless to say, we gave up our "dead turtling" to listen intently!!!!! Having never heard him live in concert, I was completely blown away by the incredible power his voice has!
 The calls all went extremely well!! Michael, of course, thought it was great, and got very excited when the calls started pouring in, which they did very shortly after the beginning of the program. We left before they had finished tallying up the total pledges, but considering the amount of callers we had, I'm certain it was extremely successful!

 I was not able to make it out to Detroit, so Hartford on Thursday was the next (and last!) time to see Michael - and didn't we all just have a "ball" that night!!
 The evening for me began much like the other three, arriving early enough to meet everyone, talk for a bit, and then move into the studio to take our places and get acclimated to the phones. We were all introduced to Pat Webb, the fan club coordinator here in the US, and she had arranged for a fan club banner to be placed at the front of the table where we were sitting. Now all we needed was the star of the show...!!!
 Before Michael came in, one of the studio workers came in to tell us she had had some bad news. We groaned, "Noooo!! Don't tell us that!!" And she said that Michael's plane had been delayed and he wouldn't be able to make it after all. We looked at each other - typical Michael introduction!!! Ten seconds later, in he strolls, an exuberant "Hello, ladies!! And how are you all?" coming right at us!! Nobody like Michael, that's for sure!! He had on a light pink shirt and that lovely pin-striped suit, looking stunning as ever!
 Michael charmed the entire studio (again!) with just a smile! The poor hostess was completely taken by him! When on air, he was walking about and visiting all of us answering phones. All of a sudden, he walks up to her as she was giving her little speech and gives her a kiss!! She starts giggling and bends over in laughter - and all right on air!!! 
 The energy level in the studio that night was amazing! Michael was bouncing about (even danced a few steps for us!), despite his incredibly busy schedule these past six days. He chuckled and joked with everyone, and at one point offered to answer a few phone calls! Up he came into the risers, picking up a phone, saying "Hello, and who's this?" Needless to say, calls increased from steady to outright wild!!! His face light up with each call he took, compliments obviously headed his way! He answered questions regarding his stay in the US and his upcoming UK tour, and several callers actually rang in just to tell him that they would be there! Michael grinned and laughed...even my mum called in and got a few words over the phone! If there's any way to get to the hearts of an audience, just give them Michael!!
 Then came another break for the program and the inevitable - more pictures, more autographs, and more hugs! Poor Michael!! But he was so charming and sweet to us all, so obliging and easy-going. That was the one thing that struck me the most each time I saw him - his charisma and his wonderful personality can not fail to impress, his kindness and his humor guaranteed to win us all over in a heartbeat - that is, if his magical voice hadn't already taken care of that! :-)
 But all too soon, the evening came to a close and Michael had to say good-bye for the last time. He had to fly home in the morning, going straight to the studio to put the finishing touches on his upcoming album, he told us. We all wished him the best of luck, thanked him for coming, and even serenaded Phil with a standing ovation for sharing him with America for the week!
 Can "successful" be used to describe those six days? For PBS, with pledges flowing in as generously as they did, the answer is obviously a yes. But for Michael...the only proper word would be triumphant, as the face crept into new hearts and the voice conquered the day - once again!
 Unforgettable memories...for an unforgettable man.
 Thank you, Michael, for everything.

04/09/2004 14:32

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