While the Big Apple Circus will end its run at Damrosch Park Jan. 18, my behind-the-scenes television circus disaster still feels like it happened yesterday, nearly 20 years later.
At 7:45 a.m. that morning, the Big Apple Circus truck backed into the WABC-TV loading dock for Live with Regis & Kathie Lee. The contents of this truck contained my first official “booking” as a new producer for the first season of the nationally syndicated show.
The afternoon before, my boss Gelman announced that we needed to fill a hole in the next day’s show and instructed me to find an unusual act from the Big Apple Circus, which had just arrived at Lincoln Center. I actually danced around my desk when their public relations representative said that they had “performing pigs.” Wow—what good fortune. Proud to be a suburban Jewish princess from Lawrence, Long Island, I had never actually seen a pig with my own eyes. As a matter of fact I was kosher, so I’d never tasted one either. However, I’d certainly read the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” so in my mind’s eye all pigs were small, adorable pink creatures with curly tails. Imagine my shock and horror when the circus handlers opened the truck doors and I peered inside.
“What the hell are these enormous, grotesque creatures snorting and stomping their hooves?” I yelled.
“Well, what do you think they are, lady?” was the response as three gigantic, filthy hogs were herded down the plank through the garage and into the TV studio. Oy vey!
It was now 8:15 a.m., time for rehearsal. The pigs then started to freak out in the studio. This was not the soft earthen circus ring where they were used to performing. They did nothing at all. Gelman grabbed my shaking arm, looked me straight in the face and barked, “In the makeup room, tell both Regis and Kathie Lee that you have managed to book the most amazing pig act ever. Say that you’re not going to reveal what they actually do as a special surprise for the segment.” I was shocked by his orders, but he was the boss. So I conjured up my best acting techniques and prepped the hosts.
At 9:40 a.m., Regis read my introduction to the circus act and out into the studio came the trainer and giant pigs. The only maneuver he managed to accomplish was to get the pigs to walk over a hoop. Regis was incredulous. “That’s it? That’s the whole act?” Now he and Kathie Lee spontaneously went into a humorous skit of their own about the pathetic pigs. Their antics were genuinely funny and the audience members were laughing until tears came. I, too, had tears in my eyes, but I wasn’t laughing.
At the production meeting following the show, Gelman told Regis that the WABC phone lines were ringing off the hook with viewers who claimed that they had pet pigs that could really do tricks. So Regis and Gelman decided to do an entire performing pig week. My punishment was that I was assigned to be the producer who found, auditioned, booked and rehearsed these critters each day. I was trapped in pig hell—but I kept my job over the course of eight years. Gelman was a challenging boss to work for, but one thing I can never say is that he was a male chauvinist pig.
Rosemary Kalikow was a talk show producer at ABC and Court TV Network for 25 years. She is currently working as a freelance writer in New York.
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