Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Wild and Crazy Guy!

Steve Martin has been featured on several television and radio programs this week promoting his new autobiographical book, Born Standing Up. I’ve not read it yet, but the promos indicate that the book talks of his entry into show business as a boy working in the magic shop at Disneyland and later as a young actor at Knox Berry Farm in southern California. As the title suggests, the book also deals with Martin's career as a stand-up comedian. Steve Martin quit doing stand-up in 1981 as his fame and talent were leading him into other directions, primarily acting in films and becoming a very well known television personality.

I was privileged to see Steve Martin in person in a very small venue right as his star was beginning to rise. It was the fall of 1976, and Martin had just completed the summer working as the regular comedian on the one-season television variety show, “Johnny Cash and Friends.” Later that year he would make his debut as a fairly regular host of “Saturday Night Live.”

I had graduated from college, served four years in the Army, and was enrolled at Missouri Southern State College in Joplin, MO, working on a teaching credential. Living fifty miles from the campus and being the working parent of a toddler, it wasn’t often that I was able to take in an evening or weekend event at the college, but when the announcement was made that John Hartford, a very original singer and banjo player, would be performing at an evening concert, I felt compelled to attend. He was sharing the stage with a guy named Steve Martin, a relative unknown.

The auditorium at Missouri Southern State College is small (probably less than 250 seats), but, hey, it’s a small school. The Hartford / Martin show sold out despite the fact that a superstar, Bob Hope, was just seventy miles away that night opening the new Hammonds Center at Southwest Missouri State University (my other alma mater) in Springfield, MO. The audience in Joplin was an eclectic crowd, composed of many students and young people, but there was also a significant contingent of a more stately nature. I assumed this older and nicer dressed group was probably college administrators and their spouses, along with some of the better-healed individuals in the community.

John Hartford took the stage and did a set of songs and banjo music, many of which were his own compositions. He was well received and the evening was off to a good start. When Hartford finished, Steve Martin, the little-known comic, exploded onto the stage and never slowed down. Within seconds the whole place knew that we were in for a crazy evening. Martin told jokes and stories and did impersonations. He blew up balloons on stage and told rapid-fire jokes while twisting and tying the balloons into odd shapes that he identified as various social diseases. Then he jumped from the stage and ran up and down the aisles yelling obscenities and absurdities that had the whole place roaring with laughter and gasping for breath. The only people who were not consumed by his insanity was the well-dressed group, and many of them looked like they didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or run for the exits. The evening ended with banjo and singing duets by Hartford and Martin. It had been a world class evening!

Within a few months, Steve Martin made his debut as a guest host on “Saturday Night Live,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nearly twenty years later I was visiting with a young administrator at Missouri Southern. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned having attended the Hartford / Martin concert. The administrator, who hadn’t been around at the time of the event, looked at me and said, “You know, that concert has become a legend at this college.” And I agreed.

1 comment:

Kim Gray said...

Hello! I'm the editor of the Missouri Southern State University (formerly college)School of Business alumni magazine, Southern Business Exchange. I found your article very entertaining, and would like to ask your permission to reprint it in our magazine. Please contact me off line at gray-k@mssu.edu. Thanks for your consideration.