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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A memory of Ed McMahon's broken hand

Amid the idiotic partisan cacophony of a desperate GOP trying to make up faults by Obama and then castigating him for things he did not do or say, and the junior senator of South Dakota and his would-be propagandists doing the same thing, it is a relief to reflect on a man who just tried to do his job well. The death of Ed McMahon may mark the passing of a type of personality that seems in danger of extinction.

I never met Ed McMahon, but he figured in a strange episode I was somewhat involved in. It happened at just the time I was preparing to move from Illinois to South Dakota. For some years, the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa were struggling to hold a golf tournament. In 1975, Ed McMahon agreed to b
ecome the host of the tournament, which was at first called the Ed McMahon Jaycees Quad Cities Open. He bolstered the attendance by bringing in many of his celebrity friends and by being on hand to socialize with the spectators. He was credited with saving a struggling tournament, which is now called the John Deere Classic.

After the 1979 tournament, Ed McMahon gave up his role as host, citing many conflicting commitments with his television career. However, there is a back channel aspect to that decision. I had been one of the principals in a moonlighting organization of writers, artists, and photographers. We specialized in industrial and technical communications. We were all experienced in the news and public information businesses and we found a way to keep our hands in the business and make some extra money, as most of us were professors or news people and could use it. Two of the organization's associates who were golfing addicts were involved in promoting the tournament. They volunteered to do some of the public relations and publicity work. While I was not directly involved, I and other members helped with some routine tasks because our offices were being used to do some of the production work. We had a running conversation going over how McMahon had been enlisted to lend his name and his skills to this tournament.

His efforts attracted an audience that established the tournament and saved it from cancellation. In a community that was undergoing an economic downturn, he brought hope and interest to the tournament and helped encourage some other enterprises.
During the 1979 tournament, a strange thing happened. A meeting of our associates in the moonlighting organization was called to provide some advice on an incident. During the tournament, McMahon operated from a hospitality tent where he chatted with people at the tournament, socialized, and generated good will. While he was talking with some people, a woman came up to him and said she wanted him to meet someone. While he tried to finish the conversation he was having with other people, the woman became belligerently impatient and grabbed him by the hand to pull him away. She broke his hand.

That's what the meeting was about. The question was how in the hell to handle the public relations. McMahon had put tremendous effort into making the tournament a success for a community not known for much, and while doing what he did so well, he was mistreated by this woman. What the tournament officials were concerned about was how the incident reflected on the community and its treatment of celebrities.

They were concerned because of an incident that occured up the river in Dubuque, Iowa, two years earlier. While shooting a movie in Dubuque, Sylvester Stallone had set up an event where he would greet and meet the public. During his time in Dubuque, he was mobbed by fans, mostly teen-age girls. A woman wanted his attention to introduce him to some other people, and when she didn't get it, she punched Stallone in the face. Dubuque took a public relations drubbing from the incident. Despite efforts to point out that the incident involved one person, not the community, Dubuque got the reputation of being a rude, inhospitable, and violent town. The golf tournament officials saw that a similar reaction to the breaking of Ed McMahon's hand could color the community and jeopardize the success of the tournament.
The meeting of the publicity people produced no real strategies. The only thing to do was to focus on the golf players and the positive aspects of the tournament and minimize reference to Ed McMahon's broken hand. Ed McMahon himself took himself out of the public spotlight and was mostly concerned about getting treatment for his hand and making it back to work on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. No legal actions were pursued that I ever heard.

For the tournament officials, the first night McMahon was back on The Tonight Show was the low point. There sat Ed McMahon with his hand in a cast, and of course Johnny Carson asked him what happened. In very low key, factual terms McMahon related how his hand was broken.

As plans for the 1980 golf tournament got underway, McMahon withdrew as host. He cited too many conflicts with his work schedule as the reason, but my colleagues who had worked at the tournament thought the broken hand played an essential part in the decision. They said that McMahon appeared to lose his enthusiasm for the tournament and; although amiable and gracious, seemed reserved and withdrawn after the incident.

The tournament survived, however, and has become a successful event as the John Deere Classic under the sponsorship of Deere & Co.

And apparently the public relations managers both in Dubuque and the Quad Cities did their jobs well.. If you search the internet, you cannot find mention of either incident. To find the information, you have to go to the newspaper archives.

But for five years, that hand which was broken had been extended in help and good will to the people of the Quad Cities.

1 comment:

Douglas said...

Another example of "No good deed goes unpunished."

I know a few of us when in high school were dragging around in morning classes because we had stayed up to watch Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon.

I don't think late night TV has gotten any better over the years.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States