Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: Sea World superheroes water ski show—Curt Rector and Ken McCabe, announcers

Introduction to series “Super ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Introduction to subseries “Sea World superheroes show” (including list of interviewees).

SWSH = Sea World superheroes

[NOTE: I did not interview them at the same time; I combined their answers since they had the same job.]

How did you get the job with the SWSH show?

Curt: I had been performing in local dinner theater and when the audition was announced for the Sea World position I went to the general call. I was called back once I think and then ultimately was told that because I didn’t have a degree in Theater Arts, a prerequisite they’d asked for, I had come in second to another young man, Eric Cornfeld, who had the degree. At the time I thought, “Well, they’re just being nice and blowing a little smoke to make me feel better.” I was woefully ignorant of the entertainment business and didn’t realize how unusual it was for them to have told me such a thing. I continued working at the theater and when not cast in the next show, I went to work in the theater, first as a busboy and then got taken into the kitchen as assistant chef.

A year later Sea World called to say that Eric had developed nodules on his vocal cords and was going to have to leave the show. I re-auditioned and was immediately offered the job. My employer at the theater was kind enough to order me to leave his employ and take the job at Sea World.
Ken: I had announced the ski show at the end of the season the year prior.

How old were you when you started with the SWSH show?

Curt: I was 21 and married with a child on the way.
en: Started at 22.

What was your background before taking the job?

Curt: I was raised in a military family. My father retired from the military and took a position as head bodyguard and chief of security for a big company in Orlando, FL. I followed him into the security profession and worked as a security guard, then as a commanding officer in the company I worked for and ultimately as an undercover investigator for the same company. I left that security company after seeing a play and then attending a workshop course offered by the theater—incidentally the same theater that I cooked for later.
: I was a theater major and a comic collector although the latter wasn’t a prerequisite.

Which characters did you portray?

Curt: I played Jimmy Olsen (host) and the Joker (comedy relief), and on one notable occasion, the Riddler.
: I alternately played the host, Jimmy Olsen, and the Joker.

Was there one that you preferred? If so, why?

Curt: Jimmy Olsen was a much more challenging role, technically, because in essence the entire show cued off your monologue. Olsen was responsible for controlling the audience reactions, making sure that the audience was looking the right way at the right time, managing the timing of the show through pace, ad-libbing in the event of a fall by one (or more) of the skiers, even to the extent of reassuring the audience as to the health of the fallen skier, not to mention being the “seller” of the show.

The Joker, on the other hand, was a blast to play. Olsen was a role that was locked in—ad-libbing was not possible. But the Joker was an ad-libber’s dream. We would often improv and generally indulge ourselves in all sorts of shenanigans. We would play jokes on each other from time to time, also on the skiers we worked with; it was a dream role. Lots of fun and all about making the audience laugh and taking up time; the Joker’s gags were used to allow time for the water to calm between ski acts.

I always regarded Olsen as “the job” and the Joker as “the reward for doing the job.”

Ken: I liked the host role because it was my own face in front of the crowd but the Joker was easier (shorter in the summer heat).

Did you portray any characters that you hadn’t heard of before?

Curt: Not in the ski show. I was well-versed in superheroes and their lore. At the time I went to work at Sea World I could have easily told you that Green Lantern was really Hal Jordan, test-pilot, that his ring was provided by the Guardians of Oa, little greenish-blue guys with big heads. Clark Kent’s real name was Kal-El, his father Jor-El, and so on and so on. [Somehow] I retained all of that knowledge from reading comic books in my misspent youth. I even knew that Aquaman’s wife was named Mera.

How did you feel dressing like a superhero?

Ken: Never did. [Except] I once took someone’s place at a PR appearance as Batman. For some reason, they forgot to bring my cape so I made up a story about how it had gotten really wrinkled in a fight and Alfred wouldn’t let me go to a public appearance with an unkempt cape.

What was the show’s story?

Curt: The storyline was pretty straightforward: “The First Annual Gotham-Metropolis Water Games.” The superheroes were “competing” and the super villains—the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin—were trying to break up the show by kidnapping Batgirl and later Robin and putting them in peril, from which they performed magical escapes. In later iterations of the show, several of the super villains actually performed a competing ski act called “The Triple Jump-Out” in which they would leap out of their skis and barefoot away, the last villain still upright being declared the winner.

Ken: It was more of an event than a story—the first Gotham-Metropolis Water Games. A friendly contest of skills performed by the superheroes. Of course it was always being broken up by the super villains (Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Captain Cold). Of those, only the Joker had a live microphone and performed magic illusions that always gave the appearance of disposing the heroes in some way.

Part of the show took place on a stage and a beach. If you had lines during those portions, how did the audience hear you?

Ken: Only Olsen and the Joker had microphones. The others were lip syncing recorded dialogue: “Nice try, double dopes, but your act is over!”

Did the characters have different personalities, or were they all simply “good,” as was common in superhero cartoons of the period?

Ken: Oh come on. Good guys were good and bad guys were bad. Only the Joker developed into a character with a little more depth. As he performed his magic acts, he would tell awful jokes to punctuate the trick. When sawing Batgirl in half, he would say “It’s just a slice of life! Get it? A slice of life! A slice…. aw, never mind!” He became this character who enjoyed telling the jokes more than what he was doing with the heroes. This pathetic vaudeville comedian with terrible material. It was fun.

What, if any, mistakes or accidents happened during a show?

Ken: I remember announcing the show in Ohio when Batman took the little kid for a ride in the Batboat and ran out of gas. I said that he was towed in with the Batrope. Another time an announcer named David Huang was playing the Joker and during the fight scene, his mask flew completely off his head. [Who knew] the Joker is Asian!

Which celebrities attended a show?

Curt: The Atlantis Stadium was also a concert performance venue. Wayne Newton, Crystal Gayle, Seals & Croft, and various other performers watched the show. I believe either Rosalyn Carter or some other First Lady watched the show. I did a night show with Joe Garagiola. Along the way I stepped on Crystal Gayle’s toes in the hall, beat on the then-governor of Florida’s kidneys with the butt of my microphone, and demanded—and got—an apology from Wayne Newton when his “people” stole my bathrobe and then he fell into the mud while wearing it.

Any funny/unusual show anecdotes that you didn’t address already?

Curt: Which would you like to hear about? The time I broke my ankle jumping over the curb with Robin in my arms, the time a little girl came out of the audience and punched the Joker in the boy parts during an act (gasps of pain not only from the Joker but every man in the audience), the woman who hiked up her skirt and squatted down to get a picture of me (as Olsen) with the superheroes in pyramid in the background and forgot she wasn’t wearing any underwear, the time the emus who lived on a hillside near our stadium escaped during a show and ran amok while being chased by their handlers, the lies we told the skiers about the otters escaping from their stadium and infesting the lake, or one of the other myriad stories from those halcyon days?
: In Ohio, they wanted Sunja, the world’s only water skiing elephant, in the show, so they decided that Tarzan was close enough to superhero to include him. One night during the last show, I had to run around the back of the stadium to make an entrance on the other end of the beach and that was the only way. It was kind of late so no guests were back there as I ran to make my cue. Suddenly, who do I see coming around the corner heading my way? None other than Sunja. So I figure I have to stop this elephant before he runs into any guests.

You have not been drinking. That is a water skiing elephant.

I bravely move toward him trying to persuade him to go back towards his pen when he lifts on leg up and gently puts it onto one of the nearby restaurants tables. With a creaking sound, I watch as the table is bent down to the ground like you might crush a paper cup. That was plenty for me. I took off running in the other direction and was going to make my cue from the other side of the beach.

As I round the corner to the stage at the center of the beach, here comes Sunja from the other side. She is now walking slowly into the stands. Luckily it was a small crowd and they were sitting up much higher. The ski show manager, Gary Thompson, was playing Captain Marvel that night and he ran across the beach and grabbed Sunja by the ear and led her off the beach and back to her cage. I’ll never forget the sight of Captain Marvel coming to the rescue, saving us all from the rampaging elephant.

What was your salary/compensation for performing in the SWSH show?

Ken: My first summer I made $1,000/month. I went up from there.

How much behind-the-scenes romance was there among skiers?

Curt: Quite a lot, I think. Susie and Sharkey Schwartz were always an item and are a long-married couple now, as are Gary Thompson and his wife Connie [skier Jacque Cook: “She looked like Suzanne Somers. A beautiful girl”], who was a skier in the show. I didn’t really keep track because I didn’t really want to know, but you can’t have that many extremely healthy young people wandering around in very little clothing (bathing suits), practicing lifts, etc. without a certain amount of grab-ass taking place and ultimately leading to romances behind the scenes.
Ken: I met my first wife at Sea World.

Riddler—John Shoemaker, Wonder WomanMargie LaPoint (Bates),
between Wonder Woman and Batgirl—John Gaffey, Batgirl—Sheri McNary,
man behind Batgirl
—John Gillette, Black Canary—Randi Tetrick,
Green Lantern
—Bill Peterson, man in hat—John Macqueen, Supergirl—Betsy Maher (Hawkins),
—Shirley Duke, Aquaman—Randy Jones

Did you feel like celebrities at the time?

Curt: Not remotely. For a brief period we did personal appearances at the stadium after the show. No one gave a rip for Jimmy Olsen, and the reaction of children in particular to the Joker seemed to depend entirely on the performer behind the mask. Children would talk to me, but never touch me. They’d stay so far away from Ken as the Joker that they could hardly be said to be communicating at all. [Fellow announcer] Dick Monday, on the other hand, they climbed all over.

Can you share any funny/creepy/flattering fan stories? Did you get any fan letters?

Ken: No, although there were some weird summer pass holders in Ohio that kept scrapbooks of photos of all the performers in the show. They came almost every other day.

If a comic book/pop culture convention paid your way, would you attend and sign autographs for fans?

Ken: I don’t think they would want me.

Have you had anything to do with superheroes since (read comics, see superhero movies, superhero Halloween costumes)?

: I collected Silver Age comics for a long time but unfortunately had to sell my collection at one time years back. I regret doing so.

Where do you live now?

Curt: Winter Park, FL.

Ken: Still in Orlando, FL.

What do you do for a living?

: I’m a video technician. I do conferences and conventions all over the country.

Ken: I am now the corporate entertainment director for Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.

If you have children, how old are they?

Curt: I have a daughter who is 33.
: 28 and 26.

What do they think of your time in a superhero show?

Ken: They were too young when we had that show. But they are both into comics as well.

Do you have a favorite memory about the SWSH show?

Curt: One of my clearest memories is of the first time that I performed the Olsen role. I had been in rehearsal only for about two weeks or a bit more. Generally Olsen took about four or more weeks to fully rehearse before a first performance. However, I was already doing the Joker and Dick Monday and Ken McCabe had been without a vacation for quite some time, so Ken took a vacation while Dick and I continued doing shows two times a day, seven days a week. During Ken’s absence Dick was involved in a bad car accident which hospitalized him. We found out about his accident some three hours before show time when the hospital called the announcer office and told me Mr. Monday had been hurt and was under anesthetic. The hospital staff was forcibly restraining him to prevent him from getting up and leaving the hospital.

A hectic conference call ensued between me, the head of entertainment, the head of our staff, Chuck Jordan, and a VP of the park or something like that. The big question was would we do the show or not. I finally said that I knew the script and that I could get through it. Chuck felt he could bulldoze his way through the Joker magic, so we went for it.

As I was waiting in the tunnel for my first entrance as Jimmy Olsen I could hear an incredible amount of noise in the stadium, which held a max audience of 4,500. I called over an ops guy and asked what the hell all the noise was about. He said, and I quote, “Damn, man, this is the biggest audience I’ve ever seen for a ski show!” The audience had spilled out of the stadium and were sitting all over the berms on either side of the stadium. We later estimated the audience at around 9,000—double capacity. When my intro music played and I ran out onto the stage and turned to face the audience, they spread across a full 180% of my sight-line. I stood there staring at them dumbfounded. I remember looking up into the sound booth and seeing the sound op’s eyes getting bigger and bigger as I stood there without speaking. I took a deep breath and…

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the first annual Gotham-Metropolis Water Games! My name is Jimmy Olsen and I’ll be your host and commentator. And now (dramatic pause) let’s meet the superheroes!” Music swell, grand sweeping gesture to water as superheroes in formation ski into sight from behind the set. And we were off.

It was a breathtaking moment for me. Later I watched as Chuck performed as the Joker. I was the largest of the announcers but Chuck made me look tiny; nevertheless my Joker costume came closest to fitting him, which is to say, not at all. I remember thinking, “Well, that’ll never fit right again.” But we got through the show and although Dick returned to us within a day or two, he still couldn’t perform so Chuck and I did the show for another four or five days until Ken came back. So I have the distinction of being the only announcer to have performed in a show with Chuck as the Joker.

What other memorabilia, if any, did you save from the SWSH show (posters, programs/souvenir booklets, etc.)?

Curt: For quite some time I had the last Joker mask. It was made from Ken’s original mold but over the year and a half that we were making them we’d added some modifications, like embedding base colors in the latex, etc. It [began to smell and] finally rotted and collapsed to the point that it looked like a mummy’s head and I got rid of it.

Do you still have the script?

Curt: Somewhere in a box I probably still have one. I ran across a couple different Sea World scripts in a box while cleaning the garage last year but I’m not sure what I did with them.

What was your reaction when you first heard why I was contacting you?

Curt: Bemusement. I can’t imagine why anyone would care about the superhero show except for those of us who were involved. It wasn’t exactly a pandemic phenomenon. [But] it was an interesting time and a show that seemed to entertain a lot of people and I was sad to see it go.

How do you look back at your time with the SWSH show?

Curt: With great fondness. As I say, it was the greatest summer job I ever had [and it] lasted 2.5 years. It’s also where I met my beloved. It’s where I was working when my first wife and I divorced. It’s where I became close to my best friends in the world. Were it not for circumstantial issues I might well have pursued a much longer career at Sea World.

I learned a great deal about performing and appeared live before over 6.5 million people during my time there. Since then I’ve never encountered a crowd of people before whom I had to speak that unnerved me. My career as an actor blossomed from that point and I appeared in several independent movies and a large number of plays post-Sea World.

Dan Poor, high diver (Green Arrow).


EtTuD2 said...

Great interview (and I'm being totally objective, despite being married to one, and good friends with the other!).

Anonymous said...

As the oldest friend of the totally objective wife...I concur