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If You Blow Up Disco Records, They Will Come: Memorable Sports Promotions

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Long live sports promotions, those marketing brainstorms that gave us Ted Turner riding an ostrich around Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and, on another occasion, pushing a baseball on hands and knees around the infield.

With his nose.

Turner won that pre-game contest against pitcher Tug McGraw -- that is if one can be declared a winner after suffering so many facial nicks and cuts he appears to have shaved in a dark room with a machete.

Nobody does kitsch like Americans. And frankly, aside from minor league baseball it's a dying industry at our ballparks just when we need it the most.

In this economy where fans are asked to make a choice -- season tickets or sending the kids to college -- we would survive a return to those unsophisticated days of entertaining the customer at the risk of being called bush league.

disco-night
Or -- in the case of Disco Demolition Night, which "celebrated" its 30th anniversary this summer -- at the risk that comes with the marriage of strange bedfellows -- record albums and explosives.

That proved a more combustible pairing than Whitney and Bobby. So there's no need to recreate that.

But the Lake County Captains, a Cleveland minor league farm team, did borrow an idea from the 1970s this past week when it held "Nickel Beer Night." For one hour only, there was a limit of two five-ounce cups of beer per customer.

In 1974, the Indians followed a successful "Beer Night" promotion in Texas with "Ten Cent Beer."

The drunk-fest involved streakers, base stealers (literally) and fans who stormed the field and attacked the opposing team. Cleveland players had to wield bats to come to the aid of the Rangers players. Texas was awarded a forfeit.

Home plate umpire Nestor Chylak, who tried to act nonchalant when a woman ran from the seats to home plate and exposed her breasts to him, later called it, "a complete lack of brain power on the parts of some people."

So those are the parameters. Ten Cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition Night.

OK, and Ball Night, a promotion held by the Dodgers in L.A. that proved an axiom: don't give people who may become either drunk or irate anything that can be used as a projectile.

In other words, I would espouse neither "Ball Night" or "Javelin Night."

Even the tackiest of sports promotions (and Ted Williams Popsicle Night commemorating the cryogenically frozen baseball great is my winner in that category) are an acknowledgment that the people who run leagues and teams at least recognize that the product on display is not always enough to keep us riveted to our seats.

v-martI'm not sure when I first fully appreciated that glint of recognition. It was long before this past week for sure when the Cleveland Indians, the team that plays where I live, held the standard-for-the-day giveway: Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night.

Martinez is a popular player and three-time All-Star. Bobbleheads are becoming collector's items and thus commodities.

Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night was held Saturday.

The problem was Victor Martinez was traded to Boston Friday.

Timing is everything. At home plate. And in the marketing department.

Maybe I fully realized that something memorable can be artificially created one night during the 1987 Olympic Sports Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. At the boxing venue one evening, a man in a tuxedo walked to the middle of the ring and bided his time.

Came the announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America please rise for the whistling of our national anthem."

I can't remember the Olympic hopefuls who fought. But anthem whistling? You don't forget that.

A writer friend from Boston heard the anthem played on an accordian in Liberace's home town that same year. Together, we were in Moscow for the 1986 Goodwill Games -- a Turner creation -- when women in babushkas raced baby carriages as part of the Opening Ceremonies.

Even the Soviets seemed to understand what Mike Veeck, who inherited the promotional genius of his father, Bill, meant when he said, "I don't worship at the Church of Baseball; if you play to the purists, the park is going to be 35 percent filled."

empty-seatsLook around at the ballparks in Major League Baseball as the summer wanes right along with hopes of contention. This is prime time for organizations calling up young players from the farm system to look to the minor leagues for inspiration in the marketing departments.

Look to the people who gave us Speed Dating Night (exactly what it sounds like) and Silent Night.

That one was a Mike Veeck special. Some fans covered their mouths with duct tape to help fight the urge to talk. They held up signs such as "Boo" and "Hey Beer Man." As a subtle touch, librarians and golf tournament marshalls replaced the regular ushers. [Photo Credit: The Baseball Collector.]

You can argue the minors are the perfect arena for such schtick. But there's no copyright on fun.

Sometime after he took part in a mattress stacking competition and raced motorized bathtubs -- and before he put on a uniform, told his manager to take the night off and led his 16-loss-in-a-row Braves to a 17th consecutive loss -- Ted Turner had a famous exchange with commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

"Why can't you be like everybody else?" Kuhn asked.

Replied Turner, "Because I'm in last place."

And since the only thing being blown to smithereens were Atlanta's pennant hopes, no harm was done in the making of a promotional legend.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


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Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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