When Michael Flatley Was 'Lord of the Dance'

Jo Hale, Getty Images
Jo Hale, Getty Images

In 1989, while speaking with the Chicago Tribune, a 30-year-old dancer named Michael Flatley outlined some significant plans he had for the future. Chief among them: franchising a plumbing business called Dynasewer, which he hoped would one day replace Roto-Rooter as the go-to company for desperate people with impenetrably clogged toilets.

Few people outside of the Chicago area have ever heard of Dynasewer, which tells you everything you need to know about Flatley’s grand plans. Instead of running a sewage empire, he embraced dancing, something he had loved and practiced since the age of 11. A little over six years later, he was selling millions of videos and made a fortune touring as the Irish-stepping star of Lord of the Dance.

 
 

The contrast between Flatley’s plumbing aspirations and his theatrical gifts isn’t as jarring as it might seem. Born in Chicago on July 16, 1958 to Irish immigrants, Flatley took cues from both his parents. His mother was an accomplished Irish step-dancer, which usually emphasizes a rigid torso and vertically-held arms along with rhythmic lower body choreography; his grandmother was a contest champion in their native Ireland. His father was a construction laborer and plumber who eventually owned his own contracting business. There was no reason Flatley couldn’t be inspired by both of their talents.

Dancing was an informal hobby for the young Flatley, and one he didn’t begin to take seriously until age 11—a significantly late start for step-dancers. To make up for lost time, Flatley practiced for hours every day in his family’s garage. The work paid off: At 17, he won the All-World Championships in Ireland, becoming the first American ever to do so.

While it was a commendable accomplishment, and one that surely thrilled the step-obsessed Flatleys, Irish stepping was not considered a viable option toward financial independence. For the next several years, Flatley assisted his father in construction work, digging ditches and contemplating a career in professional boxing, another physically demanding passion he had developed.

Then The Chieftains came calling. The Irish folk band was successful touring Ireland with an act that mixed traditional Celtic music with high-energy step routines, and Flatley acquitted himself well as a supporting player. He accompanied the group for four years, at the same time developing the Dynasewer brand as a financial cushion to fall back on, as he assumed his dancing career would be a short-lived endeavor. Even a Guinness World Record—which Flatley earned for tapping his feet 28 times in one second in 1989—was hard to monetize. (In 1998, he broke his own record when he reached an impressive 35 taps per second.)

Flatley’s fortunes changed in 1994, thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest. Looking to broadcast the distinctive art of Irish stepping, Flatley joined a new troupe and co-created Riverdance, a seven-minute number that broadened the appeal of his art by adding flashy costumes, a stage-filling number of backup performers, and a degree of sensuality.

Riverdance was a phenomenal ratings success, becoming the talk of that year’s Eurovision field in much the same way Michael Jackson had walked off with a televised Motown special in 1981 by debuting the Moonwalk. Almost immediately, Flatley and producers began assembling a full-length Riverdance stage show that was even more bombastic. Flatley, his exposed torso reminiscent of a flamenco dancer, led a wildly successful international tour and became one of the very few dancers recognizable to the general public—attention usually only afforded to actor-performers like Gregory Hines or Mikhail Baryshnikov.

For six months, Flatley was on top of the world. Then, the night before Riverdance was scheduled to open in London, he was fired.

 
 

According to Flatley, the acrimonious split from Riverdance was a result of the show’s unprecedented success. As the key creative force behind the scenes, the performer wanted to retain control of his choreography, a concession that the show’s producers were unwilling to make. In a show of force, they ousted their star from the stage.

Flatley’s legal response to that situation wouldn’t be resolved until 1999, when the two parties came to an undisclosed settlement. But it didn't take that long for the parties to realize that it was Flatley, and not the Riverdance banner, that audiences were flocking to see. Less than six months after his Riverdance dismissal, Flatley and new partner John Reid conceived Lord of the Dance, a brand-new stage attraction that featured a loose narrative—Flatley is a warrior up against sinister forces—and even more bombastic theatrics. (Reid and Flatley would part ways, rather acrimoniously, a couple of years later.) Flatley exuded so much energy that he claimed he lost 8 to 10 pounds during each performance (then ate “everything in sight to keep my weight up").

'Lord of the Dance' star Michael Flatley poses during a public appearance
Alaxandra Beier, Getty Images

Lord of the Dance was a staggering success, making $60 million in just two years of touring and selling 12 million copies on video. Flatley continued performing through 1998, before announcing his retirement from the show. He was nearing 40, and his back, feet, and joints had taken a significant amount of impact. He felt it was time to step away.

In 2005, the urge to perform returned, and Flatley debuted Celtic Tiger. He continued dancing through 2016, at which point, he told reporters, being the Lord of the Dance had led to diminished physical abilities. “My groin is gone,” he said. And his left foot sometimes fractures spontaneously.

Wealthy from touring, Flatley could sit idle and nurse his aching frame. Instead, he recently shot a film, Blackbird, which he directed and stars in alongside Eric Roberts. He also paints, albeit in an unconventional way: Flatley produces abstract works by dipping his feet into paint and moving them across the canvas.

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

There was a surprise waiting for Canadian buyers of The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979, a greatest hits collection by the musician that was released in the summer of 1998. Inside the package was a notice announcing the arrival of BowieNet, a major undertaking spearheaded by the legendary musician that promised a unique portal to the internet. For $19.95 a month, users could access BowieNet in the same way that they logged on to America Online, signing on via a dial-up connection to gain access to the web, email, and a variety of perks for devoted Bowie fans.

The news was a little premature. The Canadian version of the album had been released too early, and BowieNet wasn’t yet up and running when fans first read the news. But by September 1 of that year, Bowie had launched a pioneering effort in the intersection between music, the internet, and fandom. In many ways, BowieNet anticipated the concept of social networking five years before MySpace debuted and six years before Facebook came into existence. It was a fitting accomplishment for an artist who spent his entire career looking for revolutionary ways to share his work.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

Bowie, who first rose to fame during the 1970s glam rock era, had long been fascinated by the promise of digital connectivity. He was reportedly using email as early as 1993. In 1994, he released a CD-ROM of his single, “Jump, They Say,” that allowed users to edit their own music video for the song. In 1996, he released one of the first digital singles, "Telling Lies," and sold 375,000 downloads in just two months. In 1997, Bowie presented a “cybercast” of a Boston concert, which ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the technology of the era (viewers of the live stream were confronted with error messages and frozen feeds).

Clearly excited by the unexplored possibilities these cutting-edge efforts offered, Bowie decided to stake out more digital real estate right around the same time he released "Telling Lies." In 1996, two internet marketers named Robert Goodale and Ron Roy approached Bowie with the idea of building an online fan club that would double as an internet service provider (ISP). In essence, Bowie would be offering online access via a dial-up number using a turnkey web design system from a company called Concentric Network Corporation. The site was developed by Nettmedia, which had worked on web content for the women-centric Lilith Fair music festival that had caught Bowie’s attention.

While users would be free to access any part of the internet, their default landing page would be DavidBowie.com, a place to access exclusive Bowie photos and videos, as well as a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5 MB of storage space so that they could create their own content. If they wanted to remain with their current internet service provider, they’d pay $5.95 a month for membership.

Bowie liked the idea and became the first investor in UltraStar, Goodale and Roy’s company. More than a figurehead, Bowie actively helped to conceive of BowieNet as having a unique identity. Whereas America Online was a little sterile, Bowie’s aesthetic was more experimental. There were 3D-rendered environments and Flash animation sequences. The CD-ROM sent to subscribers included a customized Internet Explorer browser and music and video tracks, including encrypted material that could only be unlocked online.

More significantly, Bowie used his branded portal to interact with fans. Posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, Bowie regularly logged on to answer questions, debunk news reports, or comment on ongoing conversations. He also hosted online chats in real time. In 2017, Newsweek shared excerpts of one 2000 session:

gates asks: "do you gamble in casinos Dave?"
David Bowie answers: No, I only do cartwheels—and don't call me Dave!

queenjanine asks: "Is there anyone you haven't worked with (either dead or alive) that you wish you could?"
David Bowie answers: I love working with dead people. They're so compliant, they never argue back. And I'm always a better singer than they are. Although they can look very impressive on the packaging.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

In his loose interactions with fans, Bowie and BowieNet anticipated the explosion of social media. It was an area that interested Bowie, as he often spoke of the idea of art being unfinished until an audience provided their reaction.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here—the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” Bowie told the BBC in 1999. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

With BowieNet, the artist was helping to facilitate that response, in one instance even soliciting a co-creator relationship. In 1999, Bowie took lyrics from an online songwriting contest to help create “What’s Really Happening,” which he put on an album released that same year. He also planned on having a working webcam that peered into his recording studio (though it’s not quite clear whether he achieved it). Ultimately, it was the advancement of internet technology that led to BowieNet's downfall.

With the dissolution of dial-up, BowieNet went from a high of 100,000 subscribers to becoming largely irrelevant in the early 2000s. In 2006, UltraStar’s assets were sold to Live Nation and BowieNet was quietly shut down—though it would take another six years for Bowie to actually announce that fact, via his Facebook page of all places.

But for the 10 years it lasted, BowieNet was the artist's strange, revolutionary predictor of the growing importance of fandom online.

“At the moment,” Bowie told CNN in 1999, the internet "seems to have no parameters whatsoever. It's chaos out there—which I thrive on.”

Weird Science: The Mr. Wizard Story

NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, it was unusual for television programs to address the topic of sex. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy. Both were forbidden by network standards to even use the word pregnant. (For all viewers knew, Little Ricky was the product of an immaculate conception.) Teens on sitcoms rarely investigated anything other than chaste dating.

But for the juvenile audience of Watch Mr. Wizard, viewers got what may have been television’s earliest widespread discussion of sex. More specifically, the gestation period of hamsters.

Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible. A revolving cast of kid assistants, none of them particularly interested in science, stood at Herbert's side and marveled at how Newtonian laws influenced their day-to-day existence.

Hebert was so popular that NBC gave him free rein to blow things up or discuss hamster sex. And then, nearly 20 years after Watch Mr. Wizard's cancellation in 1965, Herbert was given the opportunity to captivate a brand-new generation of kids with Mr. Wizard's World, which made its debut on the fledging Nickelodeon cable channel in 1983. Forget Bill Nye: For millions of viewers, Herbert was the original "science guy."

 

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show.

But acting, while promising, wasn’t foremost on Herbert's mind. He enrolled in the Army Air Forces in 1942, eventually piloting a B-24 bomber in 56 bombing missions over Europe. He was also involved in the invasion of Italy. Herbert was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his contributions. (His dual role as war hero and kid show host may have been the origin of the infamous myth about Fred Rogers being a sniper.)

After arriving back home, Herbert's love of the arts led him to Chicago, where he felt he might be able to find a way back into the entertainment industry.

Eventually, he did.

Don Herbert appears in a publicity photo for 'Watch Mr. Wizard'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Herbert agreed to begin hosting a science-oriented show for WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate. Just a few years after the introduction of the atom bomb and with Americans troubled by reports of Soviet space technology like Sputnik, the time seemed right for a series that focused on the scientific laws governing the world. An ad executive thinking of sponsoring the program wanted to call him “the Wizard.” Herbert, feeling that was perhaps too pretentious, added a “Mr.” to the title.

Watch Mr. Wizard premiered in 1951. Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen. His first assistant was 11-year-old Willy, Herbert’s real-life next-door neighbor.

Herbert was adamant that science not be confined to sterile lab settings. He reasoned that by using everyday household items to conduct his experiments, kids would be able to replicate them at home.

“Milk bottles are your flasks,” Herbert said. “Glasses your beakers, and the whole house your laboratory.”

There was no barrier between a child and their curiosity. Herbert would present situations—a rising cake, blowing wind—and then explain the “trick.” He considered entertaining his audience to be his primary job, not educating them, but was thrilled if he could succeed at doing both.

“I do a kind of educational television but the difference between what I do and educational television is like night and day,” Herbert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961. “The primary purchase of educational television is to teach and the primary purpose of Mr. Wizard is to entertain, to stimulate, to intrigue.”

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers [PDF]. While the audience was not as sizable as a primetime hit, it was a substantial number for an educational program. (Though it was ostensibly for kids, half of Watch Mr. Wizard's viewers were adults.) His audience was also devoted, with 5000 fan clubs springing up across the country that eventually claimed 100,000 members. Herbert’s notoriety helped him sell 200,000 copies of various science books.

In 1965, NBC announced it would be canceling Watch Mr. Wizard. The show had run its course, the network claimed, and audiences were increasingly looking at television as an empty-calorie prospect—not an educational tool. Even so, a 14-year run was something only a handful of shows had ever achieved. But Herbert wasn’t done.

 

Though NBC briefly revived Watch Mr. Wizard in 1971, Herbert felt his skills were best-suited to areas outside of weekly half-hour television. He produced 18 films that were meant to be screened in classrooms; the National Science Foundation helped fund a series of 80-second segments titled How About for local newscasts across the country. Though most of the footage didn’t use the “Mr. Wizard” name, Herbert was often introduced with that moniker regardless.

The news spots led to renewed interest in Mr. Wizard. After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere. More than 30 years after his television debut, Herbert was back, once again dispensing with the confines of laboratory settings.

For Herbert's Nickelodeon series, the pace was much quicker, with eight to 10 segments per episode. The kid assistants, he later said, were savvier about molecules and computers than their 1950s counterparts. But most everything else remained the same.

In both incarnations of the show, Herbert refused to cater to gender stereotypes. Girls were by his side as frequently as boys, and Herbert remarked they were probably better equipped to get into the sciences. He had a cutoff age of 13 for the boys. After that, he said, they “became know-it-alls.”

Mr. Wizard’s World ran through 1990, at which point Herbert largely disappeared from public view. Though he had never expressly set out to teach science and even believed television was a poor fit for educational purposes, his relaxed approach to the subject proved to be a huge inspiration nonetheless.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."

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