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Wanted: A Show Of More Hands

January 16, 1986|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

The master plan for linking up as many as 10 million Americans from sea to shining sea over Memorial Day weekend will be revealed today, according to USA for Africa officials.

It has been three months since Ken Kragen first unveiled his ambitious coast-to-coast fund-raiser follow-up to last year's USA for Africa charity events, which included the now-legendary overnight recording session of "We Are the World".

So far, total signups and contributions to Hands Across America have been underwhelming to some, but not to Kragen. The project has only taken in about $700,000 in pledges and only about 50,000 people have signed up to stand in the national daisy chain May 25.

"But any kind of numbers game right now is a total mistake," Kragen told The Times on Wednesday. "No. 1, this is not the kind of project that you can keep alive for a long period of time. We've built it slowly in the beginning."

The real campaign to get the coast-to-coast hand-holding plan under way begins today, Kragen said, even though he first announced it last October. At the time, it was projected to raise between $50 million and $100 million to feed America's hungry and homeless.

Since then, the $50-million to $100-million projection has remained the same, but virtually everything else about Hands Across America has undergone changes.

Questions keep piling up over just how the 49-year-old manager of such stars as Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie will get 6 million to 10 million people to pay $10 to $35 apiece to join hands for an hour in a New York-to-Los Angeles human chain.

Kragen told The Times that three full-page newspaper advertisements USA for Africa published in December (two were published in USA Today and one was published in The Times) yielded only about 5,000 new Hands Across America hand holders. The ads, designed to generate pre-Christmas enthusiasm for the project, gave Hands Across America about $100,000 in new pledges.

But, he said Wednesday, the first three months of the campaign were basically a "gearing-up" period during which he got his organization together for an intense springtime campaign.

"This is a bandwagon industry, and this is a bandwagon town in a bandwagon country," Kragen said. "Once it gets moving, the momentum will carry it. I truly believe that."

When Kragen first announced the event in New York, the operating budget was projected to be $18.8 million, much of it to be underwritten by the Coca-Cola Co. Since then, sources within the USA for Africa organization put the overall cost of the program at nearer the $30-million mark.

No new sponsoring underwriters have been announced since the initial announcement, but that may all change today.

At a scheduled 11 a.m. press conference, Kragen, Rogers, USA for Africa Executive Director Marty Rogol and Hands Across America Project Director Fred Droz will reveal:

--The names of about 500 celebrities who have agreed to join Hands Across America on May 25;

--A possible tie-in between the opening of the 1986 baseball season and Hands Across America;

--A Hands Across America commercial to air during the Super Bowl;

--A myriad other pre-event events, designed to build upon each other, culminating in the May 25 event.

Kragen and the other celebrities and officials on hand for the press conference will be prepared to address the downside as well as the upbeat aspects of Hands Across America. Among them:

--How many police or security officers would have to be hired (or paid out of tax dollars) to control a 4,000-mile line of people singing "We Are the World" and "America the Beautiful"?

--What kinds of parade or special-events permits are required in each state, county and city the line will pass through and what steps are being taken to get them?

--How many people are currently on the Hands Across America payroll and how many more will have to be hired before the day of the event?

--How much would the premium cost on a one-day insurance policy covering potential liability and/or damages of roughly 5% of the entire population of the United States?

--How many have signed up to stand in line so far?

The Times has already put some of those questions to Kragen and others.

Last week, Kragen said that the most recent low quotes his organization had been able to obtain on a premium for insurance covering the May 25 event was $6 million. An initial inquiry made by a USA for Africa official several weeks ago put the cost of insurance at closer to $10 million.

As of last month, about two dozen employees were working under Droz at Hands Across America headquarters in Century City.

One veteran political consultant with eight years experience in organizing national campaigns said that police protection to supervise a 4,000-mile line of people would require hiring or volunteering of about 16,000 peace officers or private security personnel.

Kragen said Wednesday that the same private security agency the Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee hired in 1984 for the Torch Relay will be used for Hands Across America.

Kragen, who overcame the odds of getting 45 singing stars together a year ago to record and merchandise "We Are the World," is ever the optimist. His organization is now only about $6 million short of the $50 million he said a year ago that USA for Africa would raise on the strength of that one recording session.

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