It's Monday night, pledge night, at the KCET studios on Sunset Boulevard in east Hollywood, and who is standing in front of the camera, his perfect teeth the latest marketing emblem of public broadcasting, but John Tesh. Yes, John Tesh, the guy from "Entertainment Tonight" and one of the notorious voices of last summer's lachrymose NBC Olympics coverage that opened not so much the tear ducts as the bile ducts of television critics coast to coast.
If Tesh, the broadcaster, does not bring to mind the once lofty notion of PBS, then wait, there's still his music to reckon with on this occasion. He is also a keyboard player, composer and recording artist, and the lush new age clamor of his latest full-length video, "The Avalon Concert," is booming through overhead speakers, while on the floor below, scores of volunteers answer phones and take pledges.
Bob Goen, the oh-so-pleasant fellow who replaced Tesh on "Entertainment Tonight" when he departed last May to pursue music full time, happens to be hosting the KCET pledge program, and during the frequent breaks in the "Avalon" concert he chats up the man of the hour. "I don't want to beat a dead horse," Goen says with a big smile, "but it's been a triumphant night for you. We're all so proud of you at 'Entertainment Tonight.' " What can Tesh say to this? But no answer is required.
In scattered precincts and abodes of Southern California, some viewers at this moment are surely flipping their remotes in disgust at how low PBS has descended in an effort to survive, but such viewers are probably outnumbered by the ones who are actually glued to the sound of Tesh's thundering piano-and-violin charges--as well as assorted skeptics secretly thinking, "Some of this actually isn't so bad. But how can that be? It's John Tesh!"
The numbers make their own case. As KCET executives amble up to the 6-foot-6 Tesh, thanking him profusely for being here, the subscriber loot is piling up toward an eventual total of $83,000--all but $20,000 raised during Tesh's two-hour visit. A very good night, as pledge nights go, suggesting that Tesh was right when he said off-camera earlier that he and PBS were a good fit.
He said, "The people who watch PBS, and they are numerous and varied, are the people who come to my concerts. And they have kids and they get baby-sitters. Some of them are men who are dragged there by their wives or girlfriends. And they'll come backstage and say, 'Wow, this was cool. I thought you were a jerk.' It happens."
Tesh has gotten accustomed to talking freely about his special kind of fame as someone reviled by critics and tastemakers but loved by millions who buy his CDs and attend his shows. Is there a better example at the moment to demonstrate that American popular culture in the '90s is not all irony and angst and ridicule? Here's a guy as earnest as Wally Cleaver, who two nights before--appearing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra--got up from the piano bench after his second number, walked downstage to address the audience and began, "I want to thank you guys for being here. . . ."
Eddie Vedder he's not.
"I don't know what it is, but I seem to stand for whiteness in America or something," Tesh says after sitting down during a break. "I don't know what the heck it is. We're not trying to take over the world, as some people on the Internet would have you believe."
Up close, Tesh is not unlike the image he conveyed from behind the desk at "Entertainment Tonight" for 10 years, and his voice is just the same. Even at 44, his jaw and hairline unrelenting, he looks like he could be the president of a college fraternity, and as such he's both warm and stiff, amiable but adhering to some code of honor that will remain a secret. Not one to set any fashion trends, he has just added a goatee. And seeing him at a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood dressed in grunge wear with a baseball cap on backward, you think he might be someone who needs to think hard about being casual.
Reaction to Tesh has spawned at least one Web site dedicated to the proposition that he is an alien come to Earth to destroy musical culture as we know it. In Detroit, where on his last tour he drew 45,000 people in five nights, he was nevertheless picketed by the National Anti-Tesh Action Society, which has organized around the alien theory. "It's pretty funny," Tesh says without a trace of irritation. "To be picketed is an honor. I felt like the Vietnam War for a second. I ran out and had my picture taken with them. I thought it was totally cool, more attention than I probably deserve. By the same token, I'd much rather people be talking than not saying anything."