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Master of the 'Magic Hour'

June 07, 1998|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Earvin "Magic" Johnson is trading showtime for TV Show Time.

The former Los Angeles Laker superstar, who brought an entertaining flair to his 13-year National Basketball Assn. career, is preparing to enter another type of arena--the late-night talk-show--as host of "The Magic Hour."

Johnson, who has spent the last several years juggling numerous business ventures, including his successful chain of Magic Johnson Theatres in urban communities, is looking at the syndicated talk-variety show as one of his greatest challenges--and one of the most enjoyable.

"This is really a dream come true for me," he said during a recent rehearsal break at Paramount Studios, where the Twentieth Television show is taped. "Whenever I was on other talk shows, I would go home and wonder what it would be like being the one who asked the questions. It's really hard work, but I'm getting more and more comfortable with it."

With "The Magic Hour," Johnson, who retired from the NBA in 1991 after testing positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, will be increasing his public visibility, which has already gone up dramatically in recent months. Abandoned by advertisers after his health bombshell, Johnson has reemerged as a celebrity spokesman, doing commercials for American Express and "drink responsibly" spots for Coors.

Twentieth executives approached Johnson last year after they saw him guest on another talk-show pilot. "They said, 'Have you ever thought about doing this?' and I couldn't wait to get into it," he recalled.

"The Magic Hour," which premieres Monday, will feature a comedy troupe and a house band fronted by percussionist Sheila E.

Giovanni Brewer, one of the show's three executive producers (besides Johnson), said she feels that Johnson can play in the big leagues with Leno and Letterman despite his relative inexperience as a master of ceremonies.

"People respond to him in such a strong way, and Magic is so personable--it just comes easy to him," Brewer said. "He really knows how to relate to an audience, and we're going to have him up interacting with the audience quite a lot. Magic can produce such a contagious environment. Everyone loves him."

But Johnson is not taking that charisma for granted. To better prepare for his duties, he has been conducting mock interviews for several months and has taped several run-through programs. He's also gotten some coaching from his good friend and former talk show host Arsenio Hall, and from Jay Leno.

"It's my own personal thing," Johnson explained. "I have a very wicked competitive streak, and this is what I want to do for a very long time. This is what is exciting to me."

The campaign to turn Johnson into late-night's latest star started months ago, with a commercial that played on the scoreboard of the Great Western Forum showing an excited Johnson rushing out to host the show in his Lakers uniform. Buses and billboards for several weeks have shown Johnson smiling at on-lookers with the tag-line, "The Grin That Stole Late Night."

The Hall of Famer is making the series his first priority at a time when he is consumed with other business ventures and opportunities. In addition to the theater chain, Johnson is developing features and TV shows and has a company building and revitalizing urban shopping centers. He also has gone into business with Starbucks Coffee.

But for now, those projects are going on his second team.

"I am fully committed to the show," Johnson said. "I have other people running those other things. They know how to think the Magic Johnson way. I hired them so I would be able to put them in charge. If I don't put the time and effort that I need to put into this show, I will fall and fall fast. And I want to be the best."

Johnson, Brewer and others associated with the show say they realize that "The Magic Hour" is not an automatic slam dunk.

The late-night talk show field has grown even more shaky since two highly touted syndicated shows geared toward young, urban audiences failed to grab audiences after premiering last August to great hoopla and optimism. Both "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show" from Buena Vista Television and "Vibe" from Columbia TriStar Television Distribution fell far short of their goal to capture viewers who had felt abandoned since Arsenio Hall ended his popular talk fest in 1994. Wayans' show was canceled last March. "Vibe" got off to a rough start with original host Chris Spencer and is still struggling with his replacement, Sinbad.

Some industry insiders have said that "The Magic Hour" show may be tainted by the failure of those previous ventures, but Johnson and his producers are determined to avoid the pitfalls.

"First of all, we're not aiming for a specific audience," he said. "I've always been about all people. I am also not that worried about those other shows. I am different from Keenen and Sinbad, and they are different from me. I really don't have that concern. Our show will be for everybody."

Johnson also is aware of his limitations.

"Everyone knows I'm not a comedian," he said. "I will come out in the beginning and talk about what happened in my day. I'll talk to Sheila E. Then I will turn it over to a comedy person, who will then do a monologue."

When asked what was easier--basketball or hosting a talk show--Johnson flashed his characteristic grin.

"Oh, that's easy," he said. "Basketball is much easier. But this will come easier in time. It's a lot of the same thing. You've got to stay ahead of the game."

"The Magic Hour" airs weeknights at 11 on KTTV.

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