At the wheel of a dusty 1997 Chrysler convertible on this warm, cloudless mid-September afternoon is a shortish, roundish, 66-year-old man known mostly these days as Chuck Harris. With his moptop of white hair, the unlined face of a child actor, which indeed he once was, and the square black Swifty Lazar-type eyeglasses of extreme magnification, he pulls up to the guard gate at the KTLA studios in Hollywood. "Chuck Harris for 'Steve Harvey's Big Time!' " he says jauntily.
The twentyish security guard is unimpressed. He stares dully at his clipboard.
"Nothing here for Chuck Harris," he says.
Harris sighs patiently--a subtly nuanced sound rarely heard hereabouts. The guard motions him to drive forward to a holding area, then disappears into his shack to make further inquiries. After no small amount of time the quasi-cop reemerges and grudgingly allows Harris onto the lot. Harris parks and proceeds on a brisk quarter-mile walk to the WB Network variety series' production office. There are many odd-shaped holes in the show's lineup of future guests, and he knows just what it will take to fill them.
Once there, a receptionist informs him that Madeleine Smithberg, the executive producer he has come to see, is "tied up in editing." He sinks deeply into a couch in the waiting area, still jaunty, and waits.
At this point some might suspect that they're reading about a loser, a man at the self-deluded fringes of show business, a West Coast cousin of Broadway Danny Rose. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.
This is a success story about a man who's turned many of the supposed rules of The Industry--you've gotta make it by 30; you have to operate on the cutting edge of technology and pop psychology; there are no second acts; it's who you know--on their heads. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Chuck Harris is a theatrical manager who mainly represents freaks, geeks and assorted other oddities and novelties. He's making quite a good living, thanks for asking, as do many of his clients, and the argument could even be made that he's closer to the real beating heart of show business than the legions of moguls, moneymen, brand managers, lawyer/agents and MBA-degreed yes-men who've never heard of him.
Harris receives a weekly four-figure sum--which, uncharacteristically, he'd rather not describe--as a creative consultant, charged with uncovering wild and crazy variety and "street" performers for comedian-actor Steve Harvey's hourlong weekly program. You want to book the Lizardman? The Cat Man? Rubber Boy? Mr. Methane? Stevie Starr, also known as The Regurgitator, who can swallow 10 numbered coins and bring them back up in any order the audience requests? The best quick-change artists, nose flutists, bucket drummers and break dancers, knife-throwers, plate spinners, trampolinists and living statues around? In this town, at least, you have to go through Chuck Harris. In his market segment--which, surprisingly, exists--he's both unique and supreme. So if you're Chuck Harris, you don't let the little indignities wear you down.
"If I was as good looking and had half your money I'd retire!" Harris says, greeting Erik Tiler and Jay Jones, two lower-echelon producers in their thirties who finally appear and make apologies for their boss. They escort Harris to her office. On one cork-covered wall are index cards that announce confirmed bookings such as "Amazing Contortionist," "Hip-Hop Violinist," and "Crossbow Couple."
Harris pops a tape into the VCR. Tiler thumbs the remote. "This is Flash & Crash. This a great show. A good act," Harris says. Onscreen, a 9-year old boy does skateboard tricks while bouncing on a trampoline. "The tape might be a little old, but the kid's still under 15. There's a father and two kids and the mother comes along to do the 'ta-da's!' "
"Can we get just the kid?" Jones asks.
"Absolutely! We'll take the kid and the father and have the father do nothing," Harris says.
Chuck Harris presents his latest slate of acts during the next half-hour, including Imago, a trio of muscular Mexican men who paint themselves and their skimpy leotards silver, then lift, squeeze, bend and bench press each other into artistic tableaux.
"Looks a little gay," Jones says.
"They're brothers!" Harris protests. "At least, that's what they told me."
There's a comedian who performs the entire plot of "Casablanca," impersonating all the main characters from "the most famous black-and-white movie ever made!" in 60 seconds; Fat Elvis, who alternately lip-syncs songs by the King and wolfs down hot dogs while his costume slowly inflates to blimp-like proportions; a guy who plays bluegrass while spinning a soccer ball on the neck of his banjo; the Lizardman, who has tattooed his skin to appear reptilian, has had his tongue surgically forked, and threads live snakes up his nose; the Hippsters, a quartet of white teenagers who do a sort of synchronized tap-clog dance.