Unlike fishermen, photographers usually don’t like to talk about “the one that got away”. But, I have decided to swallow my pride and add my story of the one that got away to the LEFTeyeSTORIES files.
In the summer of 1993, the midwest was drowning in what was being called a hundred-year flood. Seeing an opportunity to help as well as an opportunity for some feel-good public relations, country music tourist destination Branson, Missouri, decided to have a fundraiser in the form of a nationally televised telethon.
Anyone who was anyone in the entertainment business (and many in the “Who?” category) showed up in B-town wanting to do their part and get a little face time on national television. This included billionaire Ross Perot, who had just the year before made an unsuccessful bid for president.
I was there working for The Ozark Marketing Council and a couple of publications. I was also hoping to sell a few other photos on speculation.
Bob Hope was scheduled to be up next. I had already seen him backstage and he looked very frail so I was thinking that I better get shots of him because there may not be another opportunity. Then a hand on my shoulder and a whisper in my ear told me of another plan.
A happy-go-lucky Ross Perot walks from his chartered helicopter at the Grand Palace in Branson, Missouri. Following are Beth Wanser, the pilot and an aid of Perot. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)
Beth Wanser of the Ozark Marketing Council was telling me that Ross Perot was sitting in his chartered helicopter outside the theater and was going to fly to the Grand Palace to meet country singer Billy Ray Cyrus who was still riding the wave of his big hit, “Achy Breaky Heart”. There was one seat left on the helicopter and I could have it but we had to go now.
From the theater where we were to the Grand Palace is about a mile and a half, if that far. The problem was the traffic. It would have easily taken an hour by car so the helicopter was a good option.
Beth and I made our way past a few other glaring photogs and TV videographers to the helicopter that was already warming up with rotors turning. I headed to the copilot’s door thinking that’s probably where the vacant seat would be. Instead, the door popped open and that distinctive head with those distinctive ears spoke in that distinctive high-pitched Texas drawl that could be heard in spite of the noise and whirling blades above, “Son, you ride in the back. I’ve got it up here.” So I got in.
Five minutes later we were on the ground behind the Grand Palace. A waiting van whisked us the remaining 100 yards to the backstage door. Perot was particularly jovial. “Son, where do you need to sit with all your equipment?” and “Son, you go on ahead if you need to. You need to get the pictures.”
When we got to the backstage door, Beth led the way through a maze of cables, equipment and stage hands to the green room which normally would have been filled with performers waiting to go onstage. For now it was the place where Beth had arranged for Perot to meet with Billy Ray Cyrus.
Just before we entered the green-room door, one of Beth’s colleagues pulled her aside. Perot continue on into the green-room and I followed, raising my camera in anticipation of the pending Ross Perot/Billy Ray Cyrus hug-fest.
The room was large, furnished with chairs and coffee tables filled with finger food for the performers. It was also completely empty. Perot and I stood there for a moment; Perot staring straight ahead and me staring at his back. I lowered my camera and in that instant, he spun on his heel and looked straight at me.
The happy-go-lucky, former presidential candidate I walked in with had transformed into a scowling Elmer J. Fudd. All that was missing was the steam coming out of his ears.
A less than pleased Ross Perot makes his way out of the "green room" backstage at the Grand Palace after being stood up by Billy Ray Cyrus. Beth Wanser (L) and Lisa Rau (R) stand aside. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)
And there it was, the missed shot: Ross Perot standing with hands on hips looking straight at me and anger oozing from his pores. It was perfect; I had a wide-angle lens to capture the empty room behind him and since I’m a head taller than him it was a great angle. The only problem was that my camera, now hanging around my neck, might as well have been a concrete block sitting at my feet because I couldn’t get it back up to my face fast enough before he shot past me towards the door spewing, “MISFIRE! MISFIRE!”
Like an angry warrior spraying the room with machine gun fire, he shot in rapid succession at nobody in particular, “THAT’S WHAT THIS IS, IT’S A MISFIRE AND WHAT YOU DO WHEN YOU HAVE A MISFIRE IS YOU JUST GO ON, SO THAT’S WHAT I’M GOING TO DO. I’M GOING TO GO ON BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THIS IS, IT’S A MISFIRE!!”
Ross Perot is a smart man and not used to being stood up. He figured it out really fast. I had to get the news from Beth Wanser and Lisa Rau, director of public relations for Silver Dollar City (who owned the Grand Palace at that time) and co-owner Peter Herschend who had all huddled together trying to calm Mr. Perot down.
In the five minutes it took to fly to the Grand Palace, Billy Ray Cyrus’ people had decided it would not be a wise thing for the singer to be photographed hugging, shaking hands or even standing next to the then still politically hot Ross Perot. It might alienate some of Billy Ray’s fans.
So, Ross Perot’s “Misfire” became my “Misfire”. End of story, almost.
Years later Lisa Rau and I were talking about the misfire photo-op and she said, “Let me tell you about the rest of my day that day.”
She went on to tell me that she was assigned to drive Billy Ray around Branson and let him see the sights. One of the things he wanted to do was go to the Factory Outlet Mall and buy some shirts. So she took him to a store using the back door while the store manager politely asked the shoppers (mostly women) to step outside for a few minutes. The manager then locked the door.
With the store secured, Billy Ray walked onto the sales floor and wasting no time, stripped off his shirt. He then began trying on shirt after shirt leaving the unwanted ones on the floor. All the while, the displaced female shoppers pressed their faces against the store’s windows and squealed with delight.
After he made his final selections and checked out, Billy Ray was ushered out the back door. The store manager then unlocked the front doors and the ensuing scene resembled something like a miniature Black Friday shopping frenzy. The female shoppers were scrambling to pick up and purchase all the shirts he had tried on and left on the floor.
Happy shoppers. Happy store keeper. No memorable photo…but that’s OK; it makes for a good dinner story now and then.
John S. Stewart