(Photo: Brian Baker/WIBC)
Like most things in life, it’s all about who you know.
The best experiences and the biggest blessings in the world of Brian Baker are generally made possible by my wife of 10 years, Cassie. Stunt driving, my daughter, and even my return to WIBC happened because Cassie knew the right people, and because everyone loves Cassie, they’re willing to at least tolerate her husband and throw him the occasional bone.
My wife is also the primary reason I was given the opportunity to drive in last Saturday’s 500 Festival Parade. Troy Hamilton, one of Cassie’s dearest friends, is a fellow racing enthusiast and car nut who specializes in collecting Indy 500 pace cars. Troy’s garage is my version of Disneyland, and because I value my friendship with Troy more than his toys, he’s regularly invited me to participate in various automotive-related events around the city of Indianapolis.
Last week, Troy asked if I’d be interested in driving one of his pace cars in the 500 Festival Parade. My response? “Hell, YES!!”
The plan for Saturday morning was to convene at Troy’s garage before meeting up with the other drivers in the parade. From there, we’d caravan to the staging area for the cars and await our “celebrity assignments.”
I was originally designated to drive a yellow 1986 Corvette in Saturday’s parade. After a modest amount of begging and pleading, however, I wound up behind the wheel of my favorite pace car in Troy’s collection: The purple Chevrolet SSR pickup that paced the 2003 Indianapolis 500. Yes, THE ACTUAL PACE CAR.
The fortuitous decision to swap cars turned out to be a bigger score for me than I realized at the time. Unbeknownst to us, Indiana native and celebrity Marc Summers had already been assigned to ride on the back of the Chevrolet SSR in the parade.
The drivers for Saturday’s event arrive on location about two hours in advance and stage their cars in an alley behind the Central Library. Then they wait… and wait… and wait…
The celebrities remain sequestered in the library until just before the parade begins. Drivers and other non-VIP common folk, however, are not permitted inside. Actually, they’ll let you in if it’s an emergency, but you’re required to continuously yell “unclean” while inside the building. In the end, drivers either sweat it out in their car or hopelessly wander the streets looking for public restrooms.
I found a place to grab breakfast and wound up passing the time by drinking about six cans of diet soda. Unlike the veteran drivers in Saturday’s parade, however, I wasn’t bored; I was giddy with excitement and just happy to be there.
When I returned to my car, I saw the decals with Marc Summers’ name affixed to the rear quarter panels. “Holy crap!” I thought to myself. “What luck!”
Understand, I’m rarely starstruck these days. I met and worked with hundreds of movie stars and television personalities during the 15 years that I lived and worked in Los Angeles. I shook hands with most of my heroes and saw the best and the worst that Hollywood has to offer. The magic wears off eventually, however. I remember seeing Clint Eastwood one night at a Whole Foods in Sherman Oaks and feeling only moderately excited by the sighting. I’m a huge Clint Eastwood fan mind you, I just wasn’t awestruck by the encounter.
Bottom line: I don’t get excited about meeting a celebrity unless he or she is somehow connected to something emotional within me, and to a kid from Indiana who was raised in the heydays of Nickelodeon, Marc Summers is the sh*t!
Bizarre though it may seem, I actually know an embarrassing amount of information about Marc Summers and his extensive career. The majority of people remember Marc as the host of “Double Dare” in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, but Summers had been slugging it out in Hollywood for several years as a standup comic before Nickelodeon came calling.
Like fellow Hoosier David Letterman, Summers began his career in Indiana as a broadcaster before moving to Los Angeles in the early 1970s to pursue comedy, honing his skills at “The Comedy Store” with fellow comedians Robin Williams and Jay Leno. Unlike Letterman, however, Marc Summers was a polished comic with an impressive command of the craft. In fact, Summers was so good that Letterman’s manager once sent Dave to study Marc’s standup routine that he performed as the warmup act for audiences of a long-forgotten sitcom of that era.
Unfortunately, Hollywood is cruel and prone to typecasting. One major success can brand you for life, and it’s hard to break out of that mold. It’s a shame that Summers is primarily known as “The Double Dare Guy,” although one gets the sense that Marc has made peace with it and doesn’t really mind all that much.
I also knew that Marc had overcome severe challenges with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and since I too have faced my own struggles with OCD, I was conscious of the fact that I shouldn’t attempt to shake Marc’s hand unless he initiated contact first.
When Marc finally emerged from the library, flanked by his brother, my first thought was that he was much shorter than I imagined. With the exception of Conan O’Brien, celebrities are ALWAYS shorter than you imagine them to be. I also noted that Marc seemed completely at ease and unpretentious; it was in the way that he carried himself and interacted with the people around him. Trust me, after 15 years of meeting and working with celebrities in Hollywood, I can immediately spot the ones who are going to be pr*cks. It’s a little like “gaydar,” but for arrogance and narcissism.
Marc was Hoosier-friendly and immediately extended his hand to me. He introduced his brother and then proceeded to take pictures of the pace car. Marc’s exuberance when I told him it was the ‘real deal’ was so genuine, and it was clear that he hadn’t forgotten his roots, nor had his success in show business dulled his enthusiasm for a Hoosier tradition.
After exchanging pleasantries and grabbing a few more photos, Marc took his place on the back of the car and his brother hopped in the passenger seat. Moments later, we were heading down Pennsylvania to the cheers of a roaring crowd.
We were supposed to have an escort walking by the vehicle throughout the duration of the parade to keep fans at bay. I don’t know what happened to our gal, but she disappeared less than a block into our journey and it created some pretty interesting challenges.
Each driver is expected to keep a steady pace throughout the parade (2-3mph) and resist the urge the stop for fans requesting autographs and pictures with your celebrity guest. Without someone running blocker, however, this basic rule proved much more difficult to obey than I anticipated. I simply had no idea how much Indianapolis LOVES Marc Summers. People ran right up to the moving car with no respect for their own safety, and I frequently stopped out of fear I’d crush the toes of some over exuberant fan who was rushing to catch a moment with Marc.
“Double Dare! Look, man! It’s Double Dare! Hey! Double Dare!!!!”
“Marc Summers! Look, it’s Marc Summers! Double Dare!”
“Hey Double Dare, can I get a picture?”
Yes, half the fans called him “Double Dare.” It was awesome!
You have to understand, as an entertainment buff for whom the glitz and magic of Hollywood has been replaced with a heavy dose of cynicism, I love seeing people completely lose their inhibitions and freak out upon catching a glimpse of a celebrity. I was amazed, however, at the age span of those who were screaming “Marc Summers!” or his unofficial pseudonym: “Double Dare.”
The drivers in the parade never know for sure if they’ll wind up on TV. Sometimes the network will cut to a commercial, stealing your 1.5 seconds of stardom right out from under you. With Marc Summers perched upon the back of my car, however, I knew we’d get on. As we approached the checkered flags that lined TV row on Pennsylvania, I made sure to remove my sunglasses, lest my family (or an ex-spouse) fail to recognize the guy who was Double Dare’s chauffeur for the day.
The parade is relatively long, but it doesn’t seem that way when you’re driving. We reached the end of the line, and since we were a pretty good distance from the library, I asked Marc and his brother if they’d like me to drop them off at their hotel. For no logical reason whatsoever, I just assumed they were staying in the downtown area. As it turned out, however, they were headed to Carmel to visit their mother.
“Oh, you’re in Carmel,” I said. “Sorry; I didn’t realize. I’m actually headed that way, but I don’t imagine you’d be too comfortable riding that far in this thing.”
Marc’s brother pulled out his phone to call for an Uber, but upon learning that the outrageous “special event” fares were in effect all weekend, he looked at me and said, “We can make this work.”
Now understand, the Chevrolet SSR is essentially a two-seat roadster with no backseat. It’s not made for cross-country trips with the family. Nevertheless, with me behind the wheel, Marc’s brother riding shotgun, and “Double Dare” hanging halfway out of the car, we set off for Carmel, “Marc Summers” decals still affixed to the rear quarter panels.
About a mile into our journey, Marc commented that this was probably the most dangerous thing that he had ever done in his life. At that moment, it occurred to me that this could all end in tragedy if something went wrong, and I started to worry as I envisioned the headline from the IndyStar: “Celebrity Marc Summers, Host of ‘Double Dare’ Tragically Killed in Parade Vehicle. Summers’ Brother and WIBC’s Brent Barkker also injured.” I imagined my co-workers at the radio station hearing the news and speculating about who was going to get my office. If I survived, I’d forever be known as the asshole who killed Marc Summers.
I’d normally hop on the freeway to get home, but there was no way I was taking that risk with Troy’s car and a seatbelt-free VIP. Thus, we took surface streets, and I laughed whenever drivers and pedestrians would recognize Marc with equal parts excitement and complete bewilderment. How many of those people were called “liars” when they got home and attempted to convince their friends and family of what they’d seen?
As we made our way north, I discovered that Marc and I had a number of friends in common here and in Los Angeles. And because we both had a love for the heritage of broadcasting and legends of the medium like Johnny Carson and Jack Benny, the conversation was relaxed, easy and fun. I completely forgot that I was chauffeuring a celebrity and his equally quick-witted brother. It genuinely felt like I was hanging out with a couple of old friends – old friends with some really great stories.
Marc talked about growing up in Indianapolis, local broadcasting heroes, working as an usher at Starlight Musicals, Knobbies and the TeePee, and of course, “The Comedy Store.” At one point, Marc slipped into a kind-hearted and impressively accurate impersonation of Jay Leno and I couldn’t help thinking, “If only nine-year-old Brian could witness this moment.”
Yes, we were all having a grand time… And then it started to rain – HARD.
I pulled to the side of the road and offered to put the top up, but as I maneuvered it into place, Marc came to his senses and said, “I think maybe we should go ahead and call an Uber.”
He was right of course, but I suggested we drive a bit further to see if we could get ahead of the storm. By that point, I was already writing this blog post in my head. There was no way this story was going to end with me dumping Marc Summers and his brother on the side of the road in a torrential downpour.
We agreed to keep driving, and at one point made a failed attempt to shield ourselves from the elements with a single umbrella. Eventually, however, Marc and his apparently more limber brother opted to switch places, and we were able to ride with the top up for the remainder of our journey to Troy’s place.
After we dropped off the pace car, the three of us hopped into my wife’s Jeep and made our way to the final destination in Carmel. Thinking of Marc’s OCD, I apologized for how dirty it was, but he didn’t care. At least this car had a backseat.
In the end, I finally managed to get Marc and his brother to their destination safely. They were really good sports about everything, and the whole experience turned out to be one of the more enjoyable days I’ve had since my return to the midwest.
We shook hands and Marc said to “be sure to look him up the next time I’m in Los Angeles.” In L.A., “look me up” is the equivalent of “let’s do lunch,” which is the equivalent of “Go ‘F’ yourself,” but I got the sense that Marc genuinely meant what he said. For all his success in Hollywood, Marc is still a midwesterner at heart. I wish I could say the same for some of the other notable, high-profile entertainers from Indianapolis.
By the way, the irony was not lost on me that as one of the most obsessive and medically-diagnosed Burt Reynolds fanatics, I was driving the very man with whom Burt had his most infamous “Tonight Show” appearance.
Some background on the Marc Summers/Burt Reynolds “Tonight Show” incident:
In 1994, Burt was in the middle of a very ugly and very public divorce from Loni Anderson. He also was in the midst of a promotional tour for his new autobiography, “My Life,” and the press had been extremely hostile towards him. To be fair, Burt gave as good as he got. Regardless, any PR agent worth his salt would have kept their client off television under those circumstances. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Now I love Burt Reynolds and I always found him to be extremely gracious and kind, but on the night Marc appeared with him on the “Tonight Show,” Burt was in a nasty mood and looking to pick a fight. After a couple of passive-aggressive comments from Burt during Marc’s segment, Summers delivered a cutting remark about “still being married.” Water was thrown. Pies were thrown. It was cringeworthy, but it made for great television!
I asked Marc about the incident during the drive to Carmel. Needless to say, Marc has less than positive feelings for Burt. I don’t blame him, but It’s too bad that he and Burt never crossed paths again. Having spent time with both, I suspect Burt would have liked Marc a great deal had he gotten to know him.
There’s an old saying that you should never meet your childhood heroes – especially celebrities. The idea is that the celebrity could never live up to your expectations, because those expectations are built upon the illusions of Hollywood. In general, that might be true, but whoever came up with that saying obviously never spent the day with Marc Summers.