Times Staff Writer

With just nine days to go before the Hands Across America mega-event, its creator is throwing open the line to all comers for free, despite anticipation of a flood of last-minute volunteers and pledges.

USA for Africa President Ken Kragen trekked to Amarillo, Tex., on Thursday with the message that he hopes will prevent major gaps in the May 25 transcontinental human chain:. “The fact is that obviously we can’t sell places in line,” he told The Times. “We’re asking people to make donations and stand in line. That’s the way we phrase it. They’re really two separate acts. One is not dependent on the other. You can make a pledge (and/or) you can be in line.”

That possibility has been part of the Hands Across America Memorial Day-weekend event since Kragen first announced the ambitious project at a Manhattan press conference in October, he said. Nobody ever had to actually pay money to stand in line, he told The Times.


Kragen said he didn’t want to overstate the obvious too early, however, for fear that the USA for Africa project couldn’t bring in the $50 million to $100 million it hoped to raise for America’s homeless and hungry. That original goal has since been pared down to $25 million.

As of Thursday, between 1.5 million and 2 million people had signed up to stand in the New York to Los Angeles line, Hands officials said. They estimate that it will take at least 5.5 million people to actually complete the 4,125-mile route.

Corporations like American Express and J.C. Penney as well as celebrities like Dan Fogelberg and the Bee Gees have bought single miles for $13,200. They can then assign friends, employees or whomever they wish to fill the estimated 1,320 places that constitute an average mile.

Most of those who have called the toll-free Hands 800 number (1-800-USA-9000) or who have bought a place in line at their local Ticket Master outlet have paid the $10 basic pledge themselves, Hands officials said. Besides assuring themselves a place in line, those who pay $10 also get a certificate of participation. Those who pay $25 also get a Hands Across America T-shirt. For a $35 pledge, individuals get an official Hands sun visor, T-shirt, pin and certificate.

Momentum continued to snowball as preparations for the event moved toward their final week, said Hands Across America organizers. However, filling the great Southwestern desert from Texas to California loomed as the biggest obstacle on Thursday. Kragen said that he was pretty much resigned to the possibility of blank stretches, especially in west Texas. Even with his management client Kenny Rogers boasting on TV commercials that he’ll be straddling the border between Texas and New Mexico on Hands day, Kragen was doubtful that the line would literally stretch fingertip-to-fingertip from Southern California to New York.

“There’s like a 200-mile stretch with no town over 3,000 people or something like that,” Kragen said before catching a plane to Amarillo.

Even though the line is open to those who do not pay, Kragen is hopeful that those who participate will also make donations. A volunteer army of about 50,000 “line monitors” will be on hand seeking pledges on May 25. A monitor with a pledge form will be at every tenth of a mile on the route, a Hands spokesman said.

“If for some reason the line didn’t link up, it still wouldn’t be a failure by any means,” Kragen said. “Linking (all the way across the United States) is the home run. Linking is the phenomenon that will last forever. But it’s not a failure if you just get to third base.

“I have trouble before the event even conceding that it’s OK if it doesn’t link up because I think it’s important conceptually for people to envision filling that line.”

At the Century City headquarters of Hands Across America on Thursday, optimism remained high. In ever-increasing numbers, new Hands Across America participants were continuing to send in their checks by mail, call in their pledges over the 800 number or visit one of the 67 local offices in 16 states, strung out along the proposed Hands route, officials said.

“Every day is bigger than the last day,” said Hands spokesman Dave Fulton. “It’s pretty much the way Ken laid it out in January when he said it was going to be a last-minute event.”