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THEATER REVIEW : The Gipper’s Stage Antics Wow the Crowd

The leader of the Free World, backed by a local pickup band, ripped through a 50-minute set of his greatest hits Thursday afternoon, wowing a capacity Sports Arena crowd.

Dressed in his trademark dark suit, cocking his head to and fro, Ronald Reagan, known to his millins of devoted fans as the Gipper, the Prez or simply Ronnie Baby, brought the crowd to their feet several times with a few, well-delivered solo numbers. But he went back to his oldie-but-goodie list to really send the crowd to rock ‘n’ roll heaven, closing with his now-classic “Win one for the Gipper” number. The Sports Arena hasn’t seen such a raucous ovation since Eddie Van Halen screamed through “You Really Got Me Now” in 1985.

At first, it seemed like just another concert at the Sports Arena, except there were no Frisbee games in the parking lot.

Forty-five minutes before Reagan was scheduled to take the stage, fire marshals were already starting to block off entrances, sending hundreds of fans scurrying to the other side of the building.

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It was a typical response to the “Victory ’88" tour, which should not be confused with the Jackson family’s “Victory” tour. For one, there were far fewer blacks at the Sports Arena for “Victory ’88.”

The crowd was also much better dressed than for the Jacksons. As regular followers know, fashion is just part of the Reagan show. The groupies were out in force, sporting “I Love Nancy” buttons and the obligatory three-piece suits.

Inside, it was typical concert pandemonium. Concessionaires hawked T-shirts and buttons. KFMB-AM (760) announcer Mark Larson and “Shotgun” Tom Kelly whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

“Do you feel good out there?” Kelly shouted, receiving a thunderous response.

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Rival rock ‘n’ roll hero Mike (The Knife) Dukakis had actress Darryl Hannah at his recent San Diego gig, but Reagan had comedian Gabe Kaplan. The Osmonds must have been too busy for this one, but the crowd hardly missed them.

The presence of The Chicken, a.k.a. Ted Giannoulas, more than compensated for the absence of the Osmonds. The Chicken was donating his time to the Reagan tour, but Giannoulas said loose talk about “a chicken in every pot” worries him.

As Kaplan and fledgling guitarist Byron Wear warmed up the crowd, fans flocked in to the aisles hoping to get a closer view of their hero. In a sense, there was a Woodstock-like atmosphere. No one had paid to get in; tickets were distributed free only to Reagan’s most devoted fans, such as students from the Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad. The result was an almost communal feeling.

The pounding rhythms supplied by the Castle Park, Poway and Christian high school bands set the mood. Celebrities, such as the head of the state Board of Equalization and Assemblyman Larry Stirling, basked in the glow of the crowd.

But the crowd was waiting for the main event. Awe-inspiring versions of the Pledge of Allegiance and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” plus an evocation blessing “all the candidates present,” only served to whet the crowd’s appetite.

When a Secret Service agent walked in front of the stage to place the presidential seal on the lectern, the crowd went crazy, rising out of their seats once again. Lead guitarist Pete Wilson provided the searing intro for The Gipp, who, exactly on schedule, casually strolled on stage--the same stage that had played host to luminaries such as Whitesnake, The Who and the Muppet Babies--to a massive ovation.

Cheerleaders from local high schools led the applause, waving red, white and blue pompons. Framed in rows of red, white and blue balloons, Reagan, always the consummate performer, realized it is best to pay tribute to his opening act.

“I must say it is hard to follow The Chicken,” Reagan said, as Wilson beamed nearby.

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When three young men in ties shouted, “We love you, Gipper,” Reagan launched into a torrid set, striking all the right chords for the audience. By the time he belted out a relatively new tune--the Furlough Blues, with a new line about Dukakis setting up the “most liberal prison program since Billy the Kid sprung the Lincoln County Jail"--the audience was already at a fever pitch.

On a specially constructed platform, which also held the sound board and sound technicians for the concert, the media from throughout the world struggled for the best sight lines. The set-up provided a perfect photo opportunity for the paparazzi, positioned at a 45-degree angle from the stage.

KFMB-TV’s Carol Hasson stood on a desk so her Channel 8 cameraman could frame the stage show behind her as she broadcast live. A few feet away, KNSD-TV’s (Channel 39) Susan Farrell did the same.

As far as lighting and staging, everything was kept simple. The red, white and blue bunting, and a giant red, white and blue elephant floating behind the stage, reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s giant floating pig, were the only real stage props.

But then, Reagan’s stage show has never relied on glitz or fireworks. He led the audience through call-and-response techniques, similar to Rod Stewart shouting “How are ya’ doin’ San Diego?” Referring to his earlier concert tour of California, when he was replaced by punk rocker Jerry Brown, Reagan asked, “Are we going to let that happen again?” The crowd responded with a loud, “Noooo!”

By the time he closed with “Win one for the Gipper,” the crowd was standing. There was no encore, but famous sailor Dennis Conner did present Reagan with a plaque. It was almost anti-climatic.

The Gipp left the stage as confetti and red, white and blue balloons cascaded down from the ceiling. It was the only special effect of the whole concert. The crowd cheered for more, but, like a flash of light, he was gone.


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