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All Over but the Shouting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Where did their love go?

In its concept stages, the reunion tour of the Supremes was seen as a sparkling opportunity to reassemble the most celebrated girl group in pop history. They would wear those dresses again, sing those songs again, and, they just knew, they would fill all those arenas again.

Instead, the “Return to Love” tour is a supreme flop, pronounced dead in mid-tour on Monday by its biggest star.

The tour was dogged from Day 1 by criticism of the authenticity of the reunion because, while lead singer Diana Ross was back, the two other surviving members from the group’s heyday were absent. That along with steep ticket prices--the best seats at $500 for a pair--thinned the crowd.

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Finally, according to Ross, the promoters pulled the plug this week, apparently canceling the second half of the 28-city tour. Among those dates are the Aug. 2 show at the San Diego Sports Arena and the following night at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim.

“I am severely disappointed. . . . I was very much looking forward to performing for our fans,” Ross said in her statement. “The reactions to the performances to date have been incredible. . . . I would sing the same if there were 10 people in the audience or 10,000.”

And some nights the audience was closer in number to 10 than 10,000. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, only 3,000 of 19,000 seats were sold, while a Tampa, Fla., show filled only 5,000 of 20,000 seats.

In the past week, shows in Long Island, N.Y., Washington and Pittsburgh were canceled without specific explanation from the lead promoter, SFX Entertainment, which prompted the Ross statement.

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With a splashy production and big-dollar star in Ross, SFX probably came to view the limping tour as a no-win proposition, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert industry trade magazine.

“SFX guaranteed millions of dollars to Ross to go out and do this tour, and with the type of ticket prices they were asking and the size of the buildings playing, it’s obvious that they were going to have to do a lot better to come anywhere near making money on this,” Bongiovanni said. “They may have calculated that even after paying Ross everything they owed her that they would lose less money by canceling the rest of the shows.”

SFX Entertainment, meanwhile, would not confirm by Tuesday’s press time that the tour had indeed been canceled. An SFX spokeswoman would only say that “right now, the tour is still on, but that can change at any moment.”

The promoting giant has also been vague with its business partners on the issue. For instance, Andy Hewitt, a Los Angeles-based promoter partnering on the tour’s scheduled Aug. 5 show at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas, said Tuesday he had no official word about the status of the concert.

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“I don’t know what to say. I’m hoping to get some information soon,” Hewitt said, adding that ticket sales for that Las Vegas show have defied the tour’s pattern and sold well.

Handlers for Ross, however, insist there is no confusion on the point--the tour is over whether SFX will acknowledge it or not. Tour personnel have been told to “go home,” one source said.

The mixed messages suggest behind-the-scenes wrangling may be going on between SFX and Ross, observers say. If Ross cancels the tour, SFX may be able to sidestep some of her guaranteed pay total--reportedly $20 million--while an abrupt SFX cancellation may set Ross up for legal action against the promoter.

Regardless, Ross sounded dejected by the situation in her statement. “I love the music and the fans, and I will find a way to reconnect with them as soon as possible.”

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In April, Ross’ tone was triumphant as she staged a New York press conference to announce the tour reuniting a trio that had a dozen No. 1 hits--including “Baby Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love"--between 1964 and 1969. The conference also hyped the tour’s 40-piece orchestra, glitzy Bob Mackie gowns and squads of dancers. A tie-in VH1 concert special and an appearance on “Oprah” added more spotlight to the tour announcement.

Criticism of Lineup From the Beginning

But even then, the star was already answering critics who harped on the group’s lineup.

That’s because Mary Wilson, the only other surviving member of the original trio (Florence Ballard died in 1976) would not be part of the tour, nor would Cindy Birdsong, who joined the group in 1967 in the midst of their glory days. The reason? Money.

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Wilson and Birdsong balked, saying Ross’ deal would have treated them like bit players in the project. Finally, according to Wilson, the two singers agreed to take $3 million each (compared to $20 million for Ross), but then Ross abruptly rescinded the offer.

Instead, Ross announced she would hit the road with Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne, a pair that wore the famous dresses only during the group’s less successful ‘70s incarnation, years after Ross’ exodus in 1969.

Internet sites for fans and music-industry observers lit up with criticism for the new-look trio, but it’s unclear how much of the tour’s collapse can be attributed to a fan revolt. One observer following the saga closely was Pete Howard, the editor in chief of ICE Magazine, a monthly music newsletter.

“The poor attendance could be the ticket prices, it could be the competing tours, or it could be that there’s not enough star power there with Diana Ross anymore,” Howard said. “But I think part of it has to be disgruntled fans upset about the Mary Wilson treatment. . . . There was just no justification for Diana Ross to treat her old colleagues that way.”

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If Wilson finds some wry satisfaction in the tour’s collapse, she’s not saying. She said through a publicist Tuesday that she would not comment on the venture’s failure, but in April she told The Times that she was “very disappointed” about her exclusion.

She also made a comment that seemed to forecast the tour’s fate. “The fans, I think they want the Supremes that they remember most, and if the show is something else they may not want it.”

Birdsong, meanwhile, said Tuesday that she and Wilson remain open to starting from scratch and relaunching a Supremes reunion with Ross.

“We’ve never not been open to it,” Birdsong said. “I don’t really want to talk about what’s happened [with the “Return to Love” tour] because everybody is kind of hurting. It’s not a pleasant thing. I love the girls, all of them, especially Diana. What’s happened doesn’t mean that it can’t be redeemed.”

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