Cirque du Chuck
At the wheel of a dusty 1997 Chrysler convertible on this warm, cloudless mid-September afternoon is a shortish, roundish, 66-year-old man known mostly these days as Chuck Harris. With his moptop of white hair, the unlined face of a child actor, which indeed he once was, and the square black Swifty Lazar-type eyeglasses of extreme magnification, he pulls up to the guard gate at the KTLA studios in Hollywood. “Chuck Harris for ‘Steve Harvey’s Big Time!’ ” he says jauntily.
The twentyish security guard is unimpressed. He stares dully at his clipboard.
“Nothing here for Chuck Harris,” he says.
Harris sighs patiently—a subtly nuanced sound rarely heard hereabouts. The guard motions him to drive forward to a holding area, then disappears into his shack to make further inquiries. After no small amount of time the quasi-cop reemerges and grudgingly allows Harris onto the lot. Harris parks and proceeds on a brisk quarter-mile walk to the WB Network variety series’ production office. There are many odd-shaped holes in the show’s lineup of future guests, and he knows just what it will take to fill them.
Once there, a receptionist informs him that Madeleine Smithberg, the executive producer he has come to see, is “tied up in editing.” He sinks deeply into a couch in the waiting area, still jaunty, and waits.
At this point some might suspect that they’re reading about a loser, a man at the self-deluded fringes of show business, a West Coast cousin of Broadway Danny Rose. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.
This is a success story about a man who’s turned many of the supposed rules of The Industry—you’ve gotta make it by 30; you have to operate on the cutting edge of technology and pop psychology; there are no second acts; it’s who you know—on their heads. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Chuck Harris is a theatrical manager who mainly represents freaks, geeks and assorted other oddities and novelties. He’s making quite a good living, thanks for asking, as do many of his clients, and the argument could even be made that he’s closer to the real beating heart of show business than the legions of moguls, moneymen, brand managers, lawyer/agents and MBA-degreed yes-men who’ve never heard of him.
Harris receives a weekly four-figure sum—which, uncharacteristically, he’d rather not describe—as a creative consultant, charged with uncovering wild and crazy variety and “street” performers for comedian-actor Steve Harvey’s hourlong weekly program. You want to book the Lizardman? The Cat Man? Rubber Boy? Mr. Methane? Stevie Starr, also known as The Regurgitator, who can swallow 10 numbered coins and bring them back up in any order the audience requests? The best quick-change artists, nose flutists, bucket drummers and break dancers, knife-throwers, plate spinners, trampolinists and living statues around? In this town, at least, you have to go through Chuck Harris. In his market segment—which, surprisingly, exists—he’s both unique and supreme. So if you’re Chuck Harris, you don’t let the little indignities wear you down.
“If I was as good looking and had half your money I’d retire!” Harris says, greeting Erik Tiler and Jay Jones, two lower-echelon producers in their thirties who finally appear and make apologies for their boss. They escort Harris to her office. On one cork-covered wall are index cards that announce confirmed bookings such as “Amazing Contortionist,” “Hip-Hop Violinist,” and “Crossbow Couple.”
Harris pops a tape into the VCR. Tiler thumbs the remote. “This is Flash & Crash. This a great show. A good act,” Harris says. Onscreen, a 9-year old boy does skateboard tricks while bouncing on a trampoline. “The tape might be a little old, but the kid’s still under 15. There’s a father and two kids and the mother comes along to do the ‘ta-da’s!’ ”
“Can we get just the kid?” Jones asks.
“Absolutely! We’ll take the kid and the father and have the father do nothing,” Harris says.
Chuck Harris presents his latest slate of acts during the next half-hour, including Imago, a trio of muscular Mexican men who paint themselves and their skimpy leotards silver, then lift, squeeze, bend and bench press each other into artistic tableaux.
“Looks a little gay,” Jones says.
“They’re brothers!” Harris protests. “At least, that’s what they told me.”
There’s a comedian who performs the entire plot of “Casablanca,” impersonating all the main characters from “the most famous black-and-white movie ever made!” in 60 seconds; Fat Elvis, who alternately lip-syncs songs by the King and wolfs down hot dogs while his costume slowly inflates to blimp-like proportions; a guy who plays bluegrass while spinning a soccer ball on the neck of his banjo; the Lizardman, who has tattooed his skin to appear reptilian, has had his tongue surgically forked, and threads live snakes up his nose; the Hippsters, a quartet of white teenagers who do a sort of synchronized tap-clog dance.
“They’re four gorgeous kids, they’re drop-dead adorable,” Harris says. “Like ‘N-Sync, except dancing. They’re young. They’re hip. They can teach Steve how to do something. I’ve begged them to sing. I’ve told them, ‘Give me songs, start singing, and I’ll make you a million dollars!’”
While all this is going on the two producers nod, grimace, make sarcastic remarks and take notes. Finally, an amped-up Madeleine Smithberg rushes in on her way from the editing bay to another postproduction emergency.
“Where’s The Regurgitator?” she shouts, on the fly. “I want The Regurgitator!”
“I’m getting you him!” replies Harris, beaming at her retreating figure. “You’ll get him!”
Madeleine Smithberg’s relationship with Chuck Harris began about a dozen years ago, when she was working as a talent coordinator for David Letterman.
“Chuck Harris,” she says during a period of relative calm, “has found a niche on the outskirts, the urban sprawl of show business.” And that niche is, she says, “to represent people who work in show business, but in ways that are not as easily definable as, say, acting and singing.” In the same vein of analytical irony she adds: “If nothing else, Chuck comes in every week to remind me that what I do for a living is not selling insurance.”
Chuck Harris has a very special position in Dennis Avner’s life as well. Avner, a self-employed computer technician who lives near San Diego, has for more than a decade been honoring his Native American heritage by transforming himself into his totem animal, the Stalking Cat. He has had tiger stripes tattooed on his face and body; undergone surgery to give himself a feline cleft upper lip; had cheek and brow implants inserted; had his teeth sharpened into fangs and fingernails shaped into claws. Largely due to Harris, he also has been paid to make personal appearances in venues as far away as Germany and Tokyo.
“I know all these jerks who say, ‘I hate my manager.’ Well, I love my manager,” says Avner, known to his friends as Cat, during a recent visit to Los Angeles to judge various contests at the Inkslinger’s Ball, a convention of tattoo aficionados. “He handles the calls and e-mails from all the people who want me to work for free.” Indeed, Cat recently got a call from the producers of a “Real People” remake who said that, while they had no budget to pay him, they would love to feature him in their pilot episode. Harris set them straight, then worked the price up to $6,000. But that’s not his only valuable function, Cat says. “Afterwards he chases down the [deadbeats] and makes sure they pay.”
Others consider Harris more than just a talent broker. Erik Sprague, who has a doctorate degree in philosophy from the State University of New York, Albany, re-created himself as the Lizardman as a “conceptual art piece” in 1990. He now plays county fairs and hosts rock concerts sponsored by Jägermeister liqueur, and considers Harris “a great sounding board who’s really made me conscious of my real worth on the market.”
“He’s the last of his breed,” says Todd Robbins, a Harris friend who is the creator and producer of “Carnival Knowledge,” a “neo-vaudeville” traveling stage show that features such activities as sword swallowing, light-bulb eating and the hammering of large nails up nostrils. (Robbins is also the pianist in Woody Allen’s jazz band.) “Show business has gotten to the point where we’ve been sort of ‘American Idol’-ized. Everything’s gotten so packaged and calculated. Chuck doesn’t want the prettiest and the youngest singer that can hit an E above high C. Or the last comic standing. He’s looking for people who can add character to show business.”
The demand for such characters knows no bounds. For the past six years, Harris has been able to persuade Jim Lorimer, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s longtime business partner in the annual Arnold Classic and Fitness Weekend in Columbus, Ohio, to put one or more of his clients to work at the extravaganza that highlights bodybuilding, archery and aerobics. Why? Maybe it’s just Harris’ persistence, Lorimer muses—or maybe just the priceless opportunity to be in direct contact with pure, unadulterated, All-American weirdness.
There was the time, Lorimer says, that Fitness Weekend-goers were treated to Rick Maizel, a Los Angeles resident who escapes from a spinning, sudsing washing machine after being manacled with five pairs of handcuffs. Another time they saw Rudy Macaggi, who lip-synchs a Pavarotti aria disguised as the corpulent tenor, then rips off his fat suit and does a tumbling act. One year—a Winter Olympics year—Victor Paru got the gig. His sole theatrical talent is simulating more than a dozen alpine sports in two minutes.
Harris is “a real operator,” Lorimer says from his office in Columbus. “Every year I beg him: ‘Chuck, please give me an act with some connection to fitness.’ ”
Asked how effective his entreaties are, Lorimer says, “Well, there’s nobody like him, anyway. And every year he sends us a tape of all his clients’ acts. My whole family looks forward to watching it.”
“Does Arnold know who I am? Of course!” Chuck Harris says. “Every year Arnold is there. In Columbus. And I’m going to tell you something. Even when Arnold becomes president, and I’m a firm believer that Arnold is going to be president, he’s going to show up every year. He loves it. Last year he was great! He said, ‘A lot of people didn’t think I was going to be here because I’m governor of the largest state. But this is where I started. These are my roots. I will be back.’ The place went wild! Crazy!
“I have dinner with Arnold every year. Sometimes I’m a table or two removed, but two years ago—three years? four? I don’t remember—I had an act on the show and I’m sitting right next to Arnold. Well, Arnold’s table is right next to where I’m sitting, anyway.”
Over a $4.75 Lunch Special at Chyn King, a favorite Chinese restaurant near the nondescript Hollywood house that he uses as his office, Harris is explaining how he does business—when not digressing into one of his many, many show business tales or answering his cellphone. When the phone rings, he plugs an earpiece into his left ear and holds the phone at arm’s length, speaking loudly at it in speaker mode. After these wireless monologues are over he generously recounts the other side of the conversations, too.
Eventually, over the course of this and several other encounters, Harris explains in radically piecemeal fashion that his best clients make at least $60,000 to $70,000 a year. “Some of these guys were making $50, $100 a performance before I found them!” he says. His very first and favorite client, a virtually uncategorizable dancer/puppeteer named Christopher—he had his surname legally expunged 15 years ago—makes a minimum of $2,500 per six-minute performance and earns hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
Harris takes 15% right off the top. Despite being on his third marriage, he owns the house in Hollywood, another in Las Vegas, and a $2 million three-story residence in Manhattan Beach a half block from the ocean. He also owns a staggeringly large and valuable collection of early- to mid-20th century ancillary show business merchandise, but that’s another story. Harris places his clients everywhere—except in the pages of Variety or the Hollywood Reporter. They don’t sign script deals or star in sitcoms or movies, but they do appear on Leno and Letterman; syndicated series such as “Maury” and Roseanne’s late, unlamented talk show; variety shows such as Harvey’s that still cling to the network TV schedule, particularly in the summer months; programs on cable networks such as A&E or The History Channel that are ostensibly about magic, bizarre lifestyles or the limits of human performance; corporate events; basketball halftime shows; nightclub circuits in Central America or South Asia; Spanish language television series such as “Sabado Gigante”; and the kind of exotically tasteless international programs that show up on late-night pay cable, produced and broadcast in places such as Kuwait, Singapore, Barcelona and Munich.
“Most people don’t know these markets exist,” Harris says in one of his more succinct moments. “That’s good.”
In fact, the very oddness of his occupation—coupled with his unconventional appearance—seems guaranteed, perhaps even a little calculated, to make him the go-to man for the foreseeable future. “Chuck enjoys his life. He always seems hungry for more,” says Andrew Whitney, a 26-year-old William & Mary graduate and junior production executive at MTV Networks. From January through June 2003, Whitney had the inimitable experience of working as Harris’ assistant, his first steady job in Los Angeles.
“It was amazing,” he says. “I’d get in at 9 in the morning and he’s already been there for like five hours, talking on the phone to the Middle East.” Like most people fond of Harris, Whitney believes that Harris’ most useful attribute is his hard-won understanding of life at the margins, from the outside looking in. Like most people who know him, however, Whitney doesn’t know all the details of just how far outside and marginal Harris has been.
Chuck Harris’ legal name is not Chuck Harris. It’s Oaky Miller, which still rings a bell or two in Philadelphia, where he was born and raised. His father was Chuck Miller, a vaudeville performer whose calling card was a dead-on Al Jolson impersonation, in blackface. He says his mother, Gertrude, was a professional gambler known as “Fast Gertie from the East.” But again, that’s another story—which Harris has documented in a 178-page, single-spaced, as-yet unpublished biography.
By the time Oaky arrived, vaudeville had expired, and the elder Miller was making his living organizing and starring in charity minstrel shows for lodges, social clubs, churches and synagogues. At age 5 Oaky joined his father and older brother as one-third of “Miller’s Mighty Minstrels.” By the 1950s, though, the blackface genre was becoming sufficiently radioactive, even in private venues. The troupe disbanded, and Chuck Miller entered the retail clothing business. Son Oaky enrolled at Temple University.
While still in college Oaky Miller began moonlighting as a disk jockey. “Between records I’d say, ‘Stick around, you’ll dig the sound, the big bad O is back on the go! Solid 10—enough said!’” In the same pre-Beatles frenzy that launched Dick Clark, he began hosting “dance parties” on television—Chester, Pa., was his radio home and Scranton his TV base—and emceeing record hops at amusement parks and school auditoriums in nearby towns. “I was making big money! A thousand dollars a week!” His first new car was a Cadillac convertible. His father became his manager, using the name Chuck Harris for that task.
In 1963, his manager advised him that it was time to leave the nest and seek his fortune in Hollywood. He never questioned his father’s judgment. Oaky Miller moved West and for the next quarter century or so he rode the roller coaster, getting recurring roles and making guest appearances in series such as “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best” and “That Girl,” as well as supporting parts in movies such as “Divorce American Style.” He worked as a nightclub and burlesque comic, the kind of tuxedoed guy-goes-into-a-doctor’s-office comedian that Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and George Carlin made obsolete. During the Vietnam War he organized and “headlined” several Department of Defense-supported variety shows for the troops in Southeast Asia.
By the 1980s his career had all but dried up. In a classic bit of desperation, he even phoned booking agents as his “manager”—Chuck Harris—to book himself as an entertainer on cruise ships. Sometimes it worked, often enough for him to wonder what life would be like working full time as Chuck Harris, talent broker.
In 1987, a friend at the William Morris Agency tipped him off to a performer who, while talented, had an upside potential much too small for the big agency’s attention. Miller drove to a bar in Orange County and watched a muscular young African American man compete in an amateur-night talent contest. The fellow had what looked like two 10-foot ladders strapped to his side, and attached to the ladders at regular intervals were life-sized animated mannequins of four members of the Jackson Five. The guy, standing in the middle and dressed as Michael Jackson, worked the controls while at the same time balancing the whole assemblage and setting himself and the mannequins dancing and lip-synching to “ABC.” The place went wild, and he won first prize by acclamation.
When Miller introduced himself, Christopher explained that he had built the rig himself and that he always won these contests, taking away a cool $50 or $100 each time. Miller asked for his phone number and said he’d get back to him. In short order he’d booked him on a short-lived Dick Clark-produced variety series; then on “The Arsenio Hall Show”; and then Eddie Murphy, watching his pal Arsenio’s show one night, liked what he saw so much that he hired Christopher as an opening act on his “Raw” tour for $2,000 per performance.
That was the big break for Christopher, who now has danced (more often these days as The Village People) at everything from corporate sales meetings to a guru’s birthday gala in India. Miller morphed almost immediately into Chuck Harris and began building his new life, which emphatically includes his current wife, Dongdong, a Chinese-born immigrant whom he met on a blind date. She is several decades his junior, and works in the import-export business.
Harris’ schedule these days includes various side projects, such as pitching Arnold’s Fitness Expo as a TV special to networks and syndicators; representing a “Sesame Street” live stage show in major markets outside North America and Europe; and finishing work on a spanking new tape-duplication and digital-editing suite in which he’s created a short teaser for a feature film he’d very much like to produce.
“It’s called ‘Wackos Del Mundo,’ ” he says one afternoon, playing the tape, which consists primarily of his most bizarre acts, spliced together. He plans to sell the concept, then later he’ll edit in a rudimentary plot line.
A visitor, flinching a bit at all the regurgitation and self-mutilation, betrays a moment of skepticism, or whatever. Chuck Harris, taking no offense, interprets this as a signal that the viewer needs to be cheered up, and made to see the infinite possibilities of life.
“What’s the matter?” he says, grinning. “Don’t you remember how much money ‘Jackass’ made?”