I had never watched Dancing with the Stars until my sisters got me hooked, but when I heard that one of this season’s contestants was to be Jerry Springer, I became nauseous. I mean, did I want to see this guy dance? The Sultan of Salaciousness? The King of Trash TV? Could I put up with that just to see Mario Lopez’s dimples and Emmitt Smith’s gorgeous smile?
My only knowledge of Jerry Springer, admittedly, came from his TV talk show, which is like watching a bunch of circus freaks. You can be zapping with your remote and come up with something like this: A 15-year-old girl is telling her 60-year-old husband that she’s fallen in love with her cousin (could be a man, could be a woman, could be both). From that point on, it’s hard to understand what’s being said because of all the bleeps for the bad language; plus it’s also hard to see because the wife, for reasons known only to herself, has taken off her top, so there’s a big white box over her chest. Then the cousin appears.
The husband, whose belt is around his thighs and whose stomach precedes him by a good three feet, lunges toward the new boyfriend, who is probably already the result of a marriage between cousins. The security guards arrive. Jerry stands to the side, holding his microphone. [Note: You would be zapping to a show like this in the past – today, apparently, there is no violence or foul language allowed on the program. I must have caught a rerun.]
I admit I had Jerry all wrong, and like a lot of other Americans who watch Dancing with the Stars, I’ve fallen hard for Jerry Springer: father, dancer, trash talk show host, and a man whose name is the title of an opera where people sing expletives on high notes.
Jerry decided to appear on Dancing with the Stars so he could do the waltz with his daughter Katie at her upcoming wedding. Katie was born without nasal passages, is legally blind, and partially deaf. She works with special needs children. She has a beauty that transcends all the leggy professional dancers with their sequined costumes. After Springer and his lovely partner Kym Johnson danced the waltz to “Could I Have This Dance?,” he went into the audience to hug his daughter. There wasn’t a dry eye to be found.
At 64, Springer is an amazingly good sport and a game dancer. He plays maracas like a madman, leaps into the air, turns and lands on his knee, arms outstretched, wears a John Travolta Saturday Night Fever suit to introduce a disco segment, and rolls across the floor during the actual disco dance. He’s this year’s George Hamilton – not afraid to make a fool of himself or have a laugh at his own expense. Where Hamilton hit the nursing homes to get votes, Jerry went to the prisons – his people. When Kym was injured, one of the hosts asked him if he was concerned about the competition. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “I mean, there goes first place.” As of last week, he’s managed to hold on, but by October 25, he may be out.
Normally, it appears to me like he wants off that show like nobody’s business so he can soak his aching muscles for a week in a hot tub. However, after the judges chastised him for his prank-filled toreador act last week, in which he looked like a waiter, he did want to come back: if he has to exit, he wants to do it with a better dance. On October 24, he did a fantastic job and looked great in his tux. “If I’m going to die,” he tells the emcee, “I wanted to go out with a better dance, and this is a better suit to be laid out in.”
In researching Springer, I was surprised to find out a few things that many people probably already know. He was born in a London subway station after his parents fled the Holocaust. In 1949, the family immigrated to Queens, New York. He holds a degree in political science from Tulane University and a JD from Northwestern. He was a campaign aide to Robert Kennedy during his presidential run, and Springer himself was elected the mayor of Cincinnati by the largest plurality in history. After an unsuccessful run for governor of that state in 1982, he did nightly news and political commentaries for Cincinnati's WLWT-TV, winning 10 Emmy awards.
So just how did a man of Springer’s education and political savvy come to host this show that bears his name? Well, it turns out there was another big talk show host at Cincinnati’s WLWT-TV by the name of Phil Donahue. When it came time to replace Donahue’s sober, issue-driven talk show, The Jerry Springer Show was developed as a replacement, modeled along the same line as Donahue’s. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, I guess it depends on how you look at it), the show had a poor reception and the syndicators were ready to drop it. In order to save it, the format was changed to — cough, cough — a less serious one.
I’ll give it to Springer, he’s put the name and money he’s made for himself to good use. He established a scholarship fund at the Keliman School (Chicago, IL) that serves inner-city youth. He was behind the effort to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee to support ratification of what became the 26th Amendment to the Constitution. He’s Vice President of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In his spare time, he hosts a radio show and writes and performs country music. That is, when he’s not tripping the light fantastic with Kym.
Springer’s fame is now in the stratosphere. Besides gaining a new audience on Dancing With the Stars, Jerry Springer: The Opera, starring David Soul of Starsky and Hutch fame (I think he was Hutch, I always got the names mixed up) played the Cambridge Theater in London for 609 performances before embarking on a national tour of the United Kingdom. It has won many awards, including the prestigious Olivier Award for best musical of 2003. Whether it will reach our shores is dependent upon several things. Even if it plays Broadway, I wonder if the rest of the country is ready for a big man in a diaper, a leathered-up Brünhilde type doing a pole dance, paunchy people fighting and making out, and the aforementioned high-note profanity. Why pay for it when you can see most of that on TV for nothing?
Whatever the fate of the opera and the outcome of Dancing with the Stars, the talk show host’s future seems secure. He’ll be able to dance with Katie at her wedding, and lots of people, including myself, won’t need a barf bag when they hear his name. When he says at the end of his show, as he always does, "Until next time, take care of yourself and each other," I’m going to believe he means it.Powered by Sidelines