Brian Phelps, Ringo
Starr and Mark Thompson
first rain in nearly 300 days pelted the pavement of Los
Angeles last month, an odd occurrence took place on
Hollywood Boulevard. Instead of people scurrying to get
out of the rain or rushing to work, a crowd was gathering
in front of the Hollywood Wax Museum. They were a crowd
of faithful -- braving freeway sig-alerts, rain-soaked
streets and each other, to watch the unveiling of a star
on the Walk of Fame.
Phelps, Mark Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton,
Was it another movie star being honored? Was it a recording artist? No, this star honored Mark & Brian, the radio team that has been broadcasting on KLOS (95.5 FM) in the morning for the last 10 years.
In an industry where longevity is often measured in months, staying on the air on the same radio station and in the same time slot is a significant accomplishment.
The duo passed many tests of fortitude over the last 10 years, including: performing for U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War; the stress of an ill-fated weekly TV series on NBC, fending off competition from rock stations KROQ's Kevin and Bean, Arrow 93 and attacks -- both professional and personal -- from the self-proclaimed "King of All Media," Howard Stern.
Perhaps their biggest challenge arose when Stern began broadcasting on KLSX-FM (97.1) in Los Angeles in July 1991. The big bad wolf of radio went head-to-head with Mark & Brian, giving them their first real competition since they arrived in L.A. Stern began pulling listeners away from the KLOS guys; and in celebrated the event by staging a mock execution, ironically in Hollywood, not far from where the duo's new star is located on the Walk of Fame.
The guys who sign off their show with "Be good humans" have resisted responding to Stern's on-air taunts and what Phelps calls his "you suck" mentality.
"Frankly, we would be lousy at it if we did," he said. "The people who listen to us don't like that kind of humor -- being vile for the sake of being vile. The people who listen to him do."
But Thompson admitted the New York jock gets to him at times.
"Not so much when he attacks us, or what we do on the air, but when he attacks my family, my wife and kids -- that's just cowardly. You have to ask yourself, 'Where's he going to be in 10 years?' "
The KLOS decade-old morning team consists of Mark Thompson, an Alabama native who gravitated to radio because he "couldn't do anything else," and Brian Phelps, a comedy writer and producer, who once toured with a comedy group in his home state of Illinois. A mutual friend at a radio station in Birmingham, Ala. first paired the duo; and within a year, they reached No. 1 in the market.
Brought to Los Angeles by Bill Sommers, then-president and general manager of KLOS in September 1987, the duo -- joined by a revolving cast of "family" members -- again achieved the top-ranking in America's second largest market within two years.
"The trade publications couldn't understand why I'd hire two guys from the 56th market to do mornings in the No. 2 market," Somers said. "The way I looked at it was: People are either funny or not."
A decade later they are still amusing the masses.
The weekend before the unveiling of the star on the Walk of Fame, KLOS honored the pair and their loyal listeners by staging a free concert event featuring ZZ Top, Little Feat and .38 Special at the Blockbuster Pavilion in DeVore.
"As a little gift to the guys, we decided to throw a party in their honor-- with 60,000 of their closet friends," KLOS Program Director John Duncan said.
The audience witnessed such typical Mark & Brian comedy bits as the beer belly contest and the pair's "mooning" of the crowd from the top of the stage.
During a brief respite between stage appearances, the radio performers were asked how they would describe their show to someone who had never heard it.
"A couple of guys making each other laugh," Thompson said.
The honorees, who already have Marconi, Emmy and Billboard awards at home, appeared contritewhen commenting on their star on the Walk of Fame. What put it in perspective for Thompson was when he "realized that his children's grandchildren could look at it someday."
"You can tell your family and friends back home that you have a No.1-rated radio show, and they will say, 'That's nice,' he explained. "But when you tell them that you are getting a star on the Hollywood Boulevard, they know what that means."
Phelps described his mother's reaction.
"When I first told my mom, she laughed like I was telling her a joke," he recalled. " 'No, Mom, this is for real.' It was funny that Mark and I both had the same reaction when they first told us about it: 'Now, you can't take this away from us, right?' "
His like-minded buddy interjected, "No matter what, right?"
The national radio celebs seemed truly humbled later in the week when Hollywood Honorary Mayor Johnny Grant unveiled the star, while flanked by celebrities who have appeared on their radio show: John Travolta, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Coleman and Kevin Pollack.
Travolta, the surprise guest at the ceremony, shared his feelings about the benevolent radio stars.
"They make our day better," Travolta announced. "They give us hope, and they are two of the most decent fellows that I ever have known."
As Thompson thanked the crowd of fans, he had to stop several times to fight back tears.
"We couldn't do it without you," he told the throng of admirers.
Referring to the pair's brand of humor, Phelps added, "Thanks for getting it."
The next morning, the pair was back at work, and the reality hadn't sunk in yet.
"I think I'm gonna go up and see it again this weekend -- just me and the family," Thompson announced, referring to his wife, Lynda, and three children, Matthew, Amy and Katie.
But it's the team's other family, the on-air family, that the guys are milling around to share the afterglow.
"When I got home, there were a bunch of people at my house," Phelps said. "I walked in and said, 'Is it all right with you guys if I just take a nap?' "
His partner had a similar reaction.
"I felt the same way," Thompson said. "After we got home, the kids took me into their room and unveiled my star they had made themselves and put up on the Thompson Wall of Fame. I took a nap afterwards."
The happy radio brothers expect their daily dose of exhaustion after 10 years of rising before 4 a.m.
Right before their show begins at 6 a.m., the stars enter the studio with Frank Murphy, the show's producer, who stands at the table separating the two. In the next booth, Frank Sontag runs the board and provides additional witty repartee as needed. Sontag has recently replaced Rita Wilde, who hosts the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. time slot, right after the dynamic duo signs off.
In a booth on the opposite side of their studio, newsman Chuck Moshontz peruses the daily newspapers and types the copy for his "News and Views" feature. Moshontz was a member of the team when the show first aired in Los Angeles and has recently returned to the nest. His latest gig was at the defunct adult album alternative rock station KSCA 101.9, which turned Spanish. When his return was officially announced at the concert the previous weekend, the 60,000 fans went wild.
"I don't know what I do that makes you react like this," he told the crowd, somewhat shocked at the ovation. "But I'm happy to be back doing it."
Behind Moshontz is yet another studio where Anthony Schermerhorn runs the board for the team.
When the show begins, Phelps paces around the table with his hands in his pockets, leashed to the console by headphones. Thompson recalls the previous day's events and what is scheduled for today's program.
When the show goes into its first commercial break, the team is busy preparing for the next segment. Later in the day, the news segment will be augmented by Tod Donahoe, who has been phoning in the sports report live every morning since almost the beginning.
The most significant event of the M&B decade for Donahoe took place at Brian's birthday show one year, during one of his trademark sports figure retrospectives on a basketball superstar, who was a guest.
"Magic Johnson actually started crying; that's my most memorable moment," Donahoe said.
The sports broadcaster mused, "For anyone to survive in morning radio like they have for over 10 years -- that's phenomenal. It is such an unpredictable business."
Another member of the family rides around in a helicopter. In 1990 the morning duo told their boss, Bill Sommers, that Scott Reiff was their guy for traffic reporting.
"It's their world; I just live in it," commented "Skylord" Scott Reiff. "I owe them both a lot: They're the ones who helped me get started in my charter tour helicopter business."
The pair's syndication producer compiled a tape of highlights from the show's first 10 years. The tape includes segments with characters familiar to the longtime listener, such as: Phelps' Elvis impression; Elan, the K-Mart worker; Burr and the cut'ya guy; plus phone calls from celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, Billy Bob Thornton and John Travolta and an early-morning call to someone who "may or may not have been" Jack Nicholson. They still argue over the veracity of that one. Thompson feels "absolutely positive" it was Nicholson, while Phelps believes that the caller "was just too Jack."
A few sample items on the pranksters' 10-year-old laundry list are: riding a crane to dip themselves in chocolate; the annual "What would you do for Superbowl tickets?" contest; and the catapulting of the Elvis Bob (a former Bob's Big Boy statue made up to look like Elvis) over the fountain in front of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, where Evil Knevilhad attempted to jump with his motorcycle.
"Evil failed the jump; but the Elvis Bob made it," Thompson proudly pointed out.
One stunt that may have backfired was when former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan used the pair to inject a little levity into his troubled reelection campaign in 1995. (A San Francisco station carries the M&B show.)
The gagmeisters visited the mayor at his home one morning to interview him. After convincing Jordan to go on the air, the pair, in typical Mark & Brian fashion, asked the mayor to take a shower with them.
Jordan agreed and allowed himself to be photographed naked (from the waist up) in the shower with the twosome, after they kiddingly promised to deliver 25,000 votes. The mayor initially defended the stunt with jokes like, "It shows I've got nothing to hide" and "I'm squeaky clean." But after criticism built up, he backed down, thus dooming his reelection bid, according to some political analysts.
"Where he made his mistake was in apologizing," Thompson said. "He should never have made such a big deal out of it."
Phelps elaborated on his partner's political analysis: "That and in not doing more sit-ups in the weeks before the election."
After their stint/stunt in politics, do they plan to try television again?
"We have a few years left on our contract at KLOS, and we certainly wouldn't want to try anything like the show we did before," Thompson said. "Our radio program really suffered. We shot 90 percent on location, sometimes for 16 hours a day. We just couldn't give the radio program the attention it deserved; and it really showed."
Phelps finished his partner's train of thought.
"But a sitcom -- we certainly feel we could handle the schedule involved in shooting one of those," he said. "We are, in fact, in discussion with people about doing a sitcom."
After 12 years, the pair works seamlessly together, finishing each other's sentences and thoughts easily. But, much to the disappointment of their listeners who might spot them in public, they don't hang out together that much once they get off work.
"Although there was that time after we had done a personal appearance in Portland, and we ran into each other in the hotel lobby at the end of the day, " Phelps recalled, perking up. "We decided to have a few drinks together in the bar. We wound up closing the place, just talking and laughing at each other. That was fun. And it was just like our show."
After 12 years together, do they ever feel like quitting?
"Every morning at a quarter to
Phelps chimed in, "No matter
how long we do this, it's something you just never get
used to." BY BRIAN McCARTHY
Phelps chimed in, "No matter how long we do this, it's something you just never get used to."
BY BRIAN McCARTHY