Ed McMahon, Disney: a dream team

October 09, 1992|By Orlando Sentinel

Backstage at Disney-MGM Studios, Ed McMahon is sitting on his dressing room couch, barefoot and relaxed in an open neck denim shirt and white slacks.

He is waxing merrily about a TV commercial he would like to produce with Disney in which he would skip lightly through the Disney-MGM Studios arch with Minnie Mouse.

The announcer, he says in his rich and familiar baritone, will be exclaiming: "Disney World and 'Star Search,' they go hand in hand!"

Forget his 34 years with Johnny Carson -- four as an announcer on Mr. Carson's "Who Do You Trust?" game show and 30 as his sidekick on "The Tonight Show." Mr. McMahon has a new partner now. "Ed McMahon's Star Search," the new and expanded version of his long-running syndicated talent showcase, has put down roots at Disney-MGM Studios, and Mr. McMahon is nothing if not a company man.

"It's a great marriage," said Mr. McMahon, who now sports red Mickey Mouse suspenders underneath his "Star Search" tuxedo jacket.

Indeed, the arrival of "Star Search" at Disney-MGM is a union of two dream-making institutions. For almost a decade now, "Star Search" has been giving aspiring professional performers a shot in the national spotlight. The show gets plugged in films and TV programs ranging from "Murphy Brown" to "The Golden Child," in which Eddie Murphy tells his young friend he will get him on "Star Search" because he knows Ed McMahon personally.

Now thousands of visitors who make their great escape to Disney each year will have a chance to be in the studio audience and a part of the drama. The enthusiastic audiences at Disney-MGM have been the best in the show's history, says executive producer Sam Riddle.

Until this year, "Star Search" aired as a one-hour, weekend show. This season, it is a half-hour weekday show with a one-hour recap on the weekend. ("Star Search" airs locally on WNUV-Channel 54, Monday through Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m.)

"Star Search" began taping its 10th season at Disney-MGM in June and returned this month to produce 30 shows. Mr. McMahon returns again in November, December and January to complete the 156 shows of the season. The new weekday show is airing in 40 markets, while the weekend show continues to air in almost 200. Producers are billing their old-time family variety show as an alternative to the weekday tabloid programs.

When Mr. McMahon was persuaded to do the show 10 years ago, he never thought it would last. Little did he know that the show would provide exposure for such talents as comedians Sinbad and Dennis Miller; the country music group Sawyer Brown; Jenny Jones; Tiffany; and Alison Porter, who made her film debut recently in "Curley Sue." Sultry Sharon Stone of "Basic Instinct" fame was in the series pilot.

"All these people are being discovered and finding work, that's what keeps me going, the fact that I can now be like the godfather of talent and prosper this business," said Mr. McMahon, 69.

The process of discovery begins with auditions. The producers receive as many as 100 tapes a day from star wannabes and hold open auditions around the country throughout the year. Mr. McMahon and his casting staff recently returned from a 14-city tour in which they both promoted the show and recruited new talent.

Competitive categories include female, male, teen and junior vocalists; junior and adult dancers; musical groups; comedians; and spokesmodels.

Every year at the finals, Mr. McMahon tries to reassure contestants. "You don't have to come in first to have a great career in this business," he tells them.

When he was a teen-ager growing up in Lowell, Mass., he recalls, he wanted nothing more than to be a disc jockey. He practiced for years reading Time magazine into a flashlight that substituted for a microphone and spinning records on his grandmother's Victrola.

One day, Mr. McMahon auditioned for a radio announcer job that he thought would answer all his prayers. He came in second, losing out to one Ray Goulding. Mr. Goulding became so hot he left for Boston and later hooked up with partner Bob Elliott to become a part of the classic radio comedy act Bob and Ray of the 1940s and '50s. Mr. McMahon replaced Goulding at the radio station.

"I was 17," Mr. McMahon says. "It was my dream come true."

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