Entertaining troops of BWI passengers

October 15, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

It's the start of a busy weekend at BWI and I'm standing in the middle of C Pier watching something you don't see every day: a Groucho Marx impersonator working the lines at the Southwest Airlines counters.

To a woman who nudges her suitcase forward with her foot, he barks: "Hey, quit kicking that bag around! I did a year and a half for that. She finally divorced me."

It's not a knee-slapper, it sure ain't politically correct, but the woman smiles wearily, which, it turns out, is the whole point.

On this sunny fall afternoon, Groucho is one of five entertainers working the main terminal, along with a curvy Mae West impersonator, a Radar O'Reilly impersonator and a couple of jugglers.

The idea, says Betsey Sanpere, the program coordinator for BWI's terminal entertainment program, is this: with more and more people flying again, and with tighter security measures making for longer lines, the airport is looking for a way to ease the stress for travelers.

This is the second weekend that entertainers have been hired from the Cast of Thousands talent agency in McLean, Va; last week, a Cher lookalike, an Austin Powers impersonator (complete with bad teeth and bad rug) and a magician schmoozed the crowds.

As Sanpere explains this, I try to imagine myself as a harried business traveler from, say, San Diego, who happens to find himself at the back end of a line that seems to stretch all the way to Vermont.

I'm tired. I'm stressed. I've been stuck in a lousy hotel all week eating bad food.

Suddenly I look up and there's a guy dressed as Groucho in my face, doing shtick.

Now, am I going to think this is amusing ?

Or am I going to snarl: "Get lost, you little weirdo! I've been in this @#$%& line for hours and I got a six-hour flight from hell staring me in the face! And you're gonna do jokes!?"

I don't know ... me, I'd probably lean toward the second option.

But, according to Sanpere and the entertainers themselves, the reaction thus far from airline passengers has been very positive.

"Oh, yeah, people seem to like it," said Groucho, who turned out to be Michael Levick, a 48-year-old professional impersonator from Washington who also does Robin Leach and Teddy Roosevelt.

Moments earlier, I watched Levick lay another classic Groucho line on a grumpy-looking woman in the Southwest line: "You get better-looking every day. I'll call you tomorrow."

When she didn't slug him - and eventually even mustered a smile - I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

For a while, I tagged around with one of the jugglers, Micah Bump, an affable grad student at Georgetown University who was a big hit with the little kids in line.

While Bump is not, thankfully, a mime, he does engage in the second most-annoying form of entertainment known to mankind: he twists balloons into various shapes.

Walking up and down the line, he accosted travelers and twisted balloons into the shapes of swans, elephants, etc., which he cheerfully presented to them (and which they, unbelievably, accepted).

Then Bump came to LeanneChaves, a George Washington University student flying home to Danvers, Mass., for the weekend.

For her, Bump outdid himself, making a huge, conical, Cat-in-the-Hat-style balloon hat in GW's colors, topped with a big, red heart.

As I write this, I don't remember what GW's colors are.

All I remember is the stricken look on Chaves' face as Bump urged her to model the hat.

"You look mortified," I said to Chaves when Bump moved on.

"Yes," she said with a laugh.

And I was mortified for her.

And so were her fellow travelers.

By far, the most fascinating entertainer working the crowd was Art Growden, the Radar O'Reilly impersonator.

Let me tell you something: Growden looked more like Radar than Radar ever did.

He's 53, Growden is, a machinist for NASA who lives in Lanham. And he's been impersonating the M*A*S*H character for years, ever since a teacher in college pointed out the eerie facial resemblance between the two.

In the early 1980s, in fact, Growden, as Radar, took first place in a celebrity lookalike contest at BWI, winning a week-long, all-expenses-paid trip to London.

Strolling the concourse the other day in his Korean War-era green cap and battle fatigues, familiar teddy bear tucked in the crook of one arm, Radar offered passengers lifetime supplies of grape Nehi, his famously favorite drink.

Growden said that, at celebrity-impersonating gigs he has done over the years, he'd met many of the characters of the M*A*S*H TV show, including Loretta Swit, the late McLean Stevenson and the late Larry Linville.

But strangely enough, he never ran into Gary Burghoff, the actor who played Radar. "Oh, I'd love to meet him." he said. Still, he had all of Radar's mannerisms down; when we finished our conversation, he gave me Radar's trademark little tap on the shoulder, which was almost as annoying as, oh, a balloon animal.

All afternoon, the entertainers entertained, rushing to the areas near the check-in and security counters where passenger bottlenecks occurred.

"If [the entertainers] see a long line, they head to the back of it," Sanpere explained, on the theory that the poor wretches standing there were more in need of an emotional lift than the lucky stiffs upfront.

Airports are still tense places, of course, and lots of passengers seemed too preoccupied to pay any mind to the entertainers. Others studied the entertainers with a bored look and went back to their magazines or their Danielle Steel novels.

But most people clearly seemed to appreciate the momentary diversions that Groucho and Radar and the jugglers provided.

"If you can put a smile on someone's face while he's standing in line, that's something," Sanpere said.

Something we desperately need.

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