Last Tuesday night Anna, myself and three of my kids attended the event we had come to New York for, “An evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp” at Radio City Music Hall. As I mentioned before, this was a charity event featuring readings by J.K. Rowling (Harry), Stephen King (Carrie) and John Irving (Garp), tickets for which was a Mother’s Day gift for Anna. King is among my favorite authors, Irving is Anna’s absolute favorite and we are all fans of Rowling, especially the kids.
The show was quite good, and littered with surprise celebrity presentations and introductions. It began with an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg, who had several funny lines including when she remarked “right now all the Stephen King fans are leaning over and whispering to the J.K. Rowling fans that Harry is going to ‘bite it’ in book seven.” Each author was introduced by a celebrity and a short video montage with clips of interviews and scenes from films made from their works. Kathy Bates did a marvelous job introducing first speaker Stephen King. He entered to enthusiastic applause and a standing ovation.
I was curious as to what story or excerpt King was going to read to an audience that contained many kids under the age of 13. Anyone who has read King’s work knows, gore and demons aside, he is not shy with rough language and sexual references. Still, there are plenty of King stories that would probably work in this situation… perhaps some part of “Low Men in Yellow Coats” like the three card monte scene, or some part of “It” when the kids are young and up to hijinks. In retrospect I should have known he would choose “The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan”, which is a story within a story called “The Body”, part of the 1982 compilation “Different Seasons”. “The Body” was the story used as the basis for the movie “Stand by Me”, and this particular part of that short story was incorporated into the movie. It’s the part where the fat kid gets revenge on his small town for years of verbal abuse at the annual pie eating contest. “Lard Ass” Hogan does not want to win the contest, he intends to lose in a most spectacular and unforgettable way. He consumes a bottle of Castor Oil before the event, which causes him to enthusiastically vomit during the contest, which further causes a chain reaction of puking throughout the crowd. The scene as King wrote it is monstrously funny, and being that is was a memorable scene in that movie is was a perfect choice to read.
King has narrated a few of his audiobooks, mainly the short stories and at least one full novel (“Bag of Bones”), so he is no stranger to dramatic reading. He does not have a voice that would garner him even a modest career in voice-over work, however. It is rather nasal sounding, somewhat monotone and the New England accent is very prevalent. Still, he understands his material better than anyone and that brings something to the table that supercedes the benefits of a trained voice actor. I’m referring to audiobooks here, of course. The point of the performance last night was not to be dazzled by a vocal performance, but to hear the author of the words read them him/herself. Still, a terrible performance would have made it hard to enjoy. King did a fine job and brought forth the humor of the piece extremely well… his calm, serene straight-man delivery added to the absurdity of the scene. I enjoyed it greatly. King himself was witty and very genuine… he obviously embraces rather than resists his reputation has the “King of Horror”, as evidenced by remarks like how the chair they selected for his sitting area had “the look” of an electric execution chair.
John Irving was introduced stoically by Andre Braugher, a notable actor who I cannot for the life of me recall having any connection whatsoever with a John Irving adaptation. In fact, Braugher started as “Matt Burke” in the recently remade TV movie adaptation of “Salem’s Lot” based on Stephen King’s book, but nothing by Irving. I’m still shaking my head over that one, and I think Braugher may be too, since his introduction was very short and uninspired. I suspected from the look of the audience (many sporting witch hats and striped scarves) that Irving would get the short end of the crowd’s enthusiasm, even though he is arguably the most respected and acclaimed of the three authors of the evening. I was pleasantly surprised when he got a very strong round of applause and some people stood, although far short of an ovation. Irving is a very charismatic man who sat amid the trappings of a vintage library/smoking room and gave the best reading performance of the evening. He read an excerpt from “A Prayer for Owen Meany”, specifically the scene where they cast the church nativity play. It was an excellent choice of material and he did a great job of bringing the humor of the scene to the audience. Perhaps it was just that the character of Owen gave him the excuse to do an exaggerated and humorous voice (Owen is a boy extremely small for his age, with a very high and unusual voice as described in the book), but he lent the proper attitude to the other characters as well… so I would say he is a very good performer. At any rate, his reading was even more enjoyable than King’s. He read like a father reading to his kids, and I think he connected well with the audience.
Jon Stewart, of all people, introduced J.K. Rowling. I guess Andre Braugher made more sense than I thought. Stewart joked about why he was picked to introduce Rowling, apparently thinking it as much a stretch as I did. He was his usual hilarious self, however, so who cares. I think the Potter-heads in the audience were a little disappointed it wasn’t Daniel Radcliffe. As I thought, Rowling got the biggest reaction, with a roaring crowd and a long ovation with many screams and hoots. She was very soft spoken and joked self-effacingly about how nice it was that the show organizers had arranged for two amateur nobodies to warm up the crowd for her. “No pressure here!” she exclaimed. She read an excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, the latest of the series. It was the scene where Harry and Dumbledore, through a magic device called a “pensive”, witness a past event where a younger Dumbledore collects the future Lord Voldemort at an orphanage where he has lived since birth to attend Hogwarts school. It was a nice choice of material. Perhaps Rowling was not kidding when she alluded to feeling pressure and being nervous following King and Irving, because her reading was the least enjoyable of the three. She did an decent job, but stumbled several times and even got the name of the orphanage head wrong at one point. All in all she did fine, if not quite giving her material the weight and projection of the other authors. As my wife pointed out to me later, it is likely not the easiest of tasks for writers used to working in a quiet, lonely room in isolation to sit in front of 6,000 people and read their work. I guess I’ll have to give J.K. a pass, then.
Despite the obvious rapture of the majority of the audience, Rowling seemed (and was) out of place in that company. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Potter books. When Anna and I used to read a chapter to our kids before bed, we’d go downstairs after turning out their lights and keep on reading! Rowling’s story is captivating, wonderfully full of little details and great imagination, and (sorry for the pun) magical. Still, with six books to her credit and really only one (albeit long) story, she has a long row to hoe before she can sit comfortably amid authors of King and Irving’s status. To her credit, I get the feeling she is fully aware of this… much better than most of the audience was. It would be easy to let the almost unimaginable success of her work go to her head, but I do not believe that is the case. I have a great respect for that kind of attitude.
After they all gathered onstage and answered pre-submitted questions. One thing the three all agreed on was how wonderful it was that Radio City Music Hall was filled up not with head banging concert goers or orchestra lovers, but by BOOK READERS. Rowling especially should get major credit for enthralling and enticing a whole generation of kids who face mind-numbing distractions like Playstation, television, the increasingly video-driven web and 10,000 hours of video and music in their pockets to pick up a book and READ. That said, it was very showing that the biggest hoots of the evening were reserved not for the mention of a book title or a particularly great portion of a story, but for any allusion to a work adapted into a movie or TV show. Yes, the cross-pollination of books and visual media drives a lot of the popularity of authors and their work these days. I do not think it was a coincidence that King choose a story that was part of one of the better film adaptations of one of his books, if not one of the more overtly famous film versions of his works. I overheard one person on 51st street after the show lamenting on his cell phone that King didn’t read something from the “Sissy Spacek book”… groan. Still, they are right in that the majority of the audience was there because they loved their books, not the movie adaptations. Anytime authors can pack a house like that just to be heard reading their work is a sign civilization is not in total retreat.
All in all a very enjoyable evening. Anna and the kids also had a great time, and we helped two great causes along the way. You can’t beat that.
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