"Benji! Benji? Benji!"
"Benji groaned as he was shaken awake, instinctively grabbing the sides of his chair so he wouldn't fall off. "I'm sorry Mrs. VonTussel, I'm ready."
Brad laughed. "Keep on dreaming, my friend. It's just an old pal making sure you don't lose your chance at being the best new thing on television by sleeping so long that the line leaves you behind."
"Wait, seriously?" Benji jumped up and spun in a circle. "How can everyone be gone? An hour ago this place looked like a refugee camp."
Brad sighed. "An hour ago, Amber VonTussel went through the lines and picked a dozen or so of us to go into the studio for an interview."
"Amber was here?" Benji stared at him with wide eyes, holding onto his own head. "Amber VonTussel, beautiful angel of my dreams, hair like a golden waterfall and voice like the tinkling fall of nails on a concrete garage floor?"
Brad chuckled nervously. "Yeah, that's her all right." He winced, catching sight of the dark circles under his friend's eyes. "I'm guessing she didn't wake you up. How long have you been here?"
"Since last night, late." Benji half-smiled. "If I'm getting this chance, it'll be through promptness and a good résumé." He looked at Brad. " 'Cause my name's never done me any favors."
"Right." Brad looked around at the empty room. "Look, it's still pretty early, I bet I could sneak you in with me. Unless you wanna go home and sleep or whatever."
"Are you kidding? No, let's go!" Energy restored, Benji strode past Brad and through the swinging doors to the studio's prep area. Almost immediately, he was engulfed by the sound of loud chatter and aerosol cans, and the smell of hairspray. It reminded him of his three year-old self sitting in some downtown salon with his mother in hot rollers, hiding behind the Home and Garden catalog from ladies wearing too much makeup who always pinched his cheeks. He started to cough.
"Hey, cut that out, man!" Brad slapped him on the back. "Word is some big hairspray brand is the show's new sponsor." He leaned closer. "Someone catches you doing that and you'll fail the audition for sure."
"Sorry." Benji forcefully cleared his throat, wiping his brow with his sleeve. "Anyone else from our crew make the…" he elbowed Brad in the ribs, "bonus round?"
"Nah, most of 'em got passed right over." Brad laced his hands behind his neck. "Lonnie, Matt, Richie, Amber walked right past all of 'em 'cept for me and Sketch."
Benji guffawed. "Sketch came?"
"When Amber took hold of his belt buckle and pulled, I'm sure he did." Brad wiggled his eyebrows.
As both boys threw back their heads and laughed, a girl in a light-brown flowered dress and a tightly-formed beehive planted herself in front of Benji. "What in the world is wrong with your hair?"
He put his hand on top of his head and grabbed a handful. "I-"
She shook her head, cutting him off as she shook her hairspray can. "Hold your nose."
Benji frowned. "What?"
"I said, hold your nose." She wielded the can forcefully in front of herself until he did so, and then proceeded to spray his unkempt locks into place. When she finished, Benji unpinched his nose and gasped for air. She rolled her eyes. "Dramatic much?"
"Thanks," Benji finally managed. "Thanks, I sure do appreciate this, you didn't have to-"
"Whatever." She lightly waved him off. "There's always one or two who come in not able to handle the product, hair or face." She shrugged one shoulder. "But I can honestly say nobody else was dedicated enough to this gig to camp out overnight." She looked at him with a half-smirk. "That's right Benji, I saw you drooling on yourself out there. But I did you a favor and told Mrs. VonTussel you were cute." She patted his arm. "I hope you can dance."
"Yeah, thanks," Benji repeated, lightly touching his hair.
Brad stared at her, then slapped himself in the forehead. "Hey wait a minute, I know you from school, Mr. Dobson's class! Aren't you-?"
"Luann." She introduced herself with a smile, putting a hand out for him to shake. "And you're Brad, right? The one who's been in commercials?"
"Toothpaste commercials," said Benji, putting his arm around his friend's shoulder.
Luann nodded once, still smiling as she let Brad's hand go. "Good to know. You'll want to let the boss lady see those chompers of yours." She looked over her shoulder, then back at them. "I should go. Amber might miss me." She waved before turning to leave. "I hope you two make the cut."
"You throw the ball to first base. Then who gets it? Naturally. Naturally. Now you've got it! I throw the ball to Naturally. You don't! You throw it to Who! Naturally. Well, that's it—say it that way. That's what I said. You did not. Yes I did! No you didn't! You did so! No you—oh my God I've laped into Argument Clinic, that's something completely different, come on Sketch, focus!"
Arthur 'Sketch' DeLancey blew out a strained breath as he attempted to put his hands in the pockets of his tight pants. He shifted, then hopped on his right foot to see how far back he was in the audition line. About ten people left in front of him, not too many and not too few. He'd have just enough time to get himself together. He closed his eyes, relaxing his nerves, and then took a deep breath and then prayed that the infamous Velma VonTussel would take the time to hear the spiels he was known for before making him dance—an ordeal he wasn't sure he was up for. He then opened his eyes and resigned himself to erasing his memory of the past twenty minutes—how he'd gotten to the studio realizing that he was wearing mismatched socks and not his lucky tie, how he'd made a noise like a wounded calf when Amber VonTussel had pulled him out of the line by his pants and almost wet himself seconds later—gone. Erased. Out like an exit door. He shook it off, continuing his quiet monologue.
"I said I throw the ball to Naturally. You don't! You throw it to Who! Naturally. Now I throw the ball to first base, whoever it is drops the ball, so the guy runs to second. Who picks up the ball and throws it to What. What throws it to I Don't Know. I Don't Know throws it back to Tomorrow—a triple play. Yeah, it could be. Another guy gets up and it's a long fly ball to Because. Why? I don't know. He's on third, and I don't give a darn! What was that? I said, I DON'T GIVE A DARN! Oh, that's our shortstop!"
He heard a giggle somewhere behind him. Startled, he turned around and sighted the culprit—a small, delicate-looking redhead with bright eyes and the best smile he'd ever seen, even when it was covered up by two gloved hands.
"Hey, thanks." Sketch laughed nervously, scratching the back of his neck. "Glad you liked the free show."
She lowered her hands, blushing. "Sorry. I love 'Who's on First?' too. Not sorry." She giggled again. "My parents are huge Abbott and Costello fans. Comedy fans all around, really. My dad used to be one half of a comedy duo that did shows all over the state." She looked down, her smile slowly disappearing. "But his partner quit on him to start a joke shop in some Baltimore suburb. Now he just performs on his own." She looked up again, hopefully. "Maybe you've heard of Arnie Tueson?"
Sketch took a step back, eyebrows all the way up in surprise. "Your dad was the taller half of Tueson and Turnblad?"
She shook her head. "Yeah, I know it was stupid stuff-"
"Are you kidding? Stupid? No! Your dad's hilarious!" He flinched hearing the loudness of his own voice echo, then leaned in closer. "When I turned twelve, I begged my parents to take me and see him that night." He grinned. "No luck. So I snuck out and watched from the rafters. Then I bought an industrial-sized banana from the snack bar and slipped back in before the folks knew I was gone!" He pretended to slide into home plate.
She smiled. "I'm glad someone outside the family finds him funny. We were starting to wonder."
Sketch spread out his arms. "No problem!" He cleared his throat. "So, uh, you're auditioning too?"
She nodded, then gave him a nervous look. "I'm actually on callback. Some of us girls got an early interview with Mrs. VonTussel a week ago, and she called back the ones she liked for the dance showcases." She winced, her lower lip quivering the tiniest bit. "I can't dance by myself."
Sketch let out a breath, putting his hand in his hair. "That's a bummer." He looked at her, about to cry, and gently took her hands in his. "Hey, it's gonna be all right…what's your name?"
"Shelley," she murmured.
"Shelley. I'm sure you'll be fine. You already made it through your first round, so just keep doing what you're doing. I'm sure your dancing's not that bad." He chuckled. "I'm not too keen on my own dancing either, to be honest. If we get on the show, it'll be all choreographed and stuff but I'm gonna have to make something up on the spot once I get in there." He looked down. "I'm really terrible at improvising."
Shelley shook her own head with a sigh but then, out of the blue, her whole face lit up again. "Hey, I have an idea!" She stood on her tiptoes to put her hands on his shoulders. "Let's do the dance showcase together!"
Sketch made a confused face. "The showcase? I thought that was just for the girls, and besides, I haven't even done round one yet."
Shelley kept on smiling. "Oh, that's no problem. Just smile, be polite, say you use hair product every day and you'll get past round one without a blink. The showcase is everyone's round two, they just didn't expect so many boys to show up."
Sketch smiled. "Sure, thanks, that'd be-" he glanced to the side, "Uh, Shel? I think the girls are going in now."
"Oh yeah, we are!" She looked over her shoulder as she scooted to catch up. "I'll request you when we partner up! What's your name?"
He answered without hesitation. "People call me Sketch!"
"Bye, Sketch!" Shelley called one last time before the stage door closed.
"And what do you believe you personally can bring to the show as one of the 'Nicest Kids in Town'?"
"Smooth talkin', sweet moves, and a smile that just won't quit!" Brad flashed his pearly whites at the invisible camera to uproarious applause and laughter.
The interviewer chuckled, clapping him on the shoulder. "I think you nailed that one, son."
At the sound of her voice, the sea of studio onlookers parted to make way for Velma VonTussel. Elegantly yet deliberately, she sashayed her way over to Brad's chair in front of the green screen, where the interview man quickly stood to accommodate her.
"Thanks Steve, go get a coffee or something," she said, brushing him off before devoting her full attention to the new face. "Now, let me take a look at you…Brad, is it?"
He nodded earnestly. "Yes, Mrs. VonTussel. It's an honor to be talking with you face-to-face." He accompanied his short laugh with a wide grin. "I feel like I'm dreaming!"
She put her hand lightly over her heart. "How sweet, coming from a virtual unknown-" she trailed off, seeing his expression change. "then again, from a potential untested reservoir of such looks, talent and charisma…" she smiled seductively. "If you weren't so darn young still, I'd sign you as the new host in a heartbeat."
Brad nodded shakily, still smiling. "That's real swell of you to say, Mrs. VonTussel."
"But in any case honey you're a sure shot at this point, that is, if your 'moves' are as 'sweet' as you say." With a wave of her hand, she parted the seas once more to reveal a cluster of girls sitting in the audience seats. "I'd like to see you partnered with Tammy," she said, indicating the tall blonde in the front row. "You'd like that too, wouldn't you Brad?"
"Would I!" he blurted, then covered his mouth on a reflex, making the girls giggle.
Velma laughed as well, patting Brad's cheek. "Don't be too embarrassed, the cameras weren't rolling, were they?" She laughed again at her own joke as she stood up to leave. "I'll see you at the stage door, my darling," she added coyly as she exited the room.
Brad let out a sigh of relief, then walked up to Tammy's seat and offered her his arm. "May I escort you someplace, Miss?"
She smiled pleasantly. "To the drinking fountain would be fine."
"Alrighty then." He helped her up. "About what time did all of you show up? I was so busy talking I didn't see anyone come in."
Tammy rolled her eyes. "You're not supposed to until right near the end. It's one of Velma's tricks to make the boys sweat. But you didn't." She took his arm and leaned in to whisper in his ear. "And I thought you were fantastic."
"Why thank you ma'am." Brad smiled his famous smile. "I think your hair's fantastic."
Tammy laughed. "Thanks. I suppose it'd have to look good if it feels like I'm being stabbed by a million pinecones." She let go of him for a moment to dig in her handbag, producing a straw.
"What's this for?" Brad asked as she handed it to him.
"Protecting your thousand-dollar teeth," Tammy answered, taking hold of his arm more assertively. "Because now I am escorting you to the soda machine in the lobby."
"Come on Phillip, keep up with me! I can't ruin my voice before the big audition because I keep having to yell at you about things!"
"So don't yell at me, then." Phillip wandered after his sister as she weaved through the crowd in the entrance hallway. "Why are you auditioning again though, Elle? Aren't you always bragging to your friends how you were on this show before?"
"When it used to be a show for little kids, Phillip," his older sister explained disgustedly. "The problem is, nobody else seems to know that, so now I've got a social obligation to try out so I can keep current and consistent with my friends and everyone."
"Right, sure sis." Phillip tried to scratch his head, finding the itchy spot inconveniently blocked by the massive layer of gel product Elle had squeezed into his hair before they left the house. "And speaking of friends, I'd kind of rather be out with my own right now."
Elle snorted. "You're thirteen. What do you and your friends even 'do'?"
Phillip clamped his jaw. "I'm fourteen and a half, Elle, and my friends and I play the pinball machines and go to the roller rink with our own allowances."
She laughed at him. "You're right Phillip, the definition of mature is pinball machines and roller rinks."
He scowled. "You'd be nicer to me if your friends actually liked you."
Elle laughed harder, now hard enough that people turned around. "Look at this, oh my God look at this! I'm getting coached in life lessons by my stupid little brother!"
"Shut up! I have an IQ of 131!" he shouted back at her, his voice cracking. Turning bright red, he covered his mouth and his behind his sister, who was still caught up in her cruel fit of giggles. Phillip sneered at her, crossing his arms. "Sure, keep laughing. Maybe once you're done you can figure out how to read cue cards and pass the dance audition with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that always fall off your face."
She froze. "Oh no. My glasses."
He smirked. "Exactly."
"No really Phillip, you don't understand." Elle wiped her sweaty palms on the inside of her skirt. "I know I was being mean to you before, but I really need this to go well and you're right, these glasses are way too big. None of the cool teenagers on TV even have glasses at all!" She took hers off. "But now I can barely see! What am I going to do?"
Phillip kept smirking. "If you let me watch you audition like a blind bat, I'll hold them for you."
"You would?" Elle asked gratefully.
He shrugged, holding his hand out. "Sure thing, big si-"
"Oh gosh, Amber's coming!" She shoved the glasses onto his face and turned around.
In fitting luck, Amber picked them out right away, wrinkling her nose as she approached. "Is that you, Elle?"
"Hi!" Elle greeted her in as perky a voice as she could muster. "I came to-"
"Audition, yes, I know, same as everyone else." Amber rolled her eyes. "But if I were you I'd head home now. We're not even at capacity for the building yet, and it's bound to get worse."
Elle shook her head. "Nope, I'm good!"
Amber gave her a look. "Maybe you didn't understand me before, since you're apparently as dumb as you are blind. You have no chance, owl eyes. Get out of here."
Elle was struck dumb. "But…but…"
"But…but…but…" Amber mocked. She rolled her eyes again and pointed to the exit. "Out."
"But Amber…" Elle protested in a small voice, "…my glasses…"
Amber laughed harshly. "You look like an owl with and without them owl eyes, so why don't you just put your 'goggles' back on and-" her eyes drifted off to the side, her focus landing on Phillip in his older sister's frames. "Hello."
"Hi." He gave her a small wave, feeling confused.
Amber looked back at Elle. "Elle, is this your brother?"
Elle nodded slowly. "Yes…"
Amber half-smirked. "He's an owl-eyes too?"
"Excuse me fair flaxen-haired lady, but I believe that statement of derision to be false." Phillip took the glasses off. "My sister had me hold onto these for her so that she might try and dance in a way you would like and look cool as well." He handed Elle's glasses back. "Myself, I always thought that is was what was on the inside that made you cool…" he looked at Amber, then feebly put his hands behind his back and looked down, "but you're already pretty cool, I guess. Mostly the pretty part."
"How sweet!" Amber smiled at him. "What's your name?"
"Phillip," he answered shyly. "I'm Elle's brother, I'm in the eighth grade, and I have an IQ of 131."
Elle snorted, rolling her eyes. "Stop telling everyone your IQ Phillip, nobody cares."
Amber put on a shocked expression. "Elle, you are so mean!" She smiled back at Phillip. "Some people are just like that all the time, aren't they?" She leaned in closer. "There's a special word for those kinds of people. It's jealous." She held out her hand to him. "Come with me, Phillip. We'll go and buy you a soda and you can tell me all about your IQ. Would you like that?"
"Yeah, sure thing!" He ducked out of the line and made his way over to Amber. "See ya, Elle."
"Wait for me, Phillip!" Elle protested, also ducking out.
Amber faced Elle with her hands on her hips, shielding Phillip. "Not you, owl eyes." She looked her up and down. "And since you're out of line, it's all the more reason for you to just go home now." She pointed to the exit once more. "Out that door, up the street, and into that house with the peeling paint on Thirteenth and Main."
"But I can't go home without him," Elle whined. "Mom would kill me!"
Amber lifted a shoulder. "Not my problem." She turned around. "Let's go, Phillip."
As soon as she knew Amber couldn't see or hear her, Elle stomped her foot and turned to leave, beginning the walk of shame from the studio to her house with no little brother, no remaining dignity, and no chance of living down the fact that he was getting onto TV and she wasn't.
Conrad Collins put down his spray can, straightened his jacket, and looked in the dressing room mirror. "Pretty snazzy, old boy," he thought to himself. He looked at himself over one shoulder, and then the other. He turned around, and then spun quickly back to the mirror. He gave his reflection a grin and then winked at it. "Yep, I've got it." He sighed, hearing the applause generated by the host candidate before him. "I hope."
"Heeeeeeeeey, hear that?" Ollie Nash, his greasy blonde competitor, opened the stage door wide as he came through. "They love me!"
"Sounds like it." Conrad pushed down his pants pockets. "Velma say anything?"
Ollie shrugged. "Not really…just sat there and watched, didn't change facial expression much, smiled once or twice though when I tried out my jokes. I think I have a pretty good shot at the gig." He looked Conrad up and down. "I dig the suit, man."
"Thanks." He looked at the clock. "Five minutes 'til I'm supposed to go in. Are we still on that 'performance schedule' we got yesterday, or should I just announce myself?"
Ollie waved him off. "It's only a few minutes. Stay put, let's chat."
"Fine." Conrad sat on the makeup counter. "How'd it feel out there?"
Ollie chuckled. "Hot. That's really all I can say my friend, but once you get past the sweat dripping into your eyes, you're golden."
"That's good." He rubbed his hands together. "So, go out there, answer some questions from studio cronies, read some cue lines, show 'em my own thing, tell some jokes maybe, and that's it?"
"That's it," Ollie confirmed, "but be careful with those jokes," he added quickly, "especially given that you're-" he hesitated, "well, you're…you."
Conrad made a face. "What's me being me have to do with telling jokes?"
Ollie bit his lip, in clear debate of which words to use. "Word on the street is you're friendly with colored folks."
"What color?" Conrad asked innocently. "Red? Blue? Orange? Pink? Purple? Mauve? Chartreuse?"
"You know what I mean, Collins," Ollie persisted painfully.
"Then why didn't you say what you meant?" Conrad leaned on his elbow. "Saying 'black' or 'African-American' isn't dirty, Ollie. They say it's even less offensive than Negro, long as you don't put any malice on it."
Ollie pointed at him. "That is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. Conrad, you can't preach on network TV if you're not a televangelist." He lowered his voice. "Especially not after what VonTussel did with this show's lineup."
"What do you mean?"
Ollie raised his eyebrows. "You didn't hear? Well, here's the thing—there's this…African-American lady who ran a show in the afternoons for the past year. It brought ratings up in her community, it brought the station money, and it wasn't half bad from what I hear."
Conrad looked at him. "You're talking about 'Music Hour with Motormouth'."
Ollie frowned. "Yeah, right, that's another thing you probably shouldn't bring up in your routine." He cleared his throat as Conrad rolled his eyes. "Anyway, Velma decided she wanted this show and the station gave it to her, all complete with a daytime slot—right after the other lady's show. Velma didn't like that very much, see, since the book numbers and beehives are really on their way out and she saw 'Music Hour' or whatever it's called as competition, so she doubled the bid those other people were offering on studio time and sold it to the ad companies."
Conrad's face clouded over. "What?"
"Yeah, I told you it was bad. The woman's into sleazy business, and that's why we've gotta be careful."
Conrad slowly stood up, still facing Ollie with darkness in his eyes. "Maybelle got her show cheated out from under her by the lady we're auditioning for?"
"Hey, take it easy there, big-shot." Ollie glanced up. "One minute left 'til you're on."
"I'm not sure you understand what that means, Ollie." Conrad went slowly towards him, menacing but still steady-voiced. "If she can cheat a well-supported pillar of a specific demographic-containing community like Motormouth Maybelle out of a timeslot that doesn't compete with the nightly news, she can just as easily rob whichever guy she chooses of his popularity, credibility, and marketability at the drop of a hat."
Ollie guffawed. "My gosh Conrad, you're nervous, aren't you?"
"Nervous? Me? Nah." He straightened his jacket and checked his hair in the mirror again. "I'm just gonna go out there and smile, and that'll be all they need."
Ollie grinned. "Now there's Conrad Collins." He cracked the stage door open again. "You hear all of 'em?"
"I sure do, Ollie." Conrad grinned. "They're saying, 'Get that yellow-haired trash off the stage so we can get a look at the real all-American boy." He clapped Ollie on the shoulder. "Catch you later, Nash," he said as he crossed the threshold and shut the door.
"Mr. Collins, right on time!" A studio man with a headset and a clipboard escorted him to a small green screen area with two chairs. "Just take a load off there, we'll get you started with Velma after she finishes with the kiddie tryouts."
As the man left, Conrad began to look around his new possible place of employment. Not too huge of a place, but not small enough to laugh at, very clean and very busy. To the left was the door where he'd come in, almost crowded shut by TV equipment. In front of him was the audience space—rows and rows of seats sporadically filled today, but on a taping day…he shivered at the mere thought. To his right was a setup much like his own, but being occupied by a handful of teenagers, a production hand, and Mrs. VonTussel herself.
"So those are the kiddie auditions," Conrad thought amusedly to himself, craning forward in his chair to see. There were three or four older kids and a whole bunch of younger hopefuls all crowded around another teenage-looking kid with brown curly hair who was doing his best to keep cool while answering Velma's questions.
"And what do you say to the rumors going around that you…camped out here overnight?"
The kid laughed out loud. "I'd say they're right-out liars!" He laughed again, then put on a straight face. "I didn't get here 'til before sunrise this morning." A unanimous short laugh sounded from the audience, buying time for Velma to choose another question for her captive subject.
"Would you swim in an integrated pool?" she asked him.
Conrad clenched his fists. "The racist, scheming, loose-"
"If you asked me to, ma'am." The kid's hesitant response broke in on Conrad's thoughts. "if you told me, 'go swim in that pool,' I'd do it. I'd do it and even say I liked it."
"I see." Her eyes narrowed. "And if I told you not to under any circumstances, you'd also do that and like it?"
He nodded once. "Yes I would, Mrs. VonTussel."
She smiled comfortably. "I can already see that you're eager to please, young man, but for my own purposes, I need to know your honest opinion on integration."
He smiled back at her easily. "That doesn't really matter, does it? If someone says to a camera that they feel one way but they don't really mean it, who's supposed to know the difference? If I'm chosen as one of the new 'Nicest Kids in Town,' one quarter of my soul will belong to you. Family, God, Country, VonTussel. That's my motto from now on ma'am, and I'll gladly live by it."
Conrad grinned in wonder. He liked this kid. Obviously determined, eager, honest and, he hoped at least, a good guy all said and done. He saw the onlookers chattering nervously amongst themselves and the look of reluctant approval creeping into Velma VonTussel's face, and decided to join the crowd.
"…and very well qualified," he heard Velma saying as he wove his way into the throng of teenagers. "I think you'd make a wonderful addition to our little cast, especially partnered with Luann." She motioned to a brunette about one head shorter than the kid, not counting the beehive. "I just need to have your name for my records, could you state your full name for us?"
There was a light twitch in the kid's facial expression. "My name?" He gave a short, nervous laugh. "I told you, people call me Benji."
"And I listened, Benji, but even as a nickname it's too young for the kind of audience we want for the program. It sounds like a cartoon dog for goodness sake, and we don't want that, do we?"
"No ma'am," Benji admitted, the group tittering around him.
"What's your real name, Benji?" Velma pushed on. "I'm sure your mother doesn't call you that."
"Actually ma'am…" one of the older boys interrupted.
She cut him off. "It's a simple question young man, and your refusing to answer is making me seriously doubt your ability to follow instructions." She crossed her arms and stared him down. "Well?"
The boy who had interrupted her before stepped forward and put his arm around the other kid's shoulder. "Go ahead, Benji. Really, what's the worst she can do if you've already passed?"
Benji sighed, cleared his throat, and looked at Velma. "Shirley."
She raised her eyebrows. "Excuse me?"
"My name is Shirley Benjamin Warnes." He gulped as the giggles behind him grew louder. "My…parents gave me an androgynous name because I was an accident and they didn't know what gender I would be." He wiped his sweaty palms on the back of his pants. "Benji's short for Benjamin, because there's really no way to nickname someone named Shirley." He was quiet for a moment. "And besides that, there's no way to make it masculine now, thanks to Shirley Temple."
"Maybe that's why you dance so good, curly top!" jeered one of the kids near the front. That's when the laughter started—first just one kid laughing at his own joke, then his friend joining in, then their whole cluster, and then another cluster, until they were all pointing and laughing at poor Benji. Conrad scrunched his eyebrows together in fierce concentration, trying to think of a way to help him.
"I'm afraid you're correct dear," Velma said, wiping tears of her own laughter as the noise died down. "There really is no way to refer to you without a comparison to Shirley Temple…" her mind appeared to wander, blanking her face and causing her fist to clamp so tightly that she snapped her pencil. She blinked, then turned back to him. "And that is quite unacceptable to my standards and the station's, so I'm afraid-"
"Now hold on one moment, Mrs. VonTussel." Conrad pushed his way to the front of the crowd and planted himself next to Benji. "I think casting this boy off on the pure basis of his name would be a tragedy. He's got the look, he's got the spirit, he can learn the moves if need be, I'd think he'd be your ideal candidate."
Mrs. VonTussel looked at him with a combination of surprise and anger. "And exactly who are you to tell me how to manage my own endeavors?"
Conrad ignored her, putting an arm around Benji's shoulders. "Listen kid, you're not the only manly man named Shirley in the world. Over in England there's this guy named Shirley Crabtree—professional wrestler." He retracted his arm and moved over a few paces to get into the wrestling posture. "Played rugby before that, but the guy had a mouth on him almost as big as his chest." He curled his arms, imitating a muscle man. "64 inches. Ain't nobody this side of the Atlantic wants to mess with that."
The group went eerily silent at the sound of Velma's voice. Calmly, she waited with crossed arms for the host candidate to answer the question she had posed to him.
"Conrad Collins," he said, standing straight up and putting out his hand. "I'm very pleased to be here."
"As am I," Velma answered evenly, not shaking his hand.
Conrad turned the abandoned handshake into a point. "I hope you like the getup, Velma." He pulled his hand back and ran it through his hair. "I 'Tussel'ed' my hair this morning just for you."
Benji snorted, elbowing his friend in the side. "I love this guy, what planet's he from?"
Brad laughed in agreement. "Conrad Collins? More like Corny Collins."
"Hey, that's a good one!" One of the production hands pointed Brad out in the group and turned to Velma. "Note as possible name alteration?"
"Hold your horses Jerry, he hasn't been hired yet." She looked Conrad up and down. "Though I can't say it'll be a very tough decision." She began to move closer. "All the others were old poster children, color copies of night life dirt and sludge, and that just won't do." She took hold of his tie with both hands and started to reel him in. "I need someone who won't get washed out under the lights, someone with real presence…" she looked him in the eyes, their faces almost touching. "Someone who knows how to handle bodies when things get…" she whispered the last word, "hot."
"Will do, ma'am," he answered in a low voice. "Maybe one day I'll have the pleasure of handling yours." He gave her a quick wink, and at the first sign of her distraction, Conrad pulled his tie free of Velma's grasp. "But the body I think you should be handling right now…" he backed up and put his arm around Benji's shoulders again, "is this one."
She crossed her arms. "Is that so, Mr. Collins?"
"It surely is!" he said with a wide smile. "And speaking of 'Shirley,' let's find a way around that. A new nickname, something that'll pop." He turned his head. "So kid, what's your hobby?"
"Cars," he answered without hesitation.
"Cars. Okay…" Conrad nodded thoughtfully. "So am I talking to a mechanic or a connoisseur here?"
"Both," Benji answered again without hesitation. "Getting under the hood or body of one of those works of art really makes you appreciate the outside more…" he smiled blissfully. "Like the spotlessness of new whitewall tires or the art in a well-polished fender."
Conrad snapped his fingers. "And there's our nickname." He delivered Benji his second backslap of the day. "Ladies and gentlemen, meet Fender."
As the bell for lunch break sounded, Maybelle Stubbs looked at the studio lobby and sighed in defeat.
"Well, that's it. No way we're gettin' in there now." She sat down on an empty chaise lounge by the wall, beckoning her two children to join her. "Come on babies, we might as well sit in here with the fan for a little longer before goin' out and sweatin' in our show clothes."
Seaweed reluctantly crawled up beside her, leaving room as Inez wedged herself between them. "Is out show gone forever, momma?" he asked finally.
She sighed again. "I don't know, honey, but if we're gettin' it back, it won't be from Ms. VonTussel, that's for sure."
"But what did we do?" Seaweed protested. "We were real good, weren't we? Everyone we know watched 'Music Hour.' If we made someone mad, couldn't she just make us apologize?"
Maybelle shook her head, smiling at her son's innocence. "It ain't that easy. Sure we may think we got lots of friends, and we do," she reassured him, putting a hand on his shoulder, "but havin' friends don't mean you don't have enemies ready to take you down with or without those friends." She looked forward blankly, but her face lit up when she saw who was coming. "Now there's a friend indeed." She waved her arm to get his attention. "Hey Corny, over here!"
Inez too the braid she'd been chewing on out of her mouth. "Mister Collins!"
"Hey, how's my favorite little dancer?" He scooped her up with one arm and held his other hand out to Seaweed for a high-five. "Put it there, my man."
Seaweed managed a half-smile, slapping his hand. " 'sup."
"Well, I see I'm that one happy guy at a sad party." He sat on Maybelle's other side, putting Inez on his knee. "I heard what Velma did with your show. I'm real sorry about that."
"Oh hush child." She shook her head, waving the comment off. "It wan't your fault that hateful woman did this nasty thing. Wan't even your fault she pulled you in for this old-face replacement show of hers." She leaned closer. "I heard some stories about what went down between you two."
"Tabloids travel faster than fact, Ms. Motormouth." He removed Inez's braid from her mouth again. "I take it that's how you know to call me 'Corny'."
She gave him a knowing smirk. "What, you're sayin' that one ain't true?"
"Not at all, that one's very true in fact." He laughed. 'That kid hit it right on the nose. What I'm concerned about are the stories that might possibly involve me and Velma…"
"Gettin' it on?" Seaweed offered.
Conrad quickly put his hands over Inez's ears. "Seaweed, what did your mother teach you about how to talk around your little sis here?"
"Sorry," Seaweed mumbled, punching a cushion. "I was just sayin' we did hear stories about that from people comin' out."
"And we didn't believe a one of them, did we?" said his mother. "No, sir! I said to those trashy folk, I said to them Conrad Collins is a clean boy, his momma took him to church every Sunday, and he wouldn't take no filth or do no filthy thing like that." She nodded her head once for good measure, then hesitated. "You didn't, did you?"
"Of course not!" Conrad said, looking shocked. "I love doing what I do, but not that much." He shivered, taking his hands off Inez's ears. "But I guess it doesn't matter now, 'cause I got the hosting job anyway."
"Get out of town!" Maybelle hugged him. "I'm proud of you, Conrad, and you see? You didn't need me or nobody to do it." She released him. "I knew you would."
He smiled hesitantly. "I guess I did, though I'd like to think my getting it had something to do with my saving that Shirley kid."
Seaweed leaned forward. "You saved a damsel in distress?"
Conrad laughed, shaking his head. "Damsel no, distress you betcha." He looked back at Maybelle. "I figured he might have a better shot at state stardom if he introduced himself as Fender."
She smiled and shook her head in wonder. "Conrad, you're amazing."
He smiled back. "As are you, Ms. Motormouth."
She held up her hands. "Best not call me that anymore, honey. Since the show got pulled out from under me before I knew to argue, I'm not sure if I deserve that name."
Conrad chuckled. "Nah, you're still the Motormouth we all know and love, and we're gonna figure out some way to get you your show back." He bounced Inez on his knee and looked around Maybelle to Seaweed. "Aren't we, kids?"
"Yeah!" they agreed in unison, Seaweed nodding enthusiastically and Inez clapping her tiny hands together.
Maybelle laughed out loud, putting Inez on her own lap and hugging Seaweed around the shoulder. "And how are you all going to do that?"
Conrad shrugged. "We'll start with you guesting on the new show."
She made a face. "What do you think VonTussel would say to that?"
He gave another inquisitive shoulder raise. "Who knows? She might say yes, she might say no, and it might not matter anyway. If we can get you there with me on the screen just once, it'd remind everyone how great 'Music Hour' was. How great you are." He nudged her. "Velma's have no choice but to make you my co-host."
She smiled sadly at him. "Corny—Conrad—that's sweet and all, but you know you could lose your job pulling a stunt like that."
He smiled back again, a twinkle in his eye. "That's not important. I would never have even made it here if it weren't for you." He held her hand. "You know I'd do anything for you, Maybelle."
"And there's nothin' I wouldn't do for you, darlin'." She squeezed his hand and let it go. "And that's why I'm not gonna let you do anything Earth-shaking under my watch." She paused, winking playfully. "Well, for the first two weeks anyway."
"That's my Motormouth!" He sat back, letting out a breath. "I suppose you're right though. If I jeopardize the show somehow, the kids'll be in just as deep as I am."
"Hey Mr. Collins," Seaweed leaned across to him. "What's that you were saying earlier about the kid with the awful name you helped with his audition?"
"That's right. Let me think…" Conrad paused for a moment, then snapped his fingers. "It was something he said before the interview started going downhill. His order of loyalties as a council member—Family, God, Country, VonTussel." He laughed out loud. "I couldn't let a sense of humor like that get eaten alive. If the kid knew anything, it was how to make an impression."
"Kind of like you, then."
He looked at Maybelle and nodded. "Yeah. Like me."
She stood up. "Well, the rest of us best be out of there before we grow roots in this couch. Come on, babies." She turned to Conrad with a half-smile. "Looks like you'll be getting better acquainted with Velma and her daughter after lunch."
He made a face, loosening his collar. "Wish me luck."
"You'll need it, she quipped back.
He stood up beside her, opening his mouth to say a final goodbye when he was pulled to the side by Velma's head executive.
"Two things Sonny," the man said, obviously not pleased with the situation at hand. "Number one, be more careful who you share a couch with from now on." He jerked a thumb toward Maybelle, Seaweed and Inez who were now on their way out. "Number two, Velma wants you in her dressing room for a private meetig. Let's get a move on, shall we?"
"Yes, Mr. Spritzer," Conrad said obediently, following the old man's quick strides. "One more week," he told himself. "One more week , and you'll be getting a big, fat paycheck for putting up with this." In spite of himself, Corny Collins found himself practicing his smile.
"Places everyone, places!"
The 'Nicest Kids in Town' all ran to their taped x's on the floor, only to begin yet another round of before-camera prep.
"Brad?" Fender whispered once the makeup lady had gone.
"Looking down means taking a deep breath, and I'm afraid to. Is there powder on my tie?"
"Benji, it's your turn." Brad made a show of trying to roll his eyes upward. "I can't see my hair."
"Your hair's good." Benji made the "ok" sign. "Also, your teeth are so white they glow in the dark when you talk."
"One minute!" called a cameraman.
"Cue Corny!" ordered another.
Brisk footsteps made their way onto the stage and weaved themselves in amongst the still bodies. "Ready for this?" asked the voice that belonged to the feet as he continued to play through. "Brad, nice teeth, Tammy, nice legs, Shelley, keep smiling, Luann, do it more often."
"Mind your own business," she mumbled.
Corny stopped as he hit his own spot, right behind the microphone. His day had finally come—the one where the lights would come up…
The music would start…
The cameras would turn and focus on him…
The microphone would power up…
And he'd day those sixteen magic words…
"Hey there, teenage Baltimore! Don't touch that dial, because up next is the Corny Collins show!"