SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 10, 2018

Jumping the Shark

 

Earlier this year, I got a touch of Knievel on the brain, and wrote a column about him. Just by way of a brief review:

            Between the late Sixties and the mid-Seventies, Evel Knievel was an unparalleled cultural phenomenon, a daredevil whose international fame was on a par with Harry Houdini’s half a century earlier. That’s not an overstatement—Knievel was inescapable. He spawned lunch boxes, toys, comic books, movies, TV specials, magazines, limited edition Slurpee cups and paint-by-number kits. With his star-spangled white jumpsuit, cape and swagger stick, he was Elvis on Wheels, jumping his Harley Davidson over an ever-widening stretch of Mack trucks. Every kid on the planet wanted to be Evel. We idolized him because he was a living, breathing, indestructible superhero. Parents appreciated him because he seemed the patriotic sort who doled out wholesome messages to his young fans about staying in school and staying away from drugs. More than anything, he was a thrilling, flashy, and ultimately harmless distraction from the nightmares of Watergate, Vietnam, and a country that seemed to be going straight to hell.

            On October 8th, 1974, Knievel undertook what could and should have been the pinnacle of his career, but instead marked the beginning of the end. It was one of the most wildly hyped events of the decade, with millions of people buying tickets to watch a live closed-circuit broadcast of Knievel trying, and monumentally failing, to jump the Snake River Canyon in a specially designed Sky Cycle. When the parachute deployed just as the mini rocket was blasting off the ramp, leaving Knievel and the Sky Cycle to drift haplessly into the river below, his star dimmed dramatically. It was all downhill after that, the last three decades of his life marked more by assault charges and liver transplants than any jaw-dropping feats of dare-deviltry.

            Dave Herscher, meanwhile, was born and raised in New York, where his parents managed a noted theatrical company. Growing up backstage in the Fifties and Sixties, he met Jackie Gleason, Richard Burton, and a very naked Jayne Mansfield. In 2015 he retired after nearly four decades as the chief publicist for the New York City Marathon. In the years bridging his backstage youth and the marathon, he was, among other things, Evel Knievel’s publicist. And his first Knievel event turned out to be the Snake River Canyon jump. Herscher was 31 at the time.

            Now, I’ve known Dave for about twenty years now, and when I wrote that Knievel piece it occurred to me I’d never before interviewed him about his stretch with the Knievel circus, and decided it was the perfect time to remedy that.

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Jim Knipfel: When you get right down to the heart of it, Evel Knievel was little more than a state fair attraction in an Elvis outfit. What, in your mind, made him such a phenomenon?

Dave Herscher: I don’t know. He was promoted well. I don’t know why he became so popular. He was such a jerk. These days when people do this jumping stuff they have all this technological equipment. His approach was so old-fashioned and hard to manage, it just appealed to people. I mean, it never appealed to me, so it’s hard for me to make a judgment.

JK:       That said, how did you end up becoming Knievel’s publicist?

DH:     I started working for [famed sports publicity firm] Joe Goldstein Public Relations in 1972, so I had just a little experience. I didn’t really know what I was doing.

JK:       So how do you go from a position like that, essentially a standing start in the business, to handling what would turn out to be one of the biggest events of the decade?

DH:     Well, I was good. I was the assistant to Joe Goldstein, who Evel hated. I was assistant to Shelly Saltman, and was assistant to Harold Conrad, who was the boxing P.R. guy for Madison Square Garden. I was working for all of these people, and I knew what I was doing. So Evel said to Saltman, “the short Jew [Goldstein] stays in New York, but the tall skinny Jew can come out to the canyon.” That was one of his wonderful lines. So I was the approved Jew. He basically hated the Jews and went on about it all the time.

JK:       Apart from that, what was your first indication Knievel might not be everything his public persona would have us believe?

DH:     Well, he punched some NBC guys out at the canyon. He drank all the time. He took pills all the time. Basically we figured out that this guy was a mess. But he had to be promoted so the people would pay for the closed circuit telecast.

JK:       What sticks with you most about the day of the jump? Well, sort of jump, anyway?

DH:     I had a chart made up by time zone and country. We only had twenty phones for five hundred media. Even photographers, who couldn’t use computers back then. So they’d be able to get to a phone based on their time zone and country. We weren’t supposed to open up the phones while the whole two-hour closed-circuit broadcast was in progress. But when the Sky Cycle went into the canyon, it became a news event as opposed to an entertainment event. Plus I had these five hundred people staring at me. They were gonna kill me if I didn’t open up the phones. I wouldn’t be here today. So I opened up the phones.

            I remember Harold Conrad came in and put his hand on his cheek and said “Oh my God! You opened up the phones!” And I said, “Yes, Harold, I opened up the phones.” And he goes out thinking he’s about to be killed by [overall event promoter] Bob Arum, saying “Oh my God, oh my God . . . ” And of course he comes back half an hour later and says, “I wanted to tell you that was a good idea to open up the phones.” I would have been killed otherwise. Saltman kept disappearing, because he was an important guy. No one else was around. Basically it was just me and my assistant, an old girlfriend, who were there and had to run the whole show when the fucking thing went into the canyon.

JK:       Not that long ago I read that Saltman referred to your set-up at Snake River as “monumental.” In the days building up to the actual event, what sort of things were you responsible for out there? Thinking back on all the hype at the time. It must have been madness.

DH:     Well, I was the one who had to organize everything. We had press conferences every day. According to Joe Eszterhas, who covered the whole thing in a twenty page story he did for Rolling Stone magazine called “King of the Goons,” I apparently stood in the back of the room, smirking. I don’t know what I was doing really. Not day to day. We had Margaux Hemingway volunteering for us. I helped her with stuff. We had a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who dropped her credentials into the canyon and I didn’t have any extra credentials, so I had to come up with some way that would allow her to cover the event. I just did whatever came up. I came from fifty miles away every day with a guy named Myron McMullen, who was with the Philadelphia Daily News. There were no rooms closer than that.

            Joey Goldstein was responsible for the press kit, and Knievel didn’t like the picture he chose, so at one point he sent the picture to Joey and signed it, “Dear Joe, Fuck you. Love Evel.” I remember that.

            A woman I used to work with at TV Guide, Eileen Kerry Kovac, lived in Colorado at the time, so I asked her to come out to Snake River and help me get through this nonsense. So she did. She remembers riding in the helicopters that took reporters down into the canyon. And how the people in the hotel next door were pissed off at all the noise, because they couldn’t do any work. She also remembers meeting Andy Williams, Suzy Chaffee and Claudine Longet. I don’t remember any of those people being there, but she says I was like a blur, always running to one thing or another.

            I remember a meeting. There was Knievel, four other millionaires, me, and this helicopter pilot who was going to be tracking him. The helicopter pilot was named Watcha McCollum. I was never sure if that was his real first name or not. And everybody was saying, “Now Watcha, if the cycle goes in here, where will you be?” And I was thinking, “I’m in this room with a bunch of lunatics, and as soon as this thing’s done I’m getting the hell out of here.” These people were nuts. I left a sport coat in Knievel’s trailer, but I never went back to get it because I didn’t want to deal with him or his goons again.

            But I made some good lifetime friends out there, and it was certainly something I won’t—can’t even if I tried—ever forget.

JK:       After everything that happened at Snake River, it strikes me that most people in your position would pack up and run. Join the clergy or become a truck driver or something. Why did you continue working with Knievel?

DH:     Well, I was working for Joey, and we were doing a lot of other things. Good things. Turned out several months later in 1976, Knievel was supposed to jump over some man-eating sharks in Chicago. Joey said, “Shelly needs a favor—so you go out there and handle it.” So I had to go and set up this show where Knievel jumps over these man-eating sharks. Then Red Smith wrote a column in the Times that said the species of shark hadn’t attacked man in over three hundred years, and that if the cycle landed in the pool it’s the sharks who would be in trouble, not “death-defying” Evel. This after we kept calling them “man-eating sharks.” Yah, right. So I had to deal with that.

            It was Knievel’s last big event, another closed-circuit broadcast, and it was a complete disaster. He got hurt practicing before the event ever got on the closed-circuit TV’s and went to the hospital.

JK:       And the broadcast went on anyway without him?

DH:     The hosts, Telly Savalas and Jill St. John, spoke to Evel in the hospital, then had all these other daredevil acts. People tell me the telecast was one of the funniest things they’ve ever seen. I never got to see it. At one point I just went over into a corner, put my head in my arms and thought, “I’m just gonna sit here in the corner until this thing’s done.” The producer was running around yelling, “Keep out the press! Keep out the press!” As they tried to get Knievel out of there. Meanwhile it was freezing outside, and all the press kept banging on the door. It was the funniest thing.

JK:       Was that the only other Knievel event you handled?

DH:     Yeah.

JK:       Because I was thinking what a nightmare it must have been trying to promote him after Snake River, with Knievel announcing his retirement every few months.

DH:     I was done with him at that point. Luckily. We had a good office and I liked working for Joe Goldstein. It was fun, and we had a lot of big sponsor events.

JK:       So you had no other contact with Knievel before he died?

DH:     No, no. I’ve been reading Saltman’s new memoir, and finally figured out why Knievel came after him with a baseball bat. Saltman wrote this book in 1976, Evel Knievel on Tour. It turns out Knievel never read the whole book. He was a fifty-fifty partner in proceeds from the book. His lawyers had approved everything in the book. Saltman wrote at one point near the end that he “was glad the son of a bitch survived.” Well, Knievel’s friends convinced him Saltman called him a son of a bitch, and Knievel took it that Saltman was denigrating his mother. So that’s when Knievel went after him with the baseball bat and broke his arms. But Knievel was making money off the book. Shelly was able to protect his head, even with Knievel’s friends holding his arms back. Otherwise he would’ve been dead. There was a settlement, but I don’t think Shelly has collected a penny from the estate yet. Given Joey and I provided a lot of the information for the book, I was afraid Knievel was gonna come to New York to go after us next, but he didn’t.

            Eileen Kerry Kovac reminded me that she was in the first surge to look into the Canyon. I was only interested in my phones. If he had died, that would have been fine with me. I wouldn’t have had to do man-eating sharks, for one thing.

 

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