March 29, 1998 in City

Talk’s Cheap, So’s Booze Folks Belly Up To The Bar For A Happy Hour Dose Of Jerry Springer’s Chats ‘N’ Spats

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Felicia rises, and the bar falls silent.

The tavern’s TV viewers just heard her story: Ginny stole Tim from Felicia, so Felicia is about to pound Ginny.

Someone whispers, “Here it comes.” On screen, Felicia lets fly an open hand. Ginny fires back. They hit the floor. The tavern explodes.

“She’s a ghoul!”

“Look at Tim. What a knob!” “That girl’s going to whomp her!”

Welcome to the One Bridge North tavern’s “Jerry Springer Happy Hour,” an off-beat marketing ploy built around the TV show most likely to include a brawl.

Daily at 5 p.m., a mostly male crowd of college students and the occasional offduty roofer presses into the smoky Division Street bar and huddle beneath television sets to watch daytime’s raciest, most violent talk show.

Every time a “Jerry Springer” episode deteriorates into a fistfight - which can happen a half-dozen times an hour - bar patrons spring to their feet chanting “Jer-ry, Jer-ry.” A weary bartender spins a makeshift cardboard-and-Magic Marker wheel-of-fortune that ticks off beer specials from $1 cans to $2.50 pitchers.

It’s a gladiator game for the ‘90s, the latest in the evolution of circus freaks and professional wrestling.

“What could be better than cheap beer and Jerry?” asks Gonzaga University student Jamie Schaefer.

On one recent show, Ronny demands a divorce from Stephanie, who is carrying Tony’s child. Ronny’s girlfriend is there, also pregnant - with Ronny’s child.

Margaret slips from backstage, demanding a divorce from Tony, who’s been ignoring their children. She spits so much profanity the censors’ “bleeps” sound like Morse code.

Suddenly, Tony and Ronny are a tangled mess of arms and legs. At the tavern, 20-somethings in ball caps are on their feet pumping fists at the screen.

“Spin it! Spin it!” one shouts, and his buddies break into giggles as the wheel of fortune turns.

Across the room, a bleary-eyed man in his 40s stares blankly at the screen from his stool, a pool cue forgotten in one hand.

“One thing about Jerry,” he announces to no one. “He don’t let no pregnant women fight.”

At the bar, Jimmy Arrington, the tavern’s janitor, sips coffee and shakes his head at the TV.

“I’ve had enough of that in my own life,” he says. It’s not clear if he’s joking.

Springer’s schtick is questioning guests whose troubles usually center on sex.

He parts company with colleagues Montel Williams and Jenny Jones by including “surprise” guests who slip from backstage with fists blazing.

“We can get that talk show garbage on the news,” bartender Jesse Whitwell said. “What people want to see are the fights.”

Do they ever.

In February, Springer, the 54-year-old ex-mayor of Cincinnati, surpassed Oprah Winfrey in a few major markets as host of daytime’s top-rated show.

He was featured in a three-page article in last week’s Time magazine. Rental huts can’t keep his new “Too Hot for TV” video on the shelves.

“Everybody comes in asking for it,” said Tim Ippolito, an assistant manager at Hastings Books, Music and Video on Sprague Avenue. “It’s always out.”

This month, Springer’s show has been seen in fewer homes than Oprah’s but boasts more viewers nationwide. The reason: The show’s a spectator sport that’s watched in groups.

That’s no surprise to One Bridge bartenders.

Regular Springerheads themselves, they saw potential in a network decision last month to move the show from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. A special happy hour could draw newcomers to the dark, single-story tavern.

It has, bringing in five to 25 new faces on any given day.

Some days, the show’s fights are so frequent and the crowd so thick that drink specials from the wheel change before drinkers even reach the bar.

“If we were at home, we’d be watching anyway,” says new regular Evan Sprague.

One Bridge viewers can name the show’s bouncers. They argue over Springer’s best episodes (“Stripper Wars” ranks near the top).

Longtime viewers forgive Springer’s smarmier “humanitarian” shows, during which the host might, say, enroll a guest in a weight-loss program. Sprague calls them “The Cleansing Episodes.”

There are conflicting theories about the show’s popularity. One is that TV is pendular: Oprah’s propriety invites its polar opposite.

In other words, “whatever’s up there is overexposed and uncool, and whatever the opposite is becomes cool,” says David Marc, a professor of television studies at Syracuse University.

Marc points to the evolution of sitcoms.

Family crisis shows like “All in the Family” begat feel-good shows like “Happy Days.” The working-class “Laverne and Shirley” was replaced by upper-middle income programs such as “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties.” Those conservative comedies gave way to the irreverence of “The Simpsons” and “Married with Children.”

Still, Marc believes Springer is merely the latest incarnation of the “realistic violence” found in ‘70s slasher movies, the NFL or the early ‘90s “real” cop shows.

Fighting is the show’s feature, Marc says. “People watch it for that, and if they don’t get it, they won’t watch it.”

The One Bridge’s owner, a well-groomed, round-faced man in a windbreaker, agrees. He called Springer “the closest thing to X-rated entertainment you can get on TV,” then asked to remain anonymous.

“I’ve got a family … you can understand that, can’t you?” he asks.

Some of the bar’s viewers share his embarrassment. Others revel in the show’s inherent classicism.

Hidden beneath a fishing hat and thin goatee, Cam Svenson, a 21-year-old Gonzaga junior, is a gleeful Springerhead. He’s watched the show religiously since his freshman year - sometimes two or three times a day. He even claims he was featured in a promotional video.

“‘Jerry Springer’ is America,” says Svenson. “It’s got all the trash elements you could possibly have.”

Svenson’s friend, Matt Snow, even tried to get on the show once by pretending to be mired in a lovers’ triangle. He backed off when producers warned him not to lie. Snow still carries the show’s telephone number in his wallet.

Few of the viewers see similarities with themselves, their friends or their family on screen.

“It’s kind of a relief to watch a show about people you’ll never be,” Sprague says.

Those who do hear a familiar saga can profit from the show’s exploitation.

“Even if it does relate, maybe now you’re in a position to laugh about it,” bartender Whitwell says. “At least you didn’t tell the whole world.”

Most of the bar’s patrons - young and not-so-young - see irony in the show: dark secrets revealed to millions, the opening-up process of therapy used to promote violence.

Viewer and California transplant Dominic McKenna describes Springer as an entire show about people “who just want to be on TV.”

Someday, One Bridge bartenders hope to turn that irony inside out.

“One of these days we’re going to videotape this place and send it in to Springer,” Whitwell says. “Who knows? Maybe he’ll do a show here.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos


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