Monday, September 2, 2019

Noah Adams & The Pitch

I was a struggling musician, as most aspiring ones are, and had to patch money together every month from an assortment of gigs and low-paid work (I'm pretty sure this is how I learned to patch together checks to make payroll when I was head of a struggling food manufacturer, quite recently. Scrappy out of necessity). It was around 1992, maybe.

The gigs I played with my band were almost almost low-paying openers or low-paying parties or low-paying headliners on off nights where we got the door or base plus door. $250 split four or five ways didn't go far.

(Noah Adams...I'll get to him in a bit).

Even when I had a small record deal the gigs just didn't come in fast enough. My best month was one summer in Rehoboth, where I played piano on a terrible grand at Fran's Steakhouse for $50/night plus tips from 6-9, then headed to an acoustic gig at Arena's or a few other places, with pure improve piano on Sundays at Sydney's Side Street Cafe

That was a great six-week stretch, especially because every night someone would request Piano Man. I really hated playing that song--not because it's a bad song, but it just goes on and on, same pattern over and over, again and again, repeatedly. You get the picture. 

So I'd say "I don't play that--sorry." And they'd say something like "you have to know it, it goes "sing us a song, you're the piano man--right?" And I'd say "I know it, I just don't play it because it goes on and on and this is just an instrumental gig."

This would go on for a bit and I'd say ok "I'll play it for $20 bucks." And without exception someone would drop a twenty in the jar, even if the guy asking waved it off in disgust (rightly disgusted...that wasn't a very nice thing of me but it did help pay the bills).

I have a degree in English so I learned to proofread right out of college, and after that summer I headed back in Lancaster and worked for $7/hr, no benefits as a proofreader on the third shift at Donnelly Financial's QTA floor. QTA stood for Quick turnaround; we served law firms and corporations prepare SEC filings, and I had to fix this stuff--all faxed and blurry with bad handwriting and scribbling in the margins. A dream come true.

Anyway I got fired some night at 3 AM when there was a lull in faxed scribbling. The manager on duty discovered I had been working on a script in between flurries of activity, saying "if you have time for that then we clearly don't need you." Very strategic, this manager (and thank you for freeing me). The best part of that job was meeting a tech named Bruce who I've recently reconnected with.

So I was unemployed again and contacted a local video shop looking for work so I could learn how to shoot and edit film--Smokey's Divers Den. Smokey had been an underwater cinematographer who opened up a dive shop and offered scuba lessons, then started taking on video work, both in and out of the water. He and I spent a lot of time together off the clock driving around the county, talking about all the development and lost farmland, bantering about films we could make.

Some people were bored by his stories (he could go on and on, like Piano Man) or were dismissive, but I loved it. He had worked the camera for underwater shoots all over the world, including the nearly impossible Andrea Dorea, which sunk off Long Island after colliding with another ship in cold, murky waters with strong currents. Smokey nailed it on a rare clear day.

We talked about putting together a 13-part series on East Coast Shipwrecks because he had a ton of footage from many underwater shoots over the years.

I knew nothing about film or documentaries or TV, but I had an acquaintance at A&E so I gave her a call to pitch the concept. She was very gracious and pointed me in the right direction, and at some point called about the Andrea Doria footage, asking if htey could use it for a doc to air on The Discovery Channel. They couldn't pay us of course, which I didn't believe but didn't care about because we had our first win. Discovery!

Ok. So about Noah Adams.

The guys who ran the video business--the ones who actually paid me--asked me about the documentary idea, and so I gushed about it, and, sounding skeptical, asked something like "yeah? And who's going to narrate it?" And without missing a beat I said, "Noah Adams from NPR!"


I loved Noah's voice. Dry, unemotional, to the point. To me he was the perfect narrator, the perfect broadcasting voice. These days I pine for a voice like that on NPR; the current crop are all too emotive, which to me skews to POV and makes it less of a news service.

Oh, right. Back to Noah. It sort of went like this:

"Yeah, Noah Adams." I had no idea whether this was possible.

"Right--like you an get Noah Adams to narrate this. How are you going to do that?"

"I'll just call him and ask!"

"Right--you're just going to call up NPR and ask for Noah Adams?"

"I'll do it right now." I pick up the phone and call information, asking for NPR. The guys are looking at me like there's no way this is going to happen.

"National Public Radio, how can I help you?"

"Yes, Noah Adams, please."

"Please hold." The phone rings.

"This is Noah."

They couldn't believe it. Ok I couldn't believe it either. Their $7/hour lackey just called one of the biggest names in radio and the guy answers his phone on the first ring.

"Hi, uh Noah! Um, I'm working on a documentary on East Coast ship wrecks, and we were thinking of who should narrate this, and you're the first person I thought of. Is this something you do?"

"Yes I do narrations sometimes. Can you send me a script?"

Well, yes, I can send you a script. Like I had a script.

"Yes of course." That's where I should have ended the call. You have the first win--agreement, interest,'s all good. But there's that part of me that just can't stop...

"...also we don't have much of a budget, so I thought maybe we could get you a paid speech at a local college." Wait for it.

"Do you think that would be fun for me?"

Stunned silence. Brain scrambled. Three four.  Stammering I say "no, I 'm sorry, I just...I'll send you the script and get back to you, OK? "

"OK," click.

I turned around and looked at the guys. They still couldn't believe it, and also could tell something hadn't quite gone right. But I got Noah Adams on the phone on the first try and he agreed to look at the non-existent script. My ambition, though, rubbed the guys the wrong way, and shortly after that I was fired.

And that's my Noah Adams story. I never sent the non-existent script, but wonder to this day whether we could have pulled it off. Maybe. But at least we did get a credit on the documentary.

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