Have you ever had the chance to meet someone in person whom you’ve watched dozens of times on the screen? Earlier this year I had the pleasure of doing just that – a benefit of being a journalist that sort of makes up for the poor pay and job security. The guy I met, Alan R. Solomon, isn’t exactly a household name but, in my house at least, he’s an icon. My kids and I refer to him by his character’s name in the 1980 Disney film Midnight Madness – Leon, the Game Master.
Haven’t seen it? That’s not surprising, but not because it’s bad. Starring Stephen Furst (of Animal House fame), David Naughton (American Werewolf in London, Dr. Pepper guy), Eddie Deezen (various nerdy characters, including Eugene in Grease) and featuring a very young Michael J. Fox and Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), it’s actually pretty good and very funny. A crazy ensemble movie in the mold of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World starring Spencer Tracy and Milton Berle, it was based on a real-life all-night puzzle hunt going on in L.A. at the time.
Great concept, superb cast, and a nice debut editorial performance by Michael Nankin and David Wechter. So what happened? It was only Disney’s second PG film and the sophomoric, slightly risqué humor (very mild by today’s standards) caused the studio to get cold feet. It was hardly promoted and released at an inauspicious time. But then it had a revival on HBO and seemed to be on constantly in the early 1980s. For me and many others, that’s when it became a cult classic. The twist is that people all over the country emulate the puzzle hunts by staging their own all-nighters – life imitating art imitating life, so to speak.
By last summer, my kids and I had watched the DVD 30 or 35 times. Seeing the movie for the third time in a week while on vacation in Cape Cod, they asked me what I thought “Leon” was doing now. I decided to humor them by looking it up and, after some research, found out that he went on to become a professional game show designer. In the movie he’s a nerdy genius obsessed with games who plans the all-night puzzle hunt pitting five teams (nice kids, mean kids, jocks, nerds, sorority girls) against one another. Life imitating art again.
I decided to pitch it as a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal. The editors took a bit of convincing, but it worked out well. It was almost surreal speaking with Alan over the phone because, despite being 63 now, he sounds just like young Leon. Not a professional actor, he was picked out of the crowd for his looks and mannerisms. Here he is with his lovely assistants, Candy and Sunshine:
We were sporting “FAGABEEFE” t-shirts we made for the occasion (it’s a classic line from the movie):
How did we meet him? After the article appeared, the organizers of an elaborate Midnight Madness game in New York City that I wrote about in the article invited Alan and his wife to attend, flying them from his home in California. We were invited to the start of the contest in lower Manhattan by the chief organizer Elisha Wiesel (who, believe it or not, is the son of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel). Clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree – Elisha has raised huge sums for charity Good Shepherd Services through the game.
Alan acted as a sort of surprise grand poobah of the event, staying up for 36 hours straight and losing his voice, but he took time to speak with me and my sons. He and his wife Sharon were really warm and friendly. He even gave us an autographed copy of an item from the movie – the handout from the cult members in the airport scene (a treasured keepsake along with an original movie poster that David Wechter sent me). He may not be a bona fide celebrity, but he is to my boys. They thought he was great and said meeting him was better than some other pretty cool stuff they did with me as part of my reporting – even riding in floating cars. That’s really saying something.