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Entertainers keeping MiLB fans on their feet01/18/2008 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
Legendary front-office innovator Bill Veeck once remarked that if baseball teams only relied on the patronage of purists, they'd "go out of business by Mother's Day."
Nowhere does this sentiment ring more true than in the world of the Minor Leagues, where teams will go to almost any length to make sure the stands are packed. If booking a dancing nerd, maniacal cheerleader, canine batboy or horn virtuoso at the ballpark results in higher attendance, then, well, the purists are going to have to learn to live with that.
Jon Terry, the president of SRO Productions, wouldn't have things any other way.
Over the past 14 years, Terry has established SRO as one of the premier sports entertainment businesses in the country. His eclectic roster of entertainers - from Myron Noodleman to Dave the Horn Guy -- perform acts that are tailored to the unique demands of the Minor League baseball environment, and many of them have become highly sought-after promotional commodities as a result.
Terry, who is based in Tulsa, Okla., and speaks with a good-natured Southern drawl, has 25 years of experience working with sports entertainers. It all started with Krazy George, a renowned cheerleader and sports superfan who is widely credited with inventing the wave.
"My first job in sports was as the marketing director for the Tulsa Roughnecks of the North American Soccer League," recalled Terry. "We were trying to sell soccer in the heart of football country, and make fans out of people who had never been exposed to the game."
"On my first day on the job, the GM told me, 'The guy you're replacing will show you the ropes.' But that didn't happen. This guy just wanted to get out of there. I tried asking him a couple of questions, but he was barely paying attention to me. When he was walking out the door to leave, I got a little indignant and said, 'I have no idea what to do. Just give me a hint!' Without even slowing down, he just looked over his shoulder and said, 'Hire Krazy George.'"
Terry took these three words of advice to heart and spent the rest of the day trying to track down this mysterious character. Soon thereafter, he was successful in booking George at a Roughnecks game.
"I was just amazed at the reaction of the fans to Krazy George," said Terry of the high-energy performer. "When you compared the reaction to him versus the reaction to the game, you quickly realized that he was what the people were really enjoying. We hired him four more times that season, and started directing our advertising toward him as well. It was like, 'Come see Krazy George.... Oh, and by the way, there will also be a game.'"
A New Clown Prince Emerges
Over the next several years, Terry worked a succession of front-office jobs with virtually every Minor League sports club in Tulsa. In 1991, he was with the Tulsa Ambush of the National Professional Soccer League when a very important moment in his professional life occurred.
"One day our GM, who no one really much cared for, told us he had a special surprise for an upcoming game," Terry recalled. "Our view of this guy was such that we were prepared to hate whatever he brought in. It turned out to be Myron Noodleman. A big nerd. We all just thought that was terrible.
"But once Myron started performing, he had the whole crowd in the palm of his hand. Before long the entire press box was captivated by him, and at one point we all missed a goal because we were too busy watching Myron down there in the stands."
Noodleman, the alter-ego of Tulsa public school teacher Rick Hader, continued to impress Terry with his performances over the next several months.
"The way he came up with skits and understood what he wanted to accomplish was remarkable," he explained. "After a while, I told him that I wanted to be his manager."
In 1994, Hader took him up on the offer. SRO Productions, which Terry had established with a partner in order to book local concerts, had its first sports client.
"[Myron and I] went to the 1994 [Baseball] Winter Meetings in Dallas, more just to get his name out there than anything else, and ended up with 24 bookings and twice that in leads," Terry recalled, a hint of amazement still evident in his voice.
That initial success allowed Hader to quit his teaching job and assume his Myron Noodleman identity on a full-time basis. Terry, meanwhile, immediately began to think of ways to expand SRO.
"After signing Myron, it was like, 'Why only sell one thing?' The idea of working with other entertainers quickly came up. I added Krazy George as a client in 1995, and soon thereafter got a call from Morganna the Kissing Bandit, who had been looking for someone to handle her business affairs."
After this remark, Terry paused.
"Well, I guess when talking about Morganna I shouldn't say that I 'handled' her. That could get me in trouble with my wife."
Icons and Up-and-Comers
While the famously busty Morganna decided to retire in 2000, Myron Noodleman and Krazy George remain as two of SRO's most established and popular acts. At the present moment, Terry's roster includes a dozen performers, all of whom vary wildly from one another.
"We try to cover as many bases as possible," said Terry of his client list, which includes a chainsaw juggler and an octogenarian "Simon Says" master among its ranks. "We do have two dog acts [Jake the Diamond Dog and America's Best Frisbee Dogs], but even they are very different from one another.
"Essentially, fans are always going to want to see something new. We're a side act, and we're there to entertain, whether it's funny, thrilling, chilling, weird, bizarre or whatever."
The latest addition to the SRO roster is Dave the Horn Guy, who wears an orange jumpsuit equipped with 25 chromatically tuned bulb-horns.
"Baseball is going to love this guy," predicted Terry. "He's got the right attitude and personality, and his show is interactive and very funny. But every time I'm trying to sell a new guy, it's like I just got into business all over again. Even with Myron, he wasn't always an easy sell. I remember trying to explain his act to teams who weren't familiar with him, and it was like 'Uh, he's a nerd, but he's a cool nerd. ... Are you reaching for your checkbook yet?'"
The Minors Are the Majors for Us
While SRO's acts are available to play a wide array of sporting events, Terry is quick to point out that Minor League Baseball is what keeps him in business.
"This agency exists because of baseball, and specifically Minor League baseball," he said. "In the Minors they can't offer established stars on the field, and of course the level of play isn't as good as the Majors, but what they have figured out how to do is entertain. The game is always the centerpiece, but it's surrounded with as much entertainment as possible. It's a heck of a product, and everything they do is presented in a way so that the whole family can enjoy it."
Of course, tailoring one's act to a baseball game is no easy task.
"I don't think people realize how hard it is to do a routine during a baseball game," said Terry. "When you're doing a bit during an inning break, that means you have 90 seconds to entertain, from the time the umpire yells 'Strike three!' until the time he yells 'Play ball!' again. You don't have time to start slow and build up from there. It's got to have punch immediately and be action-packed.
"And what's really important for a lot of these acts is to learn how to work the crowd, and Myron Noodleman is the king of that. He'll go out on the field and do a skit and dance a little bit and then, bam, it's over and he's right back there in the stands. When you're in the stands, it's all off-the-cuff. There's no time to choreograph anything. You've got to be funny, you've got to be clean, and you've got to be on your toes. It's a tough thing to be able to do well."
Clowning for the Love of the Game
Baseball, of course, is steeped in tradition, and that tradition has always included a strong entertainment element. Through the years, Terry has become deeply interested in the history of the sport's entertainers, and he's proud to be carrying on this legacy through his work with SRO. The company website even features a "Hall of Fame" section, featuring biographical info on a wide variety of sports entertainers.
"Max Patkin is my all-time favorite, and at first I had assumed he was the first prominent baseball entertainer," he said. "But there were guys like Arlie Latham, who would coach third base and do cartwheels down the third-base line. Then along came Al Schacht, who proclaimed himself the Clown Prince of Baseball. Max Patkin later became known as the Clown Prince, and he was in business 40 or 50 years."
"Sports involve a lot of talent, but there is an entertaining side to it as well, and that used to be far more prevalent. A lot of these early entertainers seemed to be players who developed a sore arm and then got into clowning. They didn't make money, they did it for the love of the game."
After Patkin's death in 1999, baseball went several years without an established "clown prince." This changed in 2004, when Myron Noodleman received the honor in a ceremony at Mike Veeck's annual Promotional Seminar. He was officially crowned by Roland Hemond, a two-time Major League Executive of the Year and a former colleague of the late, great Bill Veeck.
Terry, of course, is proud to be so closely associated with the national pastime's current Clown Prince. He plans to stay involved in the sports entertainment business for the long haul, in order to facilitate the development of a new generation of premier performers.
"We have to stay on the cutting edge and gauge what the people want, and I really hope that it's not 'American Idol,'" he said. "We want to be there for the guys who really want to do this. One thing I've learned is that entertainers may not always be the best business people, so they really may need that assistance. It is my job to be an advocate for what these performers are doing.
"People are always going to want more entertainment instead of less, so I have to believe that there will always be room for the clown."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.