News Column

'Weird Al' Yankovic returns to Tulsa for 'UHF' anniversary

September 22, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 22--It was 25 years ago, in the summer of 1988, that "Weird Al" Yankovic came to Tulsa to make a movie. "UHF" was a comedy featuring his bizarre parody style and starred himself as a daydreaming young man who becomes the unlikely manager of a tiny TV station, creating unusual programming for Channel 62.

A quarter-century later, Rogers State University Public TV is planning its annual pledge drive, and RSU program and membership manager Jennifer Sterling couldn't help but think of the wacky telethon staged in "UHF" to keep the station operating. Sterling couldn't help but see many connections between her station and the fictional Channel 62.

She contacted Jay Levey -- "Weird Al's" longtime manager and the co-writer and director of "UHF" -- and she made another connection, which must have switched on a lightbulb above Levey's head.

Like his buddy Yankovic, he knows a good idea when he hears one.

"As the smallest public television station in the United States, we have a special place in our hearts for 'UHF,' " Sterling told Levey. "The themes of being the 'little guy' in the market and doing a lot with a little are ones we're very familiar with. And of course, like Channel 62 in the movie, we depend on our viewers and pledge drives to stay on the air."

The result of that phone call is that Levey is bringing Yankovic back to Tulsa more than once in the next month. He'll be here for a book signing, a "UHF" screening with a question-and-answer session and a grand finale concert as part of a series of anniversary events.

Fans from all over the country are coming to Tulsa for the October concert and for Tuesday's "UHF" screening -- 500 seats at Circle Cinema sold out fast -- for a movie that has become a cult favorite, shot in Tulsa at a failing mall and other locations.

No, it's not a Western

So why did "UHF" film in Tulsa? There were multiple factors, Yankovic said during a recent phone interview, taking a break from replacing the filter in his air-conditioning system.

Cost, convenience and producer Gray Frederickson were keys to making the decision, he said.

"So much of the filming took place at a shopping center that was going out of business (then the Kensington Galleria in 1988, at 1950 E. 71st St.), which allowed us to set up multiple soundstages in the empty stores," Yankovic recalled, "and it was perfect that it was next to a hotel (now the Marriott Tulsa Hotel Southern Hills) where everyone stayed, so it was about like being on a hamster trail."

Frederickson, an Oklahoma native and Oscar-winning producer ("The Godfather, Part II") who had worked with Francis Ford Coppola to film "The Outsiders" in Tulsa in 1982, "was familiar with the city, and he found this mall, and he determined that it would be very efficient and a good cost. So that's why we shot it there."

Yankovic is the top-selling comedy recording artist of all time and a three-time Grammy Award winner. He's become an icon of American pop culture with his parodies of music hits like "Eat It," "Smells Like Nirvana," "Amish Paradise" and "White & Nerdy." He has performed more than 1,300 concerts and returned to Tulsa frequently for shows in the last 20 years.

But "UHF," which he co-wrote with his manager, Levey, remains his only starring film role, and many were confused about the filming location in Tulsa.

"Oh, you're shooting a Western in Oklahoma?" he was asked.

No, he could have told them, it's a comedy about the manager of a little TV station beating the competition with the help of odd characters, like a sassy newswoman (Fran Drescher) and a mad scientist (Tony Geary of "General Hospital" fame).

And there was the children's show host played by the actor who would go on to be the biggest star from the cast: Michael Richards of "Seinfeld," in a performance that seems oddly Krameresque.

Those are real fish

If there's one thing that stands out for Yankovic about the 1988 filming experience, it's the support and generosity of Tulsa-area residents, as well as their enthusiasm.

"The locals who came out to be extras, they were just so excited," he said. "In L.A., everyone would be more jaded about this kind of thing. We got some wonderful people for our little 'Gong Show' competition to find our telethon acts, and there were these outdoor scenes shot at some ungodly hours."

He can recall the stage for Channel 62's fictional "Wheel of Fish," having a game-show audience that was "a whole room full of people with a room full of rotting fish, smelling that horrible smell all day long, and they just kept those smiles on their faces."

Lisa Stefanic, the Tulsa actress chosen as the contestant in the "Wheel of Fish" scene, can expand on the joys of moviemaking.

"I remember them opening up the coolers, taking out the fish and then drilling into that wheel (a vertical "Wheel of Fortune") with an electric screw-gun, attaching the fish to the wheel," Stefanic remembers with a laugh about the large variety of fish supplied by Tulsa's White River Fish Market.

"They were fish, so they were slimy, and I remember the first time I spinned the wheel, the fish juice just went flying, and they had to clean it up, and it was still dripping down where we had to stand. I had just assumed it would be fake fish, but no, they had real ones, and they stayed with us all day under those lights.

"I remember thinking I hope I don't get mugged by cats because I must have just reeked."

Box-office success vs. cult-classic success

In the weeks before "UHF" was released in theaters July 21, 1989, Yankovic was excited, and so were executives at Orion, the studio distributing the film. "The movie is testing through the roof, this is great, you're going to save the studio," Yankovic said studio sources told him.

Then the film came out, in the weeks after "Batman," "Ghostbusters 2" and the latest "Star Trek" and James Bond films. "UHF" barely registered with audiences, ultimately grossing $6 million at the box-office.

The critics were not kind. Yankovic is still able to quote the critique from Roger Ebert: "Those who laugh at 'UHF' should inspire our admiration; in these dreary times we must treasure the easily amused."

"I liked him, but he was kind of mean," Yankovic said of Ebert -- but he was not the meanest.

"This one person's attack was personal, saying that my face looked like a baby's buttocks with a caterpillar and wire-rim glasses attached. I remember that one."

Yankovic is as blunt about the initial failure of "UHF" -- "In every way that you measure success, it was not one." -- as he is about it eventually becoming a cult favorite.

"It was a slow process with this movie, kind of a word-of-mouth thing, and when it was finally released on DVD (13 years later in June 2002), it was a top-10 selling DVD. So my response today to the critics is 'Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah.' "

He has met fans who have seen "UHF" hundreds of times. When he plays clips of the movie at his concerts, fans recite the lines. He's met multiple people with "UHF" tattoos on their bodies, including a couple with spatulas adorning their abdomens, in honor of Channel 62's fictional advertiser, Spatula City.

"I'll never forget that there was one prescient interviewer who said to me, 'You know, this movie is going to be a cult classic,' and I was kind of offended when he said that. But he was exactly right."

"It's a miracle when a movie even gets made, and there are 1,000 things that I would have done differently, but as flawed as it is, 'UHF' has some funny and wonderful moments in it, and I'm so glad that so many people have responded to it."

Taking Al back to Tulsa

A few years ago, Yankovic became a children's-book author with the publication of "When I Grow Up," detailing how an 8-year-old tells his teacher and classmates about the surprising occupations he's planning to undertake.

"I'm still not sure what I'm going to be when I grow up," said Yankovic, who will have that book's sequel -- "My New Teacher and Me!" -- on sale Tuesday at Circle Cinema, when he will sign the books ahead of the theater's "UHF" screening.

"Tulsa will be crazy, and I'm doing nine cities in seven days for the book," said Yankovic, 53, whose 10-year-old daughter, Nina, just began the fifth grade. "For my books, she's my focus group."

He's working on a new album, his first since 2011's "Alpocalypse" with the Lady Gaga parody "Perform This Way." He doesn't know when it will be released, but he knows that his Oct. 19 concert at the Brady Theater will be the last on the "Alpocalypse" tour.

"It's probably my last live show for quite some time because I won't do any others until after a new album," he said. "So here I come back to Tulsa, one of my favorite places. Tulsa and I have a history."

Events commemorate 'UHF' anniversary

"Weird Al" Yankovic celebrates the 25th anniversary of "UHF" with September/October events in Tulsa.

Tuesday: Book signing with Yankovic at Circle Cinema, 12 S. Lewis Ave., 4 p.m. for his new children's book, "My New Teacher and Me!" the sequel to his first book, "When I Grow Up." The books will be for sale at the signing, presented in association with the Tulsa City-County Library and Steve's Sundry.

Tuesday: This sold-out event for 500 people is a 7 p.m. screening at Circle Cinema of "UHF" to be followed by a question-and-answer session with Yankovic, director and co-writer Jay Levey and producer Gray Frederickson. A portion of the proceeds will benefit RSU Public TV and Circle Cinema.

Oct. 5: Special "UHF" pledge-drive broadcasts on RSU Public TV (Cox 109/HD 793; 35 on DirecTV and Dish Network; antenna HD 35.1/35.2), with cast members from the movie appearing for in-studio interviews and to answer phones. On Oct. 6, the pledge drive continues with a showing of Yankovic live in concert for "The Alpocalypse Tour," first shown on Comedy Central in 2011.

Oct. 18: Beginning at noon and running for 24 consecutive hours, "UHF" screens at Circle Cinema, with prints of commemorative posters given away at drawings held in conjunction with the screenings.

Oct. 19: Yankovic and his band live in concert for "The Alpocalypse Tour" at Brady Theater. Tickets are available online at tulsaworld.com/brady

'UHF' filming locations

Dish Network Customer Care Center, 1950 E. 71st St. -- In the summer of 1988, this location was home to the Kensington Galleria, a mall with enough empty spaces to entice the filmmakers to create multiple soundstages at the location.

Billy Ray's BBQ and Catfish, 6835 E. 15th St. -- This was then the site of Burger World, where George Newman (played by "Weird Al" Yankovic) is seen at the beginning of the film being fired from his fast-food job.

Tulsa Pump Company, 114 W. Archer St. -- This two-story warehouse building is where we see George and his pal living in an apartment, with Kuni's Karate School, run by Gedde Watanabe, as another tenant in the building.

Warehouse Market, 6207 S. Peoria Ave. -- Many extras came to this location in 1988, urged to run wildly toward the building for the fictional commercials for Channel 62 advertiser "Spatula City," one of Yankovic's many parodies in the film.

Apartment building at 330 E. 11th St. -- This was the home of the Channel 62 program "Raul's Wild Kingdom," where actor Trinidad Silva was seen interacting with a variety of creatures inside his apartment, as well as uttering his much-imitated spoof line: "Badgers? We don't need no stinking badgers!"

Empty field, 57th West Avenue and Edison Street -- The site west of Tulsa where the exteriors of UHF Channel 62 were shot remains undeveloped, and the Channel 62 building has been demolished.

Michael Smith 918-581-8479

michael.smith@tulsaworld.com

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