September 26, 2009

Five For Fighting on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

Five For Fighting's John Ondrasik performed on the season premier. John was kind enough to write about his experience on the show and a chance encounter with ABC's EVP of Marketing, Mike Benson.


John Ondrasik from Five For Fighting:


Howie Huber is a fireman in Superior Wisconsin and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is building him and his family a new house. Makeover is my Mom's favorite show on T.V. and they do fantastic work helping deserving families get back on their feet. So when they called and asked me to play "Chances" and "Superman" in the season premiere I was on a plane. When I arrived, our crew headed out to the house to see the construction in action. They actually do build those houses in 7 days! As I donned the hard hat, Exec Producer Anthony gave us a tour of the organized chaos that is Makeover. Imagine a small traveling city staked out in the middle of a field. There are hundreds of Trailers, Cars, Trucks, Tents, and all the support that goes with it. They even have groupies. Thousands of fans follow the show to sites, set up their lawn chairs, and watch the house go up. When I walked in the Huber's house in process there were hundreds of volunteers working away, and though you might expect a lot of confusion, I saw focused and happy people working hard for a cause. It's impressive to see the quality and speed of the team. (We're putting in a new bathroom at our place and I've had a bathtub in my bedroom for 6 weeks…These guys popped in a tub in 12 hours).
    After our house experience we jetted over to the Superior Fire Museum where we were joined by Paulie, the Makeover Crew, and a few hundred folks from town. I enjoyed meeting Howie's parents and his buddies on the fire crew. There is a certain beauty and innocence of the American small town and this setting brought it to light. I also have a special place in my heart for firefighters.  From playing the Concert for N.Y. for those heroes showed us the heart of our nation, to the great work the firefighters do for the MDA and ALS Research, trust me, there are no better people.
    I must say I got caught up in the moment singing these songs for families of Superior. Chances seemed like the perfect song for the moment as Makeover specializes in 2nd Chances.
    To top it off, a bunch of us went to ABC Marketing Wizards Mike Benson's place in Duluth. Mike actually has a tavern in on his property with a full bar, pinball machines, and plenty of family and friends to fill it up. We all roadied the gear and set up a jam session to provide the music. Who could of imagined Anthony and Paulie busting out into an amazing Tom Waits cover? Turns out they have a crew/talent band that plays gigs in whatever town their shooting in.
    A great experience all and all. Enjoy watching the Huber's get their new home (it's awesome), give a local fireman a high five, and if Makeover is shooting in your town, cruise down to the local music hot spot, you might see a great band.

 John Ondrasik performing at "Benson Bros. Hurry Back Tavern"  

This is only part of the story. Mike Benson (ABC's EVP of Marketing) shares the story of his vacation that turned into an amazing experience with Five For Fighting and the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew.

Mike Benson from ABC:


I was in the home-stretch of a 2-week vacation, wishing it was not going to come to an end anytime soon.   Regardless, I was spending some quality time with my kids and family at my place in Duluth, Minnesota, attempting to stay as far away from work and e-mail as much as I possibly could.  I was doing a pretty good job, until I got a call from a friend who asked me if I was "OK" and still worked at ABC?  "What are you talking about?" I asked.  "I'm on vacation and not checking e-mail." 


You have to understand that I get a lot of e-mail.  I mean…a LOT of e-mail.  So, if I don't get through it on a daily basis, my e-mail box goes over its limit and I can't send anything until I delete what I don't need.  While that has happened to me many times before, I've never had a situation where the company actually closed my e-mail account due to the amount of e-mail I received, which created bounce-back messages to senders saying that the account was "closed."  It was this situation that, next to the birth of my children and Burning Man (which is another subject for another time) that created what became one of the best events of my life.


It's tough for me to stay away from work.  Frankly, I love what I do and I enjoy working, but everyone needs a break from time to time.  Problem is I can't seem to stay away from work.  At the beginning of Week 2 of my vacation, the cover of the Duluth News Tribune read "Welcome Extreme Makeover Home Edition."  For the rest of the week, on the radio, in the newspaper, on TV, on the Dairy Queen digital tickers and on the hand-made signs on the local merchant's store windows, the town was buzzing with the arrival of that familiar bus and its crew.  What is the likelihood that Extreme Makeover Home Edition would come to my little escape outside of Duluth, Minnesota?  Well, that really didn't matter because they were in Minnesota and "work" had found my escape in the woods.  Still, it was amazing to see how excited the community was over this emotionally-charged television show and it made me feel good that the show was actually here.


Greg Latterman is the manager of great artists like The Fray, Mat Kearney and Brandi Carlisle, to name a few.  He also manages John Ondrasik's Five for Fighting.  Greg has become a friend over the past couple of years and we compare notes on our native Midwest.  He was one of the lucky ones to receive a "bounce-back" message that my e-mail account was closed.  While I was not checking e-mail, I was checking the occasional text message.  Greg finally reached me via text and asked if I was in Duluth.  He said he was flying-in with Five For Fighting to tape a segment for the upcoming Extreme Home Makeover episode.  The text conversation started with me asking if he would "stop by and visit," but it lead to Gregg offering to bring John, a guitar player and a small PA system to set up in my tavern and rock the house (I'll get to the "tavern" shortly).  I quickly accepted his offer (like I was going to say no?).


In 1931, my grandparents, Joyce and Evelyn, opened the Benson Bros. "Benson's Café" in Houston, Minnesota. With a population of about 2,000, Houston was a sleepy town in the southeastern corner of Minnesota, near LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  Benson's was known for the Benson Burger, Friday fish fries and great customer service.  The place was nicknamed the "Hurry Back Tavern" because the food, friends and beer was always good and you wanted to "Hurry Back" after you left.  After 55 years of business, my grandparents and Uncle Doug (aka, "Benner"), who ran the place when Joyce and Evelyn started to slow down, decided to hang it up and sell.  Anyone who has been in the restaurant business knows that it's tough work.  After the sale, Benson's Café changed hands several times until it closed its doors for the final time in about 1986.  There was no real demand for a restaurant, and the building was old, so it was demolished.  Today, there's really nothing left of Benson's Café but a small parking area in downtown Houston, an abundance of rich, family memories…and the bar that Benner salvaged from the building before it was torn-down.


Skip forward to 2006.  My brother Dave and his wife Paige were starting a family, living on an amazing piece of property, located about 10 minutes north of Duluth, Minnesota.  The home, a hand-built white pine log structure was nestled in the middle of 20 wooded acres and featured a separate timber-frame structure ("The Shed") that my brother used as a garage and storage shed.  Dave had owned the property for nearly 13 years and it had become a special place for family and friends, but as his family was growing, he and his wife decided to sell it   While the property is beautiful, it was not an ideal place to raise a young family.  I couldn't imagine him selling it to someone outside of the family.  I wanted to keep the place for me, my kids and our entire family, so I bought it from them and together, with Dave and his wife, we turned it into an escape for me and the kids, as well as a vacation rental property. 


Soon after I purchased the place, I was in The Shed with my brother Dave, my other brother Greg, my dad (Big Dave) and his brother Benner.  It was a cold, Minnesota day in January, and we had a nice fire blazing in the wood stove.  After a Grain Belt beer (or two), Benner reminded us that he had salvaged the bar from Benson's Café.   He had refinished it and it had sat buried in his garage in LaCrosse, Wisconsin for the past 20 years.  Our wheels started to turn.  It was a 19' oak bar with a mahogany top, built in the early 1900's.  It was restored and ready for a new home.  I had an unfinished shed building with a concrete floor.  If we could just get the bar to Duluth, we could turn The Shed into the "Benson Bros. Hurry Back Tavern" and bring back Benson's Café (in our own little way)!  Nothing "open to the public," mind you.  Just a place for family, friends and the occasional vacation renter or wedding party.


Within the next year, Dave and I set forth to build the tavern.  With a lot of help from friends and family, we paneled it, built a back-bar, added booths, barstools, arcade games, a dartboard and plenty of photos and memorabilia from Benson Bros.  We christened it on my father's 70th birthday with the surprise unveiling of a neon sign that was recreated from a photo from Benson's Café.  The "Benson Bros. Hurry Back Tavern" was reborn.

 Mike Benson with his son Jack  

My sisters-in-law could not contain themselves.  Five for Fighting was playing at the Hurry Back?  Seriously?!?" 


It was true.  The word spread to family and friends and some even decided to make the drive to Duluth from across Minnesota.  I planned a BBQ dinner and quickly put in a call to Anthony Dominici, the executive producer of Extreme Home and invited him and the show cast to dinner and John's concert.  I wasn't quite ready for 50 people to descend upon the house for a BBQ and a show, but it WAS the last day of my vacation and why not make it an event?  With a supply of Duluth's finest beers from the Brewhouse, and lots of help from my mom, a close friend from California and my sisters-in-law, we were ready.  Minnesota also was ready.  The thunder started to rumble at about 6:30pm.


Guests started arriving just before the rain.  They immediately went to the Hurry Back for some pre-concert "preparation."  The sky grew increasingly cloudy and by 8:30pm, it was dark (unusual for Minnesota in early August) and a true Minnesota storm was upon us.  Gregg Latterman, John Ondrasik and the Extreme Home cast had finished shooting for the day and they made it to the house by about 9:00pm.  I was flipping burgers in the pouring rain when they arrived and others went immediately to setting up the PA system in the tavern.  As John, my two kids and I sat under an umbrella on the deck outside of the house, protecting ourselves from the pouring rain, talking ice hockey and eating dinner, I knew the night was going to be special.  The weather was actually adding to the evening.


We finished dinner and the guests gathered in the Hurry Back Tavern to settle-in for Five for Fighting.  John made his home behind the piano and his guitar player, Greg Suran, was situated next to him.  They set up in the back of the tavern, just in front of a custom Minnesota Twins pinball machine (used for a promotion during my days at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis) and the classic Northwood's arcade-game mainstay "Big Buck Hunter."  As John warmed up a bit, the rain stopped, but the lightning continued, providing our own all-natural "flash pods."  To borrow a phrase from Disney, it was "magical." 


John opened with "100 Years" and as I looked around the tavern, everyone was mesmerized, sitting and standing atop the bar, the booths and all around the place.  I believe it was my sister-in-law Bridget who, with a big smile on her face, mentioned that they played "100 Years" at her wedding.  Between songs he would tell a story or crack a joke, but all I could think about how amazing it was actually having them play in the Hurry Back and how weird it must be to be playing with arcade games as a backdrop and fans literally feet away from you.  It was all so small, so remote and so personal.  He continued with "Chances," a song from his new album and then moved into "Superman."  He closed-out with a classic that none of us saw coming; Elton John's "Rocketman" (kind of appropriate after "Superman").  While it was just a small, simple PA system, the sound was amazing.  John's voice was so rich and clear.  It was perfectly balanced with the electric piano and Greg's guitar.  Nothing overpowering and the music blended with the guests, the atmosphere and the light show Mother Nature had provided.  Like I said…it was magical.


John was done playing but that was not the end of the show.  There was yet another surprise in store for us.  Extreme Home's Paul DiMeo took John's seat at the piano and Executive Producer Anthony Dominici borrowed Greg's guitar.  After a quick tune-up, they fell into a powerful blues number that had everyone's mouth on the floor.  These guys were good.  Really good.  They jammed Tom Wait's "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis" and Wilco's "Hate It Here."  I asked Anthony if there was a secondary reason for playing "Hate it Here" but he insists that they love playing Minnesota.  (I tend to believe him, since they appeared to be enjoying themselves).  I'm told the two of them were visiting a few local establishments while they were in Duluth that week, providing a little late-night entertainment for those who were fortunate enough to catch their act.  The guests at the Hurry Back were floored and it was certainly a treat for us all.


    Paul and Anthony from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition   

The Extreme Home folks could not make it a late night.  They had an early call-time the next morning and needed to hit the sack.  Nevertheless, I took John, Greg and Gregg, Paula Erickson from Sony Music and Steve Smith, who works with Gregg Latterman, and we made our way down a slippery trail to a one-room cabin we call "The Hut."   Armed with a nice bottle of Tuscan I had been saving for a special occasion, we shared stories of the night and got to know each other.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect night.  We made our way back to the Tavern to pack up the PA.  The rain was starting-up again and as it did, my sister-in-law began to dance in the pouring rain, fully dressed.  Gotta love it.


Our musical guests had left.  For those remaining, the party went into the wee hours of the morning.  I was up at 7:00am to clean the Hurry Back Tavern and pack for home.  I needed to be on the road with the kids by 10:00am if we were to make out flight back home to LA.  It was the last day of my vacation.   I was exhausted but could not have been happier.


Thank you to Gregg, John, Greg, Paul and Anthony for providing an amazing night of entertainment, as well as all of my family and friends (new and old) who were there to enjoy it all.  It was one for the books!


When do we get to do it again?

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