Sunday, September 12, 2004


Surgeon General's Par-Tay!
Showbox, Seattle

It started as a simple "I wonder why 200 people are receiving free VIP passes to this show?" and ended as a full-on Fanalyst Investigative Report! Y'see, this show turned out to be part of Camel's "Speakeasy Tour: the Roaring 2000s" that RJ Reynolds is running around the country.

We walk in thinking it's your standard Maktub show (Donald Glaude is also spinning later), but immediately realize that there is a TON of money in this room. First, we enter not through the Showbox's main doors, but through the restaurant next door, then go through the back and into this small room underneath the Showbox that I've never actually seen. The waitstaff is dressed in 20s-style flapper girl outfits. A jazz band plays. People are doodied up. Boas are being handed out by some hidden boa-dispenser. My friend and I wonder what the heck is up, but there is no real indication yet.

After a while we head upstairs. The Green Room is already packed, and there is a HUGE line of people waiting to get into the main doors. And then we notice them: Camel signs. Prohibition-era videos of dancers and bars. Enlarged "Surgeon General's Warning.." signs posted everywhere. Decorative smokers and actors. We are now cogs in a giant marketing machine.

On the stage in the main room there are girls performing with hoola-hoops, girls doing little burlesque-type shows, and other things that involve skin and cuteness. The crowd is weird: there are the regular Maktub fans who range from college guys to funky people to Ravenna homeowners; there are the Donald Glaude fans who are typically young hipster types; and then there is this other group of people who are just, well, beautiful. Like some marketing person decided this crowd needed to be attractive, so they handed out free passes to people beforehand. I hear several gorgeous girls asking who "Mack-tub" is.

I talk to a couple of performers, and they claim not to know who is paying them, but that they're making good money (I look later and find the audition notice online). Then I talk to a guy working at the Camel promo table - they are giving away free lighters in exchange for getting on their mailing list. He says they do this every week and are making crap money compared to "the hired performer goons."

There are benefits to corporate shows, of course. I get my face painted for free by a gal who normally freelances at places like the Nordstrom makeup counter. She is excited to be doing a gig where it's ok to swear. Other people get their bodies air-brushed with elaborate designs, also for free. (Oh - fashion thing - when did berets and those caps that look like berets come back? They are in this room too.)

Maktub comes on and does a great job as usual, but I'm still curious about the back story here. I snag more performers. One guy is a drummer in a samba band who is about to play in the lobby to create "atmosphere." Flapper girls just stand near them and smoke dramatically. He tells me that he got a call yesterday, and now he's here. He's not sure why.

Another guy in a zoot suit (Chris) tells me a great story: he was called in for an audition the night before the show - at like 8 pm. He arrives at a bar and chats with two guys about nothing in particular for a half hour. At the end of the half hour the guys offer him the gig. All Chris has to do is get fitted for a costume, then mingle and talk with people during the show. But get this: Chris is not told that it's a Camel event, and doesn't find out until he walks in the door tonight. And then get THIS: the day before this gig he does an ad for the Tobacco Smokes You campaign! HA!!

We head back downstairs to see if anything interesting is happening in the secret room. The jazz band is still playing, but it has devolved into a jam-band karaoke thing. We notice the performer ring leader - a guy in a smoking suit whose cane is actually a giant flashlight. Once in a while he speaks into a walkie-talkie tucked into his jacket.

The marketing messages are clear and well-executed during this show: (1) the current anti-smoking movement is just like Prohibition was in the 20s; (2) flaunting Prohibition was sexy and cool! (3) I can be sexy and cool if I smoke; (4) I will be in the company of all these beautiful people if I smoke Camels in particular. The show is now sold out, by design. I don't blame a single one of these actors, performers, and bands for taking RJR's money - a gig is a gig. And this was one interesting gig.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hadn't given the Camel "Roaring 2000s" posters a second thought but I do remember thinking, "there is nothing about today that reminds me of the roaring 20s." I didn't make the prohibition connection. One wonders how much RJR is spending on this grassroots marketing tour and how much they spend on other grassroots campaigns that are never aware of.

11:13 AM  

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