April, 1996. Lincoln Square, Manhattan. Four city blocks have been cordoned off surrounding the ABC TV studios, in anticipation of a fiery display of raw thrust by the American Eagle 1 jet car, a deconstructed fighter plane of an automobile whose design goal is to reclaim the Land Speed Record of 633 mph, currently the domain of Richard Noble, a land speed record racer who also ranks as an Order of the British Empire, OBE. Television personalities Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee Gifford and their producers have signed off on the presentation of the AE-1. The racers figure a ring-of-fire dog-and-pony show on live television just might titillate some potential corporate benefactors enough to loosen its promotional purse strings. Conversely, if this stunt misfires, it could melt the plastic off of both Regis Philbin’s mug and Kathie Lee Gifford’s cleavage.
The AE-1’s cash crunch is very real… Before the team can set its sights on the Land Speed Record, it needs to find a Corporate Sugar Daddy willing to pony up 250 large – yes, one quarter of a million bones – for design changes and sundry expenses. Thus far, the car is six years and $300,000 in coming.
This is Take Two, as they say in the biz, as the day before Regis and Kathie Lee broadcast their show from the New York Auto Show and did a bit on the AE-1. In an improvised moment of inspiration and schtoink, as cameras rolled Regis Philbin climbed into the back of the cockpit of the jet car while AE-1 team members applied current to the engine. It failed to fire. On live national television. There was no jet fuel in the tanks…
The next day, however, outside of the studio, things will be different everybody says. The AE-1 is fueled up and will light sure as sunrise.
Communications, microphones and cameras are hard wired to a control room five flights up and ensconced behind glass. Coming out of commercial, down on Columbus Avenue a stage manager with an intermittently-functioning headset folds three fingers in succession and then points to the talent, who introduces the jet car’s Director of Operations. A red light glows on a handheld camera as the talent and the guest banter and make nice-nice for a few minutes with the Director of Operations explaining the team’s plight re a lack of finances hindering their ability to reclaim the Land Speed Record from the British operation that set it in 1983.
Then things get weird. In a reprise of yesterday’s coast-to-coast misfire, the jet engine won’t light. Again.
It is a cacophony of confusion and futility, with the stage manager pointing his fingers and attempting to cue the AE-1’s pit crew to light ‘er off and start making some noise with the J79 jet engine. The promotional pitch immediately degenerates into utter slapstick worthy of Buster Keaton. As power is applied repeatedly, the turbine blades spin harmlessly… a massive asses-and-elbows thrash ensues with the AE-1 crew as Regis Philbin filibusters into the camera and a spokesman for the American Eagle tap dances around the reality that Middle (and Corporate) America is watching and-here-we-are-screwing-the-pooch.
The stage manager rolls his fingers, the camera’s red light goes dark, and unbeknownst to the AE-1 squad, bumper music rolls as credits burn across the screen horizontally. Finally, after their moment in the limelight has all but passed, the engine lights and rumbles and the small team of mechanics go through the various procedures designed to elicit oohs and ahhs and wows. The coast to coast audience doesn’t hear or see the spectacle. Obliviously, the turbines plead and wail at an amplitude that would kill cockroaches in a lab experiment and if the intimation of the 48,000 horsepower isn’t enough, the driver then purges the engine’s afterburners and a 70-foot orange flame bursts aft of the deconstructed post-industrial monstrosity. Windows shatter and eardrums are permanently cauliflowered.
It is for naught. This ersatz, shambolic Gotham Götterdämmerung is a fallen tree silent in an empty electronic forest. New York City cops survey the broken glass, key their radios and shrug their shoulders while chomping on donuts or knishes and sipping coffee.
Via videotape playback, the next morning Regis and Kathy Lee relive the moment on their show, the third consecutive day the AE-1 gets national exposure. Still the money never comes.