Vanilla Volcano Set to Erupt in Vegas

A little over a year ago, John Tesh, father of infotainment, pioneer of the evening schmooze, left E.T., the show he helped establish as the real source of information in a world where vicarious stargazing is our dearest pastime. Tesh was not the first anchorguy to share broadcasting duties with the winningly lifelike Mary Hart, but can you remember who preceded him? With his generously apportioned blandsomeness and his perfectly modulated basso profundo, Tesh was key to E.T.'s success, compelling in the most soothingly innocuous way, the crucial stabilizing influence amidst a frenzied swirl of glamorous movie premieres, clamorous restaurant openings, and spit-flecked paparazzi shouting matches.

But of course he was so much more than that too - as mediaphiles would soon discover. Starting his own record label, hosting infomercials, making concert videos, providing commentary at sporting events, appearing as himself in movies and sitcoms, taking pledges on PBS, pushing product on QVC - Tesh was everywhere at once, driven, it seemed, by some deep-seated desire to make his mark upon the mediascape. And yet his presence was so pleasantly soft-edged, so genially unassuming, hardly anyone noticed. It was this that made him the perfect emblem for our new age of ambient media - the Human Screensaver, ubiquitous, but registering in only the most subliminal way, like those semi-transparent cable channel logos that hover in the low corners of the TV screen.

When Tesh left E.T., a move that was precipitated by the show's reluctance to let him go on concert tours as often as he wanted, it appeared at first to be a lose-lose proposition. Certainly, E.T. would suffer - there were plenty of cathode ladder-climbers aspiring to fill Tesh's size 14 1/2 shoes, but who among them could adequately replicate his facile affability and boast his unique media pervasiveness?

Tesh, too, it seemed, might falter. Yes, he had already become a star in his own right, with best-selling records and sold-out concert tours, but thirty minutes every night on E.T. is the kind of exposure even the biggest stars would shill for, and the sheer improbability of his dual career - can anyone imagine Dan Rather, say, jamming with the Colorado Symphony? - almost always provoked the curiosity of those unfamiliar with his music: That guy's got a gold album? What's it sound like?

As it turns out, only E.T. has languished. Without Tesh at the helm, it's just another infotainment show, pumping out newzak with generic journeyman consistency. Bob Goen, Tesh's replacement, is perfectly capable in his new role: his enunciation's good, he's got the ham-on-wry, slightly smug, slightly self-deprecating anchorguy demeanor down. But the fact that he once landed a modeling job for Bride magazine suggests his ultimate shortcoming: he's little more than a lifesize version of the plastic groom that sits atop a wedding cake. Goen will never be accused of being an alien, as Tesh frequently is; he just doesn't inspire that kind of attention.

Tesh, on the other hand, is bigger than ever. He's got a new best-selling album out, his second concert video is once again helping PBS stations stave off impending extinction, he's even got his own vanity website. And while his unique brand of stealth bombasticism incited unprecedented media enmity at the 1996 Olympics, the judge wielding the scorecard that mattered most, NBC's Dick Ebersol, certainly liked what he heard. Come the millenium, Tesh will be in Sydney, handling the mike for his third Olympics and, one hopes, continuing to utter Freudian triple backflips like his classic description of one gymnast's chances for a medal: "Histrionics are against him."

Of course, it's also true that histrionics are for Tesh too. Onstage, he lets his penchant for swashbuckling theatrics run wild. "When people pay 20 or 30 bucks for a ticket, they want a show," he exclaimed recently while preparing for that evening's concert. "They don't want to look at my back. My band and I all have wireless instruments so we can head out into the audience, we've got a light show that's bigger than Lollapalooza. It's a pretty intense experience."

That intensity promises to peak today in Las Vegas, where Tesh will be performing at the Tropicana Hotel. "We'll probably blow something up," Tesh promised. "There's nothing like setting off fireworks - especially indoors."

With media manipulation skills that are as finely tuned as his piano, the Vanilla Volcano invariably manages to capitalize on this tendency toward dramatic excess. To help publicize his tour, for example, his camp recently issued a press release documenting the emergency piano airlift that was required to replace his battered instrument: "Extensive hard playing by Tesh," it blared, appealing to both critics - Talk about heavy-handed musicianship! - and to fans eager to see him give his keyboard an Olympic-style workout. Of course, the blurb got picked up everywhere.

Because Tesh isn't afraid to laugh at himself, more often than not he winds up with the last laugh. It's a refreshing perspective in a world where celebrities construct their personas with the nervous deliberation of Procter & Gamble brand managers - Tesh simply throws himself out there, without worrying too much over the fact that his habit of wearing a black baseball cap backwards at the age of 44 makes him look even less hip than Marky Mark. Who would have guessed that the friendly E.T. automaton would turn out to be the realest person in show business?

-- G. Beato

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