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On the Road with ''Three Wishes''

By RD Heldenfels Published: October 15, 2005

''Do you have a piece of paper?'' a blond kid asked me as I was walking away from an interview with Amy Grant.


The kid wanted to get her autograph. I gave him a sheet of paper from my network, then asked if he needed a pen. He did, so I fished a spare one out of my pocket.


I don't know if he ever got the autograph. I saw him a little later, still in a cluster of people trying to get near her, but then I lost track of him. I'd like to think he got the autograph. He probably didn't get that close to celebrities very often.


This all happened earlier today in the New Philadelphia, Ohio, town square, where ''Three Wishes'' had set up its wish tent. Regular viewers of the show know that's where people come to ask folks to grant their wishes.


A note about that tent: There really is one, white-topped, with clear plastic sides, and some of the wish-making does take place there. But the tent was as much a rallying point as a place. With the sun out, and the weather fine, ''Three Wishes'' stars and producers took people from the line to other parts of the town square, where the cameras recorded them making their wishes.


As I said for a story in tomorrow's Beacon Journal (which you should be able to find on www.ohio.com), there was a festive quality to the occasion, even as people with painfully sad stories came to gain a little help and hope. I spent a lot of time at the ''American Idol'' auditions in Cleveland; their huge crowds and resulting regimented approach was far from as pleasant as this ''Three Wishes'' event. And I couldn't imagine the ''Idol'' judges matter-of-factly wandering through a town. Even if it becomes successful, I hope ''Three Wishes'' can hold onto its folksy, approachable feel.


But there was also a lot of work going on. By the time I talked to Grant, she had been around the town square; I first caught a glimpse of her coming out of a local diner, camera crew moving ahead of her. I knew she was in the diner because fans, some with cameras, were clustered outside. And when Grant came out, she was trying to walk back to the square, as the TV cameras recorded it, and to talk to people along the way.


There are a lot of people-to-people elements in the show, both on-camera and off. Carter Oosterhouse, who co-stars on the series, was especially good with fans, asking people's names as they posed for pictures with him; he may look like a Hollywood star, but he's quick to point out that he's from Michigan and he's happy to be outside the glitter dome; he talked about driving around to different parts of the state, and how he liked the small towns, and how what people wanted in the wish tent demonstrated real differences from one place to the next.


Anyway, here's how my morning went. I drove down from my house to New Philadelphia, Mapquest directions close at hand, and arrived there about 9:30. The wish tent wasn't supposed to be open until 11, but the NBC publicist told me the stars would be available to talk before then, and I wanted to get a feel for the place.


I wasn't sure exactly how many people would show up, since ''Three Wishes'' is a new show, and on Friday nights, when a lot of people aren't watching TV. (Even a lot of the people in the town square had missed Friday's telecast, notably because they had gone to a local football game where ''Three Wishes'' had also done some taping.) So when I turned onto Broadway, I was comforted to see not only that the road was blocked off ahead, but that there was a line of people on the other side of the roadblock.


I parked and walked around a bit, getting a handle on the crowd. Then I talked to some people at the front of the line, several of whom had been there since 4 a.m.


After that, I started looking for the NBC publicist, which put me in with a group of other reporters looking for her. Most of the other reporters knew each other, and were from in and around New Philadelphia, and so had followed the ''Three Wishes'' visit very closely; I listened to them and waited. Then the publicist came around, and we were shown to another part of the square where the stars would come for individual interviews. And so it went with Oosterhouse and Diane Mizota, affable folks, doing one brief interview after another, making each sound as if they had never been asked a question before, and posing for pictures with some reporters who asked. (I didn't.)


After that I wandered down the square, saw the group waiting for Grant, them followed them back to the interview area. I was lucky enough to get the first talk with Grant. She was very thoughtful and passionate about the show, but the interview was also a little odd. Out of the corner of my eye I could see not only the other reporters waiting for their turns, but people waiting for a moment of her attention. Oosterhouse also had his fans -- especially women -- but Grant had a serious, devoted following; you could feel their connection to her, and she tries to give it back. She said she is still in touch with the people she's done big wishes for.


Some time after that, the wish tent officially opened. I went back to see some of the people I had talked to in line as they told their wishes, and talked to them about how it went. I also talked to the mayor of New Philadelphia. And I walked a block or so away, to see a house one of the wish-makers had told me about; it looked as bad in reality as in the pictures he had of it. I talked to Andrew Glassman, the executive producer, whom I had met before when he was producing ''Average Joe.'' He thanked me for a recent Beacon Journal story about the show, and I confessed I had not written that one.


I also tried to pick up more details: At a Christmas scene, where children were asked to tell their wishes, someone from the show gently asked some kids, ''Which one is a big talker? ... Which is going to go shy on me?'' A large sign warned everyone that by being in the square, they were agreeing to have their pictures taken, and ''no compensation will be paid.'' Grant, having done radio and print interviews, moved on to TV chats, with two NBC affiliates from the region in atrendance.


By about noon, it seemed as if I had more than enough of a story. In fact, by the time I got back to the office, I knew I had far more than I could use. The story turned out to be one where I spent about as much time trimming it as I did writing it through the first time; it was still rather long, and it had a small sidebar.


I still felt good about the day. A lot of the time, when I hear people talk about ''reality TV,'' they say it with a sneer. But there are shows like ''Extreme Makeover: Home Edition'' and ''Three Wishes'' that try to say something positive about people. And I liked being in place where people's hearts were full.


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