Not long ago a bulky package arrived containing a VHS tape. The label said it was a copy of Coneheads but I couldn’t imagine why anyone would send me a copy of a not very funny Dan Aykroyd movie, so I popped it into the dust-covered VCR still on my desk and took a look.
What I saw was astounding: a pilot for a TV series called Akron Man, with a Who’s Who of Northeast Ohioans in the cast, among them Drew Carey, Ray Wise, Tim Conway and Melina Kanakaredes.
The announcer sounded like Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson. There were cameos by Mayor Don Plusquellic, radio personality Phil Ferguson and Joe Turek, a pitcher for the old Canton-Akron Indians. The closing theme was the Waitresses’ song Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?
Now, there was a show called Akron Man that Carey used to talk about in interviews. Before he hit with his ABC sitcom in the mid-’90s, Carey had a series deal and the studio put him with a writer-producer who came up with the idea for Akron Man.
“It was about a married guy with three kids, and I lived in Akron,” Carey later recalled. “I painted fine china. That’s what you think of when you think of Akron, don’t ya? And I lost my job when they decide to stamp the china in the Philippines, and I’m really mad about foreigners, and I call a talk-radio station. And what I say is so great, they give me a job on the radio and I’m known as the Akron Man.” Wincing as he recalled the dreadful concept, Carey said, “I’m so glad it fell through the floor.”
But that Akron Man bore no resemblance to the show on the tape.
This was a comedy about Drew Carson, an unemployed tire-factory worker (played by Carey) who hits it big in the lottery and decides to use his winnings to launch a new tire company and hire all his out-of-work friends. (The factory scenes appear to be shot in the old Teledyne Monarch Rubber plant in Hartville.) Unsure whether he can run the company himself, Carson hires his businessman father-in-law (Wise) as president — hoping people will have forgotten that the man’s career included running one local company into the ground and relocating another to South Carolina.
But, as anyone who has been to Akron knows, people here have long memories, and one of those people is Carson’s retired, union-man father (Conway). Bickering and protests ensue. At home, Carson’s wife (Kanakaredes), who was ready for the post-lottery high life, is not thrilled with Carson’s scheme — or continuing to live in a banged-up rented apartment near the University of Akron campus. (A running gag involves a student neighbor playing C + C Music Factory at top volume in the middle of the night.) Still, Carson is determined to push ahead, to show he really is “Akron Man.”
So where did this show and tape come from? The envelope was no help: the return address turned out to be a Gionino’s, and the sender’s name (A.F. Dey) wasn’t in a local directory. Carey declined comment. Representatives of the other principals declined comment. There was nothing in the Beacon Journal archive about the show, either.
Finally, after asking everyone I knew, I got a phone call. His number was blocked on my caller ID. The name he gave — Arthur Radley — sounded fake. And he was nervous; I had the feeling that if I said “Boo,” he would hang up.
“I hear you’re asking about Akron Man,” he said. “What do you wanna know?”
“What the heck it is,” I said. A hacking laugh was his first reply.
“It’s guerrilla TV,” he said. “You know Drew, right? You know he has this temper, right? Well, after that terrible version of Akron Man got shelved, he was really ticked. Couldn’t believe someone would try to put that pile of poo on an area he loved. So he took the money he got paid for the show, grabbed a camcorder, called up some of his Buckeye friends and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we make a show? Let people see what this town is really like?’
“It was really done on the fly. I think they did it in a weekend, since the actors had day jobs; Melina was on that soap opera. The script was partly by Drew, partly improvised. They would grab locations on the cheap — the apartment really belonged to a couple of UA kids, and Drew paid them with kegs of Great Lakes beer — or secretly. You know that scene in the Jaco’s Drive Thru parking lot in the Falls? I don’t think the store was even open when they did it. Same thing with Derby Downs.”
But, I asked, what happened after they finished shooting?
“Have you looked at that thing?” Radley asked. “When Drew watched the tape later, he knew it was crap. Big crap. He swore never to talk about it — and nobody else involved saw anything to brag about, either. As far as I knew, he burned the tapes. I don’t know how you got one. Then, a couple of years later, he got that Cleveland show and the money to do it right, so why mess up his image with a cheap, thrown-together pilot?
“Got what you need?” Radley said abruptly. “Gotta go.” He hung up. I never heard from him again. But I did have doubts about his story, especially when I looked at the tape one more time.
Wasn’t that Jaco’s scene from the movie All the Marbles, which was shot there? Didn’t the Derby Downs scene look a lot like one in The Dead Next Door? Was that really Carey, as the credits claimed? I couldn’t be sure in the blurry old VHS scenes.
The more I thought about it, the more I suspected the tape was nothing more than an April Fool’s Day joke.
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When not making stuff up, Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.