Mr. Chatterbox

By staff July 1, 2008

Boy, that Recount movie on HBO sure brought back some memories. The 2000 election was one of the most traumatic experiences Sarasota has ever gone through. It polarized the town in a way that has continued to this day. And for us old-timers, I doubt any of us will ever forget that feeling, like a punch to the stomach, when it first dawned on us that Katherine Harris—our Katherine Harris—would be deciding who the President of the United States would be. 

It wasn’t necessarily a bad shock. Katherine was very much a force for good in the community. She was tireless at pushing and pumping our arts organizations. What turned out to be some pretty right-wing political ideas were either well-hidden or as yet undeveloped. For instance, I always assumed she was pro-choice. I say this not as an indication of my stupidity but as a way to explain how unimportant her political beliefs were. She never pushed them, and in her job as Secretary of State they were inappropriate. Her agenda was blameless—historic preservation, international trade—and she advanced it with an energy that was almost manic. A typical speech (and she made many) always included mention of a recent trip to some foreign country where she brokered a trade deal and had dinner with the Prime Minister.

She was clearly somebody who loved what she was doing. She had found her place in life.

I realize that in Recount Katherine is meant to be the comic relief, and that every scene she is in is basically a comic one, or at least presented in a comic tone, with her either self-absorbed or missing the point. While this helps the movie dramatically, it presents Katherine as a fool, and that is by no means the case. She’s much more interesting that that.

There is a curious reference in Recount that had many people wondering. At one point Katherine, realizing the extent of her sudden new power, exclaims, “Ten years ago I was teaching the chicken dance to seniors!” That’s not quite the way it happened. What she should have said is, “Seven years ago I was teaching the chicken dance to a typical Sarasota audience in Mr. Chatterbox’s show!”

Yes, American history has many strange footnotes but few stranger than my involvement in the 2000 election. Maybe it’s time to tell the true tale of the chicken dance.

Back in the old days I was always coming up with ways to attract attention to myself. One of my most elaborate was a cabaret show at Florida Studio Theatre back in 1992. I told jokes, there was a pair of female contortionists from East Germany, a jazz trio played, a girl sang…and there was a Vanna White character. She brought the guests out and chatted with me and helped me lead the audience in the chicken dance. The role alternated amongst the town’s high-profile females, and one night it was Katherine Harris.

She was new in town, but had already been taken up by the powers that be: Margaret Wise, Marjorie North. At the beginning of the show she confessed to the audience how nervous she was and said she never been on stage before. Nevertheless, she did a beautiful job, changed her gown four times (one of them, she told us, she had just worn to dinner at the White House) and performed a credible chicken dance.

End of story. Katherine became more involved in Sarasota, went from the Ringling Museum board to the State Senate, then to the Secretary of State office, where as one of her duties she had to certify election results.

Then came Nov. 7, 2000.

The importance of Katherine’s office in the process did not immediately become apparent, but after several days it did, and she was suddenly on front pages all over the world. People wanted to know all about her.

My phone rang. It was the New York Post. Was it true, the Page Six editor asked me, that Katherine Harris did the chicken dance in my show? “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t that weird?” I hung up. The phone rang again. It was Inside Edition. Same question. The phone rang again. It was the National Enquirer. “Do you have any pictures?”

One of the peculiarities of the coverage was the focus on Katherine’s appearance. I personally had never noticed anything unusual. She looked pretty much like every woman of her wealth and social position in Sarasota. Here, women wear make-up. Get used to it.

But Katherine’s appearance immediately became a potential way to destroy her. She didn’t look like a serious person, we were told over and over. And it didn’t take the media—and the Democrats—long to realize that a picture of her doing the chicken dance would be just the thing to totally destroy her gravitas when she so badly needed it. “It has the potential to tip the election,” the Democrats told me. “You’ve got to do it.”

Fortunately, I didn’t have any pictures. Oh, one night we made a tape, but I was almost positive it wasn’t the night Katherine was there, and besides, I had no idea where the tape was. Unless it was in Carolyn Michel’s garage. I called her. She said she’d look. Well, it was, and yes, it was the night Katherine was there, and we had splendid footage of her doing the chicken dance. My heart congealed. What was I supposed to do now?

It was the moral dilemma of my life.

I made a decision. I would not release the tape. In fact, I put it in a safety deposit box. By this time I was getting a little scared. The calls continued; the National Enquirer said, “Name your price.” The Democrats called me a traitor. But I decided that for better or for worse, I could not betray a friend. Besides, one president was pretty much like another. How much harm could Bush do? What was he going to do, start a war?

Yes, a lot of memories came flooding back while watching Recount. For Katherine it must have been infuriating. Laura Dern played her for laughs. Missing were her charm and her steel. And the hair was all wrong. Katherine has beautiful hair; Laura’s was thin and looked like it needed washing.

But she did get one moment right: when she looked out through the window blinds and saw all the people demonstrating against her. The caricatures, the Cruella de Vil placards. The look on Laura’s face, the hurt little girl—that was the only moment I actually saw Katherine in her performance.

Katherine’s subsequent career has certainly had its up and downs. At the moment it’s in a bitter place. She was betrayed by the very people she put in office. And as for the chicken dance tape, it’s still in the vault. Nobody’s ever seen it, and it doesn’t really matter anymore. But, as Recount shows, it has gone down in history.

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