Welcome Back Kotter and Celebrity Sightings, New Hampshire-style

March 29, 2010

Celebrity Sightings, New Hampshire-style

Maybe because his birthday is this week (April 2), my thoughts turn to Ron Palillo, aka Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter. I have to admit that I was a Vinnie Barbarino fan—like most boys my age who had the Farrah Faucett poster (you know the one—red bathing suit, big smile, raisin-hard nipples), I had the John Travolta poster—his eyes the exact color of his chambray shirt, which was unbuttoned just so. But despite the Lakes Region’s status as a top tourist destination—Funspot! The Weirs! Ellacoya!—what more could you possibly need?—Gilford, New Hampshire was sorely lacking in celebrity presence in the pre-On Golden Pond years of the late seventies. We all knew Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) spent his summers on Winnipesaukee, but who knew where? And unless he spontaneously began speaking in metered rhyme would we even be able to distinguish him from all the other old white-haired guys in floppy fishing hats and short-sleeved plaid shirts? Probably not.

So when Ron Palillo signed on to perform for the Lakes Region Playhouse in the summer of 1978, it was quite the event. He arrived in style, coming in by float plane to the boat docks by the Burger King on Union Avenue, and I watched the interview he gave on WMUR, thinking, “That’s the Burger King boat docks, right there on TV! The boat docks from the town where I live. And there’s Horshack, at the boat docks, right there in the town where I live.” The next day, there was Horshack again, on the front page of the Laconia Citizen, with pictures of the huge crowd that had turned out to see him. Do I remember the play he was in? No. Do I remember what he said on WMUR or in the Citizen? No again.

So why did any of this matter? I think it had something to do with the fact that back then New Hampshire didn’t seem to exist anywhere except beneath my feet and before my own eyes, and that was never quite good enough. In elementary school, we sang “This Land is Your Land,” and Woody Guthrie’s America stretched only from California to the New York Islands. It did not extend to us. And while New Hampshire does have exactly 9 ½ miles of coastline, the phrase “from sea to shining sea” never seemed to apply to us either. Having yet to discover John Irving or Russell Banks or Grace Metalious or Hunter Thompson’s brief mention of Motorcycle Weekend in Hell’s Angels, I had never read about New Hampshire in books, and I’d never seen it on television except for those newscasts on WMUR which hardly seemed to count.  To have anyone who had some connection to the world at large come to our state was a big event, worthy of news coverage. It meant we existed, we were here. Of course this Horshack business all happened before I knew anything about the presidential primaries, discovering that New Hampshire existed for the rest of the country at least once every four years.

And now none of this matters at all. If anything I’d rather live in a place that exists under the radar and out of reach. The New Hampshire woods, the flyover zone of the Great Plains, maybe off the grid entirely. But when we’re young maybe we look for anything at all to validate our presence, even if it’s one of the lesser Sweathogs.

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2 Responses to “Welcome Back Kotter and Celebrity Sightings, New Hampshire-style”

  1. Kirsti said

    Great post! When I was in middle school I lived in Andover, MA, and I remember it was a really huge deal when Chuck Mangione came to town and went to our corner deli. This was before he was a punchline on “King of the Hill,” even.

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