Bernhardt column: Kink and Don get their big shot

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2011

I’m not a huge fan of Fox TV’s “American Idol”, but my understanding is it’s as popular as ever, even without Simon Cowell.
To be perfectly honest, the show appealed to me in its early years. It was sort of Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour on steroids. Celebrity judges visit various cities across the country in search of the best vocal talent, and the winner gets an instant infusion of fame, money, and a recording contract.
What’s not to like?
Eventually though, I came to realize that the show seems to get more mileage out of exposing the lack of talent in our nation, and I lost interest somewhere along the way.
People are willing to do anything…and I mean anything…for that momentary rush found in instant fame. It’s uncomfortable to watch someone willing to make a fool of themselves on national TV, believing all the while they have the talent to make it to the top.
It’s uncomfortable, until I take a look in the mirror and realize I was once just like them.
Contrary to popular belief, I was young once, and in search of fame. I was less confident as a vocalist than I am today, so I chose another path: comedy.
Impressionists like David Frye and Rich Little were all the rage in the early 70s, and I greatly admired their talent. I had a good ear for voices, and had been polishing a few impressions of my own.
I soon discovered that a classmate shared my passion for impressionist comedy. Don Elium was a year older than me, but we had the same lunch period and eventually found ourselves entertaining the masses in the hallways around 12:30 each day.
Don did a great Walter Brennan to my John Wayne. His Hubert Humphrey was dead on, and a perfect foil for my Richard Nixon. And no one could touch his Billy Graham or my Paul Lynde. We were quickly becoming a sensation at East Rowan High.
We would soon debut our comedy antics at a school talent show. I even remember the date: January 25, 1972. Our classmates roared their approval. We were a hit, and instant celebrities.
It wasn’t long before we hit the road; well, the road to several civic club meetings and church socials. Any group willing to part with fifty bucks could have 20 minutes of our best stuff.
Admittedly, our best stuff was comprised of material we had gingerly lifted from past TV variety shows, but the public didn’t seem to mind. Don and I were on our way.
Even in those days, the goal…the great showbiz quest…was to appear on television. We sensed that the Ed Sullivan Show and the Hollywood Palace was already booked with slightly more experienced talent, so we set our sights on the regional market.
That led us to Winston- Salem, and a man named Bob Gordon.
If you have a good memory, you might recall that Bob Gordon hosted a Saturday and sometimes Sunday program on WSJS-TV in the Triad. Along with his ventriloquist dummy Van, he introduced reruns and old movie serials throughout the afternoon. Occasionally, Bob featured local talent on his show.
That’s where we came in. If we could make it to the Bob Gordon Show, our destiny would be sealed.
We wrote to Bob and asked for an audition. He graciously agreed to meet us on a Sunday afternoon at the WSJS studios where he would be doing his show live that day.
So in the early spring of 1972, two young local celebrity hopefuls made their way to Winston-Salem.
I had never been to a TV studio before. I think I expected to find a fleet of makeup artists, producers, directors, and possibly even fans gathered around Bob. What I actually found stunned me to my core.
We entered the studio through an unlocked rear door. I saw the Bob Gordon set, but virtually no human being anywhere. In a nearby office, I could hear the tap, tap, tapping sound of someone touch typing rather slowly. It turned out to be Bob.
“Hi fellows,” he said politely.
Bob wasn’t exactly known for being particularly charismatic on TV, and in person, he appeared almost like someone had awakened him from a nap. He reminded me a bit of Bob Newhart; personable, but somewhat muted for a TV star.
I later made the observation that Bob’s appeal was much like the appeal of Ed Sullivan. Ed didn’t exactly ooze charisma either, but his show lasted 23 years, and Bob…well, Bob was around for at least that long.
“You guys want to audition?”
“You bet!” came our enthusiastic reply.
We were taken to a studio, positioned in front of a camera, and told to give Bob three minutes of our act. We gave it everything we had, right down to a duet of “Those Were the Days,” the theme of “All in the Family” with Don as Edith Bunker and me as Archie.
“You boys are pretty funny,” observed Mr. Gordon, never smiling. “How’d you like to be on next week’s show?”
He didn’t have to ask twice.
We arrived at the studio at around one o’clock on Sunday afternoon for a three o’clock performance. All of East Rowan would be watching. We were about to become immortal.
With hot studio lights glaring in our faces, there in front of God and everybody was Bob Gordon, THE Bob Gordon, introducing us. “Ladies and gentlemen, here are two talented young men from Salisbury, Don Elium and Kink Burkhart.”
“Kink Burkhart”?
I had just heard my name butchered on live TV. How do you get Kink Burkhart out of Kent Bernhardt?
People have always mispronounced my name. I once was introduced as Ken Beranco. I actually liked that one. It had sort of an Italian flair.
Our three minute segment passed quickly. As the camera cut back to Bob, I noticed he was actually smiling. During the next commercial break leading into a rerun of “12 O’Clock High,” he was gracious enough to give us a brief tour of the studio.
Upon our return to Salisbury, it was clear that the local audience for our TV debut had indeed been huge. Our phones rang throughout the afternoon and into the evening. The next day, the hallways of East Rowan resounded with praise for our performance.
We were on a celebrity high that would last all of two or three days.
And if there’s an important point of this story, it is that simple fact.
Fame is indeed fleeting. You accomplish a feat that gets you noticed by the public, and literally in two or three days, the public you were trying so hard to impress has moved on to something else.
There were no DVRs or YouTube in those days, so our performance is lost forever. The only momento I have of our TV debut is a photograph someone took of the TV screen while we were on. Since they used a flash bulb, however, all you can see is the glare of the flash on a TV screen. No Kent, no Don.
We continued to perform together for several years; a civic club here, a beauty pageant there. Higher education took us in different directions, so we never really knew our true potential as a comic duo.
Or maybe we did.
Don now lives in California where he is an accomplished author and psychotherapist. I remained here, and made radio my home.
So when I see the youth of today putting their skills on the line on “American Idol,” part of me understands. I guess all of us want to be remembered for something.
We all secretly want some degree of fame, whether it’s hitting the game winning home run, or being introduced as that master impressionist Kink Burkhart on the Bob Gordon Show.
Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.