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Behind-the-scenes glimpses of celebrities and other notables in UB’s long-running speakers series
Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke; illustration by Marci Roth
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, bounds up the stage and does a double-take at the life-size buffalo statue behind him. He grins broadly and the audience laughs with him. It’s a moment when everyone can relax. Together audience and speaker will resolve the incongruity of a world figure—a media image for most people up to this point—who’s now present physically in Alumni Arena and ready to engage the crowd. Blair, who spoke at UB in 2009 as the Graduate Student Choice Speaker, is just one of many political leaders, intellectuals, journalists, comedians, authors or hard-to-define celebrities who have appeared in UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series (DSS) since it was launched more than 25 years ago. While the audience sees accomplished speakers fluently delivering their remarks, only a handful of university people are treated to up-close encounters with the public figures who dominate the series.
William J. Regan, MBA ’92 & BA ’80, heads the Office of Special Events and has met all DSS speakers since he began directing the series in 1992. He enjoys welcoming these diverse personalities, who range from former presidents and senior statesmen to irreverent comics and literary artists of every description. He recalls, for instance, the warmth of Sidney Poitier, the Academy Award-winning actor who took part in the 2000-01 DSS season. Poitier’s address marked the first time UB merged the series with the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration event, a format that continues today. Poitier was contemplating a New York stage performance based on his own life and career; the UB appearance was considered a run-through.
“Once he accepted our invitation, he went about preparing for it in a way that I’d never seen before,” says Regan. “On a trip to New York in the middle of winter, he lay over in Buffalo for a couple of hours so he could come in, look at our facilities and get a feel for how we were going to set it up. For the actual speaking event, he came in a day early so he could meet with a film class taught by Jim Pappas [now associate professor of transnational studies]. On event day he did a full-blown rehearsal during the afternoon.”
Booked as the Student Choice Speaker in 2006, Conan O’Brien made a big impression with his gracious, down-to-earth manner. “Basically, he told me from the get-go, ‘I’m yours. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it,’” Regan says. “So it wasn’t a matter of looking at the itinerary, looking at the contract and saying, ‘Okay, I’m doing this for five minutes,’ or ‘How many people are in the reception room?’ He was just so engaging with everyone.”
O ’Brien’s hilarious performance was followed by an impromptu Buffalo wings run that delighted the DSS staff. “When Conan finished his lecture, he walked up to Bill Regan and me backstage and told us he never had real Buffalo wings and wanted to try them before he left town,” says Jay Friedman, EdM ’00 & BA ’86, associate vice president for alumni relations, then assistant director of special events. “He then asked us if we wanted to join him. Fifteen minutes later we were sitting at Duff’s on Millersport eating chicken wings and drinking beer with Conan O’Brien. He then proceeded to call his pilot and tell him that he would be a little late for takeoff.”
Dennis R. Black, JD ’81, vice president for university life and services, has introduced dozens of speakers as part of the DSS but only one reacted like O’Brien. “As his introduction was finished, the rather tall and red-headed Conan came on to stage and waved to the crowd,” Black recalls. “But instead of shaking hands with me, he simply picked me up and twirled me around. It was a 360 degree circle in the air, much to the delight of the crowd! That was the beginning of a long and fun night as Conan O’Brien’s straight man at UB.”
Bill Regan, joined by Jay Friedman at his right, were among the campus officials who greeted His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama upon his arrival in Buffalo in September 2006.
Another lively speaker, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, arrived early for his 2011 DSS address. So he suggested a trip to Starbucks to a surprised group of UB staffers. “We were a little caravan with University Police and a couple people he traveled with,” Regan says. “We walked into the Starbucks on Main Street in Williamsville, and everyone’s looking at this guy and seeming to say, ‘Is that Arnold Schwarzenegger?’ Because when you see people out of context you really question your own judgment and perceptions.”
Most speakers wear business attire or at least are dressed for a casual evening out. One speaker, however, defied these conventions and opted for a super-relaxed look when travel plans went awry. “I remember Bill Cosby arriving on campus five minutes before his November 2003 lecture was supposed to start,” says Friedman. “He drove to Buffalo from New York City when his flight was cancelled because of a Nor’easter winter storm. He arrived in sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and flip-flops ... and walked right up on to the stage to deliver his lecture dressed ‘as is.’”
Others have mesmerized the audience with their serious themes or elevated lanlanguage. “One of the more difficult introductions for me to draft was when historian and filmmaker Ken Burns joined us at UB in 2002,” says Black. “With his mastery of language, I felt appropriately anxious about saying the right things in the right way to introduce him to the sold-out Center for the Arts crowd. But he was very warm both before and after the lecture.”
Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is another speaker remembered for his eloquence. “It was powerful to have him on stage,” says Regan of Wiesel’s 1998 visit. “The Mainstage Theatre was sold out and you could hear a pin drop when he was speaking. That was profound, to have him here as that beam of life, of hope, of humanity.”
The speakers series is funded through a combination of ticket sales, and university and sponsor support. And although Regan won’t divulge specific speaking fees, he does describe a deliberate process that leads to speakers who are chosen for their perceived audience appeal, with some prognostication to determine the likelihood they’ll be “hot” when lecture day arrives. “Obviously, we have a track record with what we’re paying out and what we can expect to generate in terms of sponsorship and ticket revenues,” Regan says. “You certainly like to look at each program first and foremost on a stand-alone basis. But you also need to consider how each program contributes to the overall lineup in terms of creating widespread interest.”
Unconventional greeting: Conan O’Brien lifts Dennis Black off his feet
Still, speakers are not recruited for celebrity alone but rather are identified in a carefully calibrated process that draws on feedback from throughout the campus and from regular audience polling. “DSS has developed over the decades in several positive ways,” Black says. “We’ve added Student Choice Speakers to the line-up and developed a link to ‘UB Reads,’ meaning we bring an author to campus each year at the end of our community reading program. We’ve also been able to have several DSS speakers a year provide an educational experience and campus exposure to area high school students and their teachers through a special sponsorship program.”
Probably the most logistically challenging DSS address was the 2006 visit by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama that culminated in a lecture before 30,000 people in UB Stadium. “Talk about protocols,” says Regan. “That was the protocol lesson extraordinaire when it comes to the dos and don’ts of coordinating security issues, and the coordination of simple receiving line etiquette, for instance. That was just a consummate university program where everybody had to be involved in some capacity to make it work the way it did.”
The Dalai Lama’s visit entailed elaborate security measures, as was the case when former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush delivered DSS addresses. “Anytime a world figure comes to UB, the security involves several agencies in addition to state and campus law enforcement,” Regan explains, “for instance, the U.S. State Department when the Dalai Lama visited, and Scotland Yard when Tony Blair was here.”
Regan makes it his business to pick up and return speakers at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Most of the pick-ups proceed routinely, but sometimes he needs to keep his eyes peeled while waiting under the arrivals sign. Take Stephen Colbert, for instance. “He’s got such a distinctive visage,” says Regan of the iconoclastic comic who appeared at UB in 2008. “He came in, ball cap scrunched down and carrying a knapsack. Television tends to make people look heavier or bigger than they are. And Colbert, in person, is not a real big guy. He almost walked by me before I recognized him.”
The fact that Buffalo isn’t a hub city for major airlines can discourage speakers or their agents from choosing UB. Proximity to Niagara Falls, however, has helped motivate some celebrities to speak at UB or even to linger in the area. “When writer Amy Tan was here in 2003, she recognized an opportunity to see Niagara Falls,” Regan says. “So that clearly worked in our favor to bring her here. As part of her visit, Marcus Bursik, professor of geology, took her on a wonderful geological tour of Niagara Falls.” Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong also saw Niagara Falls when he was here in April 2012, his first ever visit to the world-famous attraction.
Asked if speakers ever have unusual requests, Regan says most “are pretty tame,” such as no fish on the menu or preferred audiovisual equipment. “Bill Maher had to have a juicer in his hotel room,” Regan recalls with a smile, “and all sorts of organic fruits and vegetables that he could juice.”
Sometimes a speaker will interact with DSS staff in memorable ways. “I was escorting Bill Bradley, the former U.S. senator, from the green room to the stage just before his lecture in 2003,” says Friedman. “And he asked me if I was wearing a watch. I said yes, and he asked me if he could borrow it. He told me he never wore a watch but wanted to put one on the podium so he could keep track of the time. I took off the watch and gave it to him, and never gave it a second thought. The next morning I got a call from his hotel. He remembered that he had my watch and left it for me at the front desk before he flew back to New York.”
While broadcasting rights are prohibited by the agencies representing speakers, Regan would like to someday beam closed-circuit DSS lectures to alumni association chapters. Friedman endorses this notion. “I’d love to one day offer this opportunity to alums, not only around the country but also around the world,” he says.
Technologies will vary and speakers will come and go, but don’t expect the essential purpose of the Distinguished Speakers Series to change much.
“The series serves a variety of mission goals for UB,” says Black. “It brings the community to campus. It provokes thought and discussion. And it brings people and issues to life for our students, making them more real, more pressing and more understandable.”
Presenting sponsor for the DSS is the Don Davis Auto World Lectureship Fund; the Undergraduate Student Association is the exclusive series sponsor.
A photo booth complete with cutouts of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Student Choice Speaker in 2011, was set up for audience members to remember the occasion.
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