By Cara Jepsen
It was 1977. I was one of ten preteen girls sitting at a picnic table in a Wisconsin park. It was the last day of a weeklong canoe trip, and we were dirty, hungry, and tired. The last thing we wanted to do was cook up the last of the powdered gruel at the bottom of our packs. Throughout our trip we'd kept our spirits up by singing Barry Manilow songs--"Mandy," "Copacabana (At the Copa)," "Jump Shout Boogie," "Weekend in New England."
Our stomachs were growling as we launched into the medley of commercial jingles Manilow had written for Dr Pepper, Stri-Dex, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, our favorite part of the Barry Manilow Live album. We were screaming "Get a bucket of chicken, finger-lickin' good. Get a barrel of fun. GOOD-BYE HO-HUM!" when a group of well-dressed men who had been watching us got up and left. A short time later they returned with two tubs of the colonel's best and all the trimmings. We dug in thankfully.
"You had a Manilow moment," explains Mandy Strunk, a Manilow fan for more than 20 years. Strunk, whose first name is not a nickname for "Amanda," recounts numerous such moments in her new book The Whole World Sings: The Fans Behind Barry Manilow. It's filled with testimonials, coincidences, and "Barry changed my life" stories from Manilow's many die-hard fans.
One fan told how Manilow got her through breast cancer and depression. Another was considering suicide after a series of setbacks. Then she read his book Sweet Life and received a box set of his music for Christmas. "Nancy listened to every word of every song, and miraculously nearly every song sounded like it was meant for her alone," Strunk writes. Nancy wrote Manilow a 25-page letter, which was never answered. Another woman said that seeing him in concert "was honestly and truly the first time in almost a year I had been glad I was alive....I have kidded with my friends through the years that although I don't attend church anymore, I do belong to the Church of Barry, and that is enough!"
Strunk, who's never met the singer, lives near Bloomington, Indiana. She won't reveal her marital status or her age, though she will say she was born before Manilow recorded her namesake song in 1974--which, by the way, was written by Scott English and Richard Kerr as an up-tempo pop song called "Brandy." Nor will she talk about Manilow's personal life; it's on the list of taboo questions she faxed me. She will say she got the idea for the book after attending a concert two years ago at the Sands in Atlantic City. "I was standing in line waiting for the show and just started talking to the people around me," she recalls. "I kept hearing stories about how folks would plan family vacations around Barry Manilow's tour schedule, or how they were introducing their younger children or siblings to his music, or how people had traveled from state to state to go to public appearances of his. I always knew he was extremely popular, but I had no idea of the vastness of his fan following."
Strunk joined several fan clubs and talked to Manilow admirers on the Internet and at concerts. A woman who touched the singer's hand during a show told her, "It was the best thing that has happened to me since the birth of my children. I'm a pretty boring person, but I'm still on a high from that."
"I almost feel like we've grown up together," another woman said. Her husband "respects their relationship," but she continues to remind him that "Barry came along way before he did!" Indeed, many of the women Strunk interviewed mention having agreements with their husbands about their relationships with Barry.
Strunk's research included a trip to Great Britain, where a group of fans who call themselves the "Maniloonies" rent a bus and follow him around from city to city. "The fans are like a big family; the atmosphere at the venues is almost like a huge family reunion," she says. "People know each other because they're pen pals or converse over the Internet or call each other on the phone, and they hook up at the concerts."
Manilow no longer sings his "Very Strange Medley" live, but his jingles came in loud and clear on the speakers in the lobby of the Rosemont Theatre during his engagement there last week. Sales were brisk for Barry Manilow mugs ($15), polo shirts ($40), faux backstage passes ($15), and concert cushions--Mani-pads?--featuring his backside and the words "The Best Seat in the House" ($20).
Strunk was there too. She and a gaggle of other hard-core fans watched Manilow croon and strut back and forth in his lavender suit from the pit, directly in front of the stage. The best seats are set aside for people who pay $10 a year for membership in the Barry Manilow International Fan Club, which serves as the umbrella organization for 50-odd local clubs sprinkled around the Western Hemisphere. Illinois has eight, the highest concentration.
One club in each city decorates Manilow's dressing room before the show. "They almost always have a theme," says Strunk. "They always try to make it very personal and they include items indigenous to the area where he's performing. They leave a lot of items for him to keep personally or to give to the band or sign for the club, which they get back and use in their charity raffles."
There's also an official Web site (www.barrynet.com), which is linked to a merchandising site (www. manilowdirect.com) where fans can buy things like a Barry light-switch cover ($4), cooking set ($15), beach blanket ($26.25) and sunglasses ($8), computer wrist rest ($6) and screen saver ($15), wind chimes ($9), and Christmas ornaments ($6). Fans can also buy books recommended by Manilow, including Cold Mountain, Conversations With God, and Sondheim: A Life.
For this tour, in support of last year's Manilow Sings Sinatra album, he brought a 30-piece orchestra. My friend made signs for us to brandish during the concert. Hers said "Touch My Cow"--she was wearing a T-shirt with a patent leather cow on the chest. Mine was a play on one of his commercial jingles: "I Am Stuck on Barry, and Barry's Stuck Here for Four Days Straight." It featured a large Band-Aid in the center.
We were hoping Manilow would choose one of us to go onstage for his 1978 hit "Can't Smile Without You." Strunk devotes an entire chapter to this phenomenon: at each show he picks one lucky girl, usually waving a sign, who gets to hold hands, dance, and sing with her idol. For the finale, Manilow sits behind her on the piano, straddling her between his legs--what Strunk calls "that famous moment relished by all CSWY gals." Then she's sent away with a hug, a kiss, and a signed videotape.
The CSWY women Strunk interviewed were struck by Manilow's smell ("nice"), his large, strong yet soft hands, his big feet, his height, and, of course, those blue eyes. "I began to gently rub his back," one fan recalled. "Because I was his guest, I decided to keep my hand above his belt and not go any lower--I didn't want him to boot me off the stage for being unladylike."
We weren't surprised when signs much more elaborate than ours popped up during the first few bars of "Can't Smile Without You." Manilow chose a fan holding one with gold Christmas lights around the words "21 Years"--the first time Donna from Michigan had seen him was "21 years ago this very weekend." He admired her shirt, which was covered with Barry buttons she'd made herself. Then the music started up again, and they embraced and looked into each other's eyes. When they sang, Donna changed the lyrics a bit: instead of "If you only knew what I'm goin' through," she sang "If you only knew what I wanna do." When he jumped on the piano she leaned back between his legs as if they'd been practicing it for years. She blew him kisses from her seat as he finished the song.
Innuendos were rife. Manilow opened the show by telling us to "be prepared for an orgy...an orgy of music!" Later he said, "It's good to be accompanied by an orchestra; sometimes size does matter." And when he sang "Weekend in New England" and got to the lyrics "When can I touch you?" someone in the audience yelled "Now!" Manilow seemed amused.
Despite the seemingly spontaneous anecdotes, confessions, and musical interludes (playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the kazoo and a few bars of "I Will Survive" on the accordion), his act is as slick and well rehearsed as the next guy's. He profusely expressed his gratitude to the audience several times for being his fans, seeming almost sincere when he gushed, "'Thank you' seems so inadequate after all these years."
It seems to be enough to tide over his fans. They continue to name their daughters and pets Mandy and to find hidden meanings in his music. "He really gives the fans something they can hold on to and something they can believe in, which is another reason they follow him as opposed to anybody else," says Strunk. "He makes them feel good about themselves."
But does Manilow really give a rat's ass? "I think he values his fan following more than some other people might," she says. "They feel as if, even though Barry maintains a very private existence, when he is out promoting or doing concerts or whatever, he gives it all. He gives 100 percent and more to his fans. I think he appreciates them and they in turn appreciate him. They almost feed off of each other."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.