I was standing in the autograph room, watching Larry Wilcox pose for photos astride a gorgeous CHP Kawasaki 1000 motorcycle. It was clear from the expression on his face that he was enjoying every minute of it. 7 Mary 3 rides again! 10-4 LA!
“Sue should get on the bike!” Robert said, interrupting my thoughts.
I looked up in amazement. Me? Surely they’re kidding, I thought. I hesitated, but the cast of “CHiPs” insisted so a few minutes later, there I was. I felt small up there, surrounded by the people I’d grown up adoring on TV. They’d been my heroes and now here I was, the one responsible for bringing them to this place for a reunion to celebrate the show’s premiere on NBC 35 years earlier. Mind blown.
As we posed for photos I couldn’t help but think about what an amazing journey I was on. It had started in 1977 when I was a child in suburban Boston and had led me to a hotel ballroom in sunny Los Angeles. The idea of a reunion had been floating around for years. People were always telling me I should put one together. I’d given it some thought but decided it was an impossible task and forgotten about it. Then, in March of 2011, I found myself giving it serious thought again. 2012 would be the show’s 35th anniversary, and the show still had a strong following. The more I thought about it the more I felt it just had to be done. It was a gift I wanted to give to the cast for all they’d given me over the years as a fan.
I’m very close friends with Larry and was acquainted (now friends) with Robert Pine and Paul Linke, so I gathered my courage and asked Larry what he thought. He told me to go for it and he’d be there. When Robert and Paul responded in kind, the ball started rolling. It was a sometimes rocky road as I searched for cast members, sponsors, and a place to hold the thing. There were times I seriously considered giving up and times I just cried with frustration, but overall it was a fun, rewarding and exhausting experience.
The day before I was to fly to LA to make the final preparations for the big day, there was an electrical fire in my home. No one was hurt and the damage minimal, but I arrived in LA pretty stressed out and wondering what the hell I’d been thinking when I decided to do this! It all melted away once I got there though. Friday night’s pre-registration session was hectic but fun. It was wonderful to see old friends and meet new ones. I think a new world record for hugs given and received was set!
Larry stopped by to help with the set up and drop off some sound equipment he was letting us borrow, and as we walked through the registration area toward the ballroom I said, “Hey, you might recognize this guy here!” with amusement. The looks on people’s faces when they realized that Larry Wilcox, good ol’ Jon Baker himself, was there in front of them were absolutely priceless, as were the looks on the faces of the friends I took to get a sneak peek of the CHP motorcycle we had on display. It was like watching children on Christmas morning get their first look at what Santa had left them!
The next morning I was back downstairs by 8am, having only gotten to sleep 3 hours earlier. There was just so much to be done and I was too pumped up on adrenaline and nerves to be tired. The cast began arriving and it was like seeing old friends, each one warm, and friendly and as far as I could tell, delighted to be there. I led them each to the green room and watched them greet each other. Although many of them hadn’t seen each other in over 30 years, you’d have thought it was just yesterday. There were hugs, backslaps and smiles, and it wasn’t long before the room was filled with laughter. I stayed out of the way but watched with a feeling of tenderness and nostalgia, touched at the genuine affection they had for each other even after years apart.
It wasn’t long before it was time to introduce them. We stood in the hall listening to the intros, and I could tell they were surprised at the wild applause each of them were showered with as they walked in and took their seats. Executive Producer Cy Chermak, and writer Larry Mollin joined them and were also warmly received as were Shelly Levine, the wardrobe manager (can you imagine the stories he could tell?) and Jack Carpenter, who worked on the show all 6 years operating the camera trucks that filmed those epic car crashes that were practically a contractual obligation for each episode.
Cy told me later he couldn’t believe how the fans and cast embraced him and was deeply touched, and that the reunion meant the world to him. I was proud to have been able to make him, and all the cast and crew, feel so appreciated and loved.
I was also introduced and was deeply touched by the applause and appreciation I received but this day wasn’t about me, it was about the cast and crew. I wanted them to shine, and shine they did! They shared their memories and stories and a lot of laughter, and the fans hung on to every word. They watched clips of themselves from years gone by with a mix of amusement and affectionate self-deprecation, and told us about what they’re up to today. I was tickled when Brodie admitted to being a fan of his own show and Robert admitted his failed attempt to get out of a ticket by telling the CHP officer he played one on TV!
The years seemed to melt away. To me, and I’m sure many of the fans, we were watching the gang from Central, joking and laughing like they always did in each episode. Larry, like Jon, was warm, kind, and just a bit mischievous. Robert was wry, funny and every bit the “Sarge” we all love. Brianne was vivacious and full of life, not unlike Sindy. Lou Wagner was sweet and lovable and ended the day with a beautiful and poignant speech. Brodie was witty and enthusiastic. Bruce, despite an unfortunate run in with the motorcycle during the photo session, was warm, friendly and full of good humor. Lew Saunders, who proudly proclaimed himself the first “chocolate CHiP” proved to be a gentle and funny soul, as did the actor that came after him, the lovely Michael Dorn.
There may have been some gray hairs (or missing ones!) and a few extra laugh lines, but the cast was ageless. Their faces as they watched clips from old episodes were priceless-a mixture of amusement, nostalgia and “did I really do/wear/look like that?”
Cy brought a blooper reel and we were all rolling in the aisles. It was nice to see they really had a lot of fun on the set. When it was time for the Q&A session, they answered questions asked with quivering voices and nervous smiles with grace, humor and warmth.
As I watched I was reminded of a vivid memory from my childhood. As many kids back then probably did, I would come home from school, have a snack, and then do my homework while I watched CHiPs. It was just such a comfort for me, a kid in a world where adults weren’t always nice and I often felt alone and afraid.
One particularly bad day when I was in 7th grade and had a math teacher who liked to call me stupid and ugly, I came home crying. I sat down to watch CHiPs like I did every day and by the time the episode was over I was smiling again. I remember watching one of those infamous freeze frame happy endings with the whole cast and saying to myself, “When I grow up I hope I’ll have friends like that.”
And what do you know, I do! However, had you told me back then I’d bring the cast together for a reunion gathering, be Larry Wilcox’s personal assistant, and count him as one of my best friends I would have thought you were absolutely, totally, utterly and completely insane. Funny how life works sometimes!
The photo session was priceless. Seeing Larry on that Kawasaki CHP motor made me feel like I was 7 years old again and watching Jon Baker, the man I thought was Matt Dillon and John Wayne rolled into one, heading down a sunny freeway on patrol. I could tell by the smile on his face and the softness in his eyes that it was bringing back a lot of memories for him too.
We got each of the cast to pose for a photo on the motorcycle as well, even Brianne! We even got her to wear Larry’s CHP helmet, the very same one he wore as Jon. Those photos will be priceless. We gave dear Lou a wrench to pose with in his photo with the bike. If only we’d had a white lab coat!
The reunion was everything I’d hoped for and more. Both the little girl I was when the show began and the woman I am now walked away happy. Larry came back later in the evening to retrieve the sound equipment he’d let us use and I could tell he was on the same emotional high as the rest of us. He likes to say CHiPs was just a job, but I know better. Despite, like his fellow cast members, being trapped in Erik Estrada’s shadow, it was clear to me Jon Baker and CHiPs meant more to him than he’ll ever admit. I think the show means the world to all his fellow cast and crew members too.
The words I think best describe that day are love, joy, renewal and healing. All around me people were making new connections, nurturing existing ones and rekindling old ones. Friendships were celebrated and things crossed off bucket lists. Dreams came true. Old stories gained closure and new ones unfolded. Do I take any credit? Hardly. All I did was give the fans and cast a place to gather together. Their hearts did the rest.