1985 West Virginia Flood Relief Telethon

Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail
December 8, 1985

Relief Show Brings Center To Life

Phil Kabler
Sunday Gazette-Mail

The normally placid state Cultural Center caught a burst of nervous energy Saturday, as dozens of performers and broadcasters staged the most ambitious broadcast ever in West Virginia.

At 8 p.m., the five-hour Flood Relief Telethon got off to a flawless start with the West Virginia University Percussion Ensemble performed the Lionel Ritchie song, "All Night Long."

For most of the 500 volunteers who helped put the show on the air, the day began with rehearsals at noon. The pace wasn't expected to slow until the telethon ended at 1 a.m. today, following a performance by headliner John Denver.

Pledge calls flooded the bank of 40 telephones set up in the center's Great Hall, prompting telethon co-hosts Chris Sarandon and Larry Groce to implore viewers to keep dialing if they got busy signals.

By 10:30 p.m., West Virginians had contributed $443,972 for victims in the 29 counties hit by November's record floods, paced by $50,000 donations from Chessie System, Heck's Department Stores and Jay and Sharon Rockefeller.

Beginning Friday afternoon, broadcasters from around the state turned the stately marble and glass museum into a giant television studio, setting up six cameras, hundreds of lights, 20,000 feet of cable and, out back, a satellite dish to beam the program to viewers across the state.

All 14 television stations and about 50 radio stations in the state planned to broadcast the event, which set a goal to raise $1 million for flood relief.

During the afternoon, sounds of music drifted from the center's theater as musicians including Poco, Kathy Mattea, Tom Chapin and the WVU Percussion Ensemble ran through their performances.

Performers drifted in and out of the Green Room behind the stage, where they were offered cold drinks, snacks, and a chance to catch brief rests.

Chris Sarandon, a Beckley native and Oscar-nominated actor, took a break to discuss his reasons for co-hosting the program.

He said Taffy Nivert, the co-author of "Country Roads," first called to ask him to be in the telethon. He agreed immediately.

"I have strong feelings toward this state. I lived in West Virginia for 21 years, and it's something you don't leave behind," he said.

"I had watched a report on CBS 'Sunday Morning' that vividly depicted the destruction," Sarandon said. "I called Joe Goodwin, a college buddy of mine, to ask him if things were as bad as they looked on TV. He said, 'Chris, I don't think we'll see anything as devastating in the state in our lifetimes."

For Sarandon, the telethon was his first live TV appearance since he performed in soap operas 20 years ago.

"It's amazing to me that they've put together a five-hour show in such a short amount of time," he said. "All I have to do is keep the old bubble up."

For the telethon's producers and directors, the challenges were, first, to get the program on the air and, second, to keep it rolling at a fast pace.

Mike Parsons, who directs WVU football and basketball games for the Mountaineer Sports Network, was responsible for the television broadcast.

"We've got a lot of people from WVU working on this telecast, because we've had experience doing remote (out-of-studio) broadcast," he said.

Parsons, the man who would call the camera shots for the entire telethon, remained calm hours before airtime. "Will it work? I've got no idea, we've never done anything like this before," he said.

Parsons's counterpart for the radio broadcast, Bill O'Brien, said radio presented an extra challenge.

"We first thought we'd just take the audio off of the TV, but we realized that wouldn't work," said O'Brien, vice president of WJLS radio in Beckley. "When the TV goes to a film clip of the flood damage, we realized it wouldn't work well on radio."

Instead, plans called for the radio broadcast to switch to interviews when the television broadcast featured film segments.

O'Brien said signing John Denver to appear in the broadcast was a major coup. "When we first discussed having a telethon, the first name that came up was John Denver," he said. "After all, this guy sings the West Virginia anthem ('Country Roads')."

Also amazing, he said, was the spirit of cooperation among the telethon's organizers.

"There are a lot of egos in our business, but people have set aside their egos for this weekend," he said. "People from competing stations are working together. Our motto is that we're going to raise a million bucks and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it."


West Virginia Archives and History