Meeting planners don’t like surprises, and I’m no exception. As I was planning for the West Virginia Credit Union League's 75th Annual Meeting (held earlier this month), I thought back to a surprise encounter that would be categorized as an exception to this “no surprises” rule.
It was 2004, and I had the fortune of a chance meeting with funnyman/actor Leslie Nielsen at the Charleston Marriott. He was in West Virginia performing at a Marshall University Alumni fund-raising event and was a guest of the Charleston Marriott.
Sadly, Nielsen died last November after a long and successful career in movies and television. His deadpan humor in movies like “Airplane!”and the “Naked Gun”series is a comedy style I most enjoy.
The departing Marriott sales manager asked me to stop by his office at the end of the business day to meet his replacement. This gesture was not unusual from the Marriott staff. A clean hand-off was necessary, so I suspected nothing.
I was also a hotel guest and was preparing for the league’s 68th Annual Meeting. At the correct time on that April day, I rounded the corner inside the Marriott’s 3rd floor offices. There, standing 15 feet away, staring at me was Mr. Nielsen with his head slightly cocked, along with the Marriott sales manager with a wide grin. Nielsen introduced himself in a serious manner much like the Dr. Rumack character from “Airplane!”
The voice in my head was that of Nielsen’s “Police Squad” character, Lt. Frank Drebin (“It was a sunny, spring-like day, the kind of day that you makes you squint hard if you look directly into the sun’s rays with a powerful telescope”). I was surprised, but instinctively didn’t break character either.
As soon as the handshake occurred, Nielsen employed the use of a whoopee cushion hidden in the other hand. “Surely, you have to get that thing tuned up,” I declared without missing a beat, much to the delight of the Marriott staffer.
Nielsen stayed serious and replied, “It sounds fine, and please don’t call me Shirley.” There it was, his signature line delivered to me, in the deadpan manner that made him famous!
We chatted for a few minutes about the purpose of each other’s business at the Marriott. Sensing that he would be leaving soon, I asked one favor of him, “Call our league president [my boss] and order him to the third floor offices.” I knew he would stay in character. I dialed his number and handed him the phone.
“Yes. Mr. Watts, this is Leslie Nielsen here at the Marriott, and I need you to come to the third floor immediately,” he implored in an authoritative even tone. “Yes… Yes… ummm… I see…,” the actor said inquisitively as if carefully pondering a line from fellow “Naked Gun” cohort George Kennedy. “He wants to talk to you,” handing the phone back to me without explanation.
Needless to say, my normally mild-mannered and unflappable boss wasn’t pleased with the prank. He told me we had interrupted his meeting. Clearly, this could be an unfortunate turning point in my career.
But luckily, I persuaded him that it was in fact Nielsen. Although he never made it to the third floor, my boss asked me to apologize for his “abruptness,” which seemed to please the actor. Before hanging up, I asked if I was still employed thinking that other lodging arrangements may be in order. With things patched-up, the Nielsen entourage including myself, headed for the nearby elevator.
Nielsen, now wearing dark sunglasses and a whoopee cushion still hidden in hand, boarded the elevator. Asking me in a “Drebin” voice “What floor, please?” other passengers looked on without a clue. “Two, please,” I requested.
As the doors shut tightly, the whoopee cushion was once again activated and I had the longest one-floor ride of my life as the other passengers unaware of the gag or its perpetrator, didn’t seem pleased. Departing for the second floor, I nodded to him only to later say to myself, “Did that just really happen?”