BWI, Cleared for Takeoffs
Performers Get Long Lines Of Travelers to Lighten Up
By Fern Shen
The Washington Post
November 10, 2001
fanned out across Baltimore-Washington International Airport
yesterday: Madonna, AUSTIN POWERS,
Groucho Marx, Uncle Sam.
On they strode, past rifle-toting soldiers, plunging into lines
so long they seemed to cross several time zones. Groucho, boldly
violating the rules of personal space in 21st-century America,
went right up to the grimmest, most unapproachable-looking traveler,
pawed the sleeve of her coat and said:
"Ummmmm. Is that felt? It is now!"
With a honk of his horn (probably borrowed from Harpo), a waggle
of his eyebrows and a flick of his cigar, he bid her adieu and
moved on to the next poor traveling soul.
After a moment of stupefaction, she did a double take. And then
smiled a huge, slow smile.
Groucho and the rest of the troupe of pop-culture icons were
hired by the Maryland Aviation Administration to soothe the
jangled nerves of travelers scared about flying or cheesed-off
by hours-long waits.
"We decided anything to make the environment more friendly
and comfortable would help -- anything that would be distracting
would be good," said John White, a BWI spokesman.
Travelers are being told to get to the airport two hours early.
Clipboard-wielding airline officials walk the lines trying to
move up those passengers whose flights are imminent. Still,
some said they had been waiting as long as four hours because
of delayed flights or because they didn't get pulled out of
line. There was also some confusion, with people discovering
that they had been waiting in the wrong line.
To soothe passengers in this brave new world of airline travel,
BWI has been hiring entertainers the past few weekends -- sort
of spritzing the place with a little comedic Saint-John's-wort.
The schedule has been irregular, sometimes on Friday afternoons,
sometimes on Saturday or Sunday. The airport has spent a couple
of thousand dollars for a day or two of distraction by professionals
and has also recruited school groups and other volunteers who
One weekend had a sports theme with appearances by the Washington
Redskins cheerleaders and local sports mascots. (The Oriole
Bird slid dramatically across those long metal benches on his
giant feathered stomach.)
Another weekend, it was the food of Maryland: a blue crab, a
giant apple (actually Nancy Sanpere, an airport official who
put the entertainment program together), an outsize box of Old
Also making the scene on previous weekends were Cher, Mae West
and Radar O'Reilly, whose spooky lack of affect was said to
have unnerved some. And no one wants to talk about the mimes,
who have not been invited back.
This is high-stakes comedy, with the potential to make fragile
passengers wonder if they've wandered into a giant Pieter Bruegel
painting or a "Saturday Night Live" skit gone terribly,
"You get to know, you have an instinct for who's gonna
play along and who's not," said Michael Levick (Groucho),
a 48-year-old professional impersonator from Washington.
The impersonators not only calmed some people down, they also
brought out their Inner Adolescent.
"Hmm. Let's see how you look in a cowboy hat," Madonna
purred to a button-down Randy Davis, a Johns Hopkins orthopedic
surgeon who was waiting in line to go to Las Vegas to give a
talk. She plopped the glitzy hat on his head and he reddened.
"I've got to get her to sign my 'Like a Virgin' CD,"
Davis said, after veteran Madonna impersonator Chris America
had moved on. He seemed interested in seeing and bonding with
the ersatz Austin Powers: "I've got some Austin Powers
teeth and one of those fuzzy chest things."
But it was hard to catch up with that International Man of Mystery,
he moved so fast, skipping around the ticket counter area. He
seemed to have the touch. How else to explain how this mincing
creature with lacy cuffs and yellow buck teeth could survive
fondling the head of a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman?
"It's a great idea to have these people here," said
Sam Fletcher, a 20-year-old junior heading back to his home
town of Birmingham. "You can get pretty disgruntled waiting
The Southwest Airlines ticketing area yesterday simply belonged
to Austin (actually, actor JIM
NIEB, who, like the others, was hired by the
Cast of Thousands talent agency).
He was insulting. ("What, did you go to public school?
Focus, man, focus!") He was silly. ("Look, I'm carry-on!"
he said, jumping into one of those boxes used to measure potential
on-board luggage.) He was grandiose. (When a porter went by
pushing an empty cart, Austin jumped on for the ride, throwing
back his arms and shouting, "I'm king of the world!")
Most people seemed to love it.
"This is great. I've been stressed for the last hour and
a half," Angela Boyer said after an Austin encounter.
"I thought I had a weirdo on my hands, for a minute,"
Mel Hilderbrand, a program manager for Bell Helicopter heading
to Dallas, said following a Moment With Groucho. "Then
I realized, he does this for a living. It's good. God knows,
we need it."
Larry French, meanwhile, wasn't buying it.
"Why don't they spend the money on shortening these lines?"
the Baltimore resident said. "They think this is going
to make me feel safer? It makes me wonder what they're trying
to cover up."
Moments later, he was sprinting through the terminal.
"I was in the wrong line the whole time."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company