The Austin Chronicle

Firehouse Rock

Benefits That Really Make Money

August 2, 1996, Music

One of the most enduring numbers in the huckster's repertoire is "The Policeman's Ball" -- also fondly remembered by its alternate title, "The Fireman's Ball." With this little ditty, the con man calls to his prey, croons a bit about this "charity dance," sells the sap the "tickets," and heads for the city limits by tune's fade. You'd be surprised how often this oldie gets covered: A friend of Stiv Bators recalls how the Dead Boys' notorious lead spectacle financed his end-of-the-band migration to New York City with a few bars of "The Policeman's Ball."

In fact, this record's gotten so scratchy, it's damn near ruined the credibility of anyone staging legitimate Policeman's Balls. And people do stage 'em. Take the Ft. Lauderdale-based Gehl Group (pronounced "Gail") for instance; they've been putting on Policeman's and Fireman's balls since the early Eighties, and in doing so, have restored a little of that lost integrity to the events. Four years ago, they even hooked up with the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, promoting bi-annual benefit concerts featuring either name country acts like Merle Haggard or the Charlie Daniels Band or vintage rock & rollers like Johnny Rivers or Paul Revere & the Raiders.

"Over the years, there's companies that have gone in and said, `Let's make some money here,'" says Doug Thornton, regional manager of the Gehl Group, "and have made money for organizations and for themselves, but at the same time haven't done anything for the image of the organization. So what you've got out there is a group of non-profit organizations who really have a concern with their public image."

In short, the Gehl Group basically reduces the artists' expenses as well as the Texas State Fire Fighters' by organizing entire benefit tours with the artists through several states. Since the artists do not volunteer either their time or services, the block-booking method cuts the increased expense of paying the artists' single-performance guarantees, enabling the Fire Fighters to offer quality entertainment at a low price.

Thornton elaborates: "We'll do sometimes eight or ten shows in a row through different states, so we can do 'em very inexpensively. It allows us to bring a show like Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck in, which you would normally pay $25 or $30 for. What it allows us to do is to sell tickets for $15 dollars, which does raise some money for the organization, but most importantly gives people a good feeling towards the organization. That's what we're trying to do: build the public image of that organization."

They've apparently managed to generate much good will: The Merle Haggard/Johnny Paycheck bill staged this past spring packed Palmer Auditorium twice over, raising $30,000 for the TSAFF strictly on the strength of phone sales. And they can duplicate this feat in Fort Worth and San Antonio, the other standard stops on these tours. The Gehl Group also has operations in both cities, promoting the concerts strictly in their areas, employing approximately 30 to 40 telemarketers statewide. In Austin alone, this adds up to 10 operators dialing up the entirety of the Austin residential directory twice a year. Even now, you might be getting a phone call about frat-rock legends the Kingsmen (yes, the "Louie Louie" guys!) and Three Dog Night, Lou Adler's prefab, post-Mamas and Papas attempt at putting an acceptable face on the counterculture.

"The oldies shows, we normally only have to have one show," says Thornton. "The country acts, we usually have to have two shows." Uh, Doug, are you suggesting there's just not as many aging bobbysoxers out there as there are dudes with rifle-rack-equipped pickups and Skoal-can indentations in the backpockets of their Wranglers? "I guess not," he laughs. "If there are, they don't show up -- at least not as much [as with the country shows]."

And what does the $30,000 Merle Haggard raised go toward? According to the TSAFF literature mailed with each concert packet, it funds programs designed "to improve safety laws for all citizens of Texas; public relations to better inform citizens of the problems facing fire fighters in today's world and (to promote) stronger laws on behalf of the fire fighters and citizens to help reduce injury and death in fire fighting and rescue operations; to improve death benefits for fire fighters killed in the line of duty; legislative efforts for better fire protection in Texas; and continuous efforts for a better hazardous-chemical right-to-know law which would grant citizens, employees, and fire fighters the access to information about toxic chemicals and waste in our community, neighborhood and workplace."

Because much damage has already been done to the Policeman's Ball concept by shysters of many stripes, one has to wonder what kind of trust-rebuilding failsafes the Gehl Group have in place. Thornton, in the oratorial manner of a born PR man, has an answer. The Gehl Group could take credit card numbers over the phone, but chooses not to. By the same token, they "have every ability in the world to send somebody by [customers'] houses, to have people send us money before we send out anything, that kinda stuff. And in all honesty, we could probably get a few extra dollars by doing it that way. We choose not to do it that way."

What the Gehl Group does choose to do is mail positive respondents an information packet containing a ticket voucher -- "which isn't a ticket," Thornton emphasizes, "but is good for a ticket" -- along with a thank-you letter and literature explaining TSAFF programs similar to those cited above. Which also explains the lack of advertising for these shows: 1) Ads are an added expense; 2) The program's main goal is cultivating public trust in and spreading information about the TSAFF; ergo, 3) It's easier to spread that info through mailouts riding the back of concert ticket vouchers than in cramming it into a radio or newspaper concert ad.

Sure, such methods do not ensure sales the way credit card orders would. Then again, this operation's primary mission is as much to proselytize as it is to raise funds. There is no obligation to buy the ticket. (Although the TSAFF probably wouldn't mind it.) If you like what you see, send your check by return mail, or pay in person at the local TSAFF offices.

And how effective are the Gehl Group's methods? No one from the TSAFF itself would make themselves available for comment, but Merle Haggard appeared impressed when he played his Austin area benefits. "They do a good job calling people and selling tickets," he remarked, before noting the plan was hardly airtight: "They've done the same thing for other (acts), and not every (customer) showed up." Still, the next upcoming TSAFF benefit bill raises an interesting question: Who, besides your utterly tasteless and possibly detoxing parents and my editor, wants to see Three Dog Night ?!!

"You'd be surprised!" laughs Thornton. "A lotta people like these things, and we could go and do the same thing with a hard rock act or something to get the kids. But our big thing is public image of the organization. So, we've got to be careful, get a family-oriented show and all that kinda stuff. There's certain artists that get to a point where they represent drugs and alcohol, or used to. And we can't have that. We try to avoid that wherever we can."

So, while it's unlikely Slash `n' Axl will ever crank up a chorus of "Welcome To The Jungle" on behalf of the Texas State Fire Fighters Association, you can at least gator to beer-bust national anthem "Louie Louie" with some form of the Kingsmen. Meantime, the Gehl Group's unusual methods open a whole new realm of possibilities for benefit organizations and music/charity or even music/political linkups. Can you imagine? Skrewdriver rocking for David Duke, with campaign propaganda attached to your ticket! Vince Neil touring on behalf of defensive driving clinics nationwide! Def Leppard's drummer in a solo show organized for amputee hospitals! Hey kids, the possibilities are limitless.... n Three Dog Night and the Kingsmen will perform Sunday, September 29, 7:30pm at Palmer Auditorium. Tickets are available for $15 by calling 371-1200.

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.