Thursday, April 25, 2013

From Forrest to Fundraiser: The Endorsed Evolution of Tom Hanks Day

Ten years ago, Michigan native Kevin Turk was not an international fundraiser.

He was just your everyday Western Michigan University student, one with a great group of friends, a comfortable couch, and some free time between classes. Then, on an April Fools’ Day that called for rum and a cinematic run through reconstructed history, Turk’s semi-charmed life got a little more interesting.

"My friend looks at me and says, 'Dude, do you want to watch some Tom Hanks movies and drink?' And I thought that sounded like a good time, so we started drinking rum and Dr. Pepper, and we popped in Forrest Gump."

The many faces of Tom Hanks.
Thus began the first official Tom Hanks Day, an event that’s graduated from its bender beginnings and has morphed into a hybrid celebration of the one-time bosom buddy—and fundraiser for Hanks's chosen charity, Lifeline Energy. One look inside the event’s 10th installment—hosted on April 13th by adjoined Chicago bars Headquarters Beercade and Uncle Fatty’s Rum Resort—would reveal the enamorment of a few frighteningly devoted, albeit altruistic, Hanks fanatics. But, according to Turk, that’s not exactly the case.  

"I can't say we picked Hanks because we knew what an awesome guy he'd turn out to be. And none of us are die-hard fans of his,” said Turk, a Chicago resident who works on an experiential marketing team for Groupon. “We just loved Forrest Gump and a bunch of his other movies."

Turns out they’re not the only ones. On a sunny spring afternoon in Chicago, hundreds of fans of such cinematic classics as Splash, Apollo 13 and Bachelor Party checked in for an afternoon of Hanks-related revelry. Cast Away-themed t-shirts were sold at the door; green Tom Hanks Day cozies accommodated the event’s Goose Island canned beer special. Attendees posed for photos behind masks of Hanks characters, and friends gathered under flat-screen projections of the shirtless Hollywood icon and a slobbering Dogue de Bordeaux in Turner & Hooch. There was even a group dressed as players from A League of Their Own, complete with a drunken Jimmy Dugan. The influence of Hanks’s career was omnipresent—even inside Uncle Fattey’s bathroom. When a patron walked in and knocked on a stall door, the voice from inside replied with a Forrest Gump quote.

“Seat’s taken.”

Hanks fans pay tribute to A League of Their Own.
Ridiculous? Sure. Fanatical? Maybe. Awesome? Absolutely. Hundreds of people gathering under the flag of Tom Hanks, arguably the most universally loved and respected actor of his generation. Hundreds of young adults hoisting cocktails under the neighborhood disputes of Ray Peterson (The ‘Burbs) and growing pains of Josh Baskin (Big). Hundreds of fans who’d even adjusted the popular “Ole’” soccer chant to accommodate the actor’s name. (Tom—Hanks, Tom-Hanks-Tom-Hanks-Tom-Hanks! Tom—Hanks, To-om—Hanks!) Even in the early years, Turk and his college friends knew they'd created a truly original event—and thought Hanks should know about it.

"My friend and I started emailing someone we thought was Tom Hanks's brother,” said Turk of mails sent in 2006, after the event had moved from WMU to Chicago. “Then, I get an email from someone claiming to be Tom's assistant. She said Tom had heard of the event and wanted to donate merchandise for the day. I'm pretty cynical, so at first I didn't believe the mail.  I even sent a response mail that read, 'If this is one of my friends, stop f---ing with me. But, if this is legit, please call me."    

Minutes later, he received a call from Hanks's assistant—who was not f---ing with him.

"She told me that Tom loved the idea and wanted to send us a bunch of stuff for the event. So I said, great, tell him to send whatever he wants."

So he did. First, Hanks sent Turk and friends a typewritten letter. Then, he sent signed movie posters and DVDs. He sent one of the Wilson volleyballs from Cast Away and props from That Thing You Do. He even sent signed replications of jerseys pressed for his 50th birthday baseball stadium road trip, a traveling bash that involved such celebrants as Billy Crystal. One year, he even sent a 20-pound slab of homemade bologna, shipped in a giant cooler with its recipe. Turk was overwhelmed. Though he and his friends ate the bologna (which was delicious), they decided to repay the rest of Hanks’s ridiculous generosity by turning their Joe Versus the Volcano-inspired Kalamazoo kegger into a legitimate charity event.

"As soon as his assistant reached out, I just realized that Hanks is super awesome,” he said. “He was going to send us all this stuff, so we decided to turn this event into a fundraiser and raise money for whatever charity Tom wanted us to support."

This charity turned out to be Lifeline Energy, an education-driven initiative focused on sub-Saharan Africa that boasts Hanks as its international ambassador. With this redirected focus, Turk began to generate revenue from the day’s t-shirt and beer sales, as well as a raffle conducted with Hanks’s generous donations. These proceeds are now directed annually to Lifeline, with donations totaling into the tens of thousands of dollars since 2008. Exposure for the event through Jimmy Kimmel Live, CNN and Time Magazine has also drawn direct donations to the charity through online or independent contributions. Also, in a few instances, Hanks has personally matched the amount raised through his day’s Goose Island-sponsored celebration. Such collaboration from the actor has not only impressed the event’s originators, but inspired them to keep the party going year after year.

Tom Hanks superfan, ready to party.
"The reason this is still going strong is because Hanks is such a genuine guy,” said Turk. “He cares about people and gives back. He's not an egotistical person at all, and we try to replicate that with these events. Those (good intentions) are why this event continues."

And, it’s started to branch out. Along with stateside appearances in Cleveland and Portland, Tom Hanks Day has now become International Tom Hanks Day, with annual observation in Toronto, Ontario. This year also saw the day’s first acknowledgement in Taiwan—on a boat, and with official event t-shirts for about 75 people, according to Turk. Still, what once operated under serendipitous western  Michigan weather (sunny days that Turk and friends would refer to as a “Tom Hanks miracle”) has now found its long-term home in Chicago, with official acknowledgement and revelers like Dawn Wilson, a 27-year-old stage manager of Saturday Night Live feeder troupe, Second City.

"When I first started coming to this, I assumed it was some festival of drunkeness. But, when I realized it was all to support some awesome cause, I thought, yeah, I can support that," said Wilson, who’s attended two Tom Hanks Day events. "This is an event to cater to my age demographic. There's beer and a party, but there's also an underlying cause. That's why people are here."

And that’s why Turk hopes people keep coming. What started as a couple of dudes hoovering spiked DP while Jenny and Forrest danced to Skynard has matured into a legitimate opportunity to boost those in need of financial aid and education. It’s a ridiculous transition, but one that’s now rolled forth for a decade. Back when they were still hosting Tom Hanks Day on April Fools’ Day, Turk responded to Hanks’s aforementioned Smith Corona communication with the following message:

With your help, April 1st will no longer be known for tomfoolery, but rather Tom Hanks.

And for The Money Pit. And Saving Private Ryan. And, for the most creative, Captain Morgan-influenced charity idea ever endorsed by a two-time Oscar winner.   

(Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder, featured in the Tom Hanks classic You’ve Got Mail.)

(Final note: If you'd like to aid the efforts of Lifeline Energy, please visit their website for donation information and instruction.)

Friday, April 5, 2013

A New Wedding Song

Aside from John Mayer, I’m not sure a whole lot of musicians set out to purposely write a song to be used at your wedding.

I doubt The Edge planned his heaven’s echo guitar solo on “All I Want Is You” with someone’s nuptials in mind, and it’s unlikely Eric Clapton took pause from another day’s heroin daze and mumbled to himself, “Wonderful Tonight is going to be a bloody smash at weddings.” And, I find it impossible to believe that David Gray designed his entire catalogue around the possibility that couple after couple would harvest his chords for their first dance as a married match.

(Note: “Babylon” is not about your love. It’s a beautiful song about Gray’s emotional realizations after inhaling a load of beers. Listen to the lyrics, dammit.)

But, sometimes a song can embody more than it’s meant to embody. It can soundtrack a moment or symbolize a feeling. It can say words we can’t find or elicit emotions we didn’t know we had. Or, in the case of the upcoming onslaught of spring and summer weddings, it can communicate the meaning of a formal, romantic moment in front of family, friends and caterers.

A New Life” by Jim James is one of these songs, and it’s destined to become the next big wedding song—albeit unintentionally. Off his eclectic 2013 release Regions of Light and Sound of God, it’s a gorgeous and inventive arrangement of acoustic guitar, percussion and strings, strumming listeners through a sublime lead-in before transitioning into an emotional, marching cacophony. Without any vocals, it could be absorbed as a sonic embodiment of advancing emotions toward the realization of love. But, lucky for future brides and grooms, its locomotive progression is supported by the following lyrics:

Jim James's Regions of Light and Sound of God
Hey, open the door
I want a new life
Hey, and here’s what’s more
I want a new life, a new life
Babe, let’s get one thing clear
There’s much more star dust when you’re near
I think I’m really being sincere
I want a new life, a new life
With you 

Perfect. If you’re like me, you pick apart wedding song communication like a reverse rotation of The White Album. A wedding song's lyrics earn the most confirmation or confusion from alert guests. A couple borrows an artist’s words to describe their own thoughts and feelings while isolated on a dance floor. Choose a song with a direct, simplistic message of love, devotion and transition and you’re golden. Mistakenly select one about sexual liberation (Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”) or banging groupies (Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”) and you're swaying amid horrified aunts, uncles and coworkers. Rest assured, James comes direct, providing an unambiguous message for couples entering into commitment.      

Can’t you see a perfect picture
You and me
But you know, it won’t come easy
And what’s more 
It’s worth looking for

After the lyrics, there are length and pace to consider. My unproven theories on this topic include the following: If the song’s too short, the couple isn't truly invested in their choice. If it’s too long, they’re totally inconsiderate of their guests. If it’s too fast, they’re acting too casual on what’s supposed to be the most important day of their lives. If it’s too slow and/or sexual, they’re overcompensating for something—or simply accentuating their constructed fairytale for those willing to buy in. And, if they go with Journey’s “Faithfully,” they’re simply ripping off my high school’s senior prom. (Note: This song was not new at the time of the prom, which made its choice as the evening's theme song incredibly pathetic.) 

“A New Life” provides a diversified opportunity for adventurous new couples. It runs a little long at 4:22, but its change of pace at the 1:26 mark allows for the always popular “you thought this song was slow, but we’ve fooled you” transition. The bride can kick off her shoes, the groom can work off his crippling anxiety, and guests will be spared of watching another couple’s uncomfortable PDA’s under Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful To Me.” As an added bonus, the wedding party or whole reception can be invited to the floor amid James's impassioned howl to share in the stomp that rolls the song to its end. What could ensue would be a scene worthy of a YouTube clip and a videographer’s fee—which would seem like a bargain for the first time in history.

And isn't this vibrant display of happiness and elation what love's supposed to look like? Isn't this the euphoria a wedding day is supposed to elicit? It isn't about the perfect dress or the most extravagant cake. It isn't about the most picturesque hall, all-you-can-drink Jameson or seafood wrapped in bacon. It's about two people excited and prepared to start a new life together, one surrounded by family, friends and music. Seems like such a decision should be celebrated in the type of collective fashion James's track is ideally suited to soundtrack.  

Like I noted at the start of this, I doubt most credible musicians purposely carve out songs to be used for your wedding. Jeff Tweedy didn’t record “One By One” for my sister’s event, and Bob Dylan didn’t write “If Not For You” for mine. I’m fairly certain Jim James didn’t write “A New Life” to be used by anonymous couples inside the Hotel Lafayette’s ballroom. But here it is, there for the taking on your wedding day.  

Babe, open the door
And start you new life,
Oh, your new life
Babe, on to the shore
And start your new life
Your new life, with me.

A new life for you. A new wedding song for everyone. Your move, John Mayer.

(Author’s note: This entry was finished while listening to “While You Were Sleeping” by Elvis Perkins—but I did listen to “A New Life” roughly 17 times while writing the bulk of this post.)