It’s amazing how The Titanic keeps coming up!
In the news I mean.
First there was Director James Cameron‘s death-defying plunge into the icy depths of the Mariana Trench; then the media craze over the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, all just in time for an epic new 3-D version of the movie.
For a ship that sank 100 years ago, that’s quite a splash!
Released in the fall of 1997, The Titanic also had a huge success in China.
The following Spring, I received a call from a somewhat desperate Chinese official asking if I could I help get the film’s stars – Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet - to China that September to sing songs from the movie.
It was a crazy request, but a decade after Tiananmen Square, China was eager to re-engage with the west. Even after I patiently explained that Leo and Kate were movie stars, not singers, and that the Titanic was not a musical, the caller refused to be deterred.
“Couldn’t they just lip-synch?” he asked. Money, he assured me, was no object.
I knew without asking that a star of Mr. DiCaprio’s stature was never going to sing, lip-synch or otherwise. But I thought he might want a chance to see China. So, crazy or not, I asked; but Mr. DiCaprio was locked into rehearsals for Celebrity and The Man In the Iron Mask.
“Could you suggest someone else?” the contact asked.
I started scouring pop charts for emerging stars in Asian markets, watching videos, looking for someone big enough to sell out a stadium but new enough to be available on short notice.
We discussed one artist after another but no one interested them until a young singer named Ricky Martin, who was burning up the Spanish-language charts.
He’d just had a big splash performing a breakout hit – ‘The Cup of Life’ at the World Soccer Cup in France - for a worldwide TV audience. Kids in China were crazy about soccer and they had all seen Ricky’s performance at the World Cup. They loved the idea.
By this time it was late August, and I was with my partner, Tom, up at Sakinaw Lake. I had no fax, no online access and a cellphone that only worked if I walked back up into the woods behind the property.
Nonetheless, working with Hollywood agents, a UK rock producer, Ricky’s close-knit team in Puerto Rico, Lloyds of London, a fax machine at the tiny general store in Garden Bay and my new best friends in China, the deal was finally signed less than two weeks before the show!
Tom and I flew ahead to make sure everything was ready. On arrival in Bejing, we were met at the door of the plane and whisked straight out to a waiting cavalcade of cars. Tom was hustled into one car and I another.
I had no idea if we were being honored or arrested. There were six cars in all, two police cars up front and one behind, all with lights flashing and sirens blaring. They cleared traffic for us all the way to our hotel and thankfully we were delivered to the Mandarin, not the slammer. A day later we were up in the northeast corner of China in Dalian.
Ricky arrived with an entourage of twelve – two London agents, the rock producer, dancers, and Ricky’s close-knit, trusted team from his days as a teen hearth-throb in Menudo. His motorcade was spectacular, like an American President had arrived! They shut down the entire freeway for him.
Ricky is a genuine, kind person, a little shy and his team from Puerto Rico is protective, but they’re good guys and we enjoyed the chance to get to know them through a pretty intense week.
And to answer the obvious question, yes, Ricky did spend a lot of time in my hotel suite, almost an entire day once … recording shoutouts for every radio station in China, endlessly crooning: “Hi, this is Ricky Martin, coming to you on CTR1 …” etc.
In the late 90s, before he had risen to international prominence, Mr. Xilai was Mayor of Dalian, and he invited Tom and I to lunch the day after we arrived to thank me for helping them out of a jam – they had no show without Ricky. It was a small group in a private room and I sat next to him.
He was gracious, affable and attentive as a host, highly intelligent and had a good sense of humor. Occasionally he would turn to me, as can be the custom in some cultures, and burp while we were chatting, smiling widely to indicate his great enjoyment of the meal and comfort in my presence.
And I in turn did my best to indicate equal enthusiasm. It wasn’t eructational etiquette that flummoxed me that meal. I was in excruciating pain because a filling had fallen out while we were eating!
I didn’t want to disrupt the lunch, so I waited until we were finished before quietly mentioning my problem. Within the hour I was in a nearby dental clinic where a very gentle older dentist replaced my filling with one that lasted for years.
The group that got me involved very well connected, as I learned over three days as we drove from city to city for meetings. A pattern was quickly established. The Mayor of each city would be waiting for us at the city gates as we arrived. Everyone would get out of their cars, greetings and introductions were exchanged on the side of the freeway, we’d all pile back in and drive the rest of the way into the city for our meetings.
There were elaborate banquets, formal lunches, demonstrations, exhibitions, press conferences and signing ceremonies. I met Ministers, Governors, Mayors, bank heads and one dignitary after the next.
It was all a bit over the top, but I played my part and gave speeches and many toasts about peaceful relations, international cooperation, the need for cultural exchange and the fraternal brotherhood of mankind.
My hosts were so kind and solicitous that if I mentioned an interest in acrobatics, we’d be off that day to an elite gymnastics academy. A polite expression of interest in Chinese opera became a command performance the same afternoon.
One Sunday afternoon I asked about the recently discovered Terra Cotta Warriors. Within an hour, the Director had opened the museum and was giving us a private tour.
Back in Dalian, on the night after the dress rehearsal, I was invited to a special dinner with a Minister of Culture, so I dressed to the nines. But when I showed up in the lobby they all laughed, made me take off my jacket and tie, and explained this was a night out with the boys – no ties, no jackets, no formality, just their close group of friends.
We drank a lot of beer that night and had a lot of laughs, more than one at my expense! They took great delight in ordering things I’d never eaten before and watching my reaction as the Minister carefully placed choice items on my plate. But I held my own and felt privileged to be included.
Ricky was headliner for an extraordinarily lavish opening ceremony of an International Fashion Festival put on each year by the city of Dalian.
It was a massive production in a 60,000 seat stadium with 8,000 dancers, a choir of 1,000, orchestras, marching bands, paratroopers zipping down from the sky in formation, lasers, the works! They even had a U.S. Secretary of State among many other international dignitaries.
Then Ricky appeared with his dancers, the crowd roared, he crooned The Cup of Life and Maria, gyrated those sinuously loose latin hips, the entire place went nuts and it was all over!
And that is the story of my Titanic Dalian-ce with Ricky Martin and Bo Xilai!