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Let us entertain you, airport says

Published Sep. 10, 2005

It's the start of a busy weekend at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, and I'm standing in the middle of C Pier watching something you don't see every day: a Groucho Marx impersonator working the lines at the Southwest Airlines counters.

To a woman who nudges her suitcase forward with her foot, he barks: "Hey, quit kicking that bag around! I did a year and a half for that. She finally divorced me."

It's not a knee-slapper, it surely isn't politically correct, but the woman smiles wearily, which, it turns out, is the whole point.

On this sunny fall afternoon, Groucho is one of five entertainers working the main terminal, along with a curvy Mae West impersonator, a Radar O'Reilly impersonator and a couple of jugglers.

The idea, says Betsey Sanpere, the program coordinator for BWI's terminal entertainment program, is this: With more and more people flying again, and with tighter security measures making for longer lines, the airport is looking for a way to ease the stress for travelers.

This is the second weekend that entertainers have been hired from the Cast of Thousands talent agency in McLean, Va.; last week, a Cher look-alike, an Austin Powers impersonator (complete with bad teeth and bad rug) and a magician schmoozed the crowds.

As Sanpere explains this, I try to imagine myself as a harried business traveler from, say, San Diego, who happens to find himself at the back end of a line that seems to stretch all the way to Vermont.

I'm tired. I'm stressed. I've been stuck in a lousy hotel all week eating bad food.

Suddenly I look up and there's a guy dressed as Groucho in my face, doing shtick.

Now, am I going to think this is amusing?

But, according to Sanpere and the entertainers themselves, the reaction thus far from airline passengers has been very positive.

"Oh, yeah, people seem to like it," says Groucho, who turned out to be Michael Levick, a 48-year-old professional impersonator from Washington who also does Robin Leach and Teddy Roosevelt.

For a while, I tagged around with one of the jugglers, Micah Bump, an affable grad student at Georgetown University who was a big hit with the little kids in line.

Bump is not, thankfully, a mime, but he does engage in the second-most-annoying form of entertainment known to mankind: He twists balloons into shapes.

Walking up and down the line, he accosted travelers and twisted balloons into the shapes of swans, elephants, etc., which he cheerfully presented to them.

By far, the most fascinating entertainer working the crowd was Art Growden, the Radar O'Reilly impersonator.

Growden, 53, is a machinist for NASA. He has been impersonating the M+A+S+H character for years, ever since a teacher in college pointed out the eerie facial resemblance between the two.

Strolling the concourse the other day in his Korean War-era green cap and battle fatigues, familiar teddy bear tucked in the crook of one arm, Radar offered passengers lifetime supplies of grape Nehi.