Where’s Martha?

It all started with a phone call last month and a simple question: “Bruce, would you like to appear on The Martha Stewart Show?”

Now, don’t get me wrong when I say that I was not overwhelmed by the question, for I am no prima donna. My job as spokesperson for the Minwax Company is to introduce new products and to show people how much easier and faster it has become to stain and finish wood. Martha has an army of followers and I was not about to turn my back on the opportunity to reach her 400,000 daily viewers.

But, like anyone who has picked up a newspaper, watched the news or listened to the radio, I knew Martha had a reputation. Actually two – one on-air, the other behind the scenes.

Which would I see? The Queen of Crafts — or the tough, driven, demanding and very successful CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation?

As it turned out, I almost never found out, for I ended up playing the game “Where’s Waldo?” but with a new twist: “Where’s Martha?”

Taping was scheduled for last Tuesday afternoon. In the morning Martha would host a live show from ten until eleven, then the crew would take a quick break and prepare for a two o’clock taping in front of a fresh, live studio audience. Even though my show was to be taped and would play two days later, it was treated like a live show.

Three weeks prior to the show we held the first of several conference calls involving two segment producers, three assistant segment producers, a prop master, an art director, an assistant art director, and two representatives from Minwax. But no Martha. Each weekly call ate up nearly thirty minutes as we discussed the segment outline, the script, the possible props, tools, materials, products, rehearsals and stain colors. Each time I expected to hear Martha chime in with her suggestions, but alas, no Martha.

Typically I purchase the props for any show I am doing, prepare and partially stain and finish them in my workshop, then ship them ahead to the studio. In this case, I was told we would be using an unfinished 24-inch round birch table with a single pedestal and four splayed feet. The style was vaguely Colonial-Federal. Certainly not Arts & Crafts. While the table was acceptable to me, the reason it was selected was simple: people could buy it at www.MarthaStewart.com.

For a show as important as this we needed three tables: one unassembled to partially stain on-air, one completely finished table to serve as the “hero” at the end of the segment, and a back-up. At one point all three tables were going to be shipped to me in North Carolina for prepping, then shipped back to New York for the taping. I cleared off a day on my schedule and a workbench in my shop.

Five days before the taping we had another conference call. No Martha. Seems the tables were not coming to North Carolina. They were to be prepped and finished by someone on Martha’s staff. And, I was told, Martha did not like the colors (Emerald for the base and Pecan for the top) we had spent two conference calls discussing and selecting. She wanted the base Crimson. And so it was.

On Friday afternoon I spent an hour on the phone instructing the prop master how to prepare, stain and finish the hero using water-based Crimson and Pecan from the new Express Color line. On Monday, as I was packing my bag, I got another call: Martha didn’t like the colors. Now she wanted the base Emerald and the top Walnut.

The problem was, of course, it was less than 24 hours before the taping and our only available table was our backup. I was scheduled to arrive in New York at 3:30pm, so I assured them I could come directly to the studio and stain the backup to serve as our new hero. But that also meant we would be taping without a backup, which feels like walking a high wire without a net. One mistake – a bobbled line, a crackling microphone, a spilt can of finish, a cell phone ringing in the audience, a missed close-up camera shot – and the director (or Martha) might flag us to a halt, unaware, perhaps, that we did not have another table to immediately whip out for a second take.

I arrived at the studio, fully expecting to meet Martha on the set as four of us began preparing the props, the hero and the demo table for our segment. But no Martha. We finished at seven Monday night and, as I picked up my bag and coat, I looked around for her. Still no Martha.

I returned at noon the next day for our two o’clock taping. I was met by one of her very efficient staff (nearly all women and nearly all younger than thirty) and we prepared for the first of three rehearsals. The first was a brief chat at one o’clock with my segment producer (no Martha), the second was slightly longer with the floor manager (still no Martha) and the final, just thirty minutes before the show, was to mimic the actual segment, but with no wet product.

For this I was sure Martha would appear, we would chat and talk over the segment, then rehearse our introduction and the demonstration, but, again, no Martha. A stand-in read her opening from the teleprompter (where my name was written on a piece of white cardboard taped to the camera for Martha’s benefit) and I went through the segment as if the cameras were running, all the time wondering how Martha was going to know what we were going to be doing.

Content with what he saw, the director dismissed me, the staff hustled me off-stage to my dressing room and there I waited, hoping to at least meet Martha (her dressing room was next to mine) and chat about our segment. But no Martha.

I watched the first segment (cake-decorating) from my dressing room, then the assistant floor director came and silently walked me back onto the set. It was a sixty second commercial break, so rock music was blasting from the speakers, the audience was clapping and shouting, four cameras were being pointed at me, the set was rocking and I could feel the tension rising. But where’s Martha?

“Thirty seconds!” The floor director shouted above the din and, on cue, Martha glided gracefully across the stage as the audience rose in unison, shouting her name. She was taller than I expected, unsmiling, oblivious, it seemed, to everything and everyone around her. As she took her place beside me I introduced myself, but she only nodded, intent on pulling on a pair of staining gloves. I gave her a quick overview of what we were going to be doing, then lamented that our original seven minute segment had just been trimmed down to six-and-a-half minutes.

“Six-forty,” came her curt reply.

The director gave us a five-second countdown, the audience quieted and Martha read her opening line from the teleprompter, then, for the first time, turned to me as if to say, “Okay, mister. It’s your turn now. Don’t screw up.”

Six minutes and forty seconds later it was over. A photographer jumped forward to snap our picture together standing behind the hero. I looked over to get a thumb’s up signal from my segment producer and when I turned to say something to Martha, she was gone.

The staff hustled me off the set, I grabbed my coat from the dressing room and, feeling about as useful as yesterday’s newspaper, I was escorted to the door and scooted out onto 26th Street.

Standing there, amid the noise and confusion of Manhattan, I looked up, where over my head, standing four stories high, was the face of Martha Stewart – smiling down on me.

Next Monday – back to Arts & Crafts and a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio

Until then, have a great week!