Eight local senior citizens were promised a ‘dream dance of a lifetime.”
They were hand-picked in May to compete in a reality TV series entitled “Senior Prom” that promised a star-studded team of dance instructors.
Tickets were sold and rehearsals were under way, yet the performance scheduled for next week at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts isn’t going to happen.
Singer and actress Debbie Reynolds, who was to headline the show, can’t make it until October. Phil officials said all tickets for the grand finale, which were priced between $50 to $250, will be reimbursed and “a new date will be announced when details are confirmed.”
The need to reschedule Reynolds’ appearance is but one of several missteps that have caused the show’s production to stumble.
“Senior Prom” has endured disputes with its film crew, a theatrical labor union has issued a “no work” advisory against the production, it has borrowed money from a contestant to deal with a “banking issue,” and some sponsors have backed out of support for the show because of adverse publicity, according to executive producer Brian Howie.
But Howie remains determined the show will go on. “This has been the hardest 90 days of my life,” he said.
In late July, crew members stopped filming, packed their bags and left town, claiming they weren’t fully paid.
Equipment — cameras, audio gear, microphones — was returned to out-of-town suppliers.
The former director of photography, Chris Flores, said the crew received an email two weeks ago saying the show was on “hiatus.” He and 20-year veteran camerman and sound producer Darren Dyer also said the production still owes the film crew money.
Howie disputes this: “Not one person was owed one penny.”
Actors’ Equity Association has posted a “do not work” notice on its website about the show. In a meeting with the Daily News, Howie acknowledged that this has caused the production to redraw some contracts.
“Banking issues,” as Howie put it, caused him to borrow at least $15,000 from a cast member, which Howie said has yet to be reimbursed. Howie added the cast member, whose identity wasn’t disclosed, provided the funds voluntarily.
Howie, the show’s 45-year-old executive producer, is best known for an Off-Off-Broadway play entitled “Pieces (of Ass)” he produced in 2003. He and a partner in Los Angeles-based Modern Features Entertainment developed the “Senior Prom” and he insists the bulk of the filming for the reality series is in the can.
“I’ll take a punch every day to be here,” Howie said. “This is the most rewarding production I have ever been a part of.”
No Debbie, no show
The concept behind “Senior Prom” is similar to “Dancing With the Stars.” The twist is that the contestants are couples 70 years and older and they are coached by Broadway performers. The series is to culminate in a performance at the Phil hosted by Reynolds where dances are voted off and a king and queen are crowned as the winners.
While Howie said Reynolds will be in Naples for the rescheduled Oct. 13 event, Todd Fisher, Reynolds’ son by pop artist Eddie Fisher, said two weeks ago that a contract had yet to be “executed.” He added that his mother’s fee had not yet been paid by Howie’s company.
According to rules set by the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA, a bond must be posted in advance of its members’ performances.
Howie acknowledged that the fee has not yet been paid but can be posted anytime leading up to the Oct. 13 performance date.
Reynolds’ involvement in the project had been touted since mid-May, when the project was first announced. Press releases, audition announcements, and Facebook posts have put Reynolds’ name front and center.
“This whole show is built around Debbie Reynolds,” Howie said. “If there was no Debbie Reynolds, there would be no show.”
Fisher said he and his mother vetted Howie before they met.
“(Howie) took a meeting with Debbie and pitched her, and showed her the concept,” Fisher said. “I can assure you, my mother has been through a lot of rodeos, heard a lot of pitches and he did a good job to pitch her on the concept. She obviously liked it.”
In the beginning
Production for the show began in July when eight local residents were selected. They were photographed atop condos along Gulf Shore Boulevard and in the Vineyards development.
“It wasn’t on my bucket list, but I’d never been filmed for a TV series before,” Lucille Bloom, 82, said.
Mary Beavers, a 42-year resident of Naples who retired from the Collier County public school system, also made the show’s final cut.
“You don’t think at my age you’ll ever do these things,” she said.
Participants took trips to a plastic surgeon for consultations, to bars, and there was even talk of a parasailing adventure.
Some local business people bought into it, literally. “Senior Prom” sold sponsorships to businesses, offering them the chance to pay for exposure on the show.
Dr. Ken Hasen, a local plastic surgeon, purchased a sponsorship package for $5,000.
“We are shooting in various locations all over Naples and featuring some local hot spots, businesses and other points of interest,” Michelle “Shelli” Stutz, a Modern Features partner and producer, wrote in an email to a potential sponsor on July 17. “We would love to have you involved and feature you in the series.”
Packages ranged from $1,000 to $10,000, according to promotional material. The $10,000 “Platinum” sponsorship included a full-page advertisement in the “Senior Prom” program and guaranteed placement in an episode of the series.
“I just thought it was kind of a neat idea, doing this for these elderly people,” Hasen said. “I thought it would be a nice thing to do.”
Buying the $5,000 sponsorship package gives Hasen and his staff box seats at the Phil for the live finale, the “dream dance of a lifetime.”
Hasen said he was told he would also be featured on an episode of the show.
Trouble in the water
However, on July 26, while episodes were being prepared and sponsorships arranged, Actor’s Equity posted a “do not work” advisory for the production.
The advisory was issued because “Senior Prom” had not yet signed contracts, Maria Somma, spokesperson for Actors Equity, wrote in an email.
In addition to Reynolds, the producers also touted the involvement of several Broadway actors as part of the live finale.
“Senior Prom” co-producer Karen Molnar Danni has previously worked with many of these actors as a choreographer at Naples’ professional theater company TheatreZone, an Equity theater company based at Community School of Naples.
On July 30, “Senior Prom” film crew members said they confronted Howie after paychecks for the previous week’s work bounced over the weekend. They left that day. Howie tells a different version. He said he was dissatisfied with some of the shots he had reviewed.
Dyer, a photographer who was scheduled to work from July 11 to July 27, said a $2,500 check was returned last week for “insufficient funds” and another payment was canceled by Howie. He said other crew members and a vendor also have not been paid.
Flores claims he’s still owed for three days, or $3,000. He’s also seeking $18,000 in lost wages since he was expecting to work until Aug. 25.
A 15-year veteran of the television industry with credits on “COPS,” “The Amazing Race” and “Top Chef Masters,” Flores left Naples and the production of “Senior Prom” on Aug. 1. He is no longer affiliated with the show.
“Flores was never owed one penny,” Howie said.
However, Howie told the Daily News that the publicity from this flap has caused some sponsors to have second thoughts about the show and some have bowed out. He would not name who those former sponsors are.
Forging a new path
Howie’s partner, Stutz, said some of the challenges in the production of “Senior Prom” are the result of not following the traditional television distribution path.
“As far as the show is concerned, like any media endeavor, especially one done outside of our home base in an innovative and forward thinking fashion, we have certainly experienced challenges along the way, but we are excited about what we have accomplished thus far,” Stutz wrote in an email.
Typically the distribution for a show is set before shooting an entire series. The financing is set. The participants, crew and union-contracted artists are either paid or have funds held in escrow. Howie acknowledged the production of the show is “out of order” but that “everyone will be doing it this way in two years.”
Howie says he has a distributor for the show but is not revealing it at this time,
“My opinion, yes, you usually have these contracts executed long ago before production,” Fisher, Reynolds’ son said. “Clearly he felt comfortable enough with Debbie’s letter of intent (which was signed in May).”
An idea is born
The reality show began with a conversation among friends when Howie was in Naples in March.
One friend, a soap opera actress on “One Life to Live,” is dating Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, and was present when Howie met with Fisher and Reynolds to pitch the show.
Fisher said he knew of Howie’s reputation, centered mostly on the Off-Off-Broadway show “Pieces (of Ass).” The show earned Howie a positive review in the New York Times and a mention in The New Yorker.
“Senior Prom” is not the first time Danni and Howie have tried to launch a reality show featuring Naples retirees.
“House Cats,” a reality pilot, which held auditions at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club in February 2011, promised to help five women “unleash their inner tigress.”
Danni and Victoria Watts, who formed Silver Shoe Productions, partnered with 4th Street Media, one of several of Howie’s companies, on “House Cats.” A press release promised, “They’re sexy. They’re confident. They’re even a little bitchy. They just don’t know it ... yet.”
The show went nowhere.
Danni has been a fixture in the Naples arts scene since she and her husband, Mark, who founded TheatreZone, moved to Naples in 2002. She has choreographed and acted in many TheatreZone productions over the past eight seasons.
TheatreZone is not involved in “Senior Prom.”
The Dannis were on vacation when production on “Senior Prom” halted July 30. That night’s shoot at Handsome Harry’s on Third Street South was canceled, and Karen Molnar Danni flew back to Naples to help Howie get the production back on track.
The Dannis referred questions about “Senior Prom” to Howie and Stutz.
“I think that Brian has good intentions,” Stutz said. “Is he perfect? Absolutely not. Were a lot of mistakes made on this venture? Absolutely. But in no way do I believe they were done with any ill will or malice, or anything other than good intentions.”
Staff member Stephan Schonberg contributed to this report.