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Backstage: Dick Henning on a life working in the celebrity business


Courtesy of Dick Henning
As founder of Foothill College’s Celebrity Forum Speakers Series, Dick Henning has hobnobbed with presenters such as Shirley MacLaine.

Dick Henning founded Foothill College’s Celebrity Forum Speakers Series in 1968 as a perk packaged with the student body card. What began with a talk by paleontologist Louis Leakey led to rock music performances and, today, a subscription-based series of seven presentations each year by political and cultural figures ranging from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

A year shy of his 80th birthday, Henning, a longtime Mountain View resident, is long retired from his work as an administrator at Foothill College. But he continues to reign as the impresario of Celebrity Forum, luring luminaries to the region and introducing them to his audience at Flint Center in Cupertino.

He sat down with the Town Crier to explain why he never plans to retire – and to ponder a few tricks he learned over half a century of wrangling stars and world leaders. The conversation, edited for brevity, follows.

Q: Nearly 50 years into the speakers series, you’re becoming known as the man with no exit plan. Don’t you sometimes dream of retiring?

Henning: What’s wrong with dying on the stage with a microphone in your hand? It’s not like being a professional football player, where you have to retire at 38. There’s no heavy lifting. You know, I read an interesting book that’s called “Younger Next Year” (Workman Publishing Co., 2007) and the theme of that thing is, basically, that if you’re not growing, you’re decaying, in terms of your physical body and your mental health and probably your emotional well-being, too. You’re winding down, you’re rusting. Why would anyone not want to do what I’m doing? It’s the best job in the world.

Q: Has the job gotten easier over time?

Henning: In some ways, it hasn’t. Every year, when thinking about speakers for the new season, I experience the same anxiety I had 46 years ago when I put the first program together. But in other ways, it’s easier because there are so many more quality speakers available from all walks of life. And the Celebrity Forum has built an excellent reputation for its high-quality programs and enthusiastic audiences. The fact that we were named “Best Lecture Series in the Nation” by the prestigious International Platform Association, founded by Daniel Webster, has not hurt.

I don’t think there’s any job that doesn’t have stress, and stress when well-managed is good. A speaker going on stage is nervous, but that little bit of anxiety is good when you can control it. A little adrenaline flowing – it brings out the best in you.

Q: How do you train to stay in good form, both as a public speaker and the chief string-puller behind the scenes?

Henning: When I retired as vice president of Foothill College, one of the things that was taking up most of my time was meetings and interruptions. Now, with no meetings and no interruptions, I’ve got a lot more time on my hands. My only standing meeting is 9-10 a.m., seven days a week, dedicated to exercise. What better way could I use that hour? As far as I’m concerned, this is a meeting that I have to make, and I should be there on time. Fortunately, I have a French wife who loves to cook, and I am fed a very healthy diet, with plenty of greens. And seven days a week, I never miss a glass of wine with dinner.

Q: You’ve helped set up speakers series around the country on the model of Celebrity Forum, and work deep within the world of booking agents and five- and even six-figure speaker fees. Why do audiences turn out – and pay up – to this day?

Henning: It’s a big business. Speaking’s the fastest way to become a millionaire, but first you have to become famous (that’s the hard part). I don’t think this thing is dying off - if anything, television has helped. It’s made people celebrities we want to meet, question and learn from. While television offers some outstanding programs, a lot of what is presented is boring. So television has helped in both of these ways.

Q: Speakers often perform the same speech or set of speeches over and over again – but audiences still respond with delight. Doesn’t it sometimes get boring?

Henning: You are right – the speaker doesn’t change his or her speech, but they change the audience. So, while the speech may be old, it’s new to the audience. The speaker never tires of getting applause and laughter – the adulation from an audience is immeasurable. A speaker can see the joy people are having when he or she makes the whole crowd laugh. There’s something infectious about that – deep down at a visceral level, it satisfies the speaker somehow, even though the same joke, story or anecdote has been told 15 times. Besides that, the big paycheck helps keep the boredom away.

Q: You’ve got some war stories, of handling challenging guests and situations over the years. What was it like to host Truman Capote? Or former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto?

Henning: When I was dropping Benazir Bhutto off at the Fairmont Hotel, she insisted that I come in and have lunch with this guy. I realized later that it was probably because, culturally, she didn’t want to be seen eating alone with a man. I was sitting there and these two people start talking about overthrowing the government in Pakistan. I’m sitting there having my salad and wondering, “Am I supposed to be hearing this?”

Truman Capote was a rare opportunity. I’m a language arts teacher, so for me to hear a person like Truman Capote read and interpret, putting the emphasis where he thinks it should be – it was enjoyable.

At the university he visited about one month before mine, he was so drunk that he was taken off the stage. So when he arrives, I’m following him everywhere to make sure he doesn’t drink. We went up to see some artists in Sausalito – I’m following him all the time, even to the restroom, making sure that he got a glass of Perrier every time. And when I finally introduced him and passed him on the stage, he was sober.

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