Life throws details -- fun ones -- at former Iowa kid

When he was growing up in Iowa -- playing football and de-tasseling corn and such -- Mark Steines probably never guessed what was coming up. These days, he's a TV star, doing a home show, working with John DeLorean's ex-wife, doing July interviews about Christmas. That's show business; here's the story I sent to papers:   


As a big Iowa kid -- a football star, no less -- Mark
Steines followed a logical route. He played college ball, did some
sportscasting and married a Miss America; you’d kind of expect him to.

Then came the surprises. He hosts a home show for the
Hallmark Channel … and does Christmas interviews in July … and mixes with people
whose lives have gone way beyond Iowa.

That includes Cristina Ferrare, a former movie star who is his
“Home & Family” co-host. “We were driving down the street one day and she
pointed to a hotel and said, ‘That’s the place,’” Steines recalled. It was the
historic spot where her then-husband, John DeLorean, was arrested on cocaine

He was freed due to entrapment, but his car company folded.
So did his marriage; now Ferrare is married to Tony Thomopoulos, the former ABC

This is not the sort of frame-of-reference Steines grew up
with. He recalls someone asking him the toughest job he’d ever had: “It was
de-tasseling corn. A lot of people have never heard of that.”

It’s an Iowa thing. Steines grew up in Dubuque, was an
all-state linebacker (at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds) and had a football scholarship
to Northern Iowa. Already interested in photography, he majored in radio and TV
and became a news cameraman for a station in Waterloo, Iowa.

Then came the quirk: “My career is based on mistaken
identity,” Steines said with a laugh.

He was shooting footage at the 1988 Republican convention, he
said, when people kept mistaking him for Tom Cruise. An offbeat feature had him
doing bartender tricks, in the style of Cruise’s “Cocktail.”

That got noticed and on-camera jobs followed – sportscaster
in Springfield, Mo., reporter for a Los Angeles station, occasional ESPN
reports. In 1995, his life transformed doubly – he married Leanza Cornett, who
was Miss America 1993 (they have two sons and separated late year) and he
started work at “Entertainment Tonight” as substitute host, then weekend host,
then regular co-host.

Steines left the “ET” job after 17 years and three million
air miles. He was promptly offered something more settled: “Home & Family”
has a permanent set that’s like an actual house; there, he and Ferrare talk to
stars and to experts in cooking, crafts, design, gardening and more.

The hosts don’t have to be experts, but it helps to know
something. Steines said he’s had construction jobs and he used to help his dad
around the house and yard. “I’m passing that down to my sons,” he said … or, at
least, trying to in a culture of hired lawn-and-garden people.

The show also has room for whimsy. This week, Hallmark has
Christmas movies at night and a “Christmas in July” theme to “Home &
Family.” That’s logical in Los Angeles, where December and July kind of look
alike; in Iowa, you can tell them apart.

“Home & Family,” 10 a.m. weekdays, Hallmark
Channel; previous episode reruns at noon.

This week, that includes interviews about
Christmas plans and about previous Christmas movies. Those movies follow the
show, at 2 p.m.; they continue until 10 p.m. (through Thursday); on Friday, July
11, they continue all night and then all day Saturday.

"Capitol Fourth": Big crowds, big variety

Yes, there really is musical variety on TV ... but only if you promise fireworks and more. There's a terrific range to this year's "Capitol Fourth" concert on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Each year, PBS’ 4th-of-July concert – like the
holiday itself – offers consummate variety.

Pop, country and Broadway share a night with the National
Symphony.  The music crosses styles and
generations; this year, it ranges from Phillip Phillips, 23, to Frankie Valli,

“It’s going to be a real honor to share the stage with him,”
said Phillips, who was born 28 years after “Sherry” became the first of Valli’s
seven No. 1 singles.

Valli has never done the “Capitol Fourth” concert, but he’s
sung nearby. In 1982, he was hired for the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“Those guys mortgaged their homes to put (the Memorial project) together,” he
said. “I just couldn’t take money from them.”

Phillips did the Fourth concert two years ago, when he was still
adjusting to the notion of crowds. Before winning “American Idol,” he had
worked Georgia clubs. “The most would be 100 people or so,” he said. “Maybe
200.” PBS’ Fourth concerts (in Washington, D.C.) bring crowds estimated as high
as 500,000.

In some ways, these guys are similar. Valli recalls years of
doing small New Jersey clubs.

Phillips’ day job was in his dad’s pawn shop, a fine setting
for someone who would observe and sing about people. “You see so many different
kinds of people and hear so many stories.”

Valli had a similar working-guy start. “I was a florist,
worked construction, went to school to be a hair-dresser …. I grew up really
poor. I might have had a very tragic end; a lot of the kids I knew did.”

But there was always music, ever since he sang “White
Christmas” in elementary school. “I always like to sing and I liked the feeling
of a large audience.”

The first concert he went to was Frank Sinatra, who would
later be his friend. An early admirer was Texas Jean Valley, a country singer
who heard him and pointed him toward an agent; he used her surname (almost),
when switching from Casteluccio to Valli.

Things started slowly, in a group that was called the Varietones,
the Four Lovers and the Four Seasons. Eventually, it added Bob Gaudio, who had
already co-written a top-five single when he was 15. “I wasn’t terribly
impressed by the song he’d done, ‘Short Shorts,’” Valli admits. But he was soon
impressed by his elegant arrangements; no longer a performer, Gaudio remains key
to shaping the Valli sound.

That sound has thrived through 18 top-10 singles and a
career that never stops. “When we reach a certain age, we don’t stop talking,”
Valli said, “so why stop singing? You might lose a note or two at the top, but
you make up for it with other things.”

Phillips has had only one top-10 single, but it was big –
the song “Idol” chose as his first single. “I was worried about that,” he
grants. “I’m a writer and I wanted to have some part in (writing) the song.”

“Idol” had been a tough ride, complicated by a kidney-stone
problem that often left him lying down, connected to tubes, after most
performances. Then it all worked out. Unlike most years, “Idol” had a good song
(“Home”) for its winner. A year later, Phillips was finally able to take some
time off; his health problems cleared up.

He’s still early in his career and talks of the pleasure of
hearing his “Raging Fire” on the radio. “It’s exciting; I said, ‘Turn it up.’” Now
he’ll do that song to a mega-crowd, during a varied Fourth show.

“A Capitol Fourth,” 8 p.m. Friday, PBS, with
many stations repeating at 9:30 (check local listings)

Music by Frankie Valli and Patti LaBelle, plus
“American Idol” winners Phillip Phillips and Jordin Sparks and people from
Broadway (Kelli O’Hara), country (Sara Evans), pop (Michael McDonald), the
Muppets (Kermit and Miss Piggy) and “Big Time Rush” (Kendall Schmidt), plus

Also, NBC will be in New York from 8-10 p.m., with
Miranda Lambert, Ariana Grande, Lionel Richie and Hunter Hayes; an hourlong
rerun at 10 repeats the later parts, including fireworks.


By staying in one place (usually), Piper Perabo travels the world

OK, now it's official that Tuesday (June 24) is overloaded. I already sent papers (see previous blogs) stories on that night's superb "Freedom Summer" film and its interesting "Motor City Masters." Meanwhile, "Covert Affairs" opens its season that same night and reruns often. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Heading into the fifth season of “Covert Affairs,” Piper
Perabo is on fresh turf. “I’ve never been the same character for this long,”
she said.

She’s used to flitting between movies – some excellent
(“Looper,” for instance) and some not, some artful independents and one
“Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” But now the fifth season-opener marks her 60
episode as Annie Walker, CIA agent.

Fortunately, the settings and stories keep changing; so does

Last season, she was on the run and on her own, after faking
her death. “It was really fun,” Perabo said. “The writers could avoid a lot of
the caveats that come” with working for a mega-agency.

That story meant travel, including two-and-a-half weeks in Hong
Kong. Perabo recalls some off-time, viewing a giant brass Buddha; that’s not
your usual workday experience.

Even when she’s rooted in one place, she seems to travel. At
various times, “Covert Affairs” has made Toronto look like Rome, Paris, Istanbul,
Berlin, Venice, Amsterdam and more.

Then there are the skills Perabo keeps adding. “I didn’t
know how to reload a shotgun,” she said.

Forgive her for such gaps; shotguns don’t always go with
being the daughter of a poetry professor.

Perabo did study a little poetry (her dad’s field) and Latin
in college, plus a lot of theater. In high school, she edited the literary
magazine and sang in all the musicals.

That was in New Jersey, close enough to a cultural center.
“I went into New York a lot to
theater,” she said. Appropriately, one of her first roles out of college was
starring in “Coyote Ugly” (2000), as a young Jersey woman, reaching for fame in
New York.

Critics disliked that film, but Perabo has redeemed herself
with the independent films and even an off-Broadway play. She’s become part of
the New York world, even becoming a restaurateur.

“In New York, the apartments are pretty small,” she said. “Your
living room is part of your kitchen.” When friends get together -- often, in
her case – they often eat out. “You get really involved in the restaurant
culture” … so much that she now owns parts of two Manhattan spots.

Still, half of each year is spent in Toronto and beyond.
There, Annie Walker hopes to settle back into the CIA, complete with rules; she
also works with a private contractor (played by Nic Bishop) who sheds any rules.
“He’s a real cowboy and – at least in the beginning – we don’t get along very well.”

That’s a key change – important in her 60th hour
of being Annie Walker.

“Covert Affairs,” 10:01 p.m. Tuesdays, USA Network;
opener (June 24) reruns at 1:03 a.m.

Opener also reruns Saturday night at midnight,
then 9 a.m. Sunday and 7 a.m. Tuesday.


These "Masters" create mobile artwork

Do we really need another reality competition show? Yes, if the subject happens to stir emotions. And "Motor City Masters" involves something (car design) that people view passionately. Here's the story I sent to paper: 


In its reality rush, TV keeps trying competitions. It’s had
shows for singers and dancers and models, for designers and stylists and
artists, for make-up people and monster-makers. Even dogs had their day.

But now comes something many people are more passionate
about – car design. “It is a work of art that takes you places,” said Harald
Belker, the German giant who is a “Motor City Masters” judge.

And it’s part of coming-of-age. “I used to date guys
according to if they would let me drive,” said Jean Jennings, the writer who is
a judge. Now she has a Web site ( and a belief that designers
are the most interesting people in the car business. “They are interested in art
and architecture and cooking; they know fabrics and sculpture. They’re very

The show’s judges and host are also interesting sorts who
came to the car culture in opposite ways:

For Brooke Burns, the host, it was gradual. “I
grew up with two sisters,” she said. “We were all dancing ballet,” not worrying
about horsepower. Only later, scooting around Hawaii in a black BMW convertible
during her “Baywatch” years, did she discover open-road joy.

For Jennings, it was instant. Her dad edited
Automotive News in Ann Arbor, Mich. Growing up on a mini-farm, she “played on
dirt roads, fished” and drove things.  She
became a cab-owner and a test-track driver, before writing for Car and Driver
and helping start Automobile Magazine.

And for Belker, it was long-distance. He grew up
as a towering tennis star, in a Germany that lacked muscle-cars. “I was very
passionate about my first car, a Volkswagen Rabbit,” he said. It  only had 60 horsepower, “but I drove the heck
out of it.” Later, he studied auto design.

Belker even has an odd distinction: “I was the dummy for the
Smart Car.” To make sure anyone could drive it, the micro-car was patterned
around him and another designer, each 6-foot-7.

He’s been working for movies lately, ranging from the
Batmobile to Inspector Gadget’s car. (“My job isn’t always about good
taste.”)  It’s fast work, but Belker
marvels at the challenges the show’s contestants faced. “Sometimes, I thought,
‘Thank goodness I don’t have to do something that fast.”

Clever designers are crucial to companies, Jennings said.
Most cars are so well-made that people could keep them for 10 years; the design
nudges them into changing.

And they’re important to the buyer, she said. “To choose a
car is a very emotional decision …. Just because you have a family car doesn’t
mean it has to be a box.” And on the show, 10 would-be masters keep trying to
think outside that mobile box.

“Motor City Masters,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, TruTV
(formerly Court TV); opener (June 24) reruns at 11 p.m. and 2 and 3 a.m.

Opener also reruns at 11 p.m. Wednesday, 4 p.m.
Saturday, 11 p.m. Monday (June 30); also, at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on TNT.


Freedom Summer brought big danger, big change

Amid all its gloss and giddiness, summer TV can also deliver some important documentaries. Consider "The Sixties," Thursdays on CNN: June 19 eyed Vietnam; June 26 has civil rights. Or consider PBS: A week after rerunning "Freedom Riders," it has the debut (9 p.m. June 24) of the superb "Freedom Summer," by the same filmmaker. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Fifty years ago this month, young people – college students,
mostly – plunged into the unknown.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Linda
Wetmore Halpern, then a 19-year-old from Massachusetts and now a teacher,
featured in PBS’ “Freedom Summer” documentary.

A previous venture – registering voters in Raleigh, N.C,
during spring break – was jolting, she said. “This was 1964 and you still had
‘white’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountains?”

But now she was heading into Mississippi; it was, filmmaker
Stanley Nelson said, a place that even activists avoided. “The rest of the
civil rights movement was saying, ‘Don’t go to Mississippi. You have to talk
about Mississippi from the outside. If you go to Mississippi, they will kill

Dave Dennis knew the risks. Now a lawyer and educator, he
grew up as a sharecropper’s son in Louisiana. “We were taught … that even
looking white people in the eye” was dangerous.

Fears had grown in 1955, he said, when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old
visiting from Chicago, was killed after reportedly flirting with a white
woman.  “People talked to us in the
churches about: ‘If you see a white woman, just cross the street.’”

In 1961, Dennis followed Bob Moses into Mississippi,
establishing a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in what was considered
the most dangerous state for civil rights workers. This was a state, the film
says, in which blacks who tried to register to vote faced imposing literacy
tests (at the whim of the clerk) and repercussions; some lost their jobs and
their homes.

Three years later, “freedom summer” sent about 1,000
Northerners to register voters and lead “freedom schools.” The danger was soon
clear: On June 16, a small-town church, planned as a freedom-school site, was
burned down; on June 21, three young civil rights workers, visiting the church’s
parishioners, disappeared. Their bodies were found 44 days later.

“In the couple years I’d been in Mississippi,” Dennis said, “I
actually lost about 19 people who had been killed, many of them local people in
the movement.” As one of the speakers at the memorial service, he was asked to
avoid strong emotions.

“I’m looking out at this crowd,” he said, “and I’d gone to a
number of funerals over the past few years and so I just began to feel all of
this anger, disappointment …. It was all just impromptu, just came out.”

Years of pain and frustration emerged. His passionate speech
was rerun often by the news and seen as a turning points. Registrations soared.
The next year, the Voting Rights Act was passed; and 50 years later, TV is
revisiting a perilous summer.

“American Experience: Freedom Summer,” 9-11 p.m.
Tuesday, PBS (check local listings)

More on civil rights: PBS precedes it at 8 p.m.
with a rerun of “The March,” eying the 1963 march on Washington; at 9 p.m.
Thursday, CNN’S “The Sixties” has “A Long Walk to Freedom”