(The author of this article, Dirty Dave on The FM, is a cult radio legend whose show “Dirty Dave on The FM”, was syndicated in over 50,000 markets including Borneo, Guyana and Ellenville. Years back, I heard his initial interview with the reclusive Ms. Cohn and became a die-hard fan of his show. Tyranny of Tradition gave Mr. FM a $200,000 advance to gain exclusive rights to this piece, so you better read it because I had a choice to pay him for an interview with the co-star of a mostly forgotten 80’s TV show or send my children to college…and I chose this)
The sun is setting as I steam south across the tenth southern parallel. Or, to be more accurate, putter across the tenth southern parallel, because the boat I’m on resembles little more than a bathtub with an outboard motor. I had hopped aboard after landing on the tiny island nation of Kiribati that morning. The skipper, who looked like he was suffering from a mild case of [insert gratuitous current event reference here!] Ebola, assured me he could get me to my destination before sundown for the low, low price of just 100 Kiribati dollars, whatever those are. Luckily, he also happily accepted Visa, American Express, and coconuts.
So, as I said, the sun was setting, and as I didn’t say, we were down to our last tank of fuel. Along with the sun, my hope of arriving at my destination before becoming a shark snack is sinking fast. That would be an unfortunate ending to a story—indeed a mission—that began over 20 years ago.
Back then, I worked as an on-air personality for a radio station in a backwater upstate New York town. I played music, read news, and interviewed musicians. I also did a variety show consisting of all manner of flimflam and it was during one particular episode of this program that my story begins.
Despite the fact that this radio show had no redeeming value, I was approached by an agent who represented one of the most celebrated entertainment icons of our time. Apparently, this celebrity was asked by the U.S. National Archives to submit a recorded interview for posterity. The celebrity, who had shunned and condemned the mainstream spotlight for the better part of a career, agreed to the request on the condition that the interview be conducted by someone as far removed from the conventional media establishment as possible. The person, I was told by the agent, would be an amateur, a relative nobody. That person, I was shocked to learn, was me.
I couldn’t say I was completely surprised. I mean, I was the person who once dedicated an entire hour-long show to the sound of myself eating a ham sandwich.
Anyway, I readily agreed to do the interview, which would be conducted live, and it was scheduled to air the following week. Somehow, word leaked out that this major celebrity who had managed to evade the press and paparazzi for years had agreed to be interviewed on our little radio station, and within a few days there were news crews from around the world camped out all over town. At the same time, our radio station started enjoying stratospheric ratings. We were placing in the top ten nationwide. There was even a pirate radio ship off the coast of Rhode Island retransmitting our broadcasts around the world via shortwave.
On the day of the interview, I was told that the celebrity would arrive surreptitiously at the radio station by way of a network of sewer tunnels that ran under the campus. At the appointed time, with thousands of clueless members of the mainstream media mobbing every public entrance to the building, I unceremoniously came face to face with one of the most admired, venerated, and respected stars of all time. I was looking into the gifted eyes of none other than Mindy Cohn.
There isn’t a soul alive who needs an introduction to the work of Mindy Cohn. Although best known for playing the role of Natalie Green on the hit NBC sitcom The Facts of Life from 1979 to 1988, Cohn has also won a legion of adoring fans for lending her voice to the character of Velma on Scooby Doo. And who could forget her poignant portrayal of Buddy’s alcoholic sister on Charles in Charge?
Needless to say, the interview was the highlight of my career in radio. It won numerous awards from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, placed runner-up in the Miss Serbia pageant, and was named the Short Line Railroad of the Year.
But then tragedy struck.
Before a recording of the interview could be copied and submitted to the National Archives, the original reel-to-reel tape from the studio was destroyed when the British burned Washington in 1814. Cohn claimed that her enemies were responsible, pledged never again to give another interview, and went into hiding. Although millions of listeners around the world likely recorded the interview off of the radio that night, no attempt was made to acquire any of those recordings because that would mess up the story I’m writing right now.
After the commotion died down and following my testimony at a House Select Committee hearing, I got on with my life and didn’t think much about the whole affair until recently. About two weeks ago, I received a coded message in my Lucky Charms that appeared to come from Mindy Cohn herself. She was getting older, the cipher said, and regretted not recording her story for future generations. Would I be interested in conducting another interview? No radio, no media attention, just a private meeting with a tape recorder. If I was interested, the precise latitude and longitude of her location could be found by playing Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 inaugural address backwards and listening closely at the 11-minute mark.
So here I am in the middle of nowhere. And as the coordinates on my handheld GPS inch closer to the supposed meeting place, I begin to perceive a speck of island on the horizon. Within minutes the island is close enough for me to make out some details. Volcanic. Barren. Except for the huge palace crowning the rocky crest. It’s the secluded home of Mindy Cohn.
Leaving Ebola guy with the boat, it’s dusk as I ring the doorbell under the portico of the enormous Greek Revival temple. You take the good, you take the bad… the chimes sound. As I wait, I admire the towering Doric columns that flank the front door. The craftsmanship is astounding.
It isn’t long before the large door opens and I’m greeted by the world’s most famous entertainer and the cause of so much speculation and conspiracy theory over the last 20 years.
“It’s good to see you again,” says Ms. Mindy Cohn. “Come on in.”
Inside the marble-lined foyer, I’m mesmerized by the riches I see everywhere I look. Everything is marble, mahogany, and the finest silks and there’s enough gilding to retire the entire national debt of Botswana. I’m assuming Botswana has a national debt but I don’t really know. Perhaps they are a very financially responsible people.
Anyway, Ms. Cohn leads me down the endless entrance hall and we turn left at a priceless Florentine Renaissance sculpture. “We’ll have our interview in the solarium. But first, I want to show you my collection.”
About halfway down the next hall we turn right and enter a large room lined wall-to-wall with shelves and display cases. “I’m a big American history buff,” says Ms. Cohn. “Especially presidential history. One of my passions is collecting items that once belonged to U.S. presidents. I call this my Hall of Presidents.”
On one wall are countless mementos and artifacts spanning nearly 250 years of American history. A medal once worn by General George Washington. A book belonging to James Madison. A bowtie owned by Millard Fillmore. A pair of eyeglasses used by Teddy Roosevelt.
Interesting, but I find myself drawn to the specimen jars on a far wall. What could they possible contain? And then I see. A hair sample from John Quincy Adams. Some fingernail clippings from James Buchanan. The large intestine of William Howard Taft. The brain of Jimmy Carter. Holy cow.
The solarium is quite pleasant with lots of sunlight and numerous palms and ferns and tropical plants. Arby’s: WE HAVE THE MEATS!!! Flittering around in the air are several rare species of butterfly. A Papilio arcturus lands on my shoulder. We waste no time getting down to the matter at hand and the reason I took a second mortgage out on my house to get here. The interview.
“So, is this all Facts of Life money?” I begin.
“No. Actually, it’s ER money,” says Ms. Cohn. “Most people don’t remember that George Clooney joined our cast in the later years. When he hit the big time with ER, he set up trust funds for all the Facts of Life kids. I’ve invested wisely.”
“So, tell me how it all began. How did The Facts of Life come about and how were you discovered?” I ask.
“Well, as most people know, The Facts of Life was a spin-off of Diff’rent Strokes. Charlotte Rae, who played the housekeeper on Diff’rent Strokes, was offered her own show and it was she herself who discovered me. At the time, I was working as a snake wrangler in the Mojave Desert and she offered me a job on the new show after I procured two gopher snakes and a sidewinder for her. I know that doesn’t really explain things, but let’s leave it at that.”
“I’m curious, Ms. Cohn. Do you keep in touch with the former Facts of Life cast members?” I inquire.
“Yes, I do. I speak to Nancy McKeon, Kim Fields, and the one who played Blair whose name I can never remember quite often. Even Molly Ringwald calls now and again. And Charlotte Rae flies in to visit me here occasionally.”
“She flies in? I don’t remember seeing a landing strip or a helicopter pad as we approached the island.”
“I mean, she literally flies in. She has wings,” explains Cohn.
“I see. Okay. Well, it must be nice to have such lifelong friends,” I remark.
“It is. We are all very fortunate. I mean, look at the cast of Diff’rent Strokes. I think Willis is the only one still alive.”
“I think you’re right,” I agree. “And, on the subject of Diff’rent Strokes, why did the producers of that show feel it was necessary to replace the letter “e” with an apostrophe? I mean, they weren’t saving any space in the opening credits or anything.”
“Yeah, I really have no idea,” says Cohn.
“Okay. Well, I thought I’d ask. Next question: What was up with Cloris Leachman joining the show. I mean, why?”
“Yeah, that wasn’t a good move. That decision didn’t play out well at all. I remember one time, Mackenzie Astin got lost in her spiky hair and we had to delay taping for a week.”
“That’s strange. And why did they replace the gourmet food shop with a bad imitation of the already horrid Spencer Gifts store?” I inquire.
“That happened around the time that George Clooney joined the cast. Let’s just say that the show had jumped the proverbial shark by that time. It was all about recapturing ratings,” she explains.
“What are a few of your favorite episodes from the show?” I wonder.
“Well, you know, it was a very socially responsible show. We tried to tackle issues that American kids were facing as they grew up in the eighties,” remembers Cohn. “We addressed issues like substance abuse, self-image, and physical disabilities. One of my favorite episodes was the one where Tootie begins to suffer from lycanthropy and starts devouring classmates every full moon. Kids in the eighties could really relate to those kinds of coming-of-age topics.”
“Yes, I remember that episode. That was one of my favorites, too. Another favorite was the one where Jo defends the shop from time-traveling, inter-dimensional lizard people from the year 7387. It was a very timely episode and it struck a chord with a lot of people.”
“Right! That was a very well-received episode,” recollects Cohn.
“Why did the Mets wear those awful camo uniforms this year? I mean, no disrespect to the military, but camouflage doesn’t belong on a baseball uni.”
“What do you know about the joint U.S. government-alien underground base in Dulce, New Mexico?”
“Why does my arm keep falling off?”
And so on and so forth.
“Ms. Cohn, I want to sincerely thank you for inviting me to re-conduct this interview with you,” I say. “The world will be overjoyed to hear it and it will be preserved at the National Archives for the ages.”
“Thank you for agreeing to my request and for traveling so far,” says Ms. Cohn. “I’m thrilled that my story—my legacy–will forever be known.”
“Ms. Cohn, before we conclude, may I make a request?” I ask timidly. “For reasons that will make sense to most of the people reading this story, I need to include a heavy metal reference. Will you do the honors?”
By the time I leave the island, it’s almost midnight. For some reason, Ebola guy didn’t bring any fuel for the return trip, and I think he died around nine o’clock anyway, so my host graciously arranged transportation to get me back to Kiribati. There’s a full moon rising on the eastern horizon as Charlotte Rae lifts off into the night sky with me strapped securely to her back.
About halfway to the airport, we crash into the Pacific Ocean and sink to our watery graves along with the one and only copy of the interview. Dammit.