By Hillel Aron
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If you paid the $4,000, or somehow wangled a comp to get into Richard Saul Wurman’s The Entertainment Gathering 2006, you learned early not to skip anything on the assumption that it might be boring: Take the afternoon off, and you could return to find that you had missed Yo-Yo Ma with MIT Media Lab’s Michael Hawley at the piano, deciding on the fly to knock off Chopin’s last sonata just for fun (“We’re available for weddings,” the affable cellist joked); or mega-minister Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life) spontaneously marrying Bill Nye the Science Guy and his sweetheart of five months, Blair Tindall (she’s the author of that racy book Mozart in the Jungle, about her life as a classical oboe player). Lacking rings, the pair exchanged watches, “as a symbol,” Nye explained, “of man’s reckoning with time.”
Wurman himself is a stout man with a thick head of near-white hair and blazing blue eyes that beam emotion from 500 feet away. He commonly wears a flowing scarf around his neck, and he never wears a suit: “I cut off ties,” he tells his guests. He is an architect by training and practice, and an information guru by passion. In the past 40 years, he has authored more than 80 books devoted to making complex ideas clear. He hugs liberally, cries freely and laces his speech with cuss words and generous, affectionate insults. And he curates eccentric conferences of such magical renown that even the Rev. Billy Graham ranked one of them among the highlights of his life.
Wurman insists, however, that last week’s three-day EG 2006, held in the Skirball Cultural Center’s Cotsen Auditorium, will be his final conference. He’s been producing them since 1984 (until 2002, they were known as TED, for Technology, Entertainment and Design). “This really is the last one,” he insisted several times. “Don’t call me Sinatra.” What follows are some memorable scenes from that final adventure.
Rikki’s in Love
“My husband is running late, but he’s on his way here,” says Court TV’s Rikki Klieman. “He’s out keeping this city safe. But he wants you to know that he is arriving in a helicopter at the Veterans Building and being driven from there so he can avoid traffic.”
While Klieman and the audience wait for her husband — Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton — she tells stories from her new book, Fairy Tales Can Come True: How a Driven Woman Changed Her Destiny. “We fell in love in middle age,” she says, holding the book so the audience can see both front and back. “So there’s the two lovebirds, on the cover.”
“I’ve been an actor since the age of 4,” Klieman says as she takes us through the highlights of her life. “And at 24 I had an audition for The Godfather.” She believed she was born to play the role of Michael Corleone’s ill-fated wife, Apollonia, until she walked into the room.
“The elevator doors parted, and I saw not 20 of me or 100 of me but 200 of me. I thought, ‘This is going to be a hard way to make a living.’ ”
So Klieman quit acting, went to law school and spent 20 years as a criminal-defense attorney and prosecutor — at one point working under John Kerry (“We knew even then he would run for president,” she says). Then Court TV came calling. It was a job she loved. “I wanted to stay there until they rolled me out with the drool running down my chin,” she says. She rails at the false experts who populate television news, the lawyers with no practices who flit from one high-profile site to the next, farming out quotes. “It’s unethical,” she says. “It’s disgraceful.”
Now Bratton enters in full dress blues, fresh from a press conference with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (“We both tend to be long-winded,” he confesses).
“You can’t cut off his tie,” Klieman warns Wurman. “He’s in uniform.”
“You know I cut off ties,” Wurman says anyway.
“And I put them on,” answers Bratton. “I’m the enforcer.”
I’ll Give You $10 Million to Take a Vow of Poverty
Rick Warren, the Orange County pastor who became a best-selling author with his book The Purpose-Driven Life, enters to the same klezmer music that earlier accompanied Skirball architect Moshe Safdie — until Wurman flamboyantly calls for the sound to be cut. It’s a joke. A funny one. A relief, even. Wurman reminds the skeptics in his audience that the Rev. Billy Graham once wowed a TED conference, and at first, no one leaves. But Warren, wild card in a session that includes architects Frank Gehry and Safdie, unfortunately, comes off less as a modern, friendly minister than a televangelist. His cadence is the same; his sentence structure is the same.
“What am I doing in the same session as Gehry and Safdie?” Warren asks rhetorically. Then he answers: “I’m a social architect.” He nods and looks around the room, and repeats himself, makes sure we’ve absorbed it. “A social architect.”
No one, he insists, goes into the ministry for money. In an interview with a prominent national magazine, he says, a reporter pointedly asked him his salary. “I was able to say honestly I’ve been able to serve my church free for 25 years.
“Yes!” he exclaims, pumping his elbows like a gratified sports fan. “It felt so good to bust that stereotype.”
In truth, the shamelessly self-?promotional Warren gave back 25 years of ?his salary to his church when his book earned tens of millions in royalties with the help of self-proclaimed “pyromarketer” Greg Stielstra. The sizable marketing segment of the EG 2006 audience might find that information useful, but Warren won’t share. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m in it for the money,” he says.
The Last of Its Kind
It is late afternoon, nod-off time at most conferences, and Jeff Corwin, the cherubic-faced, daredevil host of Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin Experience, is telling a story about a bird. Corwin, who in person trades the naif act he plays on his television show for the role of the authoritative biologist, is not the biggest fan of birds, he admits; he prefers snakes. (“Beware of ‘charismatic species syndrome,’ ” he warns.) But one day, he tells the audience, he was invited by a fellow biologist in Hawaii to come to a research center to see a particular bird, a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. The biologist asked him to dress in protective gear and dip his shoes in bleach to prevent the spread of germs; then he was led into a vault, where he saw a small yellowish bird hopping about and twittering.
Corwin was perplexed. “I ask them, ‘Why is this bird so special?’
“And they say, ‘Because it’s the last one.’
“Later, I thought of that bird, coming to the edge of its perch every day, calling for a mate that . . . will . . . never . . . ever . . . come.”
The woman next to me fumbles in her purse and comes up with a little white ball of tissue, with which she dabs her eyes. I just use my sleeve.
Life in Heaven
In the conference’s final hours, Matt Groening goes before Wurman on bended knee, and holds one of Wurman’s hands with both of his own.
“We were talking about proposals,” he says. “You don’t have to say yes. I know you said you’d never do this again.
“But,” Groening continues, “if you do decide to change your mind, I think we will all forgive you.”
Groening then goes on to break what seems to be one of the conference’s tacit rules: He talks politics. “Back when I started ‘Life in Hell’ at the L.A. Weekly,” he says, “I thought that if I could show young people that the authorities don’t have their best interests at heart, they’d grow up and vote people like George Bush out of office.”
Wurman is silent.
“But lots of people I disagree with work for [The Simpsons],” Groening adds quickly. “We have some Republicans who work for ?the show.”
After a short presentation by the guys from Jib Jab media — the creators of the “This Land” animation that lightened up the 2004 election — Quincy Jones comes on to talk about his plan to fight poverty and AIDS in South Africa with the help of young recruits from South-Central. Jill Sobule sings a song about unrequited love while Herbie Hancock accompanies her on piano. Yo-Yo Ma comes back once more, this time to play, with Hancock and Jones and Salma Hayek and Naomi Campbell and neurosurgeon Keith Black, a weird digital lyre that plays samples as your hand passes through lasers. While I’m talking to the son of the guy who invented the lyre, Jones trips over my outstretched foot. He apologizes. “No, it’s my fault,” I blurt.
And I hate to be this way, but there’s something transcendent about nearly tripping a genius. Later that night, when someone asks me how the conference went, I tell him it was amazing.
“I almost tripped Quincy Jones. That’s how amazing.”
In the end, Wurman does not change his mind, but stands onstage, sobbing, while his adoring attendees sing “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Vodka and caviar chill in the lobby, and as we line up to receive them like communion, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, even if you didn’t skip anything, you missed something. Something, maybe, that might have happened in the future.