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August 1, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Steve Martin keeps Terre Haute on burner

TERRE HAUTE — If insults are a form of flattery, Steve Martin still likes us.

Better yet, he hasn’t forgotten us.

Sure, Terre Haute probably amounts to just a strange blip in his life as an American comedy icon. Still, it’s likely that if an acquaintance or a stranger in an airport randomly mentions those two words, “Terre Haute,” Martin chuckles to himself. This place is an entertaining memory for him, despite the urban legends about his supposedly infamous concert here 35 years ago.

A miserable, random moment for the comedian morphed into a weird bond between this city and Martin, resembling the awkward alignment of two stranded travelers in Martin’s 1987 movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” In 1978, Terre Haute served as the real-life equivalent of John Candy’s “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” character, Del Griffith. Neal Page — the picky, tightly wound executive played by Martin — gets stuck with the slovenly, talkative Griffith as a snowstorm forces them to attempt one alternate form of travel after another, with disastrous results. Griffith’s faults drive Page nuts, but the uptight, criticizing businessman and the shower-curtain-ring salesman become unlikely friends in the end.

So, does Terre Haute occupy a soft spot in Steve Martin’s heart? Maybe.

On Saturday, Martin visited the Hoosier state as a musician. (Yes, for those of you who lost track of Martin after his “wild-and-crazy-guy” days, he’s become a renaissance man of the arts as an actor, author, poet, playwright, pianist and banjoist.) He played banjo alongside pop singer Edie Brickell for a concert in Indianapolis’ Murat Theatre, performing songs from their duet album, “Love Has Come for You.” Before last week’s show, Martin spoke with the Indianapolis Star’s David Lindquist for an interview. The topic of Terre Haute came up.

Lindquist asked Martin about his Terre Haute saga, which began with a concert on Nov. 18, 1978, in Hulman Center, followed by his frustration over failing to find any open downtown restaurants and a plethora of fertilizer ads on local TV, describing the city as “Nowhere, USA” in a Playboy interview, and then making a hilarious return visit for a tongue-in-cheek grand tour of the town on Dec. 7, 1979. Impressed, he recanted, pledged faux allegiance to Terre Haute, and insisted Abilene, Texas, was more of a “Nowhere.”

As a goodwill gesture, Martin premiered his first movie, “The Jerk,” at the old Towne South Cinema here. He also made derisive Terre Haute references a running joke in his material. In his 1982 film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” Martin’s character saved the world from a sinister plot, except for Terre Haute — the only place wiped out by a deadly cheese mold. “Damn, and they were about to get a public library,” the film’s hero said of the city.

Reminded of that era by Lindquist, Martin zinged the Haute once again.

“A long time ago, but that was a fun excursion,” Martin told the Star last week. “I’m sure Terre Haute has two-story buildings by now.”

Yes, Steve, the town today features an astonishing number of those new-fangled, multi-level structures, and has a wonderful public library, though it is, alas, just one-story tall, above ground. Indoor plumbing is common. Automobiles fill the streets, which are paved.

Seriously, Martin’s gentle jab was good to hear. Sure, the most defensive locals might want to bring Martin back here to show him the livelier and growing downtown, the Heritage Trail, the Arts Corridor, a 2013 Year of the River event, the college campuses, Deming Park, the Terre Haute Children’s Museum or the Blues at the Crossroads festival — maybe then “that Steve Martin” would recognize this is a special place.

Earnest as such irked people might be, they’d also be missing the point.

Instead of focusing on the “two-story buildings” quip, consider more deeply his “fun excursion” comment. Terre Haute has a sense of humor. The town showed movie star, comic performer and musician Steve Martin a good time. And he remembers. Maybe a video and photo gallery dedicated to the Steve Martin days would fit in the Vigo County Historical Museum or a Hulman Center display case.

Or, perhaps it’s best kept in memories. Martin grins inside when he hears “Terre Haute.” Hauteans do the same thing when they hear “Steve Martin.” That’s a gift, not an insult.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@ tribstar.com.

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