Great Shakes: 'Hands Across America' 20 Years Later

Robin Williams brought a joy buzzer. Barbara Streisand emerged from hiding. President Reagan gathered his staff on the White House lawn, and Mickey Mouse did likewise at the Magic Kingdom.

And it was all to take part in one of the noblest failures in the history of American popular culture.

"Hands Across America" -- the attempt 20 years ago to form a bicoastal, 4,125-mile human chain through 17 states -- couldn't quite bridge the gap across America, despite the Herculean efforts of at least 5 million Americans, and more star power than the world had ever seen.

Still, the landmark 1986 charitable event -- ostensibly to raise money to feed the hungry -- was a gathering like no other in American history.

When else would the Rev. Billy Graham join forces with the likes of Oprah, Prince, Jane Fonda and Jerry Seinfeld? The massive human line featured a 21-year-old Brooke Shields on the George Washington Bridge, Bill and Hillary Clinton in Arkansas, and Kenny Rogers braving blistering heat in the Southwest.

In Pittsburgh, nuns held hands with members of the Hell's Angels. In Maryland, SCUBA divers forded the Susquehanna River. Through sparsely populated New Mexico, ranchers lined up cattle horn-to-hoof to fill in for missing humans. And at Ohio's Sea World, Shamu the killer whale lent a helping fin.

Critics have said the heavily hyped event failed as a fundraiser because it cost $17 million to produce and fell far short of its goal of raising $50 million to feed the hungry.

Still, Hands managed to raise $20 million for soup kitchens and shelters throughout the country. Even detractors admitted that it raised public awareness for an important issue. And nobody denied that it was an unprecedented public spectacle.

And now, to commemorate its 20th anniversary Thursday, organizers are releasing a commemorative DVD, with an inside look at the human chain that almost bridged North America.

"Nothing like this had been tried before, and I think that's what made it so great," said Hollywood promoter Ken Kragen, who, as a member of USA for Africa, had played a leading role in organizing the "We Are The World" celebrity sing-along.

The Politics of Hand-Holding

Kragan had been managing Lionel Richie, when Richie teamed with Michael Jackson to co-write "We Are The World," which raised more than $50 million for Ethiopian famine victims.

"Everybody worked for free on that," says Kragen. "To pull off Hands, we knew it would take months to organize and promote. It was much more ambitious from the start.

"We had a staff of 400 people working for nine months," he said. "We hired campaign organizers, and it was very much like a political campaign. Instead of 'get out the vote' it was 'get out and hold hands.' "

While the operating expenses were high, the snowballing publicity brought pressure on Reagan and other politicians to join the chain, Kragen says.

Coca-Cola and Citibank quickly signed on as top sponsors, donating a combined $8 million. By January 1986, Hands Across America would be promoted at the Super Bowl and advertised on millions of McDonald's placemats.

Celebrities like Rogers went to bat, schmoozing insurance companies to underwrite a policy to cover the event.

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