Great Shakes: 'Hands Across America' 20 Years Later


May 23, 2006 — -- 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.

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.

In the end, it was a massive undertaking. From New York City, the line was to pass through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and dip down to the Capitol before stretching though Cleveland; Chicago; St. Louis; Memphis, Tenn.; and Dallas. It then cut across the Southwest, crossing Phoenix and finally reaching Long Beach, Calif., at the foot of the Queen Mary.

When the magic day finally arrived, millions of people simply stood with hands clasped for 15 minutes and sang, "We Are the World," "America the Beautiful," and the Hands Across America theme.

While it turned out to be a giant feel-good party, the coast-to-coast link was symbolic at best. The line of Hands volunteers passed through cities and forests, and over mountains. But in stretches of barren land, sometimes more than 100 miles long, yellow ribbon had to suffice.

Still, America rarely involves so many people in a single activity, and all along the route, you could see many sides of a country that truly is diverse, both in its land, and its people.

In Washington, Reagan and his staff were joined by Graham, Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton and Coretta Scott King.

In Iowa, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stood between a Motel 6 night manager and Mr. Goodwrench.

In Texas, migrant workers organized a 51-mile stretch.

In New Mexico, Hopi and Navajo tribesmen met in a hand-holding pow-wow.

In Pittsburgh's Three River Stadium, hundreds of Little Leaguers held hands with big leaguers as the line crossed the grandstand.

The Associated Press reported that five couples tied the knot that day while participating in the festivities, while another couple in Illinois rushed from a synagogue to join in the massive union.

"We chose our wedding date long before we'd heard of it," said the groom. "Our first thought was, 'Oh no! What will this do to the traffic near the temple?'"

P.S. My other DVD pick of the week: The Joey Reynolds DVD retrospective. Reynolds is a radio legend, and one of only three disc jockeys inducted into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame. Now, this 55-minute look at the last decade of his 40+ years on the radio -- available at -- captures the rollicking wit and variety of guest that have made him a coast-to-coast favorite, especially for cheesecake-loving night owls. Reynolds longtime pals -- comic legend Soupy Sales and jazz great Les Paul -- are among the featured celebrities. You can count me in as an F.O.J. ("Friend of Joey").

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.