The deal maker from L.A., temporarily 10 time zones away from his power base on Sunset Boulevard, is personally picking the bones out of his Fresh Rainbow Trout Grenobloise in the Brasserie of the Mount Kenya Safari Club.
Back in L.A., the restaurants he frequents serve boned fish, which saves time and keeps his fingers clean. But this is Africa. Allowances must be made. And a few greasy fish bones sticking to the deal maker's fingers cannot alter the fact that the man is in his element. He's having lunch, tossing around a few concepts, dropping names, greeting celebrities, thinking long-range.
"I have a new client and it is Africa," says Ken Kragen, manager of Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie; executive producer of the "We Are the World" recording, the video and the HBO television special; president of USA for Africa and impresario of the charity organization's current whirlwind tour of famine country. "I treat Africa just like I treat any of my clients."
At lunch with Ken Kragen, described in his own press releases as "one of the most recognized and formidable personal managers in the entertainment industry," a look at Africa's future begins with a loving look back at Kenny Rogers' past.
"Think about how many careers have sustained the kind of longevity at the top that Kenny Rogers has," Kragen says. "Where is it written that careers have to fade? Let's analyze why entertainers cool off. You sustain by always giving people more than they expected. Let me give you an example. We put out a Kenny Rogers greatest-hits album that had 12 cuts instead of the usual 10. I have sustained careers longer than anybody believed possible. That is my game plan here in Africa.
"When something is this big, as Africa is right now, it can cool off quickly. The way I am going to keep that from happening -- it's the same thing I do with careers -- is every couple of months there is an event that keeps the Africa thing alive. I always think long-term. I have never gotten into any career for the quick buck. It is the same for Africa."
Hold those thoughts.
Strolling into the Brasserie, as Kragen talks and picks trout bones off his fingers, is Harry Belafonte. Belafonte is off to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in a few minutes and has just popped in to say goodbye. "Harry," Kragen says, waving him over. They shake hands. "Harry, I've got to compliment you on your answers to those political questions. They were just perfect. I've got them on tape and I can't wait to play them back."
Before lunch, Belafonte, Kragen and other members of the USA for Africa entourage -- resting in Nairobi after five days in Ethiopia and on their way to Tanzania and Sudan -- held a well-attended press conference upstairs in the Mount Kenya Safari Club. Facing a skeptical international press corps that asked questions designed to ensnarl USA for Africa in Ethiopia's byzantine politics of famine, Belafonte, as well as Kragen, came off very well indeed.
"I don't want anybody to feel that we have come here as five-day experts," Belafonte told reporters. "We did not go to Ethiopia on a political fact-finding mission. We did not go there to sort out the military confrontations and the affairs of the Ethiopian government. The children we saw in the camps were not holding guns, the women we saw in the camps were not carrying hand grenades. Our job was to, despite whatever the conditions, try to bypass all of the negatives and get to the positives -- that is, to save lives."
Kragen added: "Our attitude was, 'You don't on the first visit to someone's house attempt to rearrange their furniture.' "
It was an impressive, self-deprecatory performance by non-experts on Africa who, due to the soaring popularity of a charity song sung by 45 big-name American pop stars, now control one of the largest private pots of African relief money in the world -- about $50 million, with more money rolling in daily.
Belafonte, Kragen and Marty Rogol, a longtime Washington lawyer, hunger publicist and executive director of USA for Africa, managed to say all the right things to the African-based journalists who have spent much of the past six months chronicling the shortcomings in Africa, and especially Ethiopia, of the quality of international mercy.
The USA for Africa officials said they would not establish their own bureaucracy in Africa, but rather would funnel money to specific projects run by the best and most experienced relief agencies. They said they would divvy up the millions among immediate relief for food and shelter; intermediate relief for seeds, tools and fertilizers; and long-term projects aimed at revivifying Africa's withering farm economy. They said they do not pretend to understand the complexities of Africa's problems. Rather, they said, they would simply try to keep the world's attention -- and its money -- focused on the continent's misery.
All of which circles back to Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie and lunch in Nairobi with Ken Kragen and his keep-Africa-hot concepts.
Kragen, 48, a Harvard Business School graduate and son of a Berkeley law professor, appears an unlikely savior for famine-blighted Africa. One of his USA for Africa associates describes Kragen as looking like Howdy Doody in gold-rim glasses.
He is a thin, six-foot-tall, slightly stooped man with green eyes that seem swollen as viewed through the thick lenses of his glasses. He does not smoke, does not drink, jogs and makes ethical allusions to old episodes of the "Lou Grant" show. He calls Stevie Wonder "Stevie," Quincy Jones "Quincy" and Michael Jackson "Smelly," a teasing nickname derived from Jackson's squeaky-clean public image.
Kragen started in the L.A. promotions game by setting up a Kingston Trio concert in 1967. He moved on to the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell, and then in the 1970s, there was long-term mega money in (who else?) Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie. The Los Angeles Times reports that Kragen's personal management company, Kragen & Co., owns an entire city block on Sunset Boulevard, along which runs some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Since December, Kragen figures, he has donated $1.1 million worth of his premium-priced public relations savvy to USA for Africa. He calls the famine aid program the most exciting promotion of his life and says he fears it is taking over his business and his life.
It was in December that Harry Belafonte telephoned Kragen and said he wanted to do a benefit concert for the starving millions in Africa. Remembering the disappointing net proceeds of past benefit concerts, such as the 1971 concert for Bangladesh and the Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) concerts in 1979, Kragen persuaded Belafonte that a benefit record, with video spinoff possibilities, was a better way to raise big money.
Inspired by the charity recording "Do They Know It's Christmas" by Band Aid, a group of British pop stars, "I said to myself, 'Let's find a way of doing it bigger and better,' " Kragen says. "I called Lionel and told him about the idea, and he told me he and Michael Jackson were going to try to write an anthem for our times, something that is really universal.
"Anyhow, 36 hours after Belafonte called, I called him back to say I have a song written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, produced by Quincy Jones . . . For the singers, I went to the record charts and started at the top. If you want to get something done, you can't frump-frau around. I should say that I lost a lot of friends among those singers who weren't asked to be on the record."
But the making of the smash hit record, the video, the hour-long HBO special (in which Kragen appears briefly) is rock history. And here in Africa, Kragen says it is the future that interests him. "I cannot afford to pat myself on the back," he says at lunch. "My job is to keep the ball rolling."
The trip to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan, he says, is all part of his keep-the-ball-rolling concept. He freely acknowledges that there are much cheaper ways to deliver 240,000 pounds of relief aid than to charter, as USA for Africa did, a Boeing 747 for $293,000. But it's not the aid, it's the symbolism -- "you need to demonstrate your ability to deliver" -- that Kragen says is the key to keeping the American public enthusiastic about giving money to Africa. In the future, he says, USA for Africa will use the cheapest transportation available.
Each stop on the group's three-week trip was picked for its symbolic value, Kragen said. Ethiopia because "it is the country where most of the publicity about aid not getting there has come out," Tanzania because "it has a longer-term development project and that is a major part of our mix," Kenya for the press conference and Sudan because "we want people in the U.S. to know that the famine is not just in Ethiopia."
Looking into the summer, fall and winter, Kragen says, "What we have basically done is set up a series of continuing events, different from each other. You can't repeat yourself."
Kragen has arranged an advertising campaign with full-page ads reading, "We're still about 200 million voices short," to run free of charge in Reader's Digest, Life magazine, the Los Angeles Times and other publications, including the Bloomingdale's catalogue. In September there will be the Kenny Rogers World Hunger Media Awards at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In November, "a major network television event" that Kragen says will include coverage of the current trip to Africa. Finally, says Kragen, "we are looking to do something for Christmas Eve. That is the perfect timing. We will do something completely different."
Kragen, who somehow managed to place Lionel Richie as the centerpiece of the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics, adds that if interest in Africa starts to flag, he has untapped reservoirs of media-grabbing events at his disposal.
This USA for Africa tour is noticeably short on box-office appeal. Only Michael Jackson's older brother Marlon made the journey and he flew home last weekend. Kragen says Kenny Rogers didn't come because he is finishing a television movie, Lionel Richie is finishing an album and Michael Jackson didn't come because "if he did we wouldn't have been able to move."
"You need to save those resources for when things start to slow down," Kragen said. "You don't want to blow it all in one shot."