To spend time at the Grand Hyatt hotel this week has been to recognize once again that the world is divided into two kinds of people. There are those who look at Barry Manilow and see a sallow little guy with a big nose and a bad haircut, and there are those who look at Barry Manilow and see ... Barry.
People in the first category classify Manilow as a sugary pop star -- something like Neil Diamond, only more so; when Barry Manilow croons, "I write the songs that make the whole world sing," Category One people grind their teeth and feel tantrums coming on. The women in the second category -- for they are almost all women, or girls -- speak of Manilow's music as a genre, an art form unto itself. They know all the lyrics; they have seen Barry in concert a minimum of 10 times; they know his official birth date (June 17, 1946) and what they say is his real birth date (three years earlier), and think the discrepancy is sort of cute. They will have you know that he is almost six feet tall.
Some 1,200 members of Category Two are in Washington now for the third major convention of the Barry Manilow International Fan Club (BMIFC), gathered to share the magic of what they call "Manilove."
These are some of the things that Barry Manilow fans do:
They hold a competitive "country fair," in which they enter memorabilia collections, photographs of Barry taken at concerts and original renderings of Barry in almost every conceivable artistic medium: paint, pastels, pencil, collage, even stained glass. They raise money for charity through such events as Barry "watch-a-thons," in which a participant gets friends and family to pledge a certain amount of money for each continuous hour she watches Barry Manilow videos. They play Barry Manilow trivia games, including a game based on "Jeopardy" known as "Jepo-Barry." They hold parties on his birthday. They hold reunions of the lucky women Barry has plucked from audiences around the world to join him on stage for a song called "Can't Smile Without You."
In the words of Paula Smolenski of Niles, Ill.: "We are loud. We are crazy. But we are harmless."
Beyond Barry Cathy Voss, 27, is director of the Australian chapter of the BMIFC. She and Elizabeth Cocking, 33, both from Sydney, spent an estimated $3,500 to $4,000 each to plan their holidays around the convention, which, after all, only comes around every other year. They wear T-shirts featuring the Australian flag, a kangaroo and the legend "Barry Down Under."
Also present are delegations from Japan, Britain, West Germany, the Netherlands and Canada. The latest country to create its first accredited international fan club chapter is Paraguay, though no one from Paraguay made it this year.
But most of the fans are from club chapters in the United States -- from such chapters as the Mystical Memories of Manilow BMFC of Mobile, Ala.; the Hoosier Friends of Manilow of Clinton, Ind.; the B Team of Orlando, Fla.; the Manilow Maniacs of Maryland; the Koala Bears of the Miami Valley (for reasons that should be obvious, Barry's name has given rise to a plethora of bear memorabilia and allusion); the Barry Manilow Admirers Gathered in Cincinnati (that's Barry M-A-G-I-C, an allusion to a song title).
The first thing most of them mention is friendship: They come to the convention not to worship Barry, they say, but to meet like-minded folk who happen to share a hobby.
Says Wilma Anderson of Huntington, W. Va.: "The music is what brings you together, but the friendships are what keep you together."
Janet Erwin of Charleston, W. Va., nods and agrees: "It's gone beyond Barry."
Consider the bulletin board in the delegates' lounge. Posted there are notes to and from pen pals who struck up epistolary friendships through Barry Manilow fan clubs and now hope to meet. One serves notice of a " 'Mandy'-tory" meeting of a club called the Bagel Beagles to finish plans for the club's display table -- an announcement that only begins to make sense when you know that "Mandy" is the title of one of the biggest early Manilow hits of the '70s, and that Barry has a beagle named Bagel.
Another note says simply, "Japanese girls from the last convention, I have pictures for you. Leslie." It begins to seem a lot like the first week of summer camp, when reunions are celebrated among last year's campers, and brand-new campers are provisionally welcomed.
But these are not "girls," most of them. Mindy Sue Tumarkin, at 24 the founder and president of the Hot Tonight for Barry Fan Club of Country Club Hills, Ill., puts herself at the young end of the Barry-fan age spectrum.
Carolyn Kalmus of Pompano Beach, Fla., is 45. She joined a fan club when she turned 40 and realized that it would be "much more fun than a midlife crisis."
Kalmus was presiding Wednesday over the display table of the newly formed club Manilove of South Florida, and distributing a sheet of cutout Manilow silhouettes with tabs that fold in to form a base (in order to achieve ballast, Barry lost his legs below the kneecap). Kalmus calls them "big-girl paper dolls."
Love That Barry For every fan who says that Barry is simply a shared enthusiasm -- it could as well be fly fishing, or building ships in bottles -- there is a fan who utters the word "love."
Paula Smolenski is one of those. At 25, Smolenski has a seven-volume Barry scrapbook. She has been to all three of the BMIFC conventions. Talking about Barry, over a matter of minutes her emotions run a visible gamut from mirth to passion to sadness -- the last of these, when she describes her fiance''s death in an accident two years ago. Barry Manilow's music, she says tearfully, is what got her through. "He was my psychiatrist for those two months," she says.
The more his fans describe what it is like to listen to Manilow's music, the more they describe a feeling that he is listening to them: Barry knows what you're feeling, Barry has been through it himself, Barry can tell you why you're blue. Says Hazel Bell, 31, of Texarkana, Tex., "It's musical acknowledgment. People die to get acknowledged, and he does that."
Another thing -- perhaps best expressed by one of the few males at the convention who came under his own steam, rather than under duress from his wife -- is Barry's ordinariness:
Barry is "somebody who's up there," says Craig Miller, a 22-year-old audit clerk from Arcadia, Calif. "Who's far enough away to be an idol, and close enough to be a friend."
The women, too, suggest that the Brooklyn-born Manilow is just enough of a schlub to stand as some sort of bridge between their real world and his achieved world of glamor and stardom and money. Carolyn McCullough of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., describes Manilow as "the average woman's man."
Smolenski expresses openly, if unknowingly, the larger paradox inherent in any gathering of fans. The convention, she says at one point, is "a chance to talk all about Barry and meet each other." But she also says what the swooning-est fans and the knowing-est critics have always said about the most magnetic male performers: "He makes you feel that he's only singing to you."
"I've known several girls who don't date because they think Barry is their one and only," says Trish Juechter of the Maryland Maniacs. Most of the fans say they know of such cases; none admits to being such a case.
Tumarkin, a 24-year-old computer programmer and graduate student, shrugs and says, "Oh, yeah, everyone teases, 'I'm going to marry Barry.' And I'm as guilty as the rest."
But it is only teasing, she stresses. "Our club treasurer is very happily married ... Her husband just has to understand that Barry holds a special place in her heart."
Waiting for Barry Twelve hundred is not a huge number of people by the standard of Washington conventioneering, and Barry Manilow fans would not appear to pose a terribly challenging exercise in crowd control.
But there is something rigid about this convention, down to the rule that no "delegate" will be admitted to any event unless she is wearing her regulation plastic bracelet, modeled after the ones that demoralize hospital patients the world over. It is as if the convention organizers shared the common misapprehension that all Manilow fans are teen-agers.
It is hard to tell just who the convention organizers are. There is a BMIFC central committee (as it were) in Los Angeles, which accredits the smaller clubs around the world; it is run by an entertainment management company called Stiletto, whose employes at the convention appear to borrow their manner from the company's name. Questions about the costs of the convention are not appreciated (though the fans themselves will cheerfully tell you they paid $165 each for registration, before hotel, meal and travel costs). Nor are questions about how many members the club has, or what the club does, or what Stiletto is, or even how many people have registered.
After all, they will finally tell you, this is a convention "by the fans, for the fans." One of them intones that "it just sort of happens by itself." (And because the character who has the official lock on memorabilia sales -- the avuncular "Madman Mickey" Morgan -- isn't giving any interviews, there is no telling what kind of profit just sort of happens into whose coffers.)
Organizers had planned plenty of summer-campy activity for the early part of the week, including a costume party and lip-syncing competition -- an event that made surprisingly little reference to Manilow. The costume theme was "the '40s, '50s and '60s," and strict taboos forbade the lip-syncing of Barry songs. Instead, groups of fans performed inventive renditions of such oldies and goodies as "Sandman" and "Working in the Coal Mine."
But this is all done in the name of killing time. The main events are a banquet, which took place last night, and a mysterious "Special Event," scheduled for this evening. In the past, these two events have been the locus for the favorite fan club mind game:
Will Barry come?
During the earlier conventions, Barry has been on tour in the vicinity and has come to both nights' events -- chatting with the fans after the banquet, and performing the following evening. Asked whether Barry is coming this year, employes of Stiletto slightly adjust their faces in the direction of a smile and answer, "You know as much as we do."
Early in the week, most fans responded to questions on this point with the motherly calm they muster for all questions that go to the thorny issue of reciprocity in their relationship with Barry. Of course they would understand if he couldn't come, they say; Barry is a very busy man.
But the mood grew a little ugly last night when Barry Did Not Come.
As the clock neared 1 a.m., some of the balconies that ring the Grand Hyatt atrium held handfuls of angry fans chanting "WE WANT BAR-RY," and "BAR-RY, BAR-RY."
Janet Godziszewski and Roberta Beck, three-time conventioneers from Illinois, were more genteel in their dismay.
"They never actually said yes, he's coming," said Roberta. "We just hoped."
"Yes," said Janet, "a lot of hope."
And with tonight's special event still to come, hope springs eternal.