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Dan’s Bake Sale: The weird weekend Rush Limbaugh fans took over a Colorado town

The radio impresario will be posthumously honored at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday

Radio host Rush Limbaugh on the set of “Meet The Press” in March 1993, about the time planning began for Dan's Bake Sale. (AP)

It all started with Rush Limbaugh’s somewhat snarky response to a caller, who lamented that his wife controlled the family budget and wouldn’t give him the $29.95 he needed to subscribe to Limbaugh’s newsletter. Could he have a free subscription, he asked the conservative radio impresario. Limbaugh, who will be posthumously honored at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday night, replied, “Why don’t you try a bake sale?”

Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio provocateur and cultural phenomenon, dies at 70

The snark wasn’t really meant for the caller. At the time — March 1993 — Limbaugh had been attacking President Bill Clinton for accepting donations toward the national debt from school kids who had held bake sales.

That might have been it, except that the caller was Dan Kay, a 24-year-old college student in Fort Collins, Colo. Through some combination of guilelessness, good humor and entrepreneurial spirit, Kay decided that, yes, he would in fact hold a bake sale.

Kay soon turned to local businessman Walter Huang for help. Huang had immigrated to Colorado from Taiwan in the late 1960s and owned a restaurant, China Dragon, where Kay’s wife worked.

Huang was also a big Limbaugh fan.

“He was fun to listen to, pretty entertaining, and he would talk about the conservative movement,” Huang said in a phone interview. “So anytime I was in the car, I was listening to his radio show.”

(Full disclosure: This reporter was raised in Fort Collins, and her favorite childhood restaurant was China Dragon.)

A date and venue for the bake sale were secured: May 22 in the small Front Range city’s recently redeveloped Old Town Square.

Limbaugh, who lived in New York City, jokingly hyped the bake sale on his show. But then callers started telling Limbaugh they planned to make the trek, some from great distances, and asked Limbaugh if he would be going, too. Other fans purchased billboards on highways heading in the direction of Colorado: “Rush to Dan’s Bake Sale,” they read, with unauthorized photos of Limbaugh doing a thumbs-up.

Richy Lynn, a Fort Collins teacher who was 12 years old at the time, remembers being excited that “this famous conservative was coming to this small town.” Lynn’s dad was a big Limbaugh fan and wanted his son to witness a historic event. But Lynn was confused about why exactly it was happening.

“Looking back on it, it seems almost insulting, like he’s telling the guy, ‘Hey, lazy, have a bake sale and have some self-respect,’” he told The Washington Post. “I remember even at 12 thinking, ‘Man, that’s kind of rough, telling a grown man to have a bake sale.’”

A group of fans from California chartered a “jumbo jet” to bring them to the bake sale, Huang remembered. Others chartered buses or drove in long caravans from other states. Some even flew in from England and Guam. Lynn’s dad took back roads to get as close to the square as they could, then walked “forever,” Lynn said.

But what exactly were they coming for? To make fun of Clinton? Or Kay? Or to sincerely help him? There were no musical acts, no other performers, and Limbaugh wasn’t making any promises about his appearance either. In some ways, it was an early glimpse of what Trump rallies became decades later — a chance to be among the like-minded, chanting, chatting and hoping for a glimpse of their angry and wealthy hero.

Longtime conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh succumbed to terminal, stage four lung cancer on Feb. 17. He was 70 years old. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Estimates vary about how many Limbaugh fans showed up, from 35,000 to 250,000. Most likely it was around 80,000 — meaning the city doubled in size that day.

Kay ran out of cookies within minutes and then started charging $6 a pop to take a photograph with him, according to the Coloradoan. The town square could only hold a fraction of the crowd; vendors wandered around downtown hawking “Impeach Hillary” stickers and other right-wing merchandise. Limbaugh, who had dubbed it “Rushstock ’93” and “a conservative Woodstock,” had flown into nearby Denver to join the festivities, but like Woodstock, there was a traffic jam on the interstate many miles long, blocking his path to get there.

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Then, as if by Woodstock-ian cue, it began pouring rain on the crowd. No muddy piles of orgiastic dancers though, just thousands and thousands of middle-aged men in golfing clothes, waiting for their hero.

“It was all men. I don’t remember a single woman down there,” Lynn said.

Limbaugh was eventually flown in by helicopter (just like Jimi Hendrix!), which Lynn saw flying over the crowd, not understanding if Limbaugh was on it or not.

The moment he finally took the stage, the rain stopped and the clouds parted, Limbaugh later claimed. The crowd cheered and cheered. Meanwhile, Kay was just offstage, freaking out.

“Dan was pretty nervous to go up there,” Huang said, so Huang offered to go up with him. Huang had even baked a giant fortune cookie with a note inside welcoming Limbaugh to Fort Collins, which he hoped to present it to him, but Limbaugh’s bodyguards wouldn’t let him through.

“So I gave the fortune cookie to Dan and told him to bring it up,” Huang said. “He was fully shaking.”

Onstage, Limbaugh asked Kay if he had the $29.95 check for the newsletter, which Kay did, along with a giant fortune cookie. Limbaugh thanked himself for the bake sale idea, then thanked the crowd and encouraged them to talk to each other and enjoy themselves before returning to the helicopter and flying away. He was there for fewer than 10 minutes.

“I don’t remember anything from his appearance, to be honest. I just remember thinking, ‘That’s it?’” Lynn said. The only frame of reference he had for something big happening in his hometown was two years earlier, when Thomas Sutherland, a Fort Collins resident who had been a hostage in Lebanon for six years, was released. There had been a parade, speeches and a celebration at the college basketball stadium; Sutherland and his wife even sang a duet.

By contrast, Lynn said, “[Limbaugh] was in and then out, and I do remember that feeling, like, ‘Is he too good for his fans?’ ”

Huang said he was satisfied to be within 10 feet of the radio host, though “when he has five or six bodyguards, there’s no way you can get close to him.”

As for Kay, he collapsed. “It was emotion overload,” Kay told the Coloradoan. “I just sat sobbing for 10 minutes.”

In a show immediately after the event, Limbaugh gave the “liberal media” credit for fairly covering it. “The only thing that was, I think, not properly reported was the size of the crowd,” he said, in a bit of conservative foreshadowing that seems almost too on the nose.

In 2017, Limbaugh recounted the bake sale with some trademark embellishments and unkind language for Kay, saying that because Kay hadn’t baked enough cookies for everyone, “he blew an opportunity” and that “Dan’s elevator didn’t go to the top floor.”

And he insulted the city, saying the stage was “nothing more than a horse excrement platform in the center of town that was elevated by about three inches.” It was actually a raised stone performance area with a cover and a fountain.

Limbaugh also bashed Kay and Huang’s later efforts to capitalize on bake sale fame. They traveled the country for several years selling Dan’s Bake Sale-branded merch; Huang estimates they made $20,000 to $30,000 on the venture, some of which they donated to charity.

Kay later moved to the Pacific Northwest, and they fell out of touch, Huang said. Calls and texts sent to a number associated with Kay went unanswered.

Huang, now 78, doesn’t keep up with politics much these days — “the political parties now fight each other too hard,” he said. But he still considers himself a Limbaugh fan, and upon hearing of his death Wednesday, he sent photos and newspaper clippings of that fateful weekend to his kids on the family group text.

He still has some Dan’s Bake Sale merchandise in storage, he said. “Maybe it’s time to put it on Facebook or eBay?”

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