You hear her voice first. “Tell me when I can start? Right now?”
It is 25 years later and still, the night Roseanne Barr sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Padres game remains the stuff of legend. The shrieking. The crotch grab. The President of the United States calling her out. Barr’s National Anthem attempt just might be the most viral moment of the pre-viral age.
And the incident is still raw. But after considerable e-nudging this week, she agreed to answer questions about the moment, explaining – perhaps more clearly than ever– how she found herself in the center of Jack Murphy Stadium screeching her way to infamy.
“I was singing in my act at the time – and I am a good singer – I was flattered and fully intended to sing a good version of the song,” she writes.
Just days before the doubleheader, Barr appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Johnny Carson, the king of late night, offered a nugget of advice to Barr, the “domestic queen” of America’s highest-rated television show.
“Whatever you do, don’t start too high,’” she remembers Johnny telling her. “Robert Goulet started too high and it was a disaster.”
So what happened?
“I started too high. I knew about six notes in that I couldn’t hit the big note. So I just tried to get through it, but I couldn’t hear anything with 50,000 drunk a—— booing, screaming ‘you fat [expletive],’ giving me the finger and throwing bottles at me during the song they ‘respect’ so much.”
Quick reminder: At the time, Barr’s deadpan delivery and fresh take made her an icon for working-class mothers everywhere. Her recent marriage to small-time comic Tom Arnold, though, seemed worrisome.
How exactly Barr got in front of thousands of Padres fans that day remains foggy. For years, people have pinned it on then-team owner Tom Werner, whose company produced “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show.”
But Werner, now part owner of the Boston Red Sox, informed me this week that the idea came from Andy Strasberg, then the team’s vice president of marketing. Strasberg, when I reached him, wiggled like a Phil Niekro knuckler. He spent more than a half hour trying to avoid confirming, denying or explaining Werner’s account.
Strasberg did say that he had his concerns. He first pitched that Barr perform “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” That rejected, he suggested Barr pre-record the anthem. That, too, was rebuffed. By who? Strasberg, naturally, won’t say.
“To me, the focus should be on what transpired on the field,” says Strasberg.
“I watch that tape a lot,” says Barr’s son, Jake Pentland, who was 12 at the time and standing in the Padres dugout. “Mostly because I know my mother and I know how embarrassed she was. I can see the panic in her face about two or three notes in. This one little frame of terror. I laugh so hard because I think a lot of people, at the moment, would just stop and try to do it again. But she sang every note.”
She did. Other, more experienced singers, have struggled more. But what Barr delivered at the end of her performance, after a particularly drawn out, screeching “FREEEEEEE,” is what likely put POTUS on the case. She grabs her crotch, spits to her right and walks off with arms raised, as if drawing power from the boo-birds.
Was she mocking the flag? Was she taunting the fans? No, she says.
Barr had a plan. This was the era of “The Naked Gun” and “Major League,” when mocking ballplayers for their nasty habits became comedy gold. She says that some of the Padres suggested, pre-performance, that she punctuate her Anthem with the grab. They thought it would be hilarious. Instead, in the aftermath, two Padres veterans in particular – future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn and pitcher Eric Show – slammed her act as insulting.
Reds reliever Rob Dibble was in the other dugout. He says he always got the joke.
“When I saw Roseanne Barr, I knew she would try to do something funny. If Amy Schumer were to sing the National Anthem today, she would put her own comedic twist on it,” he says.
Barr concedes that her comedy timing was thrown off by her vocal meltdown.
“Had it gone better, I would have taken a longer beat between singing and the ‘tribute’ to baseball players,” she writes. “But at that point, I just wanted to get out of there.”
With good reason. Calvin Schiraldi, the Padres game two starter, looked out from the dugout and saw the normally sedate San Diego fans fuming.
“They were like fire ants,” he says.
Bonnie Bramlett, the singer who was playing a waitress on “Roseanne,” watched in horror at home.
“I wanted to crawl through the television and grab that little girl out from that nightmare that she made for herself,” she said.
And Roseanne was terrified.
“[Jake] was sitting in the audience I was concerned he would get hurt,” she said. “I sent cops to retrieve [him] and we flew home in the Padres private jet. ‘We’ve got your back, don’t worry,’ is the last thing the Padres and Tom Werner said and I never heard anything from the Padres or Tom Werner after that … When I got home and turned on the news, the newscaster was saying, ‘She’s lucky she got off the field with her life.”
It got worse. President George Bush, on Air Force One, slammed her performance as “disgraceful.” George Will called her a “slob” and referenced her misdeed along with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Keith Olbermann, then a local reporter in full “Revenge of the Nerds” regalia, offered an on-air editorial complete with cheap chubby jokes. Arnold organized a mess of a press conference. Barr eventually had to issue a public apology.
“I went to school the next day,” says Jake. “I got to hear that my mother hates America and ‘I hope she dies.’ She was really distraught. She wouldn’t leave the house.”
Barr says today that it took her years to move past San Diego. In 2011, with the help of Bramlett, she performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” quite beautifully at a local girls’ softball game for her reality show, “Roseanne’s Nuts.” She also conducted a playful rendition, a year later, as part of a roast on Comedy Central.
I asked Barr if she regretted showing up that day.
“Do I regret that the next day all of my projects were cancelled and I had to have LAPD stand on my roof and protect my life and my kids for two years?” she wrote. “Do I regret not being able to go out in public for about one full year without being spit on-in restaurants, 7-Eleven? Do I regret Rolling Stone selling t-shirts with my picture in the middle of a gun target during Desert Storm? Do I regret that every ‘feminist’ in Hollywood ran the other way when they saw me at Hollywood functions, to avoid taking a picture with me? Do I regret my cartoon, “Little Rosey, the only female protagonist for children being cancelled despite good ratings and replaced with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”? Do I regret President George Bush 1 calling me disgraceful on television as he unleashed Desert Storm? Do I regret not one person in Hollywood defending me? Do I regret becoming aware of the toxic anti-Semitism in this country thru the dozens of death threats I received?
“Actually, no, I don’t regret any of it,” she continued, noting that it helped her re-connect with Judaism and find her way out of her marriage with Arnold. She has also performed the National Anthem since then, without any issues.
“I’m glad that I still love to sing.”