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Culture Schlock

Halvor Elvik wants balloons. The Norwegian foreign correspondent has jetted to Phoenix after covering President Clinton's State of the Union address, and he's been instructed to submit an article about the building excitement for the city's first Super Bowl. It will be Elvik's first Super Bowl, as well. And he wants to see balloons.

He doesn't mean the blimps that menaced downtown for days. Elvik's looking for the kind of balloon that might be found at a party. "I need to see the people indulging themselves in celebrations," he says as he sets out from his home base at San Carlos Hotel.

He writes for Norway's third-largest daily newspaper, Dagbladet, which, when Elvik pronounces it, sounds vaguely like "Dog Planet."

Although Norway has only about four million people--roughly equivalent to Arizona's population--it supports about twice as many newspapers. Elvik says that's because, until recently, Norwegian television has been so bad. Now that the country has been invaded by cable, Norwegians demand explanations of the strange American customs and rituals that play out on their TV sets. So Dagbladet sent its American correspondent to describe the corporate orgy breaking out in the Valley of the Sun. Elvik is one of more than 150 foreign journalists who will cover the game.

Elvik had been introduced to the Arizona mindset right away. On the cab ride from the airport, he struck up a conversation with the driver, a retired cop who had migrated from New York to Phoenix.

"He said the weather was nice and the people were easygoing," Elvik says. "And he said everybody was armed, so people tended to be nice to each other. It was a useful warning to get. I became certain to behave during my stay."

Wary of gun-toting Arizonans, but armed only with a tape recorder and two cameras, the tall, 48-year-old Scandinavian scribe makes his way to Phoenix Civic Plaza.

It doesn't take long to see that the NFL Players Party happening there is a scam. Adoring fans pay $12 each to stand six deep behind a waist-high barrier, staring hungrily at well-dressed football players who sip drinks under a transparent tent. Interaction between the fans outside and the players inside the bubble is minimal.

The sheer determination of the celebrity-mad American fans amazes Elvik. "They are all waiting just to see someone. It's weird," he says.

There's other stuff to do besides wait for football players to come and go. Like line up to buy tee shirts. Or $3.50 beers. At least the Sega video games are free.

"This isn't a party," says Elvik. "It's a sales pitch."
He's surprised that people are enjoying themselves. Maybe that's why he starts out each interview with the same question: "Are you enjoying this?"

The third person he interviews, however, beats him to the punch.
"Are you enjoying your stay here?" Elvik is asked by a grinning Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza. And why shouldn't Rimsza beam? The number of celebrities per square mile has reached obscene proportions. The mayor's town is on display to mostly rave reviews. But Elvik isn't lobbing softballs; he bores in on Rimsza: "Mayor, I read in a Chicago paper that a one-horse town like Phoenix doesn't deserve to host an event of this scope and importance. What is your reaction to that?"

Rimsza doesn't miss a beat, waxing poetic about the growth of his town. Growth so stupendous that it often frightens him.

"Is he a professional politician? I mean, in his background?" Elvik asks after taking the mayor's snapshot.

The reporter moves on to a young couple bedecked in Steelers gear and toting a duffel bag filled with footballs. The pair is hoping to get the balls covered in Steelers' autographs, but so far it's only managed two signatures, neither a Pittsburgh player.

With the scarcity of players, signature-hungry fans are turning to the lesser lights--sportscasters wandering the grounds who look vaguely familiar. Every new person walking by is scrutinized carefully.

Even Elvik isn't immune. "Would you sign our footballs?" two middle-aged Mesa women ask the startled Norwegian. Giggling like schoolgirls, they hold out toy balls and colored pens. "You want my signature?" Elvik asks, confused.

The women explain that it had become obvious they weren't going to get near any football players. So (after the beer had kicked in) they decided to ask attractive men to sign their footballs.

Elvik blushes as he signs.

Belgian sportswriter Patrick Cusse, covering his third Super Bowl, has his own Mayoral Moment.

Sitting in The Tonight Show audience Friday night, Cusse, 31, watches as a warm-up comedian identifies the Phoenix mayor and asks Hizzoner to perform a striptease onstage for a tee shirt.

"He took off his jacket, then his tie, then his shirt. Then he was like half-naked dancing around, and then they gave him a tee shirt. Somebody in the audience shouted, 'Well, he's reelected!'"

Cusse laughs, saying, "Maybe it was a look-alike, but everyone said it was the mayor."

Cusse writes for De Morgen, a Flemish-language newspaper printed in Brussels. He's been to Phoenix in the past to cover the NBA All-Star Game, and he's come to the conclusion that American sports reporters are basically stupid.

"American sportswriters, most of them, they only ask questions that they know the answer to. Half of the questions start with 'How important is it that'..."

During Friday's taping of The Tonight Show, Cusse says, an American sportswriter is sitting in front of him. "He went completely mad. Standing up, shouting all the time, fists in the air, shouting, 'I love you, Jay.' And I was thinking, 'How can I ever take something seriously that you're writing?'"

On January 26, 240,000 Norwegians open their morning edition of Dagbladet to find a special two-page spread.

Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza circulates among the people at the NFL Players Party inadvance of the Super Bowl. He tells Dagbladet that his only concern is to have a good time. "I'll let others talk figures and profit. My only concern is that people will be proud of their city."

"That's my translation of the lead, in Don King's English," Elvik says that night. He explains that he tried to convey the prevalence of corporate silliness.

"I'm not used to that hard a sales pitch. But Americans seem to be much more immune to that. It's one of the things thatpuzzles me. I did a reference to the sales pitch when I wrote that Diana Ross was doing a halftime show named after the sausage of Oscar Mayer. And in Norwegian, there was a nice double meaning there."

Friday night finds Elvik looking for more indulgence, and his search for balloons takes him to Jungle Cabaret not far from his hotel. The strip club has advertised NFL Players Party Night, and many of the patrons are wearing official Super Bowl XXX hats and shirts while they watch nearly naked women gyrate.

Thanks to television, Elvik says, American culture has displaced some of the folkways of his countrymen, which alarms many native Norwegians. But lap-dancing has yet to make it across the Atlantic.

Elvik's never seen it before.
Seated football fans are paying lithe young women to move seductively over them, imitating the movements of intercourse and oral sex without making actual contact. The men, some old enough to be the dancers' fathers, sit ramrod stiff, never flinching in their part of the strange ritual.

"The girls are working hard," Elvik says, "and it's all an illusion. It's weird. I'm amazed."

It's a trait that many of the Super Bowl ceremonies seem to share. Whether it's simulating the game of football itself at the NFL Experience or suggesting that one can hobnob with celebrities at a party downtown, it's illusion that the natives seem more than willing to pay for, and it fascinates the Norwegian writer.

Not enough, however, to pay for a lap dance of his own. After a half-dozen scantily clad women ask if they can dance for Elvik, he excuses himself, shaking his head. "I don't see how the men can sit so still. I think I would be embarrassed," he says with a laugh.

Americans consider themselves the chosen people. They call their country the leader of the Western World. But only a minority seems to be interested in matters outside the United States. The first thing you miss as a Belgian is a decent news program. Especially when you're here during Super Bowl week. I haven't heard the words "Bosnia" or "Palestinian" once since I've been here.

Patrick Cusse says that's how the lead of his story translates, more or less. He's buried the game's outcome several paragraphs down, knowing that his Belgian readers will be less concerned with the score than Cusse's observations about fan behavior.

That unlike Belgians, American sports fans don't sing during the game, for example. Or that they shout obscenities at each other without any intention of coming to blows. Or that Cusse spotted three fans peeing in sinks and trash cans, and all three were wearing Steelers shirts. In his article, Cusse wonders if it's something they do regularly in Pittsburgh.

Elvik, on the other hand, remarks in his article that seeing Diana Ross carried away in a helicopter made him think about the Vietnam war.

Cusse, who compared Ross' voice to the squeal of a pig, finished his article by noting that the new Pepsi commercial featuring Deion Sanders was chosen as the best during the Super Bowl. Naturally, the announcement was made during a local newscast.


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