Nothing that's happened in Lake Havasu City since March 13--the official beginning of spring break, MTV-style--came as much of a surprise to anyone. That's not to say things were uneventful, though.
A miniriot took place on the beach after shots were fired in a confrontation between a pistol-packing spring-breaker and a group of skinheads.
There was the apparent drowning of a Scottsdale man after the houseboat he inhabited collided with another, throwing him into the water.
A waterfront hotel lost some furniture when kids decided they needed a bonfire on the beach.
And a single-engine plane developed engine trouble and had to land on Highway 95 near town.
And, of course, there is the trash. It is in the eerie, hung-over quiet of morning that the damage becomes most apparent. Despite the efforts of lionhearted sanitation crews--which venture along its length twice a day--the beach is a constant mess. Every square foot of sand is covered with something:
Crumpled beer cans and cigarette packs.
Half-empty cans of Easy Cheese.
Hotel furniture scraps.
Torn-off bikini tops.
In any other smallish, snowbird-packed Arizona town, death, fire, airplanes plunging from the heavens and extreme environmental degradation might spook the natives. But not here. Here, most people look at the deal that brought MTV to Havasu--a deal that all but invited broad-scale havoc--as a needed boost to the city's image, not the end of life as they know it.
Most of the service workers who populate this area full-time--and even winter-only residents--are willing to hold their noses and smile for the cameras. With a few vocal exceptions, everyone seems to feel that Doritos-fueled, Budweiser-drenched, hormone-driven, televised bacchanalia is just what a town with fecal coliform problems needs.
And maybe it is. Maybe--just maybe--Lake Havasu City and MTV are greedy and tasteless enough to be made for each other.
Lake Havasu City was designed by C.B. Wood Jr., whose most famous other creation was Disneyland. Wood was commissioned by Robert P. McCullogh (of McCullogh chain saw and outboard-motor fame) to design on the banks of the dammed-up Colorado River a playland of huge and profitable proportions.
Of course, it never actually became huge, and there were too many retirees and snowbirds for it to qualify as a playland, but eventually, Lake Havasu City did become and remain reasonably profitable.
Until last year.
As hotel owners and chamber of commerce types tell it, one more summer like the last one and the town would have been finished. That type of fear may account for the speak-no-evil pose many locals strike when asked about last summer's problem. The pollution problem, that is.
"Don't ever use the 'p' word," one local business owner says. "That's what the chamber of commerce people told us."
The chamber also reportedly told locals not to use the "t" word, either. "Turd."
Tourist-based business owners say the town's economy was decimated last year by reports of turds washing up on the normally pristine Havasu beaches. In fact, elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria, rather than actual clumps of human waste, were found in the lake. But it may as well have been turds.
Two of the lake's busiest beaches, the very beaches on which drunken kids now cavort, had to be closed. No broken sewer pipe or other sewage-treatment problem was found at Havasu, and both local and state water experts have been puzzling ever since about what caused the problem. The bacteria levels are lower now, but nobody knows for how long.
The front pages of the town's two newspapers over the past few months give a good idea of how seriously locals take the situation.
"Answer to bacteria hidden in fruit?" one recent headline asked. The accompanying story posited that the town's water woes could be solved by an extract of grapefruit seeds, massive amounts of which could be dumped into the affected waters.
Other possible fixes:
"Good" bacteria that will eat the "bad" bacteria.
Large amounts of salt placed on stricken beaches.
For the past two weeks, the Havasu air had been electric with anticipation, as the coliform-transfixed populace awaited results of a NASA overflight of the lake. Space-age technology to the rescue.
But NASA and fruit and salt all have to do with the "p" word and the "t" word. The Lake Havasu Visitor and Convention Bureau is interested in the "m" word. The type of m that lots of well-heeled visitors and conventioneers bring.
So last month, the bureau hired B.J. Communications, a Phoenix public relations firm, to help restore Lake Havasu City's sullied image. No final price tag has been set, but the PR campaign is expected to cost a lot of m. Something like $300,000.
But money alone can't buy enough PR to save Lake Havasu City, and canny local movers and shakers know it.
That's where MTV and spring break come in.
When some local residents expressed shock at their city fathers' efforts to lure MTV to Havasu, they were told to relax: MTV's spring-break activities would be the calmest and best-controlled of the season. Mayor Dick Hileman pledged his efforts to help kids "party smart," and was quoted in the local press as saying that he didn't want to "send any more kids home in caskets."
The city formed an MTV Task Force to calm snowbird jitters. A Van Halen concert was scrapped because of noise concerns (the show was replaced, inexplicably, with a performance by feel-good schlockmeisters Up With People). Furthermore, MTV executives explained to residents that: They were only there to tape a few shows.
No drugs or alcohol would be allowed on the sets. Network stars would tape "party smart" spots to air on local radio.
Once the Havasu gentry's collective blood pressure dropped to normal levels, though, it became apparent that MTV actually had adopted the Eddie Haskell approach to managing college kids. Producers and publicity minions made a big noise about partying safe--whenever the grown-ups were around. But the network stars who preached responsibility and moderation on the radio talked a somewhat less abstemious line after Ward and June left the MTV compound.
"Who got fucked last night?" Chris Hardwick, host of Singled Out, a Dating Game-style show set to begin airing this summer, howled at about 200 kids gathered to watch one taping. When his query elicited excited screams and animal noises from the beery crowd, he spat back, "Aw, you lying bunch of. . . ."
More Hardwick preshow chatter:
"Who got shitfaced last night?"
"Who got stoned last night?"
"Who slept in the back of a truck last night?"
And, of course: "Who woke up with a stranger this morning?"
Behind the curtain of feel-good, party-smart MTV PR, rumors, intrigue and disappointment began swirling with the first day of spring break '95.
MTV personality and notorious booze hound Pauly Shore was supposed to have been thrown out of one bar on a Thursday, another bar on a Friday and yet another bar on a Saturday. He reportedly went back to Los Angeles on Sunday, immediately after taping his show Chillin' With the Wiez, on which he interviewed Buns of Steel video model Tamilee Webb.
Meanwhile, MTV honchos were definitely underwhelmed by the charms of Havasu.
Producers and executives grumbled about crowds that numbered no more than a couple of hundred kids at many tapings. The weather earned complaints, too. Although the first two days were sunny, clouds settled in over the weekend. Eventually, Havasu was so windy, stagehands had to take down the VIP tent, fearing it, along with the catered food and various members of the press inside, might blow away in a maelstrom.
The low-key demeanor of the retirees and snowbirds who make up the rest of the town wasn't exactly what MTV had hoped for, either. Whenever the network sent a camera crew out to catch a little local color, all it got was video of:
Old people in convenience stores.
Old people at banks.
Old people in bars.
The reality of MTV was less wonderful than a lot of locals had hoped, too.
The star-struck ones sniffed that MTV personnel were snooty and hipper-than-thou; the few out-of-the-closet MTV haters said they had told you so; and some merchants complained that business didn't pick up as much as they'd hoped.
The chamber of commerce professed to be pleased.
"We are absolutely thrilled with what MTV did here," gushed Betsey Hoyt, a spokeswoman for the chamber. "We think that the network brought over $1 million into the city while they were here, and that doesn't include all the exposure we're getting. We're ecstatic."
Before the 1995 taping started, MTV was planning to return to Havasu for the next four spring breaks. Last week, a banner headline in the local newspaper said this about that:
"MTV will be back, definitely--maybe."
Hanging with the college kids at Havasu's spring break is like hanging with zombies from Night of the Living Dead.
These kids have trouble focusing their eyes.
They can't stand in one place without falling over.
They are not capable, for the most part, of answering questions about anything as complicated as fecal coliform bacteria.
Rudimentary instructions, however, can be followed--provided they are spoken slowly and clearly. Some often-heard simple commands include:
"Hold still for a picture."
"Get the hell off my houseboat."
"Show us your tits."
And: "Lay down here and let us make a sculpture of you."
For most of one afternoon, two guys from Alaska had been asking female passers-by if they wanted to be sculpted in the sand on Lake Havasu Beach. They hadn't found many takers. Within a few minutes of meeting Gina, however, they knew they were on to something special.
Gina had the two most important attributes for a spring-break beach model, maybe the two most important attributes for a female spring-breaker in general:
A very drunk, compliant attitude.
And, most critical, substantial breasts. Breasts that stood straight up and out from her chest, even as she lay sprawled on her back in the sand.
The sculptors, thrilled to have a model at last, busily set about reproducing Gina's form in the sand.
A crowd of onlookers gathered, and their collective temperament seemed to shift from amused to predatory. A few of Gina's friends sitting nearby got fidgety, especially when a young man wearing a coyote-skin hat sat down next to her and began lightly touching her stomach. They called to her from outside the tightening circle, but she kept smiling and shook off their concern.
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Within minutes, at least 40 young men had crowded around in a ring perhaps ten feet wide, watching as one of the Alaskan guys straddled the sculpture's belly, caressing the sand-Gina's breasts as if they were real. Gina looked up at him and smiled, shifting her weight slightly so she could have a better view. As more people had stopped to watch, the scene had grown quieter and quieter, unnervingly so.
Finally, a large male friend of Gina pushed a few onlookers aside and plucked her away. The crowd broke up with disgruntled mutterings about how things were "just getting good."
Gina and friends wander off into the late afternoon. Night--and more drinking and screaming and fighting and loud music from the houseboats--follows. Party Smart shuttles ferry toasted masses of students from the bars in town to the beach. Things finally quiet down at about 4:30 a.m.
The next morning, the beach is quiet and filthy.