Rotary in popular culture
Johnny Carson did his first paying gig at age 14, using his mail-order magic kit at a Rotary club meeting in his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska, USA.
Back to the Future
A cheery “Welcome to Hill Valley” sign, bearing the Rotary emblem, greets visitors in 1955 and 2015 to the fictional California, USA, hometown of Michael J. Fox in the Back to the Future trilogy. But in the dystopian alternate 1985, the gearwheel has vanished. Strip clubs and brothels have replaced the town’s businesses, crime is rampant, the school has burned down, and toxic smog billows from factories along Main Street. A vandal has defaced the sign, which now reads “Hell Valley.”
City-limit signs with a Rotary emblem are a favorite Hollywood device for establishing a small-town ambiance. Many are real: In Wayne’s World, Ben (Rob Lowe) passes the Aurora, Ill., sign and the gearwheel on his way to visit Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey). Others are fictional, including the sign for Canaima, Calif., in Steven Spielberg’s Arachnophobia and for Tibet in Freakazoid!, a mid-90s animated TV series also produced by Spielberg.
Fond childhood memories of Rotarian relatives inspired Mark V. Olsen, cocreator of the award-winning HBO series Big Love, to incorporate Rotary throughout the first season. As Bill Henrickson, played by Bill Paxton, schmoozes at a political fundraiser in episode 5, a councilman tries to place him. “Rotary,” Henrickson says. “I spoke at Rotary.” The man’s face lights up with recognition.
Henrickson inhabits two worlds on the show, which ran from 2006 to 2011. In one, he is a polygamist who grew up on a compound and now has three wives. In the second, he is a hardworking, conscientious suburban dad and the well-liked owner of a home improvement mega-store – the type of man upstanding city leaders want in their Rotary club.
“Early on, we wanted to embed Bill Henrickson in the trappings of a successful, prosperous small-business owner in a progressive suburban setting,” Olsen explains. “Rotary and Rotarians have always represented that for me. This would create the sharpest possible contrast with the darkness of his childhood roots on a polygamist compound.”
When Olsen was a boy in Oregon, USA, in 1965, “a very successful uncle and aunt drove out from Massachusetts in their brand-new Cadillac to visit,” he recalls. The uncle, Frank Erskine, had just been elected president of the Rotary Club of Brockton. “It all seemed very important and exotic and admirable to me,” Olsen continues. Another uncle and small-business owner became president of the Rotary Club of Hastings Sunrise, Neb., in the 1970s.
But Olsen formed his most powerful impression of Rotary in Guatemala, where he lived during the turbulent 1980s. “One August afternoon, in the midst of the rainy season, a small parade passed by my bedroom window, down the cobblestone streets,” he says. “It consisted of a single, small float carrying Miss Rotary Club of La Antigua and her court, followed by a man pushing a wheelbarrow holding a noisy generator that powered the float’s lights and bubble machine. The clouds opened up, the rain began to pour, and the handful of spectators on the streets ran for cover. But the float continued on, Miss Rotary and her court drenched to the bone, mascara running, crepe paper streamers melting away, but smiling and waving down one empty street and into the next.
“And that,” says Olsen, “summed up my admiration for Rotary: In the midst of the bleakest circumstances, come rain or shine, there is a quiet resolve, a soft-spoken mission to make the world a slightly better place.”
In The Bodyguard, the 1992 film written by Lawrence Kasdan, Kevin Costner plays a former Secret Service agent, Frank Farmer, hired to protect pop singer Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) from an unknown stalker. The movie’s final scene takes place at a meeting of a large, prominent Rotary club in Iowa Rapids, Iowa, USA, where Frank has moved on to his next assignment: guarding a mafia-fighting Presbyterian reverend.
The town is fictional, but the props are genuine: Rotary International staff created the club’s banner, which hangs on the wall, and provided 100 lapel pins and name badges. During the last scene, staged at the elegant Crystal Ballroom in the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, the camera zooms in on tables of men and women in business attire. “Our speaker this evening, the honorable congressman from the fifth district, Galen Windsor, has been a lone, courageous voice,” the Rotary club president announces from the head table. “He alone has challenged those who have linked organized crime with legitimate business throughout our state.” The reverend steps forward to give the invocation. All bow their heads except for Frank, who scans the room, a Rotary flag prominently displayed at his side.
Can't Hardly Wait
Can’t Hardly Wait, a 1998 teen film starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, shows yearbook entries for the main characters. Super-achiever William Lichter’s includes dozens of accomplishments and organizations: among them, valedictorian, founder of the Junior Harvard Club, state spelling bee champion, Dead Romance Language Club, Klingon Language Club, and – years before Rotary International and Bill Gates teamed up to fight polio – Rotary Club and the Bill Gates Society.
Carson and Martin
Born 20 years apart, Johnny Carson and Steve Martin rank among the most prominent and influential comedians of their generations. Both got their start performing magic acts at Rotary clubs. Billing himself as “the Great Carsoni,” Carson did his first paying gig at age 14, using his mail-order magic kit at a Rotary club meeting in his hometown of Norfolk, Neb., USA.
In his 2007 autobiography, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, Martin – who also writes novels and contributes to the New Yorker – recalls honing his performance skills as a teenager at Rotary clubs in Southern California for $5 a show. “Later in life, I wondered why the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary Club, comprised of grown men, would hire a fifteen-year-old boy magician to entertain at their dinners,” Martin writes. “Only one answer makes sense: Out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Catch Me If You Can
Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can is based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., who, while a teenager in the 1960s, impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, and an attorney and forged US$2.5 million in bad checks before authorities apprehended him in France.
Near the start of the film, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) watches with admiration as his father (Christopher Walken) addresses the Rotary Club of New Rochelle, N.Y., USA, in 1963, after becoming the 58th person in club history to receive its lifetime membership award.
The honor loses its allure for young Frank, when a few scenes later he discovers that Rotary club president Jack Barnes (James Brolin), who presented the award, is having an affair with the boy’s mother. Frank becomes suspicious when he finds Jack visiting his mother and spots the man’s Rotary pin on the couch.
Frank served five years in prison but was released after agreeing to help the FBI. He spent 30 years as a prominent antifraud expert in Tulsa, Okla., and repaid the full amount he stole. He moved recently to Charleston, S.C., where he has become a community fundraiser and motivational expert specializing in the power of redemption. “I would like to do whatever I can to help out,” he told Charleston magazine. “When I look back 40 years ago, I’m not fascinated by what I did. To me, the important part is that I turned it into something positive and productive. That says so much about our country, that it gives you a second chance.”
In the 2011 movie Cedar Rapids, naif Tim (Ed Helms), in town for his first insurance industry convention and trip away from home, celebrates a team-building win with a glass of cream sherry. Seasoned sales rep Joan (Anne Heche), knocking back a stiffer drink, shows him a family photo:
Joan: That’s my hubby. We met when we were Rotary exchange students in high school. Lived in Norway for a semester.
Tim: You’ve been to Norway?
Joan: Yeah. Then we got married when we were sophomores in college, and then kids. So this, Cedar Rapids … is my fantasy land.
In the 1963 film Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, bad guy James Coburn wanders through an outdoor market where merchants are selling rare stamps – including one from Monaco that commemorates the 50th anniversary of Rotary, in 1955.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The ever-abrasive Larry David, star of the HBO mockumentary Curb Your Enthusiasm, tries to get into an exclusive country club. Dressed in a navy blazer and red, white, and blue tie, he talks about his “schooner” at the interview and impresses the men by mentioning that he is a Rotarian.
The 1990 Dick Tracy film starred Warren Beatty, Madonna, and Al Pacino as villain Big Boy Caprice, who proclaims: “We will become the people’s silent partner. Every time some citizen buys a pound of hamburger, we get a nickel. Every time some guy gets a haircut, we get a dime. We’ll dress like bankers, join the Rotary club. Together we will own this town.”
Anyone asked to sell tickets to a fundraiser should consider the tips implied in the 2009 dark comedy Extract, written and directed by Mike Judge. Joel (Jason Bateman), the melancholy suburban owner of a flavorings company, is forced to hide repeatedly from Nathan, a neighbor who is determined to bring him and his wife to a Rotary club benefit dinner. Joel declines with polite and vague excuses, but the man cheerfully buys the tickets anyway and then pursues Joel for the money:
Nathan: I think I mentioned that they were $40 apiece. Well, as it turns out, they’re a tad more this year – $55.
Joel: I told you that we really didn’t want to go to that thing. Don’t you remember that?
Nathan: I know you said something about Suzie feeling uncomfortable, but like I say, she won’t feel uncomfortable at all. She could wear a pantsuit, if that’s the issue.
Some of the most biting words of fiction about Rotary come from British author Helen Fielding, who jabs at the suburban bourgeoisie in her best-selling novels Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. (The films, co-written by Fielding, make no mention of Rotary.) A sample entry from The Edge of Reason describes a call from Bridget’s mother: “[Wellington’s] speech at the Rotary was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Do you know, when he talked about the conditions the children of his tribe live in Merle Robertshaw was actually crying! Crying!”
Bridget’s response: “But I thought he was raising money for a jet ski bike.”
Frontline, an Australian comedy TV series, ran a two-part episode in which host Mike Moore and the producer try to take all the credit when Rotarians bring a young boy from Papua New Guinea to Melbourne for a lifesaving operation.
John Grisham, who got his start by pitching his first book to library clubs in small towns across southern Mississippi, USA, mentions Rotary in two of his novels. In The Bleachers (2004), he describes two former high school football stars who meet near the field where they won their youthful glory. One of them observes, “You’ve put on some weight.” The other replies, “I’m a banker and a Rotarian, but I can still outrun you.”
In The Pelican Brief (1992), Grisham writes: “[Supreme Court Chief Justice John Runyan] made no effort to hide his anxiety. Working from a confidential FBI summary, he read the names of individuals and groups suspected of threats. The Klan, the Aryans, the Nazis, the Palestinians, the black separatists, the pro-lifers, the homophobics. Even the IRA. Everyone, it seemed, but the Rotarians and the Boy Scouts.”
The fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, USA, is filled with vampires, witches, werewolves – and good Rotarians, according to the books that inspired the hit HBO series True Blood. In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, Sookie Stackhouse (played by Anna Paquin on television) explains a breakup with her boyfriend: “I would never see Bill in the sunlight. … I’d never call Bill at the office to ask him to stop on the way home for some milk. He’d never join the Rotary, or give a career speech at the high school, or coach Little League Baseball.”
While on tour promoting her newest bestseller, The Sookie Stackhouse Companion, author Charlaine Harris recalled: “In my small hometown, the women of the church fed the Rotary when they met. I was roped in to help when I was in my late teens and early 20s. My mother gave me the terrifying job of pouring the coffee and water, which meant I had to reach between men I’d grown up revering. I was always afraid I’d drench a Rotarian.
“I remember being impressed by the goodwill among the men. When I say the word Rotary, I think of the dusty community building, the sight of the men I knew gathering together shoulder to shoulder, and the feeling that all was right with the world.”
Thomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs, describes a Rotarian in Hannibal Rising, the story of serial killer Hannibal Lecter’s early years: “Petras Kolnas came onto the terrace with his family, dressed for church. Kolnas’ suit was of inky new broadcloth, a Rotary pin in the lapel. His wife and two children were handsome, Germanic-looking. In the sun, the short red hairs and whiskers on Kolnas’ face gleamed like hog bristles.”
Published in 1961, the novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller introduced the character Yossarian, a rebellious World War II bombardier who is thwarted by bureaucratic red tape. The book, which sold 10 million copies, found a receptive audience among opponents of the Vietnam War. Reflecting their perception of Rotary as a conservative organization that defended the status quo – or simply making use of an easy rhyme – the slogan “Better Yossarian than Rotarian” became a popular bumper sticker.
Ward Just mentions Rotary in Echo House, his Washington, D.C., saga published in 1997: “He remembered his mother’s description of the old senator, Senator Misogynist … his days spent on the floor of the Senate and his nights in the card room of the Metropolitan Club. Summers he traveled in Europe. April and May he spent in the State … cultivating roses and visiting American Legion halls and Rotary Clubs so that he could stay in touch with his ‘people.’”
Author Stephen King says he was inspired to write The Library Policeman after giving a speech at a Rotary club. In this novella, the local club invites upstanding insurance agent Sam Peebles to talk about “The Importance of the Independently Owned Business in Small-town Life.” At the library, he borrows some books, which he forgets to return and then accidentally destroys. The librarian, a phantom, sends the “library police” to terrorize him.
King of the Hill
Hank is outraged when his son, Bobby, doesn’t want to dress up as a cheerleader in “Powder Puff Boys,” a season 12 episode of the animated show King of the Hill. “Down at a Rotary club meeting, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a former powder puff cheerleader,” he explains. Hank lists all the big names in the fictional town of Arlen, Texas, USA – all Rotarians, all former powder puff boys – and Bobby relents.
In the 1976 version of King Kong, sleazy oilman Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) tells Dwan (Jessica Lange, in her first film): “I promise you’ll never get another booking in your life. You’ll end up tap-dancing at Rotary clubs.”
“This is absurd. I’m not in a prison gang. I’m in the Rotary club,” a jailed character pleads on the television drama Leverage, starring Timothy Hutton as Nathan Ford. Ford’s agency plants evidence to make him talk in “The Lost Heir Job,” which aired in 2009.
Two popular British TV shows feature a Rotarian in a lead role. Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby (John Nettles), a club member in the fictional town of Causton, often wears a Rotary pin on Midsomer Murders. Fans of the long-running detective series A Touch of Frost know that Superintendent Stanley Mullett (Bruce Alexander) is a regular at Rotary club meetings.
Dunder Mifflin, the paper company that employs Michael Scott (Steve Carell) in The Office, was founded by Rotarians. While holding an impromptu employee seminar on ageism in the workplace, Scott, the branch manager, hauls out the company’s surviving cofounder, Robert Dunder. The elderly man begins a rambling story about how he met the other founder back when they were members of a Rotary club. Scott cuts him off and sends him out of the room.
Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 satire, Babbitt, is responsible for planting a perception of Rotarians as selfish and superficial.
The novel tells the story of George Babbitt, a shallow character who works in real estate and makes his perfect life in Floral Heights, an affluent neighborhood in the fictional Midwestern city of Zenith. In the opening pages, Lewis describes Babbitt getting himself ready to face the day: “Last, he stuck in his lapel the Boosters’ Club button. With the conciseness of great art the button displayed two words: ‘Boosters-Pep!’ It made Babbitt feel loyal and important.”
In 1928, Lewis said, “I have been accused of saying nasty things about the Rotarians, but I assert that the growth of Rotary in Great Britain, where it already has hundreds of chapters, is more important for world tranquility than all the campaigns of the reformers put together.”
But the damage was done. In 1934, The Rotarian determined that the best tactic was to persuade Rotary’s critics, who also included Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken, and George Bernard Shaw, to write for the magazine “on most any subject except Rotary, about which they knew little,” recalled editor Leland Case. All but Lewis agreed, so Case traveled to Vermont, USA, and confronted the author at his summer home. “Who the hell’re you?” said Lewis, who was in his pajamas. But he would soon write a note with a far different tone: “Dear Mr. Case: It was pleasant to see you here and you made me approve of Rotary.” He later agreed to contribute. “With such prestigious authors in the magazine,” Case said, “it became easier to lure others, including Andrei Gromyko, Orville Wright, and Albert Einstein.”
And Rotary founder Paul Harris noted that the criticism helped the organization as it worked to define itself. He even had kind words for Shaw, who had dismissed Rotary. (“Where is Rotary going?” “Rotary is going to lunch.”) Harris said, “Thanks for your stimulating and perhaps timely reminder, Mr. Shaw.”
On Supernatural, a CW show about two demon-fighting brothers, Dean and Sam, a town descends into hell without Rotary. In the 2007 episode “Sin City,” a friend of the brothers says, “Let’s just say the demons are possessing the people in this town.” Dean asks, “Anybody else that fits the profile – nice guy turned [expletive] that’s still breathing?” “There’s Trotter. He used to be head of the Rotary club. Then he turned [expletive] all of a sudden. Brought in the gambling, the hookers. He practically owns this whole town.”
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Through the miracle of Technicolor, Rotary gets a shining nod as an American institution in the 1949 Busby Berkeley production, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra star as a double-play combination during the summer and a vaudeville team during the off-season. The rousing final number features Kelly, Sinatra, Betty Garrett, and Esther Williams crooning about things that are as American as baseball: “Like a Rotary club soiree/Like Masonic halls or firemen’s balls/Like honeymooning at Niagara Falls.”
Waugh and Updike
Evelyn Waugh works Rotary into the 1938 satire Scoop through newspaper magnate Lord Copper: “‘I am in consultation with my editors on the subject. We think it a very promising little war. A microcosm, as you might say, of world drama. We propose to give it fullest publicity. The workings of a great newspaper,’ said Lord Copper, feeling at last thoroughly Rotarian, ‘are of a complexity which the public seldom appreciates.’”
Rotarians also take a hit in several books by Paul Theroux and many New Yorker short stories, as well as the Rabbit series by John Updike: “The thing about those Rotarians, if you knew them as kids you can’t stop seeing the kid in them, dressed up in fat and baldness and money like a cardboard tuxedo in a play for high-school assembly. How can you respect the world when you see it’s being run by a bunch of kids turned old? That’s the joke Rabbit always enjoys at Rotary.”
Author Joe McGinniss is among those who appear to have amended their views over time. In 1980, he wrote Going to Extremes, about a year he spent in Alaska, USA. He describes some Alaskan pipeline workers as “flower children who wanted to get rich. Hippies with Rotarian hearts.” More than 30 years later, McGinniss, who returned to Alaska to write The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, reflects: “Some of my best friends are Rotarians. I particularly admire Rotarians for their high ethical stands and common-sense approach to problem-solving.”
Widely regarded as the first integrated American comic strip, Wee Pals began syndication in 1965, later appearing in more than 100 newspapers worldwide. The kids in Morrie Turner’s strip discuss topical issues with lighthearted wisdom. A native of Oakland, Calif., Turner was named an honorary member of the Rotary Club of Oakland in 1998. Rotary has appeared in several Wee Pals strips. “What Rotary is all about, I’m all about,” Turner says.
The West Wing
In October 2001, in the third episode of season 3 of the popular NBC series The West Wing, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) refers to a congressional subcommittee chair with ties to the tobacco lobby as “a fat-a**ed Rotarian gasbag.” But that wasn’t the first time a TV show made reference to the size of a Rotarian’s posterior. In the 29 March 1990 episode of L.A. Law, attorney Stuart Markowitz uses the expression, sans the “gasbag.”
And in the original script of the 1998 film Enemy of the State, the wife of Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) calls a politician she is watching on a TV talk show “a fat-a**ed Rotarian gasbag.” The screenwriter for Enemy of the State was officially David Marconi, but he had an uncredited partner: Aaron Sorkin, creator and executive producer of The West Wing. In the movie, the line became “fascist gasbag.”
Sorkin’s West Wing jab so infuriated Rotarians that they mounted a letter-writing campaign. Sorkin responded with a letter of apology, in which he said the comment was “rude, thoughtless, and utterly inappropriate.”
He followed up with a scripted apology six episodes later, via presidential aide Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), who talks with a pair of visitors from Capitol Hill:
Tom Starks: By the way, Josh Lyman shouldn’t make jokes about Rotarians. They’re good people.
Sam: He feels bad about that.
Tom: They volunteer their time even though nobody’s got enough of it.
Sam: He’s gonna apologize.
Tom: I’m a Rotarian. My dad’s a Rotarian.
Sam: My dad’s an Elk.
Tom: Elks are OK.
Sam floats the idea of a national seatbelt law, to make up for an earlier joke by the president about seatbelts. The visitor says the Democratic national leadership doesn’t do “damage control for the president.”
Sam: I think it’s about more than damage control. Only 68 percent of drivers are wearing their seatbelts. We get that up to 90 percent, and we save 5,000 lives a year.
Tom: We’ve done driver safety. We’ve done food drives. We’ve done physical fitness.
Tom: The Rotary club.
Sam: He really is gonna apologize, Tom. OK, well then, this is a shorter meeting than I thought it would be. Thanks.
Tom: You won’t catch a Rotarian not wearing a seatbelt. An Elk, maybe.