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Arsenio Hall picks up where he left off on late night

Arsenio Hall -- with then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton

Arsenio Hall -- with then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton playing the saxophone with the band in 1992 -- hosted "The Arsenio Hall Show" from 1989 to 1994. Credit: AP

A flashback.

Make that a very distant flashback -- to May 27, 1994.

"I'd like to thank America," said the gifted, black late-night host in a sharply bespoke suit -- mauve, if memory serves, however dimly -- on the last night of his celebrated show, where he liked to say "Hollywood meets the 'hood."

"But most of all, I'd like to thank God: This has been the greatest five and a half years anyone could ever hope for." Then, turning his eyes to the camera, this:

"I won't see you in 23 hours, but I will see you again."

Promise kept.

Arsenio Hall returns with a new late-night show beginning Sept. 9, airing locally on WPIX/11 at 11. In a recent phone interview about his hopes (and dreams) for this return, Hall almost reflexively said, "I don't need to be on the cover of Time magazine, but I'd love to just be in the game."

About that magazine: On Nov. 13, 1989, when such coronations really mattered, Time crowned Hall with a cover declaiming him the coolest kid on the late-night TV block. "The Arsenio Hall Show," which launched Jan. 3, 1989, had brought an urban beat and party-every-night vibe to a moment of the TV day that been dominated by Johnny Carson and his sensibilities for nearly three decades. About 4 million tuned in every night, denting Carson's "Tonight" ratings and even -- if you believed some of the hype at the time -- accelerating his retirement plans. Hall's show didn't feel like an alternative as much as a movement, to bring black culture into an all-white club. Studio audiences loved it. So -- for a time -- did audiences at home.

Then, on May 27, 1994, the party ended. Hall had it all, then lost it all -- unless you count a few episodes of "Martial Law," assorted cameos and a "Celebrity Apprentice" victory over the intervening years as "found."


Why did he leave Stage 29 on the Paramount lot in the first place, and why is he back on another stage? (The new show will be taped at the Sunset Bronson Studios in Hollywood.) The saga is complicated, but it's also clear that the answers to both questions are related. Hall thrived, then left as the tectonic plates of late-night TV shifted. They are about to shift once again. Jay Leno will leave "Tonight" in February, while the future of "Late Show With David Letterman" -- though certainly secure for now -- is a question. Audiences tend to check around when hosts change; that was true in the early '90s, and it still holds true.

As Hall said recently, "Obviously, back in the day, I was trying to take anything that was left over on Carson's plate. It's a huge challenge this time to bring people to the television. But I [also] know that everybody doesn't have a late-night host."

Born in Cleveland 57 years ago, Hall early found an aptitude for magic, debate -- and comedy. After graduating from Kent State, he headed west -- first to Chicago, then Los Angeles, in search of a stand-up career, and landed at West Hollywood's Comedy Store, one of the premiere venues for budding and established comics, and where former club MC and future "Hall" writer Steven Alan Green recalled Hall as someone with "incredible positive energy."

That energy landed him gigs on TV -- including a voice on the animated kid hit "The Real Ghostbusters" -- and ultimately Fox's "The Late Show," where he was the show's last host before it was canceled in 1988. While there, he established some of the late-night trademarks, notably the audience's "woof woof" arm pump, that were to become signatures of his next late-night show. (The "dog pound" -- comprising particularly enthusiastic woofers on the stage near the house band, the Posse -- came later.)


Fox wanted him to stick around, but after "Late Show," Hall signed a deal with Paramount to star in Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America." After that, Paramount created his late-night syndicated vehicle, which Hall was prescient enough to secure an ownership stake in. It was an instant success: He embraced black culture, especially rap, which secured its most important TV venue, after "Soul Train" and "American Bandstand," to date. Salt-N-Pepa, Arrested Development, Queen Latifah as well as Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, Tupac Shakur and Ice T were all frequent guests. For a brief moment, the show was believed to be Paramount's most financially successful TV venture, a $40-million-a-year machine.

Then, those tectonic plates shifted. CBS, which launched Letterman's show in '93, pulled "Arsenio" off some of its own big stations for the new venture. (Fox did the same with many of its stations for "The Chevy Chase Show" in the fall of '93.) "Arsenio" ratings, which already had been dropping, plummeted. Relations with Paramount went from bad to worse, with the nadir when Hall booked Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for a full hour in February 1994. Hugely controversial for perceived anti-Semitic views dating from the mid-'80s, Hall pressed Farrakhan on nothing. Paramount execs were incensed, and Hall, as the relationship fell apart, was embittered. Hall now insists there was "never anything negative" in the split, but that he told Paramount, "I needed balance in my life. Not only personally, but professionally. I wanted to try other things.

"I'm from Cleveland. I grew up down the street from Jim Brown. He left while he still could play. That was cool to me as a kid. So leaving and not being canceled, yeah, that sounded good."

There is the slightest irony to the new show: It will be produced by CBS, which catalyzed his doom all those years ago. And when asked about bookings, the new show's executive producer, Neal Kendall, will say only: "We have a few things up our sleeves."

Don't expect Farrakhan, though Hall has joked (or maybe not) that he'd like Beyoncé and Jay Z's baby, Blue Ivy Carter, as a guest.

What else to expect with his new show, beyond the standard late-night talk elements? Maybe -- just maybe -- some of that old Hall magic. He's got a band headed by Robin DiMaggio, a top session drummer who has recorded with Diana Ross and Paul Simon. He's also got a studio audience that will doubtless woof -- but no "dog pound."

"Being in late night is very much like running for an office," says Hall. "Basically, what I do is just assert my personality, and you hope people will hang with you a couple nights a week."

Kendall, who says Hall "looks 35 and still has the same energy and passion for doing this," will mount a very similar show with similar elements, "but it won't be a nostalgia trip.

"He said to me that 'I just want to make it feel like I took a really long weekend and came back and picked up right from where I left off.' "

Memories from the first time around

Five and a half years yielded more than a few memorable moments from "The Arsenio Hall Show" (1989-94). Here are six:

Candidate Bill Clinton plays "Heartbeak Hotel" on his sax, in one of the most memorable moments of the 1992 campaign. It was followed by a thoughtful Q&A about voter apathy, and a discussion of the deep-seated problems of South Central Los Angeles, parts of which were still in ruins after recent riots.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan -- immediately after repudiating anti-Semitic remarks made by an aide -- agrees to appear on the show, but the resulting hourlong edition turned out to be a skate for Farrakhan.

Hall berates representatives of Queer Nation, who, as audience members, shouted out questions over why he did not have gay guests on the show. "Now, this ain't Merv [Griffin] he shot back. I ain't gonna run from it." And then he lost his temper: "You think I didn't have someone on the show because they're gay? What's wrong with you, man? I'm black."

Jim Henson is a guest on the show in early May 1990 -- shortly before his death on May 16. This was believed to be one of his last TV appearances.

Muhammad Ali is interviewed by Hall, while Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson make surprise appearances. Who -- Hall asks Ali -- would have won had Tyson and Ali stepped into a ring? Ali points to Tyson.

Magic Johnson, in his first late-night TV interview shortly after revealing he was HIV-positive, appears in 1991.

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