Fans of TV Show Flock To Festival To Meet Cast, See Squad 51
Contributing Writer, via Firehouse.com
Thousands of people basked in bright sunshine and memories Monday (May 15th, 2000), celebrating the TV show “Emergency!”. A day-long festival held at the Hyattsville, Maryland Volunteer Fire Department outside Washington, DC brought together cast members, memorabilia, a marching band, and classic fire apparatus – including the fully restored Squad 51 used during the show’s seven year run. The event was sponsored by Firehouse.Com.
The event coincided with Governor Parris Glendening’s declaration of May 15th as “Emergency! Fest” Day in the state of Maryland. The official proclamation saluted the men and women of the EMS profession, saying “the exemplary commitment of these dedicated individuals to saving lives is a positive legacy of this nation’s history.”
The festival was a featured event on the “Project 51” national tour, a public education campaign marking the 30th anniversary of emergency medical care in North America and spotlighting the critical role “Emergency!” played in promoting EMS and the fire service. “Project 51” will culminate with the donation of several items used on the show to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Two modern-day ladder trucks towered over the crowds at “Emergency! Fest”, and those attending had ample opportunity to see rescuers in action, as members of the Hyattsville Fire Department frequently dropped their duties at the festival to respond to several emergency calls throughout the day.
Organizers estimate at least a thousand people were waiting when the event opened at 10:00 AM, and the crowd continued to swell throughout the day. The line of fans stretched the length of a sidestreet leading up to the firehouse.
Amy Canales proudly showed off her scrapbook of photographs, mementos, and images downloaded from the Internet. The Clarksville, Indiana woman arrived on the line at 7:30 with her mother, stepfather, and four-year-old son, and with a purpose:
“To see Randy!” she cried. “He’s my favorite.”
Meeting Randolph Mantooth, who played firefighter/paramedic Johnny Gage on “Emergency!”, was a hi-light for many of the people at “Emergency! Fest”. Fans collected autographs from him, as well as from fellow cast members Tim Donnelly, Marco Lopez, Ron Pinkard, and Mike Stoker.
The men signed everything from photos and t-shirts, to lunchboxes and “Emergency!” board games, all emblazoned with images of the popular 70’s show. All say they are awed by the loyalty of the show’s fans.
“We were just a bunch of young men going to work everyday,” says Mantooth, who has participated in several Project 51 events leading up to the festival and sits on the organization’s board of directors. “To see all this, all these people, is humbling and gratifying.”
“So many years after the show ends, you wouldn’t believe it possible,” says Ron Pinkard. “But there’s some sticky material with this show, something with socially redeeming value and not just entertainment.”
Many fans cite the camaraderie of the cast as a reason for the show’s success. “It came through on TV, and you see it still today,” says Barbara Yultzer of New Jersey. “We’re finding all the cast members to be very sweet.”
Still others feel a special bond with the show because it inspired them to choose a career in the fire service or EMS. “I grew up watching it with my dad, who was also a firefighter. Now, I watch it with my son,” says Peter Bates, a career firefighter of four years with the Norfolk, Virginia Fire Department. “He learns a lot about what I do.”
“It’s the one thing I hear most often from the people I meet, that ‘I became a paramedic because of you and the show,'” says Mantooth.
At a “Project 51” event in Las Vegas earlier this spring, members of the City of Las Vegas Fire Department were thrilled to learn cast member Marco Lopez now calls Nevada home. “I have a standing invitation to come to the firehouse some night and cook for the guys,” he smiles, “and you bet I’ll do it.”
Perhaps no one is more touched by these stories than Mike Stoker, a career firefighter with the Los Angeles County Fire Department who was cast on the show as a member of the fictitious Station 51. “I know through my experiences what these guys go through,” Stoker says. “I have a special feeling for them, and they have the same for me. And that’s how it should be.”
Stoker remained on the job during the show’s run, and continued his career after it went off the air. Very often, he says, visiting firefighters would call the LA County dispatch center to find out where he was working and then come to his firehouse to meet the “real” firefighter from “Emergency!”. He retired from the fire service in 1994 after 30 years.
Stoker thinks the “Emergency!” fervor may be winding down. “It couldn’t get any better than this!” he laughs. “But someday, the reruns (on the “TV Land” cable network) will stop showing. Until then, it’s fun.”
What may keep interest alive is the Internet. Hundreds of tribute web pages, newsgroups, and chat rooms are devoted to the show. Yultzer sports a bright red t-shirt with the address of one newsgroup – alt.tv.emergency! – and says the “Emergency! Fest” has finally allowed her to put faces with some of the many names she chats with on-line.
Amy Huffman of Newton, North Carolina is one of many attendees wearing a badge announcing her membership in the “Gage Brigade”, another fan group which has flourished thanks to the Internet. “There may be hundreds of us here,” she says.
Huffman professes a lifelong interest in the show, calling it “a little bit of my childhood that I’ve been hanging on to. Now that I’ve met my heroes, I hope I don’t have to give it up!”