Erny Fannotto's resume is, by his own account, a testament to small-fry fame. For 39 years Fannotto was one of New Jersey's premier golf pros. During the Sixties, after moving to Miami, he served for several years on the city's zoning board and did half a dozen hitches as a judge at local dog-racing tracks. More recently the cantankerous 86-year-old has become a fixture at any and all county meetings, where he carries out his role as president of Dade's Voters and Taxpayers League by lambasting the nincompoop spendthrifts who pass these days as civic officers.
A thankless job, naturally, and one hardly conducive to national prominence. But on the evening of September 22 a collection of high-power television executives from around the nation gathered in Anaheim's swanky Pan Pacific Hotel to watch Fannotto in action. As his beak-nosed form flickered across a huge overhead screen and began berating commissioners in that inimitable, phlegmy yelp, the assembled higher-ups whooped approval. Fannotto had finally hit the big time. Had he but known.
The clip -- an outtake from the live broadcast of a September 1990 Dade County budget hearing -- was featured at the sixth annual Government Programming Awards, an evening of frivolity organized by all those wacky cable TV channels responsible for broadcasting public meetings. More precisely, Fannotto's scene placed second in the show's "Video Blooper" category.
"The awards are sort of like a typical Emmy Award show, only with more government categories," explains Jeff Peel, executive producer of Metro-Dade Television (Channel 34). "The only category that's off-center is the bloopers, which is a new one intended to kind of lighten things up.
"Typically you don't run into a lot of funny moments in government TV," Peel observes. "Even the winners of some of the categories at the awards were not exactly scintillating television." One need look no further than Metro-Dade's own spate of top finishers to grasp Peel's point. These included rousing segments on nurse recruitment (first place), hurricane preparedness (first place), and a half-hour behind-the-scenes special on life at Metrozoo (third place).
Viewed in this context, Fannotto's cameo assumed the aura of a breathtaking debut. The scene opens with what appears, at first glance, to be a routine budget hearing. Glassy-eyed commissioners are running through an interminable list of citizen speakers. Suddenly the air turns electric. Erny Fannotto has taken the microphone. Clad in a red-and-white checkered sport coat and green tie, his snow-white hair neatly combed, Fannotto hangs on to the podium like a dangerous Christmas ornament. His face is a mask that screams "URGENT." Though lacking in stature (he tops out at five and a half feet in wing tips), his presence draws stares. Mayor Steve Clark -- like most politicians a long-time Fannotto target -- watches, eyes hardened into spiteful raisins.
"I'm 60 on the list and you've called about 80 people," Fannotto shouts. The mayor, in no mood for shenanigans, quickly essays a pre-emptive strike. "You called in on the 29th day of August. These people called in on the 20th day of August," he says, waving a list menacingly. "Have a seat, sir."
Were Clark addressing some frail-winged gadfly, such bellowed histrionics might work. But not with Erny Fannotto, a man who has attended more meetings than all the current commissioners combined. Clark, by now booming, again orders him to take a seat. Fannotto doesn't budge. Somewhere deep within the bureaucratic crevices of government-sponsored television, they are still talking about the scene that ensued:
Clark: Have a seat sir --
Fannotto: Tell me something else --
Clark: Have a seat sir, please.
Fannotto: No, I want you to hear this here, cause this is an emergency. I have to go to the bathroom and your people won't let me go.
Clark (confused): Well, go ahead to the bathroom.
Fannotto: You know what they said (grabs microphone). You can't get back in! Clark (more confused): The door open --
Audience: Ha ha ha ha.
Fannotto: You can't get back in! They won't let you back in!
Unseen Clerk (soothingly): I'll let you back in.
Clark (dismissive): Okay, get him to the bathroom.
Fannotto: It's been that way for an hour! That's the kind of bidness we're operating here in Dade County!
Fannotto is led away by a large man, presumably the aforementioned clerk. The audience applauds. More laughter is heard. As he exits Fannotto addresses the crowd.
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Fannotto (muffled, but angry): I wouldn't laugh if I were you. I wouldn't laugh if I were you.
Clark: You know, this beats What's My Line.
Hard as it may be to believe, Diane Culpepper, a coordinator of the Government Awards program, says the Fannotto imbroglio didn't hold a candle to the blooper sent in by the city of Roseville, California. In that clip a burly, tattooed animal-control officer attempts to interest viewers in the pet of the week, an orange cat named Pinky. But the feline, obviously camera shy, escapes its captor and begins flailing at the end of its leash like a ninja with three sheets to the wind. Eventually the cat claws its way up the officer's leg and rips into his groin.
"The cat was definitely the big hit," Culpepper recalls. "The lady next to me couldn't stop laughing through the whole program. But I'll tell you what the awards show was really like." Here her voice becomes a reverent whisper. "It was really like being at the Academy Awards. Everybody was dressed to the teeth, in black suits and glittering gowns. We rented a huge banquet hall and the viewing screen was at least the size of the one at the Oscars."
As for Fannotto, he still vividly recalls the incident that helped Metro-Dade bag a second-place blooper. "They were doing anything they could to keep me from taking part in that meeting, but I got in then and I'll keep doing so," he grumbles, foreshadowing a rich crop of future bloopers. "I'm never going to die. I'm just gonna dye my hair.