On the Sly

John Cunningham, an attenuated beanpole of a fellow in baggy shorts, a faded plaid Levi's shirt, and a pair of navy-blue Vans, is haunting the front of Sylvester Stallone's soon-to-be-former Miami mansion, awaiting the odd delivery truck. His Panasonic Palmcorder, as always, is in his right hand.

"Afternoons are good for deliveries," Cunningham explains on this glorious, partly cloudy South Florida winter day. "Mornings, you get the mail people, gardeners, pool people."

Though he wouldn't mind catching a glimpse of the Italian Stallion, Cunningham's real goal is quality time with the vast network of worker bees who maintain Stallone's obscene opulence. In the six years Cunningham has produced Driveways of the Rich and Famous, a public-access TV show, he's chatted up hundreds of security guards, Weedwhacker guys, housekeepers, and next-door neighbors. He produces two episodes per year of Driveways, which run across the country but not in South Florida.

Actual celebrity encounters have been rare: Kirk Douglas, Madonna, Larry Flynt, and Gwyneth Paltrow are among them. But Cunningham doesn't aim for the stars. By celebrating his lack of access to the homes of Martin Short, Steve Martin, Bill Gates, Dolly Parton, Whoopi Goldberg, and others ad infinitum, then dissecting the routines of those who sweep floors, water calla lilies, or add chlorine to the pool, this Los Angeles resident has carved his own little niche of the airwaves and the Internet. Cunningham's Website, driveways.com, includes pointed questioning of Barney the dinosaur about his driveway, which ends with the pair professing mutual love.

Covering the Stallone bug-out is Cunningham's primary mission in Miami. Newspaper reports about the sale of Madonna's nearby mansion to Rosie O'Donnell add timeliness to his trip. He planned to stop by the Estefans' Star Island manse during his sojourn, but that was before he discovered someone had recently stolen a bunch of jewelry from the home. "My sensitivity tells me it would not be a good time to be hanging around the driveway, even on the island at all," he says.

That kind of discretion distinguishes Cunningham's low-tech, do-it-yourself approach from both the nasal fawning of Robin Leach (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous), and the rumpled guerrilla theater of Michael Moore (Roger & Me, TV Nation). Both of those guys make a lot of money chasing after the rich in different ways. Cunningham says he "lives low" off the savings he accumulated from a long-gone legal secretary job, and that Driveways is "a hobby that pays for itself."

Los Angeles has an inexhaustible supply of celebrity driveways, so Cunningham tapes there at almost no cost. He usually sets up ventures outside L.A. -- including jaunts to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle, New York City, Nashville, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. -- to coincide with his talk show appearances. Then the shows pick up the tab.

Sometimes, as with this trip, the good people at Panasonic pay his way. Shortly after a story about Driveways appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few years back, a Panasonic exec noticed Cunningham was using his company's camera. Since then, the electronics giant has provided Cunningham with a new camera each year, as well as a PR person. Jo Ann Bilger, a pleasant New Jersey publicist, flacks for both Panasonic and Driveways. This day, she has set up spots for Cunningham on WPLG-TV (Channel 10) news and The Times on WAMI-TV (Channel 69). (The media coverage Cunningham has received from the Journal, E! Entertainment Television, and Howard Stern, has far exceeded the reach of his regular venue.)

But neither money nor fame is Cunningham's motivation. "I'm very starstruck," he declares. "A TV crew came from England to do a story about my show and told me, 'You know, the thing we didn't get is, you're for real. You really are this excited about the driveways.' And I am. I'm totally jazzed about meeting the mailman or the gardener. If anyone else were to try to do what I'm doing, it would be kind of forced. But for me it's so sincere."

Cunningham stands in front of the dark orange wall surrounding the nigh-erstwhile Chez Sly as scads of service people come and go from the mansion. A Bekins rig is parked about 40 yards behind his rented Plymouth Neon. A smallish U-Haul truck with the star of Texas painted on the side stands at the L-shape intersection of SE 32nd Road and Brickell Avenue. The troops dutifully executing Rambo's evac from the Magic City are laboring under strict press silence, which also extends to lanky out-of-towners with Palmcorders in their hands and microphones hanging around their necks.

Not everyone has clammed up, though. Cunningham has secured interviews with Stallone's mail carrier ("Vikki, V-I-K-K-I, she was wonderful," he remembers) and Madonna's neighbor's housekeeper, among others. These glimpses from the other side of the firewall of hyperfame offer some clues as to why Miami and its media are so worked up about Stallone's departure.

"The housekeeper down the street said that the neighbors like Stallone," Cunningham says. "They don't like Madonna because she's not friendly. [The housekeeper] said, 'It's sad to see him go, but we've lost all our privacy. I've been here 22 years, and the neighborhood is not as private as it used to be.'"

The gawkers who putter by Stallone's gaudy, vaulted portal confirms the assessment. "This is the most traffic I've seen in front of a star's driveway," Cunningham says as a three-car minicaravan rolls by for a look-see. Yesterday the public-access pseudo-star stopped at Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago castle in Palm Beach. Uniformed security officers stonewalled him big-time, he says. But that didn't stop him from getting usable footage.

The housekeeper's admiration for the neighborly qualities of Stallone, star of Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, surprises Cunningham. "'Stallonegate' was as big in our news [in Los Angeles] as it was here in Miami," he says, referencing the star's controversial and unsuccessful efforts to erect a metal fence at the north end of the cul-de-sac to exclude foot and bicycle traffic.

Cunningham has had a few near misses of his own. A potty-mouthed David Hasselhoff of "Baywatch" and "Knight Rider" fame/infamy came close to running him over. Cunningham admits that he never considered the possibility that Hasselhoff's car might have been telling him to "Get the fuck out of here!" and trying to kill him.

Martha Stewart's duplicitous housekeeper once lured him past the Yberhomemaker's driveway and into a Greenwich, Connecticut kitchen, then locked him in and called the police. "I don't blame Martha Stewart, I blame the housekeeper," he relates.

At the other end of the spectrum: singer, actor, Ed Sullivan Show perennial and Palm Springs resident Trini Lopez. According to Cunningham, "He pulled up in his Cadillac, saw me there, and said, 'You're the driveways guy!' He was totally into it, as gracious as could be."

As Cunningham tells his tales of celebrity weal and woe, his wide blue eyes flicker down 32nd Road, scouting for possible interview subjects. A black stretch limousine with midnight-tinted windows spurs him to action. As the limo pauses in front of Stallone's driveway, Cunningham strides over to it, camcorder rolling, his head bent over the eyepiece. But before Cunningham can attempt a conversation with the driver, the limo swings around and purrs away.

The nearby U-Haul truck turns out to be for Stallone's fragile, valuable items. The movers open up the back and rig the loading ramp, revealing luxuries such as chandeliers, rolled-up rugs, and antique furniture. As Cunningham swoops in to chronicle the packed-up objets, a mover arrives with a hand truck bearing a nearly life-size bronze statue of a muscular male nude. Its head and upraised elbows are swathed in bubble wrap. Maintaining a respectful distance, Cunningham posits that it's a sculpture of Stallone. "I think that was him ... It was the right height and build, anyway."

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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell

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