God bless you, Frank Masi. The excitement that drew thousands to Invesco Field this weekend may be unique to “American Idol.” But as the buoyant host of the 1980s New York City public access TV show, “Stairway to Stardom,” Masi introduced audiences to the Big Apple’s array of hidden talents long before talent shows began blowing up the Nielsen Ratings. You might imagine “Stairway to Stardom” was a precursor to the “The Voice” or “Idol,” and you’d be right — if those shows were also filmed in what looks like a carpeted Staten Island basement with a host as enthusiastic about his own talents as the guest performers he booked.
“You’ll see tomorrow’s stars today,” the show’s theme song naively proclaimed. But for our money, another verse of that song — “We’re here to brighten up your day” — rings truer for “Stairway to Stardom” than for many of today’s hit-making talent shows. We have no idea why this cheesy kind of show biz vanished. Today’s talent and reality shows thrive in an atmosphere of image adoration and “make-it-at-any-cost” convictions. So maybe what “Stairway to Stardom” lacked in talent it made up for in sincerity, even if it’s a sincerity that, from the viewer’s perspective, might be better called brutal honesty.
Masi became friends with many of the guest performers on the show and stayed in touch with them over the decades. According to Mitch Friedman, the person responsible for both documenting and reviving interest in Stairway to Stardom, Masi is 85 and still living in Brooklyn, though not in great health now. At least he has plenty of memories to relish in his old age.
Here’s Frank introducing “Dante” and, at song’s end, cautioning Dante to “stay here,” as if his exit could tip the room toward an even lower level of hell.
In the mid ‘80s, Masi also recruited rap acts to come on the “Stairway.” We like to believe this appearance marked the official debut of the underground dance sensation that would become known as “The Cufflinks:”
And here’s Frank sprinkling in some of his own performances to spice up the show in what used to be known in the business as the “one-song medley:”
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and is currently finishing his second novel.