Reach out and touch…somebody else.

Back when I was covering the music beat for various papers, the Universal Amphitheater was high among my favorite places to go. Parking was a lot easier than it is now; it was comfortable with great sound and mostly good sight lines; and the people running it were nice as could be.

One favor they provided us reviewers that no other venue did — from the smallest clubs to the 18.000-seat Hollywood Bowl and Forum — was provide their own press kits for each show. They’d supply us with artist bios, names of the band members (sometimes), and even set lists. Now, I know we were supposed to know the names of the songs; but the fact of it is that some of us didn’t, especially when the act played anything other than radio hits, or (especially in the case of opening acts), nobody knew what their original material was. These were, I hasten to point out, the days before the Internet; now all of that information is pretty much available on the artists’ websites, album listings on All Music Guide or whatever; and so on.

Now I’m going to tell you why they stopped. At least I’m pretty sure it’s why they did; you’ll see why they weren’t particularly keen to assign blame for the policy change.

One of the biggest acts of the era — heck, any era — was Diana Ross. She sold a lot of records as a solo act, and of course had all those years of hits with the Supremes, not to mention Diana Ross and the Supremes. She put on a classy show, with a good orchestra and what seemed to be a new costume for every song, and she sounded great.

A highlight of each performance was her version of “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.” For it, Miss Ross would step from the stage down some stairs and into the audience, and walk down the aisle as she sang, reaching out and touching the outstretched hands of her feverish audience.

I’m biggish; I like to be able to stretch and maybe move around a bit. I liked to sit on the aisle.

One year, as fate would have it, I was one of the people she reached out and touched. Not that I was reaching out to her; in fact, I’d stashed my notebook and press materials under the seat, and was trying to avert her attention. Maybe it was all rote; maybe she considered my studied indifference to be a challenge. She stopped by my seat, motioning for me to do something — maybe even to sing, as she persuaded some other audience members to do. I would have none of it, and my face turned crimson as the guy behind me — representing the Hollywood Reporter — did his best to stifle the laugh that did come out, after she’d passed him by in search of the next patsy enraptured fan.

The next year (maybe two years hence) she was back. Some of the songs had changed, but not her Big Number. She came down into audience, and walked up the same aisle as before. What were the odds?

You’re right: she came right to me again. I’ve seen bees have more trouble finding a blossom. And, as luck would have it, the same guy from the Hollywood Reporter was sitting behind me; this time, nearly convulsing. She shook my hand, or something, and proceeded up the aisle.

When she next came to the Universal, I — a slow learner, but not entirely incapable of avoiding potential disaster — made sure that my seat was on the opposite aisle: the same section, about the same distance back, but this time on the left.

Diana Ross came down the left side. Not only did she spot me; this time I hadn’t had time to stash my notes. She took the set list out of my hand, shook her head and muttered “this is all wrong,” and headed on up the left aisle as the man from the Hollywood Reporter— who’d also moved, coincidentally — slapped me on the back and spit out a mouthful of Coke.

Never again did I or anybody else receive a set list from the Universal Amphitheater. And of course the list Miss Ross had seen and dismissed was correct down to the last number. It just didn’t note which aisle she’d be using to reach out and touch people’s hands.

Here she is in Tokyo. I pity the poor reviewers:

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