Tony Masiello Rolls Out the Red Carpet for the BEAST
by Matt Taibbi
It didn’t seem like much of an idea at first. Co-editor Kevin McElwee and I, newly arrived in Buffalo from our previous home in Moscow, Russia, were hiding inside at a friend’s house during an April snowfall, toying with prank ideas for our inaugural issue. Mayor Anthony Maseillo’s name came up…
We’d only been in town for a few weeks, but it was hard not to notice that Buffalo had clearly… well, to put it as nicely as possible, it had clearly seen better days. A once-mighty industrial city now had boarded-up storefronts right in the heart of its downtown. Vast tracts of what in any other city would be prime real estate were empty and undeveloped… And the city planning seemed to have been achieved through a sort of accidental process; highways bulled through waterfront areas, a public university had been built way too far out of town to have a serious impact on the city economy, and the chief plan for urban renewal was intimately connected with an utterly insane but apparently sincere decision to give an Enron-like company, Adelphia, public money to build a fictional skyscraper in a district already overflowing with empty office space.
We asked around. The general consensus among friends in town was that the chief reason for Buffalo’s problems was that city leadership was corrupt and incompetent. As for the Mayor, he appeared to be a human being without much of a basic life plan at all. He had achieved power through the most ideologically unspecific means possible, running as both a Democrat and a Republican… and once he got into office, his plan to revive the city had remained as vague and ineffectual as his actual persona–a persona captured perfectly by his splotchy, career-weary face and half-hearted comb-over. “He’s not doing anything,” one friend told us. “God only knows what he’s doing with his time.”
Interesting question, we thought. Then it occurred to us to wonder: what if we could find out just exactly what the Mayor is doing with his time? We played around with a few ideas, then zoomed over to our office in the luxurious Statler towers to make some phony stationary. We had decided to offer the mayor a part-time job.
I should digress here to explain something. We here at the BEAST are expert and experienced pranksters. For five years, we were senior editors at one of the world’s most notorious newspapers–the Moscow-based eXile. Four years ago, we conned Mikhail Gorbachev himself into accepting an offer to be an assistant coach of the New York Jets under Bill Parcells. A few years after that, we had the caretakers of Lenin’s body offering us their services when we called as Kennedy family representatives seeking help in mummifying the disembodied foot of John F. Kennedy, Jr. And just last year, we laid siege to the Moscow office of The New York Times and threw a cream pie made of horse sperm in the face of Times bureau chief Michael Wines, one of the biggest assholes in all of vast Russia.
We have a military sensibility about our pranks. It’s not even so much that we enjoy it; it’s just what we do. So when it came time to start up a newspaper here in our new home in Buffalo, there was no question of not locating a practical joke target immediately for our first issue. Our first joke on American soil had to be grand in scale, and it had to meet our high professional standards.
Our plan for the Mayor almost seemed too primitive at first to be all that interesting. We decided to pose as executives for the HBO show The Sopranos and offer the Mayor some ridiculous and vaguely humiliating cameo role. The plan was to push it as far as possible until his office, or the Mayor himself, blinked. We had no plan for what to do, however, if he didn’t blink, not believing this to be possible. We have a lot to learn about Buffalo, it turns out.
The First Step
The first step was an exploratory phone call by “location scout Jeffrey Baines” to the Mayor’s press secretary, Matt Brown. Brown at first seemed dismissive and curt on the phone, which was about what we expected. After all, one would think that the leader of a major industrial city would have more pressing concerns than the possibility of scoring a bit part in a cable series, in particular one celebrating gangsters. His aides would be busy, impatient to get to the point… Nonetheless, Brown told us to follow up with our proposal in writing:
Listen to the call. (2:01)
Brown: Matt Brown. May I help you?
BEAST: Hi, Mr. Brown. My name is Jeffrey Baines. I’m a location scout for the HBO television series, The Sopranos. And I had a question for you. I’m up here in Buffalo. We’re going to be shooting part of an episode that’s going to run next fall in the Niagara Falls area. And our senior producer, Sam Weiss, has been in consultation with the writers, and they’re interested in getting Mayor Masiello to appear in a cameo… and we wanted to know if there’s a possibility of speaking to Mr. Masiello, or at least sending him a letter.
Brown: (unimpressed) Uh, you can send a letter.
Brown: You can send a letter to, obviously, the Mayor, Anthony Masiello, care of Matthew Brown. It’s 65 Niagara Sq., room 201, Buffalo, NY 14202. Let me give you my fax number.
BEAST: Yeah. I was going to say–it might be better if we do this by fax.
Within minutes after this call, we had our designers putting the finishing touches on our mock HBO stationary. It wasn’t very convincing–any 17-year-old Miramax intern worth his eyebrow stud would have been able to spot it as a phony from 200 yards away–but we figured it might be good enough to get past a professional political operative or two at City Hall. Once that was done, we typed up a letter to the Mayor from “Senior Producer Sam Weiss,” which included the following summation of the proposed plot:
“The storyline is very simple. Our lead character, a mob boss named Tony Soprano, has discovered that Jackie Aprile, Jr., the young man who has recently proposed marriage to his daughter, has a ‘goomah,’ or mistress, in Niagara Falls. In a rage, Tony books a ticket on Jet Blue to fly up to the area to confront Jackie. It then occurred to us to introduce a scene in which, by coincidence, Tony finds himself sitting next to you, Mayor Masiello, on the plane.
“Over the course of the flight, Tony–who himself has a mistress–unburdens himself to the friendly mayor about his own marital problems. Always ready to offer advice to a stranger, you urge Tony to reconcile with his wife, and offer suggestions on how to rekindle the romance. What suggestions you offer would obviously be something we’d like to consult with you about, but one direction we were thinking of going in would be urging Tony to discover a love of the arts with his wife–painting, poetry, music. “The episode could then conclude later on with a visit to the Albright Knox Art Museum, during which you explain to a bewildered Tony–who is still unaware that you are the Mayor–the beauty of the post-impressionist school of painting.”
Now, in the real world, this letter should have been sufficiently ridiculous to scare off any even mildly cogent public employee from taking it seriously. But when we had a female BEAST staffer call back as “Danielle,” Sam Weiss’s bubbly personal assistant, we found otherwise:
Listen to the call. (5:49)
BEAST: Hello, may I speak with the press department?
Mayor’s Office: (female receptionist’s voice) I’m sorry. Mr. Brown, the Mayor’s director of communications, is off until Monday.
BEAST: Oh, I see, maybe you can help me then. This is Danielle, from HBO films.
Mayor’s Office: Mmm-hm!
BEAST: We sent Mr. Brown–er, the Mayor, care of Mr. Brown–a proposal for a cameo in The Sopranos show?
Mayor’s Office: Yes.
BEAST: And I wanted to make sure that the fax was received.
Mayor’s Office: Hold on, I’ll connect you to Bernadette.
The receptionist disappeared for a moment, giving us an opportunity to adjust the levels on our tape recorder. In a flash, she was back:
Mayor’s Office: Hello?
BEAST: Is this Bernadette?
Mayor’s Office: Um, no, this is still the receptionist.
Mayor’s Office: Yes, he did receive the information, and he’s very happy about it.
BEAST: He’s very happy about it?
Mayor’s Office: Yes.
BEAST: Excellent. Would it be possible for Mr. Weiss to speak with Mr. Brown on Monday, then?
Mayor’s Office: Yes.
Before we let the receptionist off the phone, we decided to try to up the ante. Every good practical joke should contain one element of utter absurdity, so that after the fact, the victim has no excuse for falling for the trap. In this case we decided to offer, on behalf of our fictional cigar-chomping Jewish producer, a peculiar gift. Once we broached the subject, the receptionist connected us to someone a little higher up on the Masiello chain of command–the Mayor’s personal bodyguard, Juan Phillips:
Phillips: Good afternoon. Officer Phillips.
BEAST: Uh, Good afternoon. I’m sorry. This is Danielle Kuczkowski from HBO films.
BEAST: Um, I have a somewhat strange question.
BEAST: Mr. Sam Weiss was hoping to send the Mayor a small gift. And I’m just curious to know whether the Mayor would like… a porcelain unicorn. It’s autographed by James Spader, the actor. He makes them in his workshop in Westchester.
BEAST: It’s a bit of an unorthodox gift, so…
Phillips: Wait a minute–what was the type of gift it was?
BEAST: It’s a porcelain unicorn.
Phillips: A unicorn?
BEAST: A unicorn.
Phillips: You’re talking about, like–the horse, with the…
BEAST: The horse with the one horn?
BEAST: Basically, I don’t know if you know this… James Spader, the actor…
Phillips: You know, I’m not familiar with him. You know, that’s strange, because I am myself a movie buff, a play buff… James Bader?
BEAST: James Spader. Maybe you remember… Sex, Lies and Videotape? Also, I think, White Castle…[eds. note: our bad. James Spader was never in a movie called White Castle].
BEAST: Crash, also, I believe…
Phillips: (lying) Sure! Okay!
BEAST: He makes these wonderful porcelain unicorns at his workshop in Westchester…
Here, Phillips entered into an impassioned soliloquy about the Mayor’s sensitive side:
Phillips: Let me tell you something about our Mayor.
Phillips: Our mayor is a man of art.
BEAST: (incredulous) Is a man of… art?
Phillips: He loves all types of art.
Phillips: From paintings, to sculptures…oriental rugs. He spends a good portion of his time at antique shops [!].
BEAST: Oh, that’s just terrific!
Phillips: He loves promoting our city. I’m the officer assigned to him. I just drove him around looking at the neighborhoods. He loves seeing trees and flowers in bloom. He has a thing about clean and green, he believes in that. He spends a lot of time at the art gallery himself… He loves it, he loves everything that deals with art. So if it’s something that’s being made by another actor [eds. note: another actor?], where he himself is making it, the Mayor will love it.
BEAST: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Phillips: You’ve got a great following here, there’s a great following of The Sopranos series here. In this office alone, we watch it… I don’t want to use the word religiously, but we watch it every week.
BEAST: Wonderful! Do you watch it yourself?
Phillips: Oh, yes. When The Sopranos came out on CD…
Phillips: I bought the whole set.
BEAST: Well, it’s a great, great success. We’re very proud of the program.
At this point, Phillips digressed, filling us in on the Mayor’s recent appearance in a locally-produced movie that starred legendary camp TV actor Frank Gorsham (or, as Phillips put it, “Frank… I don’t know what his last name is, but he played the Riddler”). After hearing about the Mayor’s film history, we briefly worried that we might have to pay him Screen Actors’ Guild rates, then asked once again about the Mayor’s interest in our show:
BEAST: So you think he’d be amenable to appearing in a cameo?
Phillips: Oh, yes! He already stated that he was very excited. He showed me the letter the other day. He was very excited about it.
It took us a while, after the end of this phone call, to fully take in and appreciate the image of Mayor Masiello proudly showing off our cheesy home-drawn knock-off letter to his staff… But we couldn’t sit still for long:
The Ball was in Play
The next day, still in disbelief, we did the only logical thing: we went ahead and actually sent the Mayor a unicorn. We had a BEAST contributor in New York buy a pair of piece-of-shit, made-in-Taiwan, not-quite porcelain unicorns (one for us as a souvenir, and one for the Mayor), crudely inscribe the letters “J. Spader” on the side, and send one of them to City Hall from a Manhattan Post office.
Two days later, a phone rang in the apartment of our Manhattan intern, whose number we’d used on our letterhead. Our intern was not home, but her roommate, who’d been briefed for this eventuality, quickly asked to take a message when she heard the voice of Matt Brown, calling to thank us for the gift.
It was now time to bring Sam Weiss onto the stage. The next day we had Danielle call Matt Brown back and patch through the heavyweight senior TV producer–actually our thirty year-old slacker co-editor Kevin McElwee, sitting at home smoking a Kools in a Bills t-shirt–for a serious talk:
Listen to the call. (4:15)
BEAST: Mr. Brown!
Brown: Hi, how are you?
BEAST: Yeah, Sam Weiss here. Good talking to you.
Brown: Good talking to you. I called your office yesterday to thank you for the, uh… unicorn.
BEAST: Oh, you got that!
Brown: Yes, that was really nice.
BEAST: Yes, James Spader is a great man. He does some good stuff for us. We’re very happy with him…
Brown: That’s very thoughtful, very thoughtful. The Mayor’s in Albany today. He won’t be back until tomorrow morning. Um, he, we received your letter. He’s very interested in participating. And would like to, uh, you know, we’re just following your lead, for you to tell us how to proceed.
BEAST: Uh, well, how did the Mayor feel about the general storyline?
Brown: The storyline, he was very comfortable with it. The people in our internal staff kind of looked at it. You know everybody’s psyched about it. They think it’s great, great for Buffalo. [Eds. note: Great for Buffalo? How?]
BEAST: Okay. Well, obviously, it’s just in the planning stages, in terms of a script. If there’s anything he’d feel uncomfortable about, we’d take that into consideration.
BEAST: Well, that’s great. Great to hear. Do you think that it would be possible to speak to the Mayor at some point? Personally?
BEAST: You say he’ll be back tomorrow?
Brown: Yeah. If there’s a number where I can have him contact you. That number [that I called the other day], is that a good number to reach you at?
BEAST: (nervously, unconvincingly) Not generally. Right now I’m travelling. Yesterday, I was held up on the island. And I’m heading down to the D.C. area today. Could you tell me a good time to call? I’ll have my assistant conference me in.
Brown: Um…Let’s see, he’s not back in Buffalo until ten… Why don’t we say three o’clock?
BEAST: Three o’clock.
Not expecting to get hold of the mayor so quickly, we hesitated after this call, no longer sure of what to do. To give us more time to think, we invented a little accident for Mr. Weiss, hinting vaguely in our return call the next day that the senior producer had been involved in a ghastly car wreck and was now in traction (we would have added that he was also facing charges for running over two small black children, but the Mayor’s receptionist didn’t press the issue). In the meantime, we asked if we could come by and pick up a head shot of the Mayor.
Mr. Brown, in a voice that suggested that such requests were common at City Hall, said by all means; we made a date for a “location scout” to pick up a photo at City Hall.
Having been largely shut out of the acting up to this point, I dressed up as “location scout Geoff Winestock” and went over to City Hall two days later. While waiting in the Mayor’s reception room for the photo to be delivered, I took out my cell phone and loudly conducted a pre-arranged conversation with “Mr. Weiss” on the other end of the line. The gist of the conversation was that our “star,” James Gandolfini, a.k.a. Tony Sopranos, had rejected the Bradford bar on Chippewa as a location because “it was too light” and might make him look too fat on camera.
“Too fat?” I shouted into the phone. “Who does he think he is, Joan Crawford? We can’t do this scene in a basement!”
After a few minutes of this, a door opened at the side of the room, and Mayor Masiello poked his head out. I was momentarily caught off-guard by the Mayor’s height. A tall person and an ex-basketball player myself, I was dwarfed by the lanky exec, who drifted over to the receptionist’s desk while I conducted my call and appeared to silently eavesdrop while pretending to rearrange some papers on her desk. Once the call was over, he ducked back into his office.
They gave me the head shot and I went home.
Sometimes the reason for pulling this or that practical joke is obvious. If you send George Bush a $1000 campaign contribution on Nazi party stationery and he cashes it, it’s pretty clear what you’ve got, and why you did it. But sometimes it requires pulling back and getting some perspective on things before the point of a joke really becomes clear.
Think of it this way. If you’re broke and you don’t have a job and you’ve maybe got a child or a relative who’s dying–because the city is too busy negotiating casino deals with creeps from Southeast Asia, and helping huge companies pay for their private palaces, to give you health care–well, you can try forever and a day to get a public official with any responsibility at all on the telephone, and you never will.
But if you call up and pretend to be a Hollywood big shot, and dangle a silly little part in a trendy gangster show… Well, you can fly into town from halfway around the world without any friends or references at all, and you can have the Mayor of the city himself eating out of your hand in no time.
You know what politics is? It’s not about taking care of people anymore. It’s show business for ugly people. And when real show business comes knocking, even in the form of a show that celebrates gangsters and racketeering, almost any of our leaders these days will drop his “day job” in a second for a chance at the real thing. The rest of us, meanwhile, are left to suck eggs.
We Get the Mayor on the Phone
On Tuesday, May 28, we got the Mayor on the phone. Mr. Weiss, we explained, had recovered from his accident sufficiently to conduct business, and wanted to speak to the chief.
The resultant conversation was remarkable for its extreme awkwardness and for its many different paranoid undercurrents. But on the surface, it was exactly what we expected it to be: a Mayor of a major city–a city mired in a major financial crisis, and reeling from the collapse of one of its largest companies–abjectly expressing his desire to appear on a hit cable TV series. It should be noted that the Mayor’s receptionist offered to set up a meeting with the Mayor within fifteen minutes after we first called back.
That was too fast for us; we made it an hour. When the time came, we pushed “Sam” back to the phone for the climactic call:
Listen to the call. (6:31)
BEAST: Hi, Mayor Masiello!
Masiello: (bursting with enthusiasm) Sam, Tony Masiello! Mayor of the great city of Buffalo, New York!
BEAST: Great to talk to you, sir.
Masiello: My pleasure. And thank you very much for your interest in Buffalo and Western New York.
BEAST: Absolutely, absolutely. [irrelevantly] So I understand that you got the unicorn that we sent?
Masiello: (not taken aback at all) Yes I did! Thank you very much. It’s so nice of you.
BEAST: Yes, James Spader is a great… a great fella.
Masiello: (pained) Thank you, I appreciate it.
BEAST: We just had a few questions…
BEAST: As far as setting up the production and the planning of the episode, really…
BEAST: Just wanted to ask you a few things. Did you ever sing any Karaoke?
Masiello: (laughs) No, I, uh… I can’t sing a lick.
BEAST: You don’t play any instruments or anything?
Masiello: No, I do not.
Masiello: (hopefully) I can dance.
BEAST: You can dance?
Masiello: Heh, heh, heh.
BEAST: Well, we can all dance a little, I guess.
Masiello: That’s right. Is that… needed?
BEAST: (distracted by laughter in room, ignoring him) Um… what about squash or flyfishing, anything like that?
Masiello: Uh…No, I played basketball in high school and college. I was in my college hall of fame for basketball… I was drafted by the Indiana Pacers.
Masiello: But I do not, um…I was not good at squash–or fishing.
BEAST: And what about golf?
Masiello: Yeah, I play golf, but I stink.
BEAST: Well, we can all be a little better.
Masiello: That’s right.
BEAST: Um, okay, I think that’s probably just about it…
At this point, a weird volley of racially charged comments passed between ourselves and the Mayor. We had decided to ask about the Mayor’s heritage in the hopes that he might somehow connect it to The Sopranos show, but he took it the wrong way–and his response appeared loaded with implications that the obviously Jewish Weiss should have caught:
BEAST: Maseillo… are your ancestors from the Abruzze province?
Masiello: They’re from the region of Potenza. They’re not far from Naples.
BEAST: Right, the home of pizza.
Masiello: (venemously) Do you have family who are Italians?
At this point, Kevin was distracted because I was signaling to him to ask the Mayor about the casino deal… We wanted to see if he would be willing to expedite the building process so that we could shoot inside the new facility. As I was reminding him of this, Kevin simply ignored the Mayor’s question about Sam’s Italian relatives. Nonetheless, he waited patiently on the phone.
BEAST: Yes, yes. Well, we’ve been following this casino thing up there. When do you think this thing is going to be built?
Masiello: Well, there’s several issues that have to be resolved first. While it did pass the reservation vote, it has to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs first for approval. Then there has to be negotiations with local developers and operators, along with the local municipalities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. So you’ve got two facilities in both cities that we’re looking to renovate as temporary casinos. And I think that’s 6-8 months away.
BEAST: Oh, really. Because we’d love to shoot in there. But I don’t think it’s going to be done…
Masiello: No, I don’t think it’s going to be in time…
Masiello: What do you expect of me?
BEAST: Well, we’d like to make it sort of as fast as possible. It would probably be one or two days in all.
Masiello: Oh, that’s fine, I look forward to it.
BEAST: And once we have a script… We’ve got a couple of other candidates we’re looking at, but we’re pretty excited about Buffalo, so…
Masiello: Oh, that’s great. Have you made a decision to do it in Buffalo?
BEAST: No, we haven’t made the final decision to do it yet. We’re looking at a couple of other candidates.
As expected, the Mayor at this point quickly let us know that he was willing to go the extra mile for the show:
Masiello: Is there anything I can do to help in that process?
BEAST: Um, not really. Really it’s out of my hands. I’m just a producer. It’s in the hands of the creative folks to really make the final decision about this stuff…
Masiello: When do you anticipate this being done?
BEAST: We want to make the decision sometime this week.
Masiello: No, when do you think that the shooting should take place?
BEAST: Um, the shooting we think would be later in the summer. So, probably August, something like that.
At this point, the Mayor went off on a poetic digression. In the middle of this section, he is clearly reading from the letter we had originally written to him:
Masiello: You know, it’s interesting, in the letter you wrote me about the segment, you mentioned taking the “bewildered Tony” to Albright Knox. I live right next door to the Albright Knox gallery.
BEAST: (totally unimpressed) Oh. Really.
Masiello: Yeah, so….Um.
BEAST: Yeah. I haven’t been to Buffalo for a long time, myself, but I’ve seen the pictures. It looks like a lovely place.
Masiello: Yeah, it is a great place. But you know, Buffalo being right next to Niagara falls, there’s a lot of great older neighborhoods, a lot of great Italian neighborhoods. I think it will augment whatever you’re doing.
BEAST: Right. Right. (an unbelievably long and painful silence follows)
BEAST: So, like I said, we’ll be making a decision later this week. Because we need to get rolling on the specifics of it. So we’ll get back to someone in your office at that time. We’ll let you know.
Masiello: (ominously, perhaps just now catching on that the thing is a farce) I’m looking forward to working with you–and meeting you.
Masiello: Thank you.
BEAST: Thank you.
As the BEAST went to press, we were calling the Mayor’s office to inform him that he’d been passed over for the part in favor of Graham Richard, Mayor of the great city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Richard, we said, had agreed to appear shirtless for the show, and that was the deciding factor.
We were glad we weren’t there to hear how Tony M. took the news. But somehow we have a feeling we’ll find out soon enough. At least we know now how the Mayor spends his time…