Naming places after famous folks is nothing new. The ancient city of Rome was named for Romulus, its eighth-century BC founder and first king. St. Petersburg in Russia was named after Tsar Peter the Great. Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City was named for ... well, you get the idea. In Vermont, at least 96 towns, cities and counties, from Addison to Wolcott, are named for notable people.
But what about honoring a celebrity by naming a bathroom after him? Recently, a reader asked whether it's true that the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington has a backstage bathroom named for Mikhail Baryshnikov, the legendary Russian American dancer, choreographer and actor.
If true, what prompted Burlington's premier arts venue to name a lavatory after one of the most famous male ballet dancers of all time, renowned for his grace and artistic precision? Was the backstage room already a toilet before Baryshnikov's arrival — or did the danseur noble, in a moment of urgent need, simply use it as one, establishing its moniker?
The answer, it turns out, has to do with the time constraints of performers' wardrobe changes, the often-arcane legal obligations of artists' contracts and, in a related note, brown M&M's.
To get the straight poop, we asked John Killacky, executive director of the Flynn Center: Does the Flynn really have a Baryshnikov bathroom?
"The answer is yes, we call it that," Killacky confirmed — noting, however, that there is no sign or placard to that effect. WTF?
As Killacky explained, prior to Baryshnikov's Queen City performances on April 28 and 29, 1996, the dancer's representative asked that there be a bathroom and dressing room at the same level as the stage to accommodate the performer's frequent wardrobe changes, which would otherwise be made in plain sight of anyone backstage.
"It's hilarious when they do the quick [costume] changes with large casts," noted Killacky, who has worked in theaters for decades. "They're just throwing off their outfits and putting on their new ones in the wings."
But the really big stars often demand a private dressing room immediately offstage. At the time, Killacky explained, all of the visiting artists' dressing rooms were located in the bowels of the Flynn beneath the main stage.
Evidently, Baryshnikov's people requested a dressing room — and added it to his contract — so the dancer wouldn't need to run up and down stairs between acts.
Such contractual stipulations are known in the industry as riders. Most make reasonable requests involving, for example, the catered food — such as specifying a vegetarian meal or a particular brand of beverage. But some riders have achieved legendary status as evidence of celebrities' spoiled natures.
Alex Crothers, who co-owns Higher Ground in South Burlington, estimated that over the years he's processed about 10,000 artist riders. Some were commonplace, others bizarre. As he put it, "We generally ax most of the weird stuff."
Among the weirder ones Crothers has encountered was the request that a Beanie Baby be waiting for the artist backstage; another, that a photo of actor Erik Estrada be on hand. (Neither was accompanied by an explanation.) Avant jazz-funk group Medeski Martin & Wood wrote into its contract that band members required "a homemade pie baked by someone's grandmother." And singer-songwriter David Bromberg insisted that no lasagna be served backstage, that the building couldn't smell of lasagna and that no one could even mention the word lasagna in his presence.
Most infamous in the annals of rider lore was Van Halen's in the 1980s, which specified that there be a bowl of M&M's backstage with all the brown ones removed. If the band found any brown M&M's, the promoter forfeited the entire show at full pay. Though at the time this condition was touted as the epitome of rock-star hubris, VH front man David Lee Roth explained years later in his autobiography, Crazy From the Heat, why it was done.
Van Halen traveled with stage lights and rigging larger and heavier than those of any previous rock tour in history, Roth wrote. He discovered that promoters often ignored the reams of technical specs that the band included in its contracts, resulting in delayed setup times for the crew and potentially dangerous conditions for the band.
As a way to spot such oversights, Roth included the brown M&M's clause in the rider. If he arrived backstage and saw brown M&M's on a catering table, he knew immediately that the promoter hadn't read the contract closely and that his crew would need to double-check that everything else was up to snuff.
Was Baryshnikov's potty precondition such a potential deal breaker? According to Killacky, who wasn't yet working at the Flynn at the time, plans for backstage renovations were already in the works, and a stage-level dressing room and commode were a needed upgrade. Misha's meshuggaas notwithstanding, the Flynn built him a dressing room and bathroom in time for his performances.
Incidentally, a Baryshnikov bathroom isn't the oddest way to pay tribute to a star. "Baywatch" actor David Hasselhoff had a crab species named after him, rocker Ozzy Osborne had a tree frog with a bat-like voice named in his honor, and Mick Jagger inspired the name for the fossil of a water nymph (Jaggermeryx naiad). Harrison Ford has a Central American ant (Pheidole harrisonfordi) and a spider (Calponia harrisonfordi) named after him.
But some such monikers don't exactly honor their namesakes. After British comedic actor John Cleese bad-mouthed a city in New Zealand, city councilors renamed their municipal landfill "Mount Cleese." What a way to get dumped.