‘Dancing’ host joins Starlight fundraiser

By Nancy Sheehan TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF


As a kid, Tom Bergeron had a dream, and, no, it wasn’t “I want to be an Emmy-award-winning television host when I grow up.”

“My fantasy was to work at WBZ Radio because I would listen to Larry Glick and Dave Maynard and Carl DeSuze and people like that,” said Bergeron, who grew up in Haverhill. “To get to work with them was really the big goal in my mind.”

Then, TV happened — sort of by accident.

“When I was doing radio in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the early ’80s, some people who worked in Boston television called and said, ‘We’re doing some TV shows we think you might be good for. Would you like to come down and audition?'”

So he headed down to Beantown and got the job. Actually we should say jobs. Versatility became the likable host’s hallmark. After 20 years that have encompassed lots of live local shows, 10 years of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” and six seasons of being the official live-TV greeter for about 20 million viewers a night on “Dancing with the Stars,” Bergeron is now a bicoastal bigwig, albeit a humble one who hasn’t forgotten his New England roots.

He will appear at the Vaillancourt Folk Art Studio at Manchaug Mills tomorrow for an event to benefit the Starlight Children’s Foundation. We spoke with Bergeron by telephone recently. He was on his way to JFK airport in New York, shuttling between his home in Connecticut and his other one in California, where he spends about half the year shooting “Dancing with the Stars” and taping “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” (Don’t worry. He was a passenger and so could chat unencumbered by the threat of crashing.)

Bergeron said he is looking forward to reconnecting with longtime friends Gary and Judi Vaillancourt, owners of the studio. “It will be good to go back and see old friends,” he said. “In the midst of all this sort of craziness that’s happening it’s a real treat.” Bergeron has for many years been a supporter of the Starlight Foundation, which helps seriously ill children and their families cope through entertainment, education and family activities. Each year, the art studio offers a new “Starlight Santa,” the sale of which benefits the foundation.

Working in Boston TV benefited Bergeron, who said that is where he learned how to make hosting look easy. His first job for WBZ-TV was called “Super Kids,” a weekend show aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds patterned after the then-popular Evening Magazine format. He did that a couple of years, copped an Emmy and then was offered a grown-up news show called “4 Today.” The offer included a little side gig: that of tuxedoed lottery host. He wasn’t sure at first he wanted to be the one calling out the winning numbers, but in the end he was game. “So I had fun with it,” he said. “I called the tuxedo the mega-tux and I just made as much light of it as you can about people risking their food money for millions of dollars.”

He continued with “4 Today” spots throughout the news day and added “People Are Talking,” all of which proved a good training ground for his as-yet unforeseen nationwide-live-TV future.

“The ‘4 Today’ stuff that I did throughout the day and the ‘People Are Talking’ show that I did for six years at ‘BZ that ran the gamut from serious to silly and everything in between, and also all the radio work and improv theater and things like that that I did. All of it is sort of in the big stew pot in terms of building the muscles that you need to kind of be very present and focused when you’re on the air.”

It all resulted in a remarkable sense of ease in making conversation and reeling off witty remarks undaunted by the fact that millions are looking on. That would be an enormous challenge for most people.

“But doing live TV for me is something I’ve done for years so it’s a very comfortable thing for me now. I’ve said it and it’s really true: sometimes the most relaxing part of my day when we’re shooting ‘Dancing with the Stars’ is when I walk on that set live in front of 20 million people. It’s like wearing bedroom slippers. I love it.”

He says he loves the people he works with as well. “I give a hard time to the judges on the show but we’re all good friends actually,” he said. “So I walk out there trusting that there are going to be opportunities (for good quips) on the air.”

Are the now-famous judges, Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba, pretty much like they seem on TV?

“Yeah, I think they are,” he said. “Len sometimes isn’t quite as cranky as he lets on. He’s got more of a twinkle in his eye. Bruno isn’t quite as nutty as he lets on, and Carrie Ann is much sweeter than she lets on sometimes …”

We had to ask about devilishly handsome pro dancer heartthrob Maksim Chmerkovskiy. He seems a tad full of himself at times. Is he?

“I said about Maks on one show, because I’m very fond of him, that he has a brash exterior and a marshmallow center,” Bergeron said. “He’s a sweetheart. I think that some of that bravado is because he’s not exactly an unattractive guy — and I say that as a card-carrying heterosexual — but he is also in the world of ballroom, which, prior to this experience of being on a massive television show, was his life. He’s a star in that world and then suddenly he was exposed to the spotlight of a major TV show. Part of what appeared to be brash ego was a bit of a defensive crouch, initially, I think. He’s gotten a lot more comfortable with it. If you spent any time with him at all you would be absolutely charmed.” (Where do we sign up?)

The future for Bergeron holds more of Maks and the rest of the “Dancing” cast as well as his new book, “I’m Hosting as Fast as I Can,” due out in April from HarperCollins. There also will be some beneficial changes on a personal level. Bergeron and his wife, Lois, have two daughters, one in college and one a high school senior in Connecticut. The idea of an upcoming empty nest has a slightly different connotation for the Bergerons.

“The last 10 years, working in Hollywood and also living in Connecticut, we’ve experienced something like the empty nest already with each other,” he said. “So next year, Lois will be able to come out and spend more time with me in California once we’ve parked both our kids in college.”

So, is he happy?

“I’m pretty happy with what’s on my plate right now,” he said. “Next year we’re looking at the 20th year of ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos,’ which will be my 10th (year on the show) … And ‘Dancing with the Stars’ will be having its eighth and ninth seasons next year and the book will be coming out so there’s a lot going on and I’m having a ball. I really am. I’m having a wonderful time.”