As Joan Rivers accepted an award at the Illinois Broadcasters Association annual convention Thursday afternoon in Springfield, the audience of 160 or so obediently rose and offered a rousing ovation.
Rivers acknowledged the cheers with a humble puh-leese facial expression.
“Oh, sit down,” she admonished.
Holding the sizable plaque and observing it closely, she wisecracked, “You can see where they scratched out Barbara Walters’ name and put in mine.”
While her dog Spike, a tiny Yorkshire terrier, napped in a luxurious 11th-floor room at the Ramada Renaissance, Rivers received the IBA’s Distinguished Service Award in the hotel’s ballroom.
The award is given annually to a performer who “spent a large amount of time in Illinois or got their start here,” said IBA spokeswoman Shelly Wilson.
Rivers, 58, joins last year’s winner, Pat Buttram who played Mr. Haney on “Green Acres,” as an IBA honoree.
“She’s thrilled about the award,” Wilson said. (Actually, in a phone interview Tuesday, Rivers twice expressed confusion about her Springfield appearance — “I’m getting an award? I thought I was giving one out.”) On Thursday, however, Rivers understood the program. She flew from New York to central Illinois by midday and quickly showered the IBA attendees with one-liners.
“I know why they call this place the Renaissance,” she told the IBA luncheon gathering, “because the food tastes like it was made in the 16th century.”
But seriously, folks . . . “The food was delicious.”
Rivers’ contribution to Illinois entertainment is slim at best. In 1960, she joined Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, making $85 per week, and spent eight months there.
“I’m grateful to Second City,” she said. “It was the first time I thought, `Maybe I can make it in this business.′” She paused for effect, then admitted: “But Second City was sons of bitches to all of (the cast).” After leaving Second City, Rivers honed her act in New York, culminating in her first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1966. She became the program’s main guest host, then broke ties with “Tonight” host Johnny Carson to begin her own late-night program. The pair’s relationship soured.
“Do you want to know the truth? I have never, from the day I left the Carson show, watched the program. It was so traumatic for me to leave and start my own show. I haven’t seen Jay Leno host (`The Tonight Show’) yet.
“But I hope he does well, so he’ll book me. I was booked on `Letterman,′ but Carson owns `Letterman,′ so I was un-booked.”
After her late-night show faltered, Rivers developed “The Joan Rivers Show,” which is in its third season as a daytime program. Locally, it airs at 10 a.m. on WICS, Channel 20. The program is a lighthearted conversational outing with a daily gossip segment.
“I’m shallow,” Rivers said about the gossip.
After the awards ceremony, Rivers made an impromptu visit to Lincoln’s Home and did promotional work at WICS’ studios. Before her flight back to New York, Rivers, accompanied by her dog Spike and first lady Brenda Edgar, visited Lincoln’s tomb.
Picture this: Rivers, her overly obedient dog and Illinois’ docile first lady stood silently in the dimly lit room where Lincoln’s tomb sits. History blended an unusual trio to mourn for a couple of minutes.
Rivers later rubbed the nose of Lincoln’s statue for good luck, then signed a special visitors’ book for dignitaries at the tomb, just underneath the signature of the counsel general of India.
Holding Spike, a freakishly obedient small terrier, and standing next to Edgar, Rivers paused silently in front of the tomb.
“I thought it was so moving,” Rivers said afterward.
Outside the tomb, a group of junior high school students from a Chicago suburb eagerly approached Rivers for her autograph.
Unleashed, Spike rambled across the historical monument grounds, then leapt (without any encouragement) into the back seat of Rivers’ limousine while the chauffeur held the door.