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Shell Schlocked

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' rock show -- EW goes behind the scenes of the tour, where producers insist the turtles are ''real''

''The spirit you want to keep in mind is that these are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They are not actors dressed in costumes. They are the Ninja Turtles, and they've learned to play rock & roll.''

Diane Blackman, spokesauthoritarian for the Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles' rock & roll show, was outlining the approach I should take in my story about . the fab foursome's 40-city tour. As you or your young relatives may have heard, the genetically altered reptiles are zooming toward you this fall and winter as an arena rock act. The Ninja Turtles' Coming Out of Their Shells tour, which debuted September 26 at New York's Radio City Music Hall, comes complete with life-size versions of Michaelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael, all strutting and playing and belting out songs like ''Tubin''' and ''Pizza Power.'' So I had thought my assignment was simple: All I wanted to know was, just how do they accomplish this?

Well, for starters, the live-stage Turtles are four actors in sophisticated costumes with movable, remote-controlled eyes and mouths. Their instruments are simply toys, and like many an ersatz rock group before them, they ''play'' to prerecorded tracks. But I didn't get any of this information from Turtle officialdom. Blackman's repeated pronouncement was that the Turtles are ''real.'' So, I asked, that means you're not releasing any material on who the actors in Turtle costumes are or how they won their parts?

''No. No. I just told you,'' Blackman said emphatically. ''See, your editor understands that these are the Ninja Turtles. So when you talk to Michaelangelo, talk to him as Michaelangelo. Say, 'Hey, dude, how'd you come up with the sets and costumes?' The spirit of what you want to write is that these guys have worked real, real hard at becoming rockers. It's not just a concert, it's a theatrical event. And people who have won a zillion Tonys are behind it. And that's why I emphasize that it's an event. It's no less cheap than a Broadway show.''

Understood (except for the last four sentences). But just suppose, for the sake of discussion, that I lose my mind during the interview and ask Michaelangelo who he really is underneath the costume?

''He'd just say, 'Hey, dude, I'm Michaelangelo, dude.' The point is that even behind the scenes we present these guys strictly as the Ninja Turtles. In the clips you have, you'll see a cute write-up in Newsweek. Take a look at that. They did it in the spirit I'm talking about.''

But there turned out to be more to this prescribed spirit than presenting humans as turtles. The gospel according to Blackman also included frequent mentions of Pizza Hut, the tour's sponsor. At first she asked me to stress the success of the Coming Out of Their Shells album, for sale (with a food purchase) at Huts everywhere. Then she called with what she said was a scoop: ''The press release says the album will only be available exclusively at Pizza Hut through September. But we're adding another month — we're extending the window on the Pizza Hut offer because sales have been so phenomenal!'' Could I please, please work that into the story, too?

All this seemed one step short of sending two goons to manipulate my fingers on the keyboard (''Capital P, bud, then i...''). Call me a rebel, but I responded by trying to think up questions that the Turtles and their handlers hadn't anticipated.

On the phone with Michaelangelo, I loosened things up with a softball opening: ''With those big, meaty, Sarge-like fingers, how do you get quality rock sounds from what, judging by the photos, is a three-string guitar that doesn't have frets?'' (Answer: ''It's a fretless guitar tuned to the key of E, dude. We like raw sound.'')

Next I started zipping Socratic hardballs past the spot where Mich's ears would be, if he had ears. So as not to frighten him off, I started slow: ''I suppose Pizza Hut is the only pizza you guys eat?''

''Totally, dude,'' Michelangelo said. ''It's in our contract. There was a Domino's reference in our film, but that's history. Now Pizza Hut is the only pizza for us.''

It was time to get tough. ''Okay. But consider one possible chain of events. A Domino's truck crashes on the streets of New York, killing the driver instantly and sending dozens of hot pies, still piping fresh and bubbling in their boxes, cascading onto the pavement. A gang of lacto-allergic ruffians throws the pies into the rain sewer, and thanks to Domino's hard-cardboard, Noid-thwarting packaging, the pizzas float right into your watery living room, still fresh and good. You're always hungry. And yet you're going to sit there and tell me you wouldn't eat those pies?''

A long pause. Then the sound of a confused, uneasy laugh. A confused, uneasy, human laugh. Then: ''Dude, we'd throw 'em away like Frisbees.''

Not bad; but too late. The shell had cracked, non-green flesh was peeking through, and a distinctly non-reptilian voice had escaped. To paraphrase the granddaddy of all cobbled-together rock acts, the Monkees: I'm not a believer.

Originally posted Oct 12, 1990 Published in issue #35 Oct 12, 1990 Order article reprints
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