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The Jerry Springer no one knows 

Leukemia benefit at Variety is small on receipts, big on heart

Jerry Springer stood in the near-emptiness of the Variety Playhouse and called out raffle ticket numbers.

"Here's a man who hasn't eaten in three weeks," he joked in the tabloid-preview voice that whips up frenzies on The Jerry Springer Show. "And he used to be a woman."

A young man in a denim jacket ambled self-consciously down the aisle past rows of empty seats and took his gift certificate for an evening on the town.

As he returned to his seat he passed a slight woman smiling bravely, looking out over the playhouse, her eyes shimmering a little with what looked like tears.

The woman, Janet Bass, had organized this fete, a screening of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, courtesy of a donated DVD from her employer, New Line Cinema, at the Variety Playhouse (which she rented at the discounted rate of $2,700) with Jerry Springer. Bass, a regional sales rep who finagles advertising for the movie company with television stations, was still stunned that Springer, who did a cameo in the movie, had agreed to show up. He even paid his own way from Chicago to Atlanta.

Early in the day things looked great. Bass was anxious but happy as Springer made his rounds among the local television stations in anticipation of the night's benefit show for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. For Bass and her family (her 70-something father and one of her sisters drove seven hours from Marion, Va.), the night would be a chance to make something meaningful of her mother's death.

Ursula Bass was diagnosed with leukemia 12 years ago when Janet, the fifth child of seven, was 30. As the years passed and Ursula slipped in and out of remission, coming back stronger than ever each time, her family felt sure that she'd beat the disease. But last March, Janet got a call telling her to come home. Just the week before, her mother had been delivering food to the elderly as part of her round of volunteer work. Now, she was dying and this time, at age 70, there would be no remission.

What she meant to her children and her husband was clear at the Variety Playhouse. Her widower, a retired chemical engineer, watched his children as they tried to mingle and be light, his eyes misting over, not saying anything.

Shortly after her mother's death, Janet had trained for a marathon to raise money for the leukemia society, but a hip injury put an end to that. Several months later she hit on the idea of asking her employer for a movie that she could show. But, she reasoned, who would pay full price to see a movie that's already on video? She would need a celebrity, she realized, to make an appearance and pull people in. A co-worker suggested she call Springer, who accepted immediately, although she warned him that she couldn't guarantee a crowd.

Last Thursday, Springer may have recalled that warning. The Variety, which can accommodate 900 people, took in fewer than 170 tickets for the event despite the added appeal of the Lizardmen, a 1960s nostalgia band, and a troupe of not-quite professional go-go dancers. Of those $15 tickets, only about half were actually paid for; the balance were comped in hopes of generating enough buzz to boost attendance.

Toward the end of the evening, Janet's boyfriend tallied the proceeds and informed her that she was in the red. She looked lost and kept her voice low so that her dad, standing three feet away, wouldn't hear her when she said, "This is awful."

But that wasn't quite true.

Springer, the 57-year-old host of the crassest show on television, stood his ground, quipped and cajoled and handed out raffle prizes as if he were playing to a capacity crowd in his own studio. And when it was over, he slipped his arm around Janet and kissed the top of her head.

"You did a good job," he said, away from any microphones. "Your mother would be proud of you."

Those interested in helping defray the costs of the benefit or in donating to the cause can send a check made out to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society/ Ursula Bass benefit to:

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

c/o Janet Bass

New Line Television

931 Monroe Drive

Suite 308

Atlanta, GA 30308

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