Prince’s Near-Disastrous ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ Premiere in Sheridan, Wyoming
At the time, it seemed like a genius PR plan: launch a romantic summer movie with a “Win a Date” contest where the film's leading man accompanies the winner to a glamorous movie premiere in their very own hometown. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, when the film’s star is the world’s biggest rock star, and a notoriously mercurial one at that, the answer is “just about everything”. And soon set sail the near-Titanic of all publicity stunts, the world premiere of Prince’s second film, Under the Cherry Moon, on July 1, 1986, in Sheridan, Wyoming.
Oddly, Prince wasn't even the most famous royal to ever visit Sheridan, a small farming and mining town near Montana’s southern border, that decade. Two years prior, Queen Elizabeth II was spotted shopping at local stores while in town as a guest of Sen. Malcolm Wallop. But while the Queen slipped in and out of town with little fanfare, Prince blew in like an EF-4 tornado.
The butterfly that set this unnatural disaster into motion was Lisa Barber, a 20-year-old local motel chambermaid. Who could have suspected the chaos she'd cause after entering a contest while watching MTV with a friend after work one June afternoon?
The MTV contest was enticing – instead of Hollywood flying the winner to the red carpet movie premiere, Hollywood would bring the premiere to the winner – no matter where in the U.S. they lived. We can assume the studio and artist would have preferred a town with the infrastructure to host a standard searchlight-flooded affair, a music venue ready for one of Prince’s legendary after-show concerts, and at least one four-star hotel to pack with celebrities. They likely also hoped for, and assumed, their winner would be an actual Prince fan. No such luck.
A year after Prince’s death, Chris Lee at The Daily Beast got quite the scoop when Robyn Riggs, Prince’s publicist in the mid-'80s, pulled back the curtain to reveal how this infamous event came together and how much worse things truly could have gone.
Riggs, only 25 at the time, had established herself as not only an A-list publicist, but also a fixer, akin to Harvey Keitel’s The Wolf character in Pulp Fiction. When she checked the paper the day after the MTV contest, she immediately realized damage control would be required. “They asked (Barber), ’Oh, are you a big Prince fan?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s OK. But I really like Motley Crue! I hope I get to meet Tommy Lee. And my phone started to ring.”
Riggs booked the next flight to Billings, Mont. (the nearest commercial airport) and pointed her rental car south towards Sheridan to do damage control. Not only did she have to turn a self-declared heavy metal fan into a camera-ready Prince fan, she had to prepare the city for Prince’s arrival, and ensure Prince lived up to his end of the bargain set forth in the contest.
While Riggs worked her magic, befriending Barber, calming her nerves, and giving her the best possible Queer Eye-style makeover, event producers assembled a convoy of 18-wheelers to truck the best possible big city show to a small town in cowboy country.
For members of Prince's entourage, including his band, the Revolution, the flight in was bumpy. “We had the worst flight ever from Denver to Sheridan, everyone was praying. We thought we were gonna die," guitarist Wendy Melvoin told author Matt Thorne for his book, Prince: The Man and His Music. Keyboardist Lisa Coleman added, “The plane was a VW van with wings.”
Once the event commenced, Riggs produced the photo opportunity everyone envisioned from Day One. Prince arrived with a bouquet of flowers, kissed Barber’s hand, and said, “Hello. My name is Prince. Ready to have a good time?” before whisking her off to the ball as cameras rolled. He played with her hair as the film premiered and gave her the best seat in the house for the after-show. But this magic moment almost didn’t happen.
The night before, Prince’s manager, the late Steve Fargnoli, called Riggs to tell her Barber would ride with the band in a bus, and Prince would drive himself to the premiere in the same 1964 Buick Wildcat seen in the movie. Undeterred by the pressure, Riggs went above both Prince’s and Fargnoli’s heads by waking up Rob Friedman, the head of the movie studio's marketing. Riggs recalls Friedman stumbling out of bed, calling Fargnoli, and saying, “Steven, here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to get with your client, you’re going to tell him that he’s going to take this girl AS HIS DATE. If he does not do that, then I’m going to haul Warner Bros. out of here. And all of our promotional dollars are going home.”
Much like the album’s title, Prince, Barber and his entourage made a parade from the Holiday Inn to the film’s premiere. “It was like being on Mars,” said Wendy of her time in Sheridan in an extensive interview with the Minneapolis StarTribune, “I don’t know if it was the greatest marketing scheme, [but] the show at the Holiday Inn was fierce.”
“It was so strange to go to this little town and then do a gig in the ballroom,” Coleman told Thorne. “I was up on a riser but the ceiling was so low it was right there. The keys on the synth curved from the heat. It was so hot on that stage it fried your head.” But Prince did not care, telling Coleman ahead of the gig, “We’re gonna rock Sheridan.”
Watch Prince Perform in Sheridan, Wyoming
In his book, dancemusicsexromance, author Per Nilsen reports the 50-minute MTV broadcast of the Holiday Inn after-party was seen by nearly two million people. It included performances of "Raspberry Beret," "Delirious," "Controversy" and "Mutiny." That last track also foretold of things to come. After the show, Prince docked Wendy’s pay and inflamed already seeded resentment within the band.
“That night I had a huge blowout with Prince,” said Wendy of the incident in the StarTribune. “I was at the bar having a beer with Joni Mitchell. An interviewer came up to me and the next day in some paper, it said: ‘Wendy from Prince and the Revolution answering blah blah blah while nursing a Budweiser.’ Prince pulled me upstairs and read me out about being an example to kids. I was completely floored. It felt like something else was wrong here. It’s not about me drinking a beer.”
While the movie was destined to be a flop from pre-production onward, the supporting album, Parade, was poised to become one of Prince’s biggest hits. The Sheridan performance was supposed to also promote a world tour to support the album, but the band was no longer in tune. Thorne reported that Brownmark had received a better offer to tour with Stevie Nicks. Tour manager Alan Leeds eventually talked the band into taking what would become a final victory lap through Europe and Japan. The Sheridan date wound up being the third-to-last Stateside date Prince ever played with the Revolution (they performed in Denver two days later and did two dates in New York the following month).
Today, the Parade album is a classic, the reformed Revolution delivers Prince’s music to concert audiences around the world, the movie is beloved by Prince die-hards and long forgotten by just about everyone else, and Lisa Barber remains blessed by the experience. “He changed my life,” she told People soon after Prince’s death in 2016. “He helped me to open up a little and feel more at ease about myself. He was kind to me and so natural and down-to-earth. Prince didn’t let fame go to his head.”
And in true Hollywood fashion, last year, Deadline reported Chris Lee’s Daily Beast exclusive with Riggs was optioned by Paramount Players to become a motion picture to be produced by and starring Elizabeth Banks. Ironically, Lee’s article was titled, “When Prince Made a Chambermaid His Queen for a Day," though technically that would mean he went on a date with his mom. The film is still in development, so perhaps Barber's character will become his "princess" by the time it hits theaters. Whether Sheridan hosts the premiere is anyone’s guess.