A behind-the-scenes peak at the Eagle’s Heart & Cancer Telethon

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By Steve Van Kooten

 

The Eagle’s Heart and Cancer Telethon pulled the curtain for its 2024 production on Jan. 27 from the Prairie du Chien Area Arts Center (PAAC).On the stage, emcees Dan Moris, David Hemmer and Tom Stram walked viewers through a myriad of musical guests, sponsors and auction items. There was a vibrant cheerfulness to the show as it played across the PAAC stage.

Behind the screens and curtains where the camera couldn’t pry, Mark Oehler walked through the backstage area. He stepped cautiously at points to avoid large cables and clumps of equipment attached in an intricate web that had settled over the high school floor.

“I started helping [with the telethon] because I was in television,” Oehler recalled. Before the first telethon, he worked for a small electronics shop in Prairie du Chien then found a job in cable television. 

Oehler worked behind the scenes in a variety of capacities throughout the telethon’s 49 year history; he’s worked as an audio mixer to a  camera operator and a myriad of duties in between.

“It was just a shoestring—we didn’t have a production crew,” he said. As he winnowed through the backstage area, the inner-workings of a live television production opened up. Above the stage there were more than twenty holders for backdrops, and, in the background, screens added color and value to its presentation.

“This is great; we use to have to come up with all this ourselves,” Oehler said as he pointed to the house lights that were precisely aimed at the stage area. “You probably don’t even remember the camcorders you use to have—the big ones you’d have to put on your arm. I had one of those years ago when I worked in television. It was a mom-and-pop type of thing.”

The telethon has been hosted in the PAAC for two year. Before that it had a home in the Bluff View Middle School cafeteria, which Oehler said had been built with productions like the telethon in mind. Even before that the show played out in BA Kennedy’s old gymnasium.

Inside the PAAC, tucked away from the stage area, a Mediacom production truck from Dubuque was parked. Inside, three technicians monitored camera changes, audio mixing and on-screen graphics. The broadcast was then sent out to Channel 6 and live streamed to YouTube. Oehler peaked in and estimated there was approximately $250,000 worth of equipment inside. 

Most of the production people were volunteers who lent their time and expertise to the telethon. According to Moris, the allure for professionals was an opportunity to do something different: “There’s not a lot of telethons anymore; they’ve gone the way of the Dodo as media consumption has changed.”

Oehler stated next year was the big one: the fiftieth telethon.

“I’m just one of twenty people that have been around forever,” Oehler said. “We’ve had years where we had blizzards and half the talent didn’t show up. But the show must go on.”

At 11 p.m. the 2024 telethon drew to a close with nearly $33,000 on the screen. In its time, the Eagle’s Heart and Cancer Telethon has raised more than $1 million for medical research. It’s a win for medical research, for those suffering and for the community that has fostered a tradition of giving and celebrating life.

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