Michael Cohl was in the middle of telling a story about The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour when he paused. “By the way, do you want to hear about the night I fired Donald Trump?” It was Cohl’s keynote address at Pollstar Live! this past February.
The theme was his great decisions and others that weren’t that hot, told in stories about his career as a concert promoter and Broadway producer. He went to the podium with four stories to tell involving Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones and Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” but got sidetracked during the Stones yarn.
The 1989 Steel Wheels tour was famous for many things, including its reunion of Mick and Keef but also for its profitability, grossing nearly $100 million – a tour manufactured by Cohl and one that changed the landscape of concert promotion. It wrapped with a $24.95 pay-per-view event at Atlantic City’s 16,000-capacity Convention Center.
The event was Dec. 19, 1989, a broadcast of the last of three sold-out shows. However, to make it happen, Cohl needed to shop the show around Las Vegas, hoping to find the casino that would pay The Rolling Stones’ performance fee (which, in this case, could be defined as a “casino site fee”). When that didn’t fly, Cohl resorted to Atlantic City. The event was ultimately broadcast in association with Donald Trump, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, and MTV. Jump-cut six months from Cohl’s speech and the story has a sudden resonance.
By the way, do you want to hear about the night I fired Donald Trump? We have to figure out the pay-per-view event. I realized that when they did a big boxing match they would separate the promotion and the fight. For the fight, you’d get a site fee from Las Vegas. You’d get a dollar, a million, a billion. Whatever. You’d get a “site fee” and you’d get a worldwide closed-circuit. I thought, geez, if I can separate the Stones from their own gig, and just concentrate on the pay-per-view, then I might pull it off.
So I go to them and say, “Look, let’s do a worldwide pay-per-view. We’ll get a big site fee; I’ll get you $3 million for a site fee and we’ll keep all the money for the pay-per-view.” And they agreed. I hadn’t told them completely what I had in mind, which is one of the rare times I wasn’t completely up front. I went around Las Vegas, and they didn’t really want it. They didn’t get it, they didn’t like rock music yet.
They didn’t follow it. And, unfortunately, the only person I could get to kind of agree to the site fee we needed and to work it through was Donald Trump. Now I had one of those, “Oh God, how am I going to do this?” moments.
And I opened my big mouth in the meeting with The Rolling Stones where they go, “This is all great, but we’re not going to be affiliated with Donald Trump. At all. Screw you.” And I go, “I will control Donald Trump! Don’t you worry!”
So, we signed the contract. Donald agrees that he will not be in any of the promotion except in Atlantic City, and he will not show up at the gig! Holy shit! Well, the quick version is we go on sale. Eric Clapton was there, Axl Rose, Slash, John Lee Hooker – we had a fantastic show; sell out three shows.
Are you ready for the punchline? Three-hundred dollar tickets. That’s where they originated -- $300, $250, $150 and it worked. It was spectacular. And that’s how it happened.
The Stones agreed to that ticket pricing in Atlantic City. It didn’t have the happiest of endings, though. It’s the night of the show.
The Stones had such power in those days that the 6:40 p.m. slot on the national evening news was going to be an interview with the Stones to talk about and promote the pay-per-view. At about 5:50 p.m. I get word that I have to come to the press room in the next building. I run to the press room in the next building and what do you think is happening? There’s Donald Trump giving a press conference, in our room!
I give him the [come here gesture]. “Come on, Donald, what are you doing? A) You promised us you wouldn’t even be here and, B) you promised you would never do this.” He says, “But they begged me to go up, Michael! They begged me to go up!” I say, “Stop it. Stop it. This could be crazy. Do what you said you would. Don’t make a liar of yourself.”
I go back to the dressing room. Five minutes later, he’s back up. They call me back over there. Holy shit. I call him out (again). Same thing happens. I say, “Donald. I don’t know if I can control this. Stop it.” I go back to the dressing room. And I leave my walkie-talkie on in the dressing room. Moronic, on my part.
They call me back, at which point Keith pulls out his knife and slams it on the table and says, “What the hell do I have you for? Do I have to go over there and fire him myself? One of us is leaving the building – either him, or us.” I said, “No. I’ll go do it. Don’t you worry.”
I run over. He’s up there again! I go [gives the come here gesture]. We go into the hallway. I said, “Donald. You lied. You broke your promise. One of two things is going to happen. You’re going to leave the building and, at 6:40, The Rolling Stones are going to speak on CBS News, or you’re not going to leave the building and I’m going to go on and do an interview to explain to the world why the pay-per-view was canceled. I know it’s your building and…” – and in my head I’m going, this is so crazy, right? I’m trying to throw Donald Trump out of his own building.
But, anyway, the bottom line is I look at Donald and said, “You and Marla (Maples) have to go. You’re fired.” He looks at me and goes berserk.
“You don’t know anything! Your guys suck! I promote Mike Tyson! I promote heavyweight fights!” And I notice the three shtarkers he’s with, in trench coats, two of them are putting on gloves and the other one is putting on brass knuckles. I go on the walkie-talkie and I call for Jim Callahan, who was head of our security, and I go, “Jim, I think I’m in a bit of trouble.” And he says, “Just turn around.”
I turn around. He’s got 40 of the crew with tire irons and hockey sticks and screwdrivers.
“And now, are you gonna go, Donald?”
And that was the night I fired Donald Trump.