Sweaty Teddy

For this maestro, the weddings go on forever and the receptions never change

Saturday-night fever in St. Charles hasn't surfaced yet, but Ted Burke is already feeling the heat. The sweat has started with Ted.

Ted's been a successful wedding-reception DJ for more than eleven years, so this isn't flop sweat. He's not worried that this night's "show," as he calls it, will turn ugly or weird. And Ted isn't just sweating the details. Ted literally sweats everything, hence his nickname: Sweaty Teddy.

Ted laughs it off, introducing himself that way to strangers and referring to himself over the microphone as Sweaty Teddy. He says he has a medical condition called hyperhydrosis: He sweats too much.

At this point, early in the evening, it's not noticeable. Ted is negotiating with those in charge at the Stegton Banquet Center, off Interstate 70, about one of his personal rituals within the larger ritual that is the working-class wedding reception. It's one of the little things that he believes set him apart from your garden-variety wedding-reception DJ.

The wedding party's bus is about to pull up in front. Ordinarily this is Ted's cue to bring out a round of drinks for the groomsmen and bridesmaids as they get off the bus. But that would mean leaving the building with drinks, and Stegton security rules forbid that.

So after some haggling back in the kitchen, Ted goes with the flow and forgets about the curb-service part of his shtick. But he has his reasons for trying to lubricate the wedding party early.

"When they get off the bus, they're going to be hot. They're going to be thirsty. What do you do? You greet them with drinks," Ted says as he snaps his fingers loudly enough to be heard a table away. "Right away, they see you are on top of things."

Any reasonable doubt about Ted's being on top of things is hard to maintain. As he heads out to greet the wedding party at the front door, he walks with the urgency of a waiter working for tips. His head swivels from side to side, as if he's a maitre d' searching the room for an empty table. He's not looking for anything specific, really, just checking things out.

Ted knows the drill, and he's on top of it. This may be the first time for the groom, Tim Newman, and the bride, Jill Stoverink, but Ted has been through this hundreds of times. Couples only get married for the first time once; for Ted, almost every Saturday night is another nuptial celebration.

Exhorting the wedding party as they line up in the lobby, about to enter the hall, Ted is part coach, part director -- part Knute Rockne, part Cecil B. DeMille.

During the previous week, he's practiced the pronunciation of each groomsman's and bridesmaid's name, and now he rattles them off as he walks past the wedding party. "John Blas-ka-witz ... Jim Gen-til-ee." The groomsmen appear impressed. "He got it right," one says.

Then it's time to pump up the volume. At six-foot-four, Ted is a taller version of former Saturday Night Live cast member Will Ferrell. People tell him he reminds them of Ferrell in the SNL cheerleader skits. He towers over the wedding party as he booms out his instructions, sans microphone:

"Ladies and gentlemen, let's make some noise for the reason we're all here tonight: Jill and Tim Newman."

He is answered with much cheering and screaming, whooping and hollering.

A movie buff, Ted borrows an interjection Al Pacino used in his Academy Award-winning performance as a blind Army officer in Scent of a Woman:

"Can we have a 'hoo-ah?' One-two-three, hoo-ah! Again! One-two-three, hoo-ah! For the bride and groom: One-two-three, hoo-ah!"

The 300-or-so guests inside the hall, on the other side of the door, have no idea what's causing the commotion. Once he gauges that the wedding party is frenzied enough, Ted goes through the doors, walking double-time back to his sound system to set up the first music requested by the bride and groom.

It's the theme from Shaft.

As the Isaac Hayes classic blares from the speakers, Ted introduces the ring bearer, the flower girl, the ushers, the groomsmen and the bridesmaids. They walk in -- two by two, arm in arm -- past the wedding cake and up to the head table, as Ted instructed them earlier, "ladies on the left, right-hand men on the right."

When it's time for Tim and Jill to enter the hall, Ted fades Isaac Hayes and talks over the music: "Ladies and gentlemen, let's get out of our chairs. I want a standing ovation, a big round of applause, for the reason we're all here tonight." Ted flips to the music the newlyweds have picked for their intro -- the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," from the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever -- and encourages the crowd: "I want a big round of applause for Tim and Jill Newman!"

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I'm a woman's man: no time to talk
Music loud and women warm
I've been kicked around
Since I was born

The crowd is standing up. Jill and Tim walk to the head table with the photographer's lights on them. The crowd is clapping rhythmically to the Bee Gees' signature tune.

Well now, I get low and I get high
And if I can't get either, I really try
Got the wings of heaven on my shoes
I'm a dancin' man and I just can't lose

A wise caterer once said that every couple wants its wedding reception to be different, but they all end up being the same.

Even when the bride and groom try to be different, they end up mimicking others. During a recent reception, Ted noticed that he seldom sees the old-style bride and groom on top of the wedding cake anymore:

"I asked a baker about that, and he said Martha Stewart said, 'Why be like everybody else? Everybody else puts a bride and groom on top of the cake. Keep it simple, keep it elegant.' The funny thing is, if everyone now is putting flowers on top of the cake, then they're not being different.'"

The sameness is moderated slightly by budget -- money does change the props and scenery. Wedding receptions vary visually from Lemay to Ladue, depending on whether the couple is throwing a buffet with plastic plates at a VFW hall or a sit-down meal served on china at a fancy-schmancy hotel.

But within a certain middle-class price range -- say, around 25 bucks a plate with booze, at a total price of $4,000 to $8,000 -- most receptions bear striking similarities. The introduction, the toast, the dinner, the cake-cutting, the bouquet and garter tosses, the first dance and the photos are differentiated by only the slightest nuances.

The emcee of this ritual, the person who not only provides the soundtrack to the evening but does the most to affect its dynamic and demeanor, is the wedding-reception DJ. Ted, 39, is a veteran of the St. Louis wedding-reception circuit. He's won nine awards in a quarterly competition for best DJ at Complete Music, which employs about 45 "mobile DJs" locally.

Ted has heard the criticism about the incredible sameness of most wedding receptions, but he refuses to take the blame. People may gripe that they always hear the same songs, played at the same times, but Ted defends himself by saying that most couples want them that way. He points to songs listed on the form filled out by Newman and Stoverink before the wedding -- selections from Grease and Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl."

"These are all the standards," says Ted. "These are all their requests. That's why you hear so much of the same stuff at a wedding -- because they are popular wedding songs."

The way Ted sees it, what he plays is what the bride and groom have specifically requested or songs requested by the wedding party or someone in the audience -- or, he says, "If nobody gives me anything, then I'm just going to mix it up to see what I can do to get everybody up there dancing.

"As far as I'm concerned at my shows, there should never be a problem with music selection," Ted says. He has two ways of knowing the crowd doesn't like the music: They tell him, or they don't dance.

The two basic goals of a wedding reception DJ are related: Make the bride happy and get people to dance. Get people to dance and make the bride happy. That about sums up the science of it.

Taking requests is part of the deal, but the last thing Ted wants is the wedding-reception equivalent of the neutron bomb: a song that leaves the dance floor intact but eliminates all life-forms from it.

"Let's say I'm playing 'Hot in Herre' by Nelly and everybody's dancing, and somebody says, 'I want to hear 'Faithfully' by Journey.' I play it and everybody clears, even the guy who asked for it. And I go up to him after the song and he says, 'I just wanted to listen to it.' Well, that's why God gave you your CD player and your radio. We want people who come to dance."

Ted tells the crowd early about his two rules: First, don't bring drinks to the dance floor, and second, if you request a song, dance to it. "If your request clears the dance floor," Ted will tell the crowd, "I will know who made it, and so will everyone else in the room."

Ted even has what he calls the das ist verboten list -- songs the bride and groom don't want played. If they have an aversion to "Time in a Bottle" by Jim Croce, "Brick House" by the Commodores or "Color My World" by Chicago, they can list those as verboten songs. The same goes for line dances such as the Electric Slide, the Macarena and, of course, the Hokey-Pokey.

One guest at the Newman wedding went down that road a few months ago with a different DJ. While planning his own wedding, 29-year-old Bret Kroencke spelled out his dislikes.

"I did not want 'Cotton-Eyed Joe,' 'YMCA,' 'Celebration,' the Hokey-Pokey, the Electric Slide -- no Macarena, no limbo, none of that," Kroencke says. "No conga line." Kroencke's fiance, Janet, also asked that there be no bouquet or garter toss.

"I told our DJ if he played those songs, he wasn't getting his last payment," Kroencke says. "You know what? He didn't play those songs. Any songs other than the ones I said not to play, he could play. People kept coming up and requesting 'YMCA.' He was, like, 'I don't have it.' He had it, but he wouldn't play it. People were trying to get him to play 'Celebration,' too."

That type of direction is fine with Ted. During a pre-wedding telephone conference with the bride and groom -- dubbed the "pre-call" -- which takes place a week or so before the event, he straightens out the do's and don'ts.

"If I can hit it off with both the bride and groom during the pre-call," Ted says, snapping his fingers, "it's in the bag."

The bride and groom give Ted a list of songs they want to hear, tell him what's on the verboten list and let him know whether anything special is planned.

For Jill and Tim, the special event is Tim, then Jill, replicating the famous John Travolta's white-suited strut and dance to "Stayin' Alive," complete with a circle of spectators surrounding them, clapping.

Ted sees himself as a guide for the newlyweds: "Think of it this way: They're on a safari. I want to guide them. I'm here to guide them through it."

He also compares himself to a circus ringmaster.

"Out of the 200 guests they've got coming, no one came to see me," Ted says. "If I'm a ringmaster at a circus, no one comes to see the ringmaster. They came to see the acts, the lion-tamer and the trapeze artists -- the bride and groom."

Most of the Ted's gigs are referrals -- the couple has been told about Ted or has seen him in action. On the form, the bride and groom are asked to circle "easygoing," "moderate" or "outgoing" to indicate the style of DJ they want. Anyone who has seen Ted come out from behind his paraphernalia to dance with the crowd could hardly call him easygoing or even moderate.

"Most of them will say they want someone who will get the party going but won't be obnoxious," Ted says. "Basically, they don't want Howard Stern DJ-ing their wedding. What I like to do is to get out there and dance with the crowd, with their permission. That doesn't mean I'm going to walk up to that cute bridesmaid and ask her if she wants to dance during 'Unchained Melody.' This isn't Love, American Style."

But some people think the DJ's job is nothing but a party. Not so, says Sweaty Teddy.

"There's this misperception that I'm going to drink booze all night, I'm going to pick up women, I'm going to party all night. No, that is not what I'm here to do," says Ted. "If you want to be successful, you better lose that attitude right away. Number one, you don't drink on the job; you get fired immediately for that. It's unprofessional. After it's all over, I do have a few libations at the end of the night, but during? No.

"Here to pick up girls? No, you are not. You never, ever want to get the reputation of being a lounge lizard. The bride, her mother and those bridesmaids don't want some goofball with a couple of corny lines trying to pick somebody up. That's ridiculous. That's totally unprofessional. You don't want to get that reputation."

That kind of rep will kill referrals. It's one thing for a bridesmaid to dance with the DJ, but to wake up with a tuxedo hanging from your bedpost -- that's usually not a story anyone involved wants to spread.

So even as Ted takes to the dance floor or goes table-hopping to see what folks will dance to, he's on the job. He's working. He's doing reconnaissance.

"The only slow dancing I do is the dollar dance," says Ted, who usually slips the bride a lottery ticket instead of cash. "That's my chance to check with the bride to make sure things are going OK. I always tell the bride to feel free to say, 'Hey, the music's a little loud -- will you turn it down?' or 'Grandma really wants to hear a polka at this point.' This is supposed to be the happiest day of the bride's life, but it's the most stressful, next to being born."

Once the matron of honor and best man make their toasts to the bride and groom, the next item on the agenda is the cake-cutting. Ted has cued up "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies.

Oh honey, honey
You are my candy girl
And you've got me wanting you

Ted makes his way to the cake table, which is across the room from where he's spinning his music. He's holding a container of Wet Ones. It's another trick of the trade he's picked up. As Tim and Jill pose, doing the hokey feeding-each-other-cake routine, Ted's ready if some of the icing gets on their hands and faces.

"They want to go away and wash their hands off, and the photographer will say, 'Stop them,' Ted says. "So what do I do? I've got Wet Ones for them. It solves the problems and saves time."

As the photographer sets up the shot, a groomsman asks Ted to play "the new one" by Eminem.

"I'm not allowed to play it," Ted says.

"Are you kidding me?" the groomsman asks.

Ted gets out the form and shows him that Eminem is on the verboten list.

"Who gave you this?" the groomsman asks.

"The bride," says Ted.

"Aww, that's my sister. I'll talk to her."

The three huddle and decide that "maybe later" the song will be playable. Ted says he has the version "with the bad words out of it."

"Yeah," says the groomsman. "Beautiful."

It's still early in the evening, and Neil Diamond is serving as background: She's got the way to move me, cherie.

The early stages of the wedding rituals -- the ceremony, the handshakes and hugs in the receiving line, the meal, the cake, the garter and bouquet tosses -- those belong to the older relatives and friends. The bar, the music, the Nelly and Eminem during the final hour on the dance floor -- those belong to the breeding class.

Nelly's "Hot in Herre," despite its lyrics about taking off clothes, was used as an intro song for the wedding party at one recent reception worked by Ted. Novelty variations on songs such as "Mony Mony," with its sing-along chorus of "Hey, hey, get laid, get fucked," are also requested periodically.

"I have no idea about the origin of that, but it's not very tasteful to do it at weddings," says Ted. "I've had people say, 'Play it, but play it during the last hour.' Songs like that and 'Strokin',' by Clarence Carter -- it's fun, I like that song, but I don't play it until after eleven o'clock, when Grandma and Grandpa and the pastor are gone."

Jill and Tim's "wedding song" is "Oh Very Young" by Cat Stevens. Because Ted's CD collection is all singles, the newlyweds have had to bring their own Cat Stevens CD to hear the cut: You're only dancing on this earth for a short while ...

Next, the wedding party dances to Louis Armstrong's version of "What a Wonderful World."

The first song Ted punches up for everybody to get up and dance to is a wedding-reception standard: Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll":

Just take those old records off the shelf
I'll sit and listen to 'em by myself
Today's music ain't got the same soul
I like that old time rock & roll
Don't try to take me to a disco
You'll never even get me out on the floor

But disco isn't far behind. A request comes next.

"Where are the Pikes [the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity]?" Ted asks. "This goes out to the Pikes. Let's get the Pikes out here."

Everybody was kung fu fighting
Those cats were fast as lightning

Next comes the bouquet toss, carried out with a backdrop of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cindy Lauper.

"Ladies, these are the rules," Ted tells the assembled women. "All kicking, hair-pulling, eye-gouging and kneecapping are sanctioned by the state of Missouri. On the count of three ..."

For the garter toss, as Tim removes the garter from Jill's leg, Ted plays the theme from the television show Mission: Impossible.

"Where are all the single guys? Single guys, get up here -- no drinks on the floor -- everybody, no drinks on the floor, single guys get up here," Ted asks the crowd, trying to get some males to join the few who have already stepped up. "I can't believe all these beautiful women didn't bring dates with them.

"Tim, kneel down in front of your lovely wife. Tim, kneel down. Get used to that position. Tim's a movie fan. He's also a secret agent."

The music kicks in.

"So, Tim, your mission -- should you decide to accept it -- is to remove that garter from your lovely wife's leg as creatively as possible. Do not worry about your dental work."

Tim reaches up under Jill's wedding dress.

"You may be entering hostile territory, so proceed with caution."

Tim gets the garter.

"He has succeeded in his mission. We don't want those men to crush our beautiful bride. OK, Tim, it'll be on the count of three. Guys, these are the rules for you: No jumping out of the way when you see it coming at you, no letting it fall to the floor and, most important, don't put it in my pocket -- it's yours to keep."

Ted's line is part of the shtick, but it's also true. Less than a year from his 40th birthday, Ted has never been married. Being around all these people getting married must not be contagious.

The one stunt the bride and groom have opted out of is the "slip on" routine, in which the man who catches the garter puts it on the leg of the woman who catches the bouquet. It's not often done, but of course Ted has a skit worked out for that, too.

"If she's fourteen and he's 23, we're not going to do that -- that's kind of disgusting," Ted says. "But if it's two adults and they can take it, you might say, 'Hey, Tom, if it's five years of wedded bliss for Tim and Jill for every inch you go above Antoinette's knee, let's give them a lifetime together.' You make a little joke like that, but you always clear that ahead of time. Some people don't find that funny."

With the photo ops out of the way, Ted shifts into dance mode. First he plays a slow one -- "Misty" by Johnny Mathis. Then he stokes up the crowd up by going country a bit with "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and the sing-along "Family Tradition" by Hank Williams Jr.

Paul Simon's "Cecilia" is next, followed by five slow songs for the dollar-dance segment. The pace picks up with "Dancing Queen" by ABBA, "Love Shack" by the B-52s, "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves and "My Prerogative" by Bobby Brown. A conga line twists in and out of the hall during Buster Poindexter's "Hot Hot Hot."

During a string of songs from Grease -- Ted doesn't like to play the medley -- he does a brief voice-over on "Summer Nights." When Travolta sings of Olivia Newton-John, "I told her we'd still be friends," Ted interjects: "Yeah, right. The check's in the mail."

Ted gets out to dance numerous times, once locking arms with the bride and doing a brief chorus-line kick during "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners. He joins the crowd and lip-syncs to Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me." Ted punctuates the "bang-bang" line from "Love Shack," pantomiming guns with both hands. During "Oh What a Night" by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, he pretends to be playing the trombone during the part in the song with horns. More than once, those dancing next to him roll their eyes ceilingward at Ted's antics.

He can be a bit much.

But Ted is a reflection, an exaggerated reflection, of the party-hearty friends of the bride and groom who make it onto the dance floor, especially for the last hour or so. He's one of them, only more so. He dances, he lip-syncs along with the song, he makes charadelike gestures acting out the lyrics in a cartoonish way -- but so do they, only less so. His obnoxiousness allows them to be a little more them than they usually are.

Ted says his pacing of the music usually consists of "four or five fast ones of any type, country, hip-hop or rock & roll," followed by two or three slow numbers. That varies if the crowd looks as if it's getting tired.

Tim's impersonation of Travolta goes off without a hitch. The crowd encircles him, clapping in time. He struts the length of the dance floor once, aping every hand and hip gesture made by Travolta in the movie. During his second turn on the floor, Jill joins him, shadowing his routine.

It brings down the house, or at least the part of the house that made it to the dance floor.

The music is scheduled to stop at 11:30 p.m. The tidy version of Eminem's "Without Me" clocks in at 10:56 p.m. The mirror ball is whirling, the siren lights are twirling and the bride is happy.

When Ted follows Eminem with Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair," Jill turns to Ted and blurts, "Oh, good song." Ted smiles. The bride is happy, and the countdown is less than 30 minutes.

"Is it just me?" Ted asks the dancers before the next song, "or is it 'Hot in Herre'?" Squeals erupt on the dance floor. Nelly rules in Nellyville.

Pink is next; then the matron of honor, Lynette Boland, requests "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC. In a special moment that is, well, unexpected, Boland brings a chair out to the dance floor, stands on it and sings the lyrics to her husband, pointing to him as she sings: "You ... shook me all night long."

The crunch at the end of the night requires Ted to consult with Jill because there isn't time for the two songs requested from the film Moulin Rouge. There's time for "Your Song" but not "Lady Marmalade."

The dancers want to stay longer, but halls are pretty strict about quitting time. As Ted lines up the last song, the hired help bus the tables and carry their loads back to the kitchen, shaking their heads as they see all the spilled drinks on the dance floor. They want to go home.

The compromise choice for the final song? "Last Dance," by Donna Summer.

I need you by me
Beside me
To guide me
To hold me
To scold me
'Cause when I'm bad
I'm so, so bad

When the music's over and the bar closes, people exit a wedding reception as if somebody has yelled, "Fire!"

On this night, as is sometimes the case, the bride and groom are two of the stragglers. Tim explains the origin of his homage to John Travolta. "I've been doing that dance since I was a freshman in high school, fourteen years ago," he says as he hangs with a few remaining relatives and friends. "I can't escape it. When it comes on, people know -- they expect it."

Jill, the happy bride, is effusive about the night's music.

"Ted was awesome," Jill gushes. "He was very good. We had so much fun, we don't want to leave."

But they do, and as the clock drifts to the other side of midnight, one last worker waits to lock up the hall as Ted clears his equipment. On a table next to where he stacks his gear lie what looks like two soaked bar towels. They're actually Ted's tuxedo shirt and undershirt, dripping wet.

Ted has changed out of his tux and is loading speakers, lights and CDs into his 1986 Chevy Celebrity, which is parked outside a side door, across two handicap spaces in the empty parking lot. The only other car left on the lot belongs to the security guard, who is changing a flat tire about 50 yards away.

Ted is still taking care of business after his car is loaded. Kneeling on one knee and using his car's trunk as a table, he fills out paperwork and writes a thank-you note to Tim and Jill. He makes sure the check from the father of the bride is in his wallet. Years ago, a check written with a felt-tip pen was ruined when Ted put it in his pocket early in the evening. His perspiration soaked through, making the ink run and leaving the check illegible.

Tonight's check, for $545, is made out to Complete Music Inc., Ted's employer. On its Web site, Complete Music bills itself as the "nation's largest mobile disc jockey entertainment service," with franchises in 156 cities. Ted will get $100 to $120 for his work, including the pre-call and other prep work. He showed up at the hall around 5 p.m. He won't unload his gear until about 1 a.m.

If Ted owned his own equipment, if he booked his own gigs, all the money would he his. But that would mean buying and maintaining the audio arsenal and sweating such details as marketing and scheduling that he doesn't have to worry about now. If something had broken down during Jill and Tim's party, one phone call to a supervisor would have brought Ted new equipment.

"I'm not a salesman, I'm a product," Ted says, writing his thank-you note. "After eleven-and-a-half years of doing this, I'm doing it because it's fun."

Part of the upside for Ted is the traditional Saturday-night gathering back at Complete Music's offices, located in a converted ranch house on Olive Boulevard in Creve Coeur. What used to be the garage holds wooden stalls where each DJ stores equipment. Every Saturday night, the DJs gather on the driveway to drink a few beers and swap war stories for an hour or so. It's clear that Ted loves the camaraderie, the wind-down from the rush of a performance.

The note to Tim and Jill makes references to topics the three discussed that night. A promptly dispatched note is one way to keep the customer satisfied -- and get referrals. Ted knows that the bride and groom are movie buffs, so in a postscript he reminds them to rent Ed Wood. He signs it "Cordially, Sweaty Teddy."

"Remember the trailer for that movie?" Ted asks, looking up from finishing the note. "It said, 'They had no money, they had no talent, they had no clue. But that didn't stop them.'"

The lines come out of Ted's mouth with no hint of self-awareness. He's laughing. He's talking about a movie about Ed Wood, a horrible director of horrible horror movies.

The unkind might say that the catchphrase also describes wedding-music maestros and the contrived conviviality they create each Saturday night.

To the unduly judgmental, these DJs may look as if they have no money, no talent, no clue. Kneeling next to his sixteen-year-old Celebrity, its paint peeling and its wheels missing two hubcaps, carrying a paycheck that will go mostly to his employer, Ted knows there isn't much money in this for him. That doesn't seem to bother him. It's a trade-off for the weekly buzz and the lack of hassles guaranteed by having somebody responsible for the business side of things.

Talent? "Talent" is a loose term. Ted knows his craft and pulls it off week after week.

Ted does have a clue. He knows what he's doing, he does it well and he enjoys his work. He can get people to dance. He can make them laugh, even if it's sometimes at him as much as it is with him. He provides a service, he's in demand and he hustles. He sweats for a reason.

And, outside of the groom, Ted has the best chance that night of making the bride happy.

For those who show up at one of his receptions and don't dance, don't have a good time, don't laugh -- well, maybe they should stay home on their couches and listen to Journey.

Hoo-ah, indeed.