It's hard not to like Michael Fechter. Hysterically self-deprecating, the former touring stand-up comic and golf ball maker lives for the moments when he can skewer himself.
"Hard not to like, except for the ladies," he jokes.
Described by one of his closest friends in Charleston as "an endearing train wreck with a heart of gold," this divorced father of one wants nothing more than to help every child orphaned by AIDS the world over ... and get a few laughs along the way.
His plan is as simple as his threadbare lifestyle: round up a bunch of rich white folks, tell them the about unhappy lives of children touched by the dreaded macrophage retrovirus, raise a bunch of money to fund a documentary he's making to raise even more money, and then give the money to international orphan charities.
Oh, yeah, and get rid of almost all of his worldly possessions, too.
The first rich white guy Fechter lured in was local realtor John Liberatos, who donated a red 1965 Mustang convertible to the cause. This summer, Fechter wants to take a small (and cheap) film crew along with him in an RV as he and his son drive the classic sports car from Charleston through Atlanta, Nashville, Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Seattle, and then out to Los Angeles.
Along the way, Fechter will try and get celebrities, and anyone who cares for children — orphaned or not — to sign the car with an indelible ink pen. In Atlanta, Fechter, who used to be half of a comedy team with fellow College of Charleston alum Orlando Jones (MadTV, Evidence), will approach Jeff Foxworthy, the famous redneck comic and family man with whom he used to perform.
Fechter will also attempt to put the touch on old comedy buddies like Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Robin Williams, and Jay Leno.
In the nation's capitol, he'll try to arrange a signing/filming with Sandy Thurman, founder of the International AIDS Trust. In New York, he'll hit up Jon Stewart and Charleston native Stephen Colbert.
And so on, until he ends up in Hollywood, the site of one of his most recent — and funniest — charity failures. (More on that later.)
When the trip is over, he hopes to edit down the film to a documentary, An Experiment in Gratitude, that will end with an online auction garnering tens of thousands of dollars for the car, reminiscent of the millions actor Jamie Foxx got when he auctioned off one of his luxury rides on the internet a few years ago.
If his plan comes off without a hitch, Fechter will have nothing to show for it, personally, as he is auctioning off practically everything he owns, which is not much. He's even putting the 15-year-old Lexus his late father used to drive on the block.
"I told Liberatos: if you auction off your car, I'll auction off mine, too," says Fechter from behind the wheel of the camel-dump brown sedan, replete with over 150,000 miles. The comic-turned-savior doubts he'll get much for it, but any amount helps
"I just put a $2,000 transmission in it, so I figure it's now worth $1,100," he cracks.
Liberatos estimates the classic 'Stang — the car he's coveted since high school — is worth as much as $25,000. He jokes, "Whoever buys it will have to get it repainted to get off all those signatures."
Fechter, whose penury began long before he started writing a regular guest column for this paper, plans to keep a few personal items: "Uh, four pants, six shirts, and to count my underwear and socks, a person would have to have the ability to count past a half-dozen."
He'll also keep a $50 surfboard, his tennis racket, and his size 13 shoes.
Ladies? Size 13 — helloooooo?!The Set-Up
Three years ago, Michael Fechter was just your average Joe living in a sparse second-floor apartment on Tradd Street. Most afternoons when he wasn't working, he traipsed all over town, either to pick up his son, Gabriel, then 8, to play tennis with a friend, or surf.
A former touring comic who gave up the road for a quickly-doomed marriage with his pathologist-turned-psychiatrist ex-wife, Dr. Deborah Milling, Fechter ran Fireball Golf, a small Mt. Pleasant-based company that he founded when Gabriel was barely out of diapers, to pay the bills.
Fireball Golf makes illegal "British" balls, which fly farther than USGA regulation balls because of their smaller size, and saves money by piggy-backing them on the end of major manufacturers' huge production runs.
In addition to turning out a decent conforming ball, the company also markets Firestick, an oversized ChapStick-type contraption golfers can rub over the face of their clubs to remove all spin — a modern update of the golf hustler's trick of coating club faces with Vaseline.
Fechter owned three-quarters of the business, and a group of private investors purchased the rest in exchange for a small line of credit. It was a living, and Fechter was happy enough driving used Mercedes, especially station wagons, and maintaining a spiritually-centered life.
All was fine and dandy until one day in 2003 when he was hanging out with his loving, splintered family. His ex-wife had read a story about the suffering of Ethiopian children orphaned by AIDS. Milling suggested that her ex-husband do something for these kids.
"Don't you remember, we split up because I'm a failure?" he asked. "Can't we leave saving the world to Sting and Bono?"
Fechter promised to think about it, and soon came to the realization that would shape his next few years. Maybe it was the writer's prose; maybe it was watching his son grow up; maybe it was his latent humanity coming into full bloom. Whatever it was, a feeling took root in him.
All joking aside, it has dawned on Fechter that his on-the-cheap lifestyle would be considered "amazing" by an African boy infected with AIDS, orphaned by the disease, and turned out into the streets by an unenlightened family burdened by cyclical despair, poverty, and the effects of living in a country ravaged by European colonialism.
"Everything I ever wanted to be, I've gotten to be — a comedian, a ball maker, a husband, a father — and it's left me very grateful," he says, his voice becoming quieter and oddly serious. "I realize that this opportunity is not an opportunity that is available to the general population of the universe.
"My child is 11 years old; he plays violin, he writes poetry, he speaks and writes in Chinese, and has made more money for these orphans selling Cokes at The Battery than I have so far, or for that matter, than the Boy Scouts of America."Be Prepared
Fechter's Boy Scout charity failure is not the funny Hollywood incident mentioned earlier, but a more recent disaster.
What started out as a good idea — make a specialty run of soccer balls for the Scouts and turn his 74 percent of the profits over to charity — ended in disaster. Thanks to a typo on the ball that Fechter, by his own admission, overlooked, the scouts had the balls destroyed.
The amusing Hollywood charity failure was the time Fechter went to meet with the programming brass at the A&E cable network last year and found out they were pulling $1 million and a slot for Stand-up for the Children, a comedy fund-raiser, similar to past Comic Relief benefits, that he was producing to raise money for AIDS orphans.
Sitting across the table from a network suit, he was amazed to hear that his show was not of a high enough quality to appear on A&E, despite 25 celebrities signing on. Specifically, the brass complained they could not attract enough "brand name" stars to appear on the one-night show and that some of the material (including a piece written by the author of this article) was not up to snuff.
"So I said to the guy, 'This coming from the network that greenlighted Dog the Bounty Hunter, Confessions of a Serial Killer, and Meet the Gottis,'" laughs Fechter, remembering the meeting's ending.
But where others may have been depressed by such crushing defeats, Fechter was inspired. He found himself buoyed by the words of Viacom owner Sumner Redstone: "Success is not built on success. It's built on failure. It's built on frustration. Sometimes it's built on catastrophe."
"I realized I had made a mistake expecting big companies and network television channels to care as much about orphans as your typical generous American individual," says Fechter, who has since retooled his one-man money-raising efforts to a many-man-and-woman grassroots effort.
To that end, Fechter, with a handful of friends and their collective contact lists, has organized "A Night of Gratitude — Charleston Chefs for Orphans of AIDS" on May 21 in the four-story Stern Center on the campus of the College of Charleston.
The event, presented by the Charleston City Paper, will welcome an invitation-only crowd with, Fechter hopes, hearts as deep as their pockets.
Ciaran Duffy, the head chef at downtown restaurant Tristan, has assembled a veritable who's who of local culinary luminaries to dish up tasty noshes on each floor of the center.
The chefs include the warhorse and godfather of local cooking and giving, Chef Bob Waggoner from Charleston Grill, as well as Frank McMahon (Hank's), Vinzenz Aschbacher (Charleston Grill), Frank Lee (Slightly North of Broad), Sermet Aslan (Sermet's), Mat Dibble (Central), Chris Brandt (The Sanctuary at Kiawah), Ben Berryhill (Red Drum Gastropub), and John Lando (Lana).
Featured speakers will be Jimmy Brogan, Jay Leno's head writer and producer of 10 years who recently performed at the American Theater, and Melissa Faye Greene, the award-winning journalist and writer who penned the New York Times article that got Fechter putting others before self in the first place.
Those not invited but who would still like to contribute can do so through his website, www.experimentingratitude.com, where you can sponsor the trip per mile, with 100 percent of the donations going to the children.
This paper, fascinated by his "experiment," will be following Fechter's progress via the internet as he makes his way across the country.
"We want you," says Fechter. "And over 14 million orphans need you."
Some punchline, huh?