An NBC News team came to Brainerd on Friday -- led by a rough-and-ready Geraldo Rivera -- to tape the final spin of a documentary television special on teenage alcoholism.
The technical crew arrived in the wee hours to set the stage for Rivera's on-camera interviews later in the day at Brainerd High School and the Eclectic Cafe.
The downtown coffee bar, a clubhouse for the community's youthful counterculture, attracted NBC News' attention because it harbors the area's most visible treatment program for youthful drug and alcohol abusers. Called Rock Sober, the program -- known for its four-step approach rooted in American Indian spiritual principles -- and its participants will be featured in the network's prime time look at the issue.
Sources close to the NBC News production said the "Geraldo Rivera Special" would likely air in prime time near the end of April, although an exact date has not been determined.
An advance team guided by an NBC News field producer has been laying the groundwork for months in preparation for Rivera's appearance.
Fresh from an on-camera face-to-face with Gov. Ventura in St. Paul, the high-profile television personality slipped quietly into town about 11 a.m. for the first of many interviews at the Eclectic.
First up in Rivera's spotlight was the cafe's owner, Matt Taylor, a former teenage drug and alcohol abuser who, now in his mid-20s, is a leading voice in the chorus against chemical dependency.
He and Pat Sharbonda, a program coordinator with Lutheran Social Services of Brainerd, founded Rock Sober a couple of years ago with financial assistance from the religious organization.
The two have been working with NBC News producers and crew for months in preparation of the story, which includes on-camera interviews with many Rock Sober participants and their families.
Clad in green plaid shirt and faded blue jeans, bearing a week-old goatee and his trademark scruffy hairdo, Rivera moved to the high school at mid-afternoon for an hour-long shoot in the hallway outside the principal's office.
Some of those interviewed for the show are current and former students at the high school, perhaps mandating Rivera's on-camera appearance at BHS in keeping with his program's real-life, documentary approach.
A school source said the NBC News team hoped to keep Rivera's appearance as low-key as possible, but an army of students invaded the school's entryway at the appointed hour, hoping to catch a glimpse of the television star.
Rivera pulled up to the school in a sleek, black American luxury car, then waited behind the car's heavily tinted windows for an all-clear from one of his producers.
When it came, he walked from the curb to the school's front door in the company of his producer -- and a bodyguard whose bulky demeanor and slicked-back look seemed inspired by central casting.
Once inside, Rivera waded into the crowd of students and staff, shaking hands and nodding agreement, even posing for photos and chatting with the school's closed-circuit video team. Then he shed his waist-length leather jacket and got down to business with the NBC News crew that had camera and lights waiting in the wings.
By 4 p.m., Rivera had returned to the Eclectic where he questioned an assemblage of young people, some in recovery and others still engaged in drug and alcohol abuse, according to several sources.
Working behind the pulled curtains and locked door of the Eclectic -- NBC News paid to keep the cafe closed for the day -- Rivera rambled through the territory of teenage addiction with an on-camera question and answer style that resembled his now-defunct afternoon talk show format, sources said.
"He's a very cool guy," Taylor said later in reference to the television personality. "He acted like a normal guy, casual, friendly, open. He was very neat, and I liked him." Others interviewed for this story chorused their approval of how Rivera handled himself, including Sharbonda, who sat in on the afternoon interviews at the Eclectic.
"He dressed the way the kids would dress and it worked," Sharbonda said. "He was laughing and greeting the kids, just like a nice guy. It was kind of fun."
Sources said they were uncertain how much Brainerd would be featured in the Rivera television special, but they expected it to draw attention to the national problem of teenage alcohol addiction.
"It will remind people that alcohol is the No. 1 drug of choice by young people," Sharbonda said. "It's the most used and the easiest to get."
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