Local Current Blog

Starkey Gala 2016: John Mellencamp, Alice Cooper, and Johnny Depp rock St. Paul

John Mellencamp performs at the Starkey Gala (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for Starkey Hearing Foundation)

Braving 83º heat, about 30 fans lined up outside St. Paul’s RiverCentre Sunday afternoon to catch glimpses of celebrities arriving at the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s 16th annual “So The World May Hear” gala.

“We’re hoping to see Johnny,” said Kimberly Lantto, 32, of Maplewood. “I’ve almost cried five times today thinking I’ll see Johnny Depp.”

Sure enough, Depp and Alice Cooper arrived towards the end of the red carpet walk.

“I’m filling in for Joe, will anyone notice?” quipped Starkey founder Bill Austin as he posed with two-thirds of Hollywood Vampires, Johnny Depp and Alice Cooper. (Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, the band’s third member, was recently hospitalized and sat this one out.)

Based in Eden Prairie, the Starkey Hearing Foundation has provided free hearing aids to over 500,000 people in a hundred countries, according to a press release. Each year, the foundation holds a star-studded fundraising gala, raising millions of dollars. Previous guests have included Katy Perry, Elton John, Garth Brooks, Miley Cyrus, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Meat Loaf, and this year several big-name entertainers and athletes — along with a handful of politicians — were among the roughly 1,500 attendees. At the night’s end, emcees announced $9.5 million had been raised by the event.

Starkey also honors people each year for humanitarian work. This year’s honorees included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his Africa Governance Initiative efforts, Minneapolis-based PACER co-founder Paula F. Goldberg, and actress Jennifer Garner for her work with Save the Children.

“It’s wonderful,” said bartender Suzin Killeen, who has worked the event for about a dozen years. “Many returners remember us. They treat us like we’re one of them. They’re real and down-to-earth.”

In what’s been a rough year for Starkey Hearing Technology  the company that spawned the associated foundation in 1984 — the annual event went on without notable differences from previous years, aside from the absence of famed U.S. politicians.

Celebrities in attendance included Dascha Polanco, Frankie Muniz, Kyle and Chris Massey, Quinton Aaron, National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson, and Vikings legend Carl Eller.

“[Hearing] is one of the fundamentals of mankind … When you don’t have that, you’re off balance. You’re missing out on the greatness of mankind,” said Rohan Marley, son of reggae great Bob Marley.

Chris Massey, who starred in Zoey 101, and Kyle Massey (That’s So Raven) said they started working with Starkey about seven years ago, after they encountered the organization on a mission trip in Vietnam while they were there for a different cause.

“Once we saw everything, once we fit a kid for a hearing aid, we were sold,” Chris Massey said.

Frankie Muniz of Malcolm in the Middle, a second-time attendee, said that last year’s event drew him in. “Seeing videos of people hearing for the first time really impacted me,” he said. “I wanted to be involved in any way I can.”

The evening’s itinerary consisted of introductory and acceptance speeches from honorees (including Blair, who mentioned he “always wanted to be Alice Cooper”), along with videos showing Starkey’s mission trips to other countries, where they donate and help fit hearing aids. An hour-long auction-style event raised money for future mission trips, with some attendees pledging to donate upwards of $100,000. The entertainment lineup featured Jay Leno, the Tenors, American Idol winner Trent Harmon, and country singers Maddie and Tae.

Though Depp and Cooper were there for the Hollywood Vampires, their stage banter could have served as its own act, filled with odd humor.

“I went to sleep in Detroit and then I woke up next to a Charlie Brown statue in St. Paul,” Depp said upon taking the stage. He didn’t elaborate much afterwards.

Depp and Cooper also got serious, though. The pair have previously attended Starkey mission trips in Rio de Janeiro, in 2015, and in Lisbon last May.

“It’s a very emotional experience to watch the change on a person’s face when they’ve only ever experienced silence,” Depp said.

Later, a video montage featuring dozens of deceased rock stars introduced the Hollywood Vampires, who performed five songs.

“We’re the Hollywood Vampires. We do songs for all of our dead drunk friends,” Cooper said.

The band’s five-song set got some attendees dancing to “Sweet Emotion” and “School’s Out.” Other songs included “Pinball Wizard” and “My Generation.”

After the band took their bows, the lights returned and the event went back into action mode. The guitar that Depp played, along with his and Cooper’s autographs, sold for $120,000.

‘On top of it, he’s gonna teach you three chords,” Cooper said.

“I don’t know three chords,” Depp said with a laugh.

The night continued, with speeches from honorees and promotional Starkey videos about its mission trips. Towards the end of the night, John Mellencamp closed out the night with “Pink Horses,” “Stones in my Passway,” and “Jack and Diane,” which immediately got the audience to sing along.

“If you want a better world, it starts with you,” Mellencamp said.

Jackie Renzetti is a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and co-hosts Radio K’s Off the Record.