"I'm just a guy who has a passion for entertaining, and all these other things tried to get in my way," Summers, 65, says. "If there's any story here, it's about overcoming and following your heart."
Summers' story is detailed in On Your Marc, a new documentary about the former Double Dare host's lengthy career, courtesy of filmmaker and author Mathew Klickstein, who previously worked with Summers on the book Slimed: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age. The film, which has its Philadelphia premiere Friday at the Trocadero Theatre, is framed around the production of Everything in its Place: The Life & Slimes of Marc Summers, a one-man play that debuted in his actual home state of Indiana last year.
"The whole time we were putting this together, we saw it as a real-life Birdman," Klickstein, 36, says, referring to the 2014 Michael Keaton film in which the actor plays an aging celebrity who stars in a play to reinvigorate his career. "He really wanted to use this theater show to prove that he is as relevant now as ever, which he is."
The flick follows Summers from his days of obscurity as a magician in the 1970s to his work on Food Network shows like Unwrapped and Restaurant: Impossible to his attempts to mount the deeply personal play after 40 years away from theater. Do not worry, Nickelodeon-obsessed millennials: There is plenty of slime.
Philly is one of six cities set to get a screening of the film. Friday's event will include a version of Double Dare, complete with physical challenges, as well as live music. As Summers explains, Philly restaurateur Stephen Starr will be letting the tour borrow the props used for the annual Dunkel Dare competition held during Philly Beer Week.
"You can't do Marc Summers/Nickelodeon stuff without physical challenges," Summers says.
We're getting a little special treatment, maybe, but it makes sense given Summers' history with Philadelphia. Double Dare filmed at WHYY-TV's studios from 1986 to 1989. It was both Summers' first TV hosting gig and Nickelodeon's first game show. For Summers especially, getting the job was a surprise, considering he was 34 at the time.
"I had one foot out the door of show business because I didn't think it was ever going to happen for me," Summers says. "But being in Los Angeles for 13 years and getting turned down thousands of times, I was bound to get something."
Summers' hosting gig lasted until the show's cancellation in 1993. In that time, Double Dare moved production to Universal Studios in Orlando, and produced more than 500 episodes to become one of Nickelodeon's defining brands. It remains as such, and Summers remains a beloved figure for those who watched the effervescent host cheerfully douse kids and their parents in thick green slime.
While production moved, Summers stayed put in Philadelphia, establishing the city as a sort of home base alongside LA. He now runs his Marc Summers Productions out of both cities.
It was during his time on Double Dare that Summers was diagnosed with OCD, which he hid from the public for a number of years out of fear that the diagnosis would negatively impact his burgeoning career. He went public with his disorder in the 1990s, and the reveal severely affected his career for years, forcing him to look for work outside of TV.
"I couldn't get anything, and I was running around the country working for a pharmaceutical company selling a drug to help people with OCD." Summers says. "I got tired after about 12 seconds of that. Nobody wanted to hire me, because they thought I was crazy."
Today the host and producer still deals with misconceptions about the disorder — particularly ones about his specific type, which centers on orderliness. The big one is that his OCD made his experience on Double Dare a negative one, which Summers says is patently untrue. "I defy anybody to look at any episode and see me being creeped out by it all. I overcame that," Summers says. "I wasn't going to let anything stop that. I never had a problem with any of the mess or slop. Off camera when we finished, did I want to take a shower? Absolutely. I'm not denying that."
Summers says his life was changed with Unwrapped, a Food Network show about the production of everyday foods that ran from 2001 to 2011. Summers parlayed that gig into a fruitful relationship with Food Network that has included The Next Food Network Star, Ultimate Recipe Showdown, and Dinner: Impossible and Restaurant: Impossible. Whil working on Restaurant: Impossible, Summers collaborated with Klickstein on Slimed The two hit it off so well that Summers got Klickstein a gig as a casting producer for the program.
During his time at Food Network, Summers experienced a couple of health scares, including a 2009 chronic lymphocytic leukemia diagnosis. A severe form of cancer that landed Summers in chemotherapy for two years (he's now in remission), the diagnosis didn't come to light until around 2015, when Summers first went public about the illness on WMMR's Preston and Steve morning show. He kept mum because he feared the same backlash that came with the OCD diagnosis. His work with the Philadelphia-based Alex's Lemonade Stand convinced him he had to speak out.
He was inspired to get back onstage after a 2012 car accident in Philadelphia that severely injured his face. Summers was riding in the back of a taxi cab when it hydroplaned, causing the driver to lose control. The host smashed his face on the cab's partition, breaking several bones. While convalescing, Summers began considering what he wanted to accomplish before his death, and, as he puts it, "it all came back to theater."
Summers linked up with Broadway composer Drew Gasparini and School of Rock: The Musical star Alex Brightman to start working on his own show. The group began mounting the play in Bloomington, Ind., as part of the Bloomington Playwrights Project, and debuted The Life & Slimes of Marc Summers in April last year. During the play's production, Klickstein pitched his documentary idea to Summers. Summers flatly turned it down.
"He resisted the hell out of that," Klickstein says. "He didn't think he was that interesting, or that enough people would care. It was a fight to get him to finally agree to do something."
After three tries, however, Summers relented, and Klickstein got to work. Initially, Klickstein says, he envisioned the project as a Curb Your Enthusiasm-type show, where Summers would play an outsized version of himself, but the play provided a real and intimate look at a person known to most as little more than a TV host.
While the play drives On Your Marc, Summers' life story is at the core of the movie. "To see Marc go through this process of completely relearning how to be onstage was fascinating," Klickstein says. "It really went to that theme of not taking 'no' for an answer. A lot of people on his management team didn't even think he should do it."
Summers is now in talks to perform the play off-Broadway. However, the host says he'd like to try to mount a run here in Philly — perhaps at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, though nothing has been confirmed there yet.
It is that "go for it" attitude that Klickstein says draws him to Summers. Klickstein grew up watching him on Nickelodeon, even if it was just to pass the time while waiting for Ren & Stimpy. But even if he wasn't fully onboard with Summers as a kid, he can't help but admire him now — an aspect that the filmmaker says helped him make a more balanced, entertaining film.
"I'm more of a fan of Marc Summers the man more than I ever was of Marc Summers the TV-show host — that wasn't my experience growing up," Klickstein says. "I just really like him a lot as a human being."