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Do you remember when ‘Borat’ came to Salem?

The Borat Sequel is now streaming, but many in the Roanoke Valley haven’t forgotten that night at the Salem Civic Center 15 years ago

A look back at the 2005 Borat prank in Salem.
A look back at the 2005 Borat prank in Salem.

SALEM, VA. – The ‘Borat’ sequel launched Friday on Amazon prime and features some big names, including Vice President Mike Pence and Rudy Guilliani, among others.

But it wasn’t too long ago that southwest Virginia was part of the gag in the first ‘Borat’ movie. Sasha Baron Cohen, who plays Borat, brought a crew to the Salem Civic Center for the Salem Rodeo. It happened to be 10 News night at the rodeo and our cameras were there rolling on the entire thing.

It was the top story on the 6 o’clock news that night, and two years later it was on the big screen.

Salem city councilman John Saunders, who was the assistant director of the Salem Civic Center at the time, said it was one of their busiest nights.

“It’s true, it happened, and it happened here. And I was here,” Saunders said. “That entire episode that we were a part of was two years before the movie, no one knew who he was.”

Now more than a decade later ‘Borat’ is back, pulling stunts on others just like he did the Roanoke Valley. Bobby Rowe was the rodeo’s longtime owner and promoter. Here’s how he says the stunt went down:

A Hollywood film company had called and said they were shooting a documentary about a foreign immigrant in America. They asked if he could sing the National Anthem at the rodeo. Rowe said yes, and then said at the time Cohen, in character as ‘Borat,’ asked him right before he took the mic if he could say a few words.

“How he was proud to be an American and this and that, and Americans have always been his idols and all this stuff," Rowe said in 2005.

But those few words turned into a long monologue of backhanded one-liners. The United States was still fresh into the war in Iraq and American pride was running high.

“May you destroy their country, so for the next thousand years, not even a single lizard will survive in their desert," Borat said.

The crowd cheers, which started out strong, dwindled as Borat continued on poking fun at the stereotypical country crowd.

Borat then launched into what he told the crowd was his “Kazak national anthem” to the tune of the United States National Anthem. The crowd grew even more angry.

Saunders said the crew wanted to go up into the stands after that to talk with people, but they ended up throwing them all out, not out of anger, but for their safety.

“He would have gotten killed, someone would have taken a swing at him. Because he did this in the middle of Americana — cowboys, families, military," Saunders said.

Despite the ruckus, Saunders said he enjoyed the movie and in the end, it’s now just a funny memory that pops right back up every few years once he thinks it has finally gone away. He said many people over the years asked him why the city didn’t sue Cohen. Saunders said Cohen did nothing more than tricking them, far from illegal.

“When we got duped, we didn’t have a clue who Sasha Baron Cohen was. No one did. Afterwards? If you get took now, you’re just out of the loop, completely," Saunders said.