Monday, August 20, 2012

To My Darling Spellcheck - A Love Letter

Some call it a crutch and equate it with the dumbing down of America. I, on the other hand, prefer to consider it a tool. Tools assist us with the act of creation. Tools make tasks easier. Spellcheck effectively accomplishes these things.

I am now and have always been a terrible, or in more politically correct verbiage, challenged speller. As with many people my age, when young, when there were questions about the correct spelling of a particular word we were told to look it up in the dictionary. I, as instructed, would go to the bookcase and standing on my toes pull down the massive, formidable tome from the top shelf and begin to turn it's pages. Each time I did this a recurrent thought always ran through my head, "If I don't know how to spell something how on earth can I be expected to look it up? That requires, at least, an approximate correct spelling of the word in the first place." One had to, at the very least, have the first few letters of the word in question in the correct order. Still I would dutifully continue my search, occasionally giving up and using a word synonymous with the one that had been my first choice.

During my recent job search my darling Spellcheck came into play many times. The last thing I need when attempting to make a good first impression is an obviously, to all but me, incorrect spelling. I will admit that when the message "no misspelled words" appears I do have a feeling of some accomplishment and experience a fleeting moment of pride.

I am extremely dependent on my beloved when blogging. There are certain words I find difficult to spell correctly, even with repeated use. The word resturant, resterrant...oh, whatever, always leaves me completely frustrated and befuddled. I'm surprised that my darling has not gotten frustrated with me with my repeated misspelling of that word. So far, at least, she was forgiven me this transgression.

So whether crutch or tool, Spellcheck, darling, I love you.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Degrees of Separation - Community College Professors

At one point, for a short period of time, I studied performing arts at a Community College in the San Francisco bay area. When one lives in California, due to so much of the entertainment industry being based there, brushes with celebrity, while not necessarily commonplace, are somewhat more ordinary that in many other places in the U.S. If you live in the Los Angeles area, not knowing someone working in the industry, however peripherally, is virtually impossible.

One of my professors during this period, a transplant to the Bay Area from L.A., worked during the late 50's at Desilu Studios. He was in a short lived series called "Harbor Police". He was self depreciating enough to make jokes about appearing in this series. While he always seemed to insinuate a minor, albeit recurring role, online research lists him as a guest star in only one episode. While he never met the studio's legendary namesake, he described her from observing her in the commissary as "One of the most garish women I have ever seen." Her hair he described as pink and her garb, according to him, was a combination of wild prints and bright, almost headache inducing colors. It was as if she could not decide what to don in the morning so wore a bit of everything.

He claimed as a roommate of his during this period, the actor Tony Franciosa. He further claimed, as a student of his, Adrienne Barbeau, casting her as Maria in a production of "West Side Story" he directed. I recently saw Ms Barbeau in a delightfully cheesy, low budget movie from that era, "Wild Women of Wongo". She was in her late teens, it appears, and is both luminous and ravenously beautiful in her South Seas cave woman garb. Bruce Vilanch told a story relating that she, Bette Midler and Pia Zadora once played Tevye's daughters during "Fiddler and the Roof's" original Broadway run. They shared a dressing room and were known, at the time, as "6 of the biggest boobs on Broadway".  My professor also mentioned, in an offhand manner, his close friendship with Colin Higgins, the screenwriter of "Harold and Maude", a favorite film of mine, and writer and director of "Nine to Five". Higgins died of aids in 1988.

Another professor at that college, during his own college days, had, as a classmate, the legendary Carol Burnett. The professors had to, as a part of their contract, direct one student production each year. These were often lavish affairs due to the almost limitless manpower available. Costumes were designed and constructed by a costume design class. Similarly, sets, lighting and other technical aspects of the productions were also designed and constructed by students as a part of the school's curriculum. Student lore said that this professor only missed one rehearsal during his years at the college. Ms Burnett contacted him at the last minute to invite him to dinner during a visit to the Bay Area. So, the professor was treated to dinner with a longtime friend who just happened to be a world famous star. The student director handled the rehearsal that evening. Ms Burnett was also influential in obtaining the rights to "Once Upon a Mattress" for him before they would normally have been available to a college production.

There was also a professor there who was a first cousin to, and shared a name with, James Kirkwood, one of the writers of "A Chorus Line". As his name appeared on my resume during my brief attempt at a theatrical career I found myself explaining, more than once, that it was not the James Kirkwood with whose name they were familiar but his first cousin I had studied with. Perhaps if I had omitted this explanation my endeavors would have been more fruitful.

My mother was a professor in the Performing Arts department at the college as well. We lived in the suburbs of L.A. when she returned to school to obtain her degree and teaching certification. While she was attending school she worked at several part time jobs to help cover the expenses associated with her education. One of these was at "The Preview House", a venue designed to get audience reactions to new commercials and television pilots before they aired. The business was owned by Jackie Cooper, the actor. I asked her if she had ever met him. "Of Course", she said. A tad starstruck I asked her what she called him. "Mr. Cooper" was her deadpan reply. It was at this job where she met the cast members of "The Mod Squad" when it previewed there. It was also at this job where Alejandro Rey, the Latin hearthrob from "The Flying Nun", asked her out for a drink. She explained that she was married and politely declined. In later years I always wanted to say to her "He's hot, have a drink with him and then tell him you're married!" I will admit to occasional stepfather fantasies involving this incident. Darn my mother and her damn fidelity!

During this time my sisters befriended two other sisters in their same grades and classes in school. Their mother was an actress. I sometimes accompanied my mother when she picked up my sisters from playdates. I remember, even at that young age, eating windmill cookies while being awed by this woman's glamour and beauty as she moved about her suburban kitchen in her suburban mom clothes as she and my mother discussed the in's, out's and challenges of suburban motherhood. Neil Hamilton, who played Commissioner Gordon on the Batman series, made an appearance at the birthday party of one of the girls. My sister's came home chattering about the experience and showing me the photos he had autographed for them. I did not speak to them for weeks afterward.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

While I do not generally use this forum as a platform for political or social discourse, I feel I must break with this tradition to speak on one particular subject before I burst a blood vessel in my head.

A recent Internet article about gay athletes at the Olympics created a long thread of comments. Some were quite judgemental and hateful. I expected these. I might have even been disappointed if I had been denied the entertainment of watching the self righteous pick and chose scripture as a basis for their barbaric and unenlightened opinions. But there were others, far too many, from people who felt this view is reasonable. Gays can be gays, we have nothing against them and bear them no ill will, they just shouldn't talk about it. Their private lives should be private. It is none of our business and we don't wish to hear about it.

This opinion is often held by persons wearing wedding rings and displaying, when possible, pictures of their spouse and children in their workplace. They hold this opinion while they kiss their spouse in public or walk side by side holding hands or with their arms around one another's waist.

These people have never experienced the feeling of isolation of a young teen struggling to understand a sexuality for which there is no reference. Couples are man and woman. Same sex couples are not seen, therefore do not exist. As presented by the mainstream media, gay men are campy and fey, gay women butch and humorless.It is difficult to find depictions of loving, normal, same sex relationships.

We, as a community, have endured a long and difficult struggle to get where we are. I, for one, will not peacefully step back into my closet under the guise of keeping my private live private.

I urge all gay athletes, politicians, entertainers and other highly public and influential people to loudly announce their sexuality. This is not a gay agenda but a question of equal rights for all people. By speaking out they provide role models and become mentors for those young people who feel alone and scared. Although they, by utilizing their money and fame, may be able to provide themselves with safe enclosures, they have a responsibility to others who cannot.

The irony of people urging us to keep our sexual orientations to ourselves is that the more the subject  is vocalized, the more we talk about it, the more commonplace it will become. We will cease to have a need to announce it because it will just be. Out, open and as beautiful and inspiring as love between two people should be.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Steve Martin is a Cheap Date

By my very early twenties I had managed to make my way from the suburbs of San Francisco's East Bay, where I attended junior high and high school, to the city itself. I took up lodgings with a high school friend of mine in an apartment on Nob Hill. Nob Hill, at this point, had lost some of the gloss of it's glory days. Our building dated from the twenties. An old cage elevator transported residents from floor to floor. Our unit was on the first floor, up five or so feet above street level due to the buildings basement. Our front windows faced Bush Street. The clang of the cable car bells, located a half block away, gave a distinctively San Francisco air to this first of my San Francisco apartments. We had a decent sized living room, two decent sized bedrooms and a kitchen so tiny that were it not for the sink, small stove and mini refrigerator could have been mistaken for a closet.

We soon discovered we also had a large infestation of mice. Eventually the building management addressed this problem. We were grateful despite the inconvenience of finding their smelly, decaying bodies laying about. Even more unsettling was entering a room to find one splayed out in the middle of the floor taking it's last, pitiful gasps of air prior to it's demise. We spent quite a bit of time in those days sweeping them into a dustpan and throwing them away.

Union Square, with it's pigeons, world class stores and world class people watching was located nearby. Off of Union Square, on Geary Street, two of San Francisco's main theatres stood side by side. One, The Geary Theater, was owned by the American Conservatory Theatre. Known by the acronym A.C.T.  They presented their seasons of plays in repertory. A different play was performed each night. The house was large, with two balconies. Upper balcony seats were priced modestly enough that we could stroll down the street and decide to see that evening's performance on a whim. When the theatre company purchased that building they made several innovative changes to it's stage area. Following Elizabethan traditions the stage was thrust, built out beyond the proscenium arch. Orchestra seats were sacrificed to accomplish this. The stage was also raked, build on a slant so that the back of the stage was higher than the front to create better sight lines. All sets and props had to take the stages angle of elevation into account when being designed and built. In addition, the stage curtain was removed. The company decided that all set changes would become part of the action of the play, performed in full view of the audience. Set pieces flew up and down, platforms slid on and off from the wings. Due to the huge warehouses full of season after seasons worth of sets, props, wigs and costumes, these productions were often sumptuous visual experiences. The company also ran a theatre school. This allowed them to create crowd scenes onstage by using the students as unpaid extras. Their seasons consisted of Shakespeare, theatrical classics, rarely performed or obscure plays and on occasion new works in their initial stages of development. In short, soup to nuts. Early on, their use of full and partial nudity onstage, long before it became commonplace, was also controversial.

The Curran Theatre, located next door, played host to national tours. It was also a large house with both upper and lower balconies, albeit ticket prices somewhat steeper than it's neighbors. In those days touring shows would sit down in cities for four weeks or more allowing them to bring with them sets and casts similar in size and scope to their original Broadway productions. Also, a name star or two almost always appeared in the cast allowing me the opportunity to see several theatre legends perform over the years.

If you traveled down Bush Street from our apartment you would come across "The Boarding House", a tiny club, near iconic in it's day. PBS taped a series of concerts there called, appropriately, "Live From the Boarding House". One evening, having nothing in particular to do, I recalled seeing that Steve Martin was appearing there. I once heard him remark on a talk show that he considered "The Boarding House" the best nightclub in America. He was not the mega star he was to become soon thereafter. In that era, he could be seen on the occasional talk show or perhaps making a cameo appearance on Cher's Variety Show. His introduction that evening was "Now, direct from a rerun of the Tonight Show, Steve Martin. This absence of fame probably accounts for the cover charge of $3.50 we paid at the door, an amount he thanked us for several times over the course of his performance.

It was a weeknight and the crowd was small, less than 50 people. He began by doing his usual, now familiar routines from those early years. The arrow through his head, his divinely funny parody of a Las Vegas lounge performer and much silliness involving his beloved banjo. He eventually came off the stage. Moving to the rear of thee club he put a foot up on the seat of a chair and holding one of the large votive candles from one of the tables like a brandy snifter, began an insanely hilarious stream of consciousness rant. One of the employees of the club came up to him and informed him that the club was about to close. At this point he lead us to the sidewalk outside.

He hailed a cab, threw open the back door, looked at the crowd on the sidewalk and asked "How many people do you think we could fit in the back seat?" He dug through a garbage can muttering "I'm sure if I look hard enough I'll find money in here." This outdoor theatre of the absurd continued for 20 minutes until, thanking us once again for the $3.50 he ascended the steps to the doors of the club only to find them locked. He began to pound on the doors screaming "Let me in! All my stuff is in there!" An employee eventually opened the door for him and he disappeared inside.

We walked back to our apartment realizing that we had experienced something special. Years later, watching him host Saturday Night Live or the Oscars, I was thankful that, on that evening, I had nothing particular to do.


New York City - Reasons to Return

There are two distinct things I have not yet experienced in New York City. One of these is Times Square at night. The other is the Theatre District at night. I have always been fond of displays of twinkling, swirling lights, despite their somewhat less than positive ecological effect. Return visits to the Metropolitan and Modern art museums would also be welcome. While there I would also try to take in a show since New York productions are generally more elaborate than their sometimes stripped down national tours. The nephew of my ex roommate is lead trombonist at the Metropolitan Opera, so there is an outside chance I could score house seats by exploiting our decades long friendship. However, a return trip to New York is wholly dependant on where future fate and fortunes lead me. The world is large and complex and there is so much to explore.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

New York City - Visit #3

It became known, among the employees of Bloomingdale's, as "The Christmas From Hell". We were understaffed, customers were vicious and the new store manager was generally acknowledged by the staff as "psycho". The traditional long holiday hours had added to the stress level. On the up side, the overtime had added greatly to my checking account.

Just after the first of the year my friends in New York contacted me. They were having a party to celebrate the lawyer making partner in his firm. There was some question as to rather or not this would happen due to the homophobic attitudes held by some of the senior partners there. An invitation was extended to me with the knowledge that it was improbable that I would be able to attend. They said even though the chances of my coming weren't great they would love to have me there for this important occasion. After agreeing that I wouldn't be able to come I looked at the vacation time and cash I had amassed. I also looked at the agonizing holiday season I had just been through and decided a trip to New York, with a free place to stay, would be just the rejuvenating treat I needed.

They were in Arizona the week before the party. That week the skies opened over New York and a snowfall occurred that completely shut down "the city that never sleeps". I arrived after nightfall, took the shuttle from Newark to Grand Central Station and then caught a cab through a still snow covered New their apartment on the upper west side. It was Wednesday night. The party was Saturday night. I would be leaving on Sunday night. After drinks and a quick catchup, I retired having worked all day prior to flying in.

The next day the new law partner went off to work. The other had taken a few days off to get ready for the party and spend time with me and and old school friend of his who was also coming into town for the celebration. He and I walked over to Central Park, snowclad and lovely. We sat on a bench and chatted enjoying the tranquillity of the green, or in this case, white oasis in the center of the bustling city. We had lunch and then had drinks at a small bar on Christopher Street, before taking the subway back to their apartment and meeting his partner for dinner.

His school friend came in the next day. He was determined that he was going to redecorate their apartment. The three of us spent most of the day helping him sort through swatches at fabric and furniture stores. That evening we were to meet his partner after work for dinner before being treated by them to the production of "Showboat" playing on Broadway that season. The show was at the Gershwin, a newer Broadway house that is decidedly ugly. New, however, meant more advanced stagecraft possibilities. In this aspect the show did not disappoint; Early on an entire showboat comes onto the stage. There are scenes that take place inside the boat as well as on the decks and the dock it is "moored" to. Marilyn McCoo, of The 5th Dimension fame, had just joined the cast playing the role of Julie. Her singing was sublime, her acting somewhat less so. John McMartin, in his Tony award winning role, was also in the cast. The music I heard in the theatre that evening was exquisite.

Occasionally during live theatre unplanned things happen. Sets fall down or cues missed, this performance had one of those moments. In one scene several of the cast members appear in the windows of the boat. The two ingenues make plans to meet on the top deck. At this point the upper half of the boat sinks behind the lower half to reveal the top deck. It was a wonderful effect. The stars in the night sky were placed in their proper places as opposed to haphazardly strewn across the night sky set piece. They were projections and twinkled. The moon glowed in a realistic fashion. The ingenues snag their beautiful love duet to one another. Then...the moon disappeared. Apparently it to was a projection and something amiss had happened backstage. The ingenues continued to sing on gamely. A few moment later... the moon reappeared. At this point my fist was shoved into my mouth to stifle my laughter. Nothing could stop my shoulders from shaking however. At the end of the scene I leaned over to my host's friend, who was seated next to me and whispered "I just loved the lunar eclipse affect in that scene". She replied"I knew that's why you were laughing. We had bonded at that point and we both enjoyed the remainder of our time together over that weekend.

That night and the next were like a slumber party as there were two guests and only one spare room. I ceded the spare room to her and slept on the couch in the living room. The next night, the night of the party, I was on an air mattress on my host's bedroom floor.

Having a Bally's gym membership has sometimes come in handy when I travel. The next day I went to a location in New York to get out of the way for a couple of hours while they set up for the party. The lawyer's parents were the first to arrive that evening. They reiterated how much my host's had wanted me to be there for the celebration.and how excited they were that I could make it. A group of snotty queens, is there any other kind in New York, were holed up on the couch in the spare room discussing whether their building staff had the right to unionize. The conductor of "Les Miserables", playing on Broadway at the time, a resident of their building, came by after the show. He ended up being cornered by a clueless aspiring actress with absolutely no idea of how to start in the business. Waiters circulated with hor dourves on small trays and a bartender poured stiff drinks, their dining table converted into a makeshift bar. I and their other "out of town" guest giggled together. At one point one of the guests tried to get her phone number or address so he could contact her later. I admired her skill as she deftly fended him off.  At the end of the evening we slept wherever we could find room as the overnight guest count exceeded the number of beds.

My flight back was not until Sunday night. At my host's suggestion I decided on a trip to New York's Museum of Natural History. My host's being members, they loaned me their card and I made my way there. The museum's prehistoric exhibitions are particularly impressive. There are the reconstructed skeletons one would expect. Other artifacts are housed under sheets of plexiglass with holes in the top allowing the visitor to reach in and touch fossilized dinosaur eggs or feel the impression of the serrated teeth of a flesh eating creature.

As I left the museum and was walking back to my host's apartment the snow cover from the massive storm had begun to melt. Revealed as the snow bled away were bags of rotting garbage, needleless Christmas trees, bicycles and dog feces which had been buried for a number of days. The resulting aroma was indescribable. As my partner remarked when I relayed this scene to him upon returning home "New York at it's finest." At one corner on Broadway the snow had been pushed into a 14 foot high mound. A backhoe was shoveling clumps of snow out of the pile and dumping it in the street. Thee tires of the cars traveling down Broadway were melting it and washing it into the sewers.

After picking up my bag I was off to Newark to catch my flight home. When I got there a light, very light, snow had begun to fall. This resulted in a light dusting of snow on the runways. This resulted in a long delay in flights. Being from Chicago, with it's legendary winter weather, I kept my thoughts about the inadequacy of the airport's snow removal crew to myself. Newark Airport, at that time, was a rather bare bones affair. It being Sunday what few businesses that were there had closed early. The flight delays turned from minutes into hours. I had exhausted all reading material I had brought with me. Looking down, I saw a Plumbers Union magazine someone had left behind. In desperation I picked it up. I read it cover to cover. After two hours my flight was finally ready to board. I have never been so grateful to get on a plane and take off in my life.