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.


  1. great memories. i have lived in los angeles for 20 years, and it is funny that i don't really know anyone big in the industry. that is intentional, i think. i know a lot of people like me, who used to be in the industry, because it seems that so many of us end up becoming therapists! incidentally, i live only a few blocks from the former desilu studios. it is a marvel to ride by.