Angie & Ethel & Me


For a woman without children, I’ve played an awful lot of moms.

Back in eighth grade, I should have seen the writing on the wall when the girls in my class (all 13 of us) banded together to “let’s put on a show!” We decided to mount a production of SLEEPING BEAUTY in the school basement. I wanted to play the Princess (natch!), but Linda T.won that crown. I would have settled for the Prince, but the cape was tossed around the shoulders of Cindy D. (she had very short hair.) Me? I was chosen to play the mom. Yes, I know, she was the Queen, but a sting, nonetheless.

The show now cast, our all female production began unsupervised rehearsal in the St. Thomas school basement — a whole hour after lunch during school time; for two entire weeks. Unbelievable! A fierce baker’s dozen, we blocked and rehearsed with the zeal of a David Merrick. When the moment finally arrived,  my performance as Queen for a Day was a royal success.

Throughout high school, I snagged a series of support roles. occasionally I was up for the lead, but my natural jack-of-all-trades ability kept me smack in the middle of character land. Any baseball coach worth their salt knows you never waste a good utility player. When our ingénue contracted mono during rehearsals for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT… I was plucked from the chorus to stand-in for “The Girl.” My heart swelled with excitement! But, she recovered before Opening Night. Not my Peggy Sawyer moment after all.

The summer following my sophomore year, I was in a production of West Side Story (see earlier post, MR SMITH GOES TO HIGH SCHOOL.) It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in my life. Cast as Riff and Bernardo, the leaders of the rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, were two very hot, very popular guys. They had just graduated from the nearby boys high school, Bishop Guertin. I’d seen them perform on stage and swooned from afar. And now they were going to be treading the boards — with me!

These boys weren’t just cute, they were talented. I was beside myself. Twice.  As rehearsals got underway, even in my smallish role as Rosalia, one of the Puerto Rican gang girls, I garnered a bit of attention. Oddly not because of my decidedly non-Puerto Rican coloring (this was summer stock, folks,) more because unlike half of our cast, I could actually sing and dance. In fact, I ended up choreographing several of the musical numbers. As far as I was concerned, this was turning out great!

To look at them, Bob and Joseph were pretty much opposites. Bob, a wiry ball of energy with a curly mop of dirty blonde hair, was perfectly cast as Riff, the cocky New Yorker longing to rule the streets. Joe, slightly quiet with a romantic sweep of dark hair, easily convinced you he was Bernardo, the smooth Latin lover — mysterious enough to have been born in another country. A little bit foreign, a little bit rock and roll.

When they started chatting me up, I was ecstatic. I knew it was more in the little sister than the “Gee, I’d really like to take you out” vein, but that didn’t stop me from hoping. One day, our conversation took a surprising twist.

BOB: “Hey, I know who you remind me of!”

ME: (almost afraid to ask but too thrilled not to) “Who?”

BOB: “Vivian Vance. You know her?”

Though at that moment I wished that I didn’t, I knew exactly who Vivian Vance was. We all do, I LOVE LUCY’s stalwart side-kick, Ethel Mertz.

JOE: “Yeah (shaking his head in amazement), you do look like Vivian Vance! Crazy.”

I tried valiantly to keep my face looking pleasant, but my smile stretched pretty thin. Here are these two hunky guys for whom I have, at minimum, an artistic crush, at maximum, a full-out heart flutter, telling me I look like a 45-year-old landlady.

BOB: “Of course, a younger Vivian Vance.”

JOE: “Way younger.”

I bit my tongue. Did they seriously think that helped? Apparently I was a better actress than I was aware of as neither picked up that my 15 year-old self found this comparison devastating.

From that day on I was “Viv,” clearly a term of endearment. After a while, I decided what the hell. She was a pretty funny broad. Then one day Bob came up with another one.

BOB: “Hey, I was thinking, you know who else you look like?”

About now I was wondering, “Couldn’t it just be me?” Instead —

ME: “No, who?”( silently praying that he went a little younger this time.)

BOB: “Angela Lansbury! Do you know Angela Lansbury? Hey, Joey, doesn’t Viv look a lot like Angela Lansbury?”

JOEY: “Oh, yeah. Definitely see that!”

I considered the statement. At that moment, I wasn’t exactly familiar with the actress. I had seen her on TV when they’d broadcast her movies, BLUE HAWAII and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. A movie actress versus a sitcom second banana (admittedly, a classic sitcom) — things were looking up.

As time went on, I learned much more about Miss Lansbury. One interesting tidbit, in both of those films, she was cast as the mother of men very close to her in age. In the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Angie was only 3 years Laurence Harvey’s senior and just 10 years older than Elvis Presley in BLUE HAWAII. I’m sure playing Mom to these gentlemen on the big screen made her feel totally sexy and alive. I can relate.

A few years ago, here in New York I found myself in an acting class with Brian, a guy I’d been very friendly with and pretty hot for in college. (Ed. Note, total lack of interest from his perspective.) We hadn’t been in touch in a while. As Brian got ready to perform a big dramatic scene, he asked that I sit in a special spot in the audience, front and center. I was touched, until he went on to say, “…because I want to make sure my Mom can see me!” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than his face said “oops, didn’t mean to say that out loud.” But there was no unringing the bell. I may have looked like I was watching Brian’s big scene, but I was really looking back on our 20-plus years of friendship to see that the guy I’d had a crush on in college viewed me as his Mommy substitute. Oh, goody-goody. Break out the pasties and grease up the dance pole, cause I’m feeling sexy now…

Over the years, I’ve heard a few more comparisons. Back in high school one night I received an excited call from a girlfriend. “Turn on Channel 5,” she panted. “Hurry up, turn it on. There’s a girl on Mannix tonight who looks just like you.” I was a desperate 14-year-old, eager to see herself through someone else’s eyes. I sprinted to our portable black & white and switched it on. “Are you watching yet? “Yes, yes, ” I assured her. “There she is…” my friend screeched, “…right there. The blonde. Doesn’t she look like you?” I held my breath. This girl was 1970s pretty. I stayed glued to the end of the program and digested the credits. The actress was Carole Lynley and I though I didn’t really believe what my friend had said for a second, I was entranced at the possibility. I floated on that for days.

Many years later, in 1986, I got a call one evening at my apartment in New York. It was another friend from college, Tommie. “Hey, have you seen the new Bloodworth-Thomason series?” (Tommie lived in LA and, working in television, she was on the inside with the breaking news and patois.) “What new series?” (I didn’t, and therefore, was not.) “Designing Women. You have to catch it. There’s an actress on there looks just like you. The two of you could be sisters.” I was ready for this. “Carole Lynley?” I smoothly inquired, the 15-year-old memory still fresh. “No, her name’s Jean Smart. New to me — tall, blonde, funny. My first thought when she came on-screen was, she looks like Dee.”

At this point in life I had a firmer grasp on me, so though I was definitely curious I wasn’t counting on a glimpse of Jean Smart to magically define me. But it’s still a kick to take a glimpse at how you appear to others. Guess what, Tommie was right. I do resemble Jean Smart. In fact, from then on she’s served as a professional touchstone for me. She’s fashioned a terrific career. I think she’s great.

Starting with that experience during West Side Story, I learned more and more about Angela Lansbury and her monster talent. I regret I missed her revival of GYPSY on Broadway but I know the cast album by heart. I came down to New York from college specifically to catch her in SWEENEY TODD. But her standby, Marge Redmond (Sister Jacqueline in the 1960s Sally Field TV series, The Flying Nun) went on for the matinée. I was terribly disappointed until the show began. Then, I was just in awe. Marge wasn’t Angie, but she was fantastic. Since then, I’ve been lucky to see Angela live on Broadway several times and have always marveled at how brilliantly she commands a stage.

When SWEENEY TODD was first making the rounds in summer stock, I was plucked out of the crowd during several cattle call auditions for Sweeney for no reason other than I reminded them of Angela. As a legit soprano, I couldn’t give them the sound they were after, so this resemblance never quite got me cast.

Later in life I chanced to read the biographies of both of my dopplegangers, Misses Vance and Lansbury. It was there I recognized a shared experience. Quickly skipping over ingénue to mother/matron/side-kick in short order was sometimes a painful career pill for all of us. I learned that Vivian Vance was a singer and accomplished stage actress (who knew!) She was almost too attractive for Lucy’s comfort, hence they dressed her down. Angela found leading lady status on Broadway but never managed to be the star of her own film. Just a bit later, bet she laughed all the way to that quaint little bank in Cabot Cove.

But here’s the truth, I’m totally delighted that as a 15-year-old, two hot guys thought I resembled these lovely ladies. Because I’m finally smart enough to appreciate that Angie and Ethel were real, sexy women living vital, creative lives. I can only hope I find as much joy, success and satisfaction as it appears they both managed to embrace.

I do confess to still harboring one Angie fantasy. For years I’ve wanted to pitch a film about three generations of women, with Angela as my mother, Drew Barrymore (another look-ish alike) as her granddaughter and, in case you haven’t done the math, me — the one in the middle. So any producers out there looking for a golden indie opportunity, Facebook me.  I’ve got a couple of script ideas percolating.

Good old Carole Lynley? I lost track of her and her hot pants right after The Poseidon Adventure. But Jean Smart, she’s as busy as ever. And all I can say is “Rock on, baby. You remain an inspiration!”

Oh. My. God. Jean, I just had the most fantastic idea!! You and I could play sisters in a new cable series. What do you think? Comedy. Drama, you call it cause you do it all. And we know there are networks just begging for good programming and someone with a solid TV-Q. (That’s you, not me. But I’ll get started on mine as soon as I can.) I’m so inspired, I’m going to start the treatment tonight. So drop me an email and we can do lunch. I like the Olympic Diner around the corner. They know me so I can always get a front booth. And they make an awesome gyro platter — see you there?

[Ed. Note: Look what I have to look forward too!]

Carol Lynley Paperdoll

Advertisements

A Nose is a Nose is a Nose (or Pup Dog, the Card Salesman)


I have always hated my nose. While my three siblings each took after my Mom in the nose department, my proboscis is undeniably a scaled-down version of my Dad’s Irish honker.

Now, I’d understand if friends and family are surprised at this pronouncement. Rhinoplasty has been a life-long — but mostly hidden — dream. Also in truth, as noses go, mine is totally fine, really pretty unremarkable. For the first few years of life it was an adorable little button. But as I grew, the rounded tip and shape of my nostrils put me in mind of the nose cone and twin propellers on a WW2 Lockheed B-14 bomber – the kind with very shapely ladies painted on the side. Lockheed B14 bomber

When compared to the pert protuberances of my cousins or the sweet face of any Disney princess, my nose made me feel unmistakably common. Perhaps because it’s the sort you’d usually find on the jolly farmer’s wife. Or the charwoman with a heart of gold who, after a punishing 12 hour shift scrubbing floors, still remembers to go feed the birds. And let us not forget the chummy best friend sporting the requisite messy pigtails and a defining dusting of freckles. Like many little girls, I yearned to be the princess. But my nose painted me otherwise.

So I started collecting noses, I mean images of noses, with an eye toward getting mine reshaped later for, you know, my ‘real life.’ Myrna Loy was an early favorite. She had a sharp tongue and a sculptured profile which seemed the perfect combination — smart, funny and beautiful. Grace Kelly (in my opinion, a brilliant light comedienne) was not only stunning she had one gorgeous nose.Movie Star Montage resized

But in high school, I became absolutely, positively obsessed with the model Karen Graham. In the 1970s she was the face of Estee Lauder cosmetics. You saw her everywhere; in their ads, in fashion spreads and on cover after cover after cover of Vogue magazine. You couldn’t get away from her, most especially in my bedroom where I had the walls plastered with easily 150 magazine pages featuring Karen’s perfectly symmetrical face. KarenGraham Montage

To me, the one thing these three women shared was a sense of refinement which, at the time, I equated with beauty which, at the time, I equated with acceptance. You know, the circle of life. And the nose on my face seemed anything but refined. So I scoured every beauty magazine looking for any and all suggestions on how to make my nose appear slimmer using makeup. I shaded and powdered in hopes of achieving a more sculptured, lady-like air. But in the mirror, and worse in every snapshot (because that ‘camera adds 10 pounds’ theory seemed to apply strictly to my nose), what I saw told me to go milk the cows and then muck out the barn for good measure.

Lest you think I exaggerate, that this was all in my mind, may I share the nickname ascribed to me in the 6th grade by my friend, Johanna — it was “Pup Dog.” You see, Hanna-Jo (as I called her) and I were an enterprising pair. In addition to starting our own band in her living room (as much influenced by Bobby Vinton as the Rolling Stones — the clear mystery here being why we never secured a recording contract, but I digress…) So, in addition to our musical prowess, Hanna-Jo and I were serious junior business women. In the back pages of an issue of my AMERICAN GIRL MAGAZINE (see below) there was a delicious opportunity. A company, I believe it was called Carlton Cards, had a mini-franchise available. For some clearly affordable price (because we managed to do it), you could order a shipment of their greeting cards. Once the big box arrived, the next step was to sell them door-to-door. (Ding, dong, Avon calling!) The cards came in boxes of standard size cards as well as a monster 24″ x 10″ version. Thinking these would clearly be our huge sellers, we committed half our inventory to these oversized wonders. American Girl layout

Just as the idea of a paper route is always more palatable than the reality of 5:30 in the morning, selling these cards was nowhere near as easy as we’d assumed. Now we (meaning me and my sixth grade girlfriends) found these colorful puppies and kittens with their baby faces sporting huge, welling eyes, positively adorable!! But with our limited audience (the 13 girls in our class and a few accommodating neighbors), we soon ran out of customers.

It was during a pajama party at the home of another classmate, Sue, that we were once again mooning over our cache of cute cardboard canines (we had plenty to go around…) Suddenly, Hanna-Jo pointed to the front of the oversized card in her hand and shrieked, “Your nose looks just like this puppy. I’m going to call you Pup Dog!” Now, she meant it as a compliment, for as I’ve already said, we thought these cards were divine. But to my ear I was being compared to a fuzzy, round-edged cartoon. Less in the mold of beautiful Cinderella, more Goofy Fairy Godmother #3, the pudgy, endlessly blue Merriweather. While I adored the character I kept envisioning her picture over my name in the yearbook. And I didn’t like it one bit!Puppy Dogs

My dream of rhinoplastic refinement remained alive. During the late 80s, a podiatrist I worked for wrangled me a free consultation with a colleague, a tony upper eastside plastic surgeon. Every woman in his waiting room sported the same pert little peak. Apparently I’d walked onto the set of Chapter 2: The Stepford Noses. Ooops, wrong casting call.

In short order I was shown into his very modern, very white inner office. Sitting on the desk, although they were still in their infancy, was a monster PC! The screen pulsed with the promise of beauty and elegance to be had for the asking. I sat in my assigned chair and tried to keep my gaze on the doctor and not gaping out the 12 foot windows framing the glorious Metropolitan Museum of Art directly across the street (when I say tony, I mean tony!) I managed to pay attention as Doctor “Tony” demonstrated exactly what he’d do to my face using his on-screen anatomical line drawing program. He was polite but parsed me a total of 3 minutes. Clearly he’d decided I could never afford surgery at his practice and he was cutting his losses. He exited the room without even shaking my hand.

A few years later, my roommate at the time, Maria, decided it was finally time to fix that deviated septum she gave herself smacking into a diving board back in high school. So she did her research (meaning she found an ad in the classifieds of BACKSTAGE, the gold standard audition rag for actors trying to make it in New York City.) Her only caveat was she wanted a surgeon who would guarantee that no  one could tell she’d had anything done. Although I was rather hoping for the opposite, as her doc offered free consultations, I went along for the ride.

Sitting in front of his desk in the cozy, cluttered office (no distracting windows this time), Doctor Really Nice Guy treated me to a friendly, “So, what are you interested in discussing today?” I was prepared. I started my pitch. “I know it may not look like I need it, but I’ve always wanted to have my nose done…”

He raised his hand to stop me. Though clearly a lovely man (and based on my roommate’s successful — and never questioned — results, a darn good surgeon), I was a bit confused. Suddenly he leaned forward and placed his hands on my face. I must have jumped, because he calmly explained, “I can’t speak to what I can do for your nose without feeling the structure of your face.”

Well, that made miles of sense to me. When I remarked that Doctor “Tony” hadn’t done this he gave a sad little nod of his head. And Doctor Really Nice Guy, he didn’t look bored or dismissive (as had the Prince of Fifth Avenue), instead he began to tell me his story. His real love was reconstructive plastic surgery, helping people come back from accident and misfortune. He confessed he’d grown so tired of treating the upper eastside ladies who lunch, that he’d placed that ad in Backstage hoping for a more interesting clientele. I was feeling better by the minute. After a bit more manipulation, he sat back and announced, “Okay, I can see why you want your nose done. The tip is rounded and it’s upturned, giving you a bit of a porcine appearance. Plus, your nose crooks slightly to the left.” Finally, someone who could see the “real” nose on my face. I nearly wept in relief.

Well, that was over 20 years ago and luckily I have an expanded appreciation of my own non-symmetry. I still haven’t had the surgery. Maybe all I needed back then was someone to assure me I wasn’t nuts, my nose did invite a bit of tweaking to meet the standard of the day. Maybe it was because I didn’t have any health insurance. Or perhaps I was just prescient enough to know someday I would reunite with Hanna-Jo on Facebook. And keeping the face I was born with absolutely invited her to start our first conversation in decades by typing, “Hello, Pup Dog!” After all, no one wants to disappoint an old friend.

I do confess one regret — not having kept one of those 28″ x 10″ cardboard canines. It probably would have become a real conversation piece at parties (but only if I had framed it and hung it on my wall chances of which are, truthfully, pretty slim…)

Finally if I may, dear reader, I’d like to end this tale with a touch of very salient advice. A magical message that will help you in any crisis of faith or beauty:

“Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo…”

Merriweather_Yearbook

Oh well, guess it’s not so bad after all.

O Tannenbaum. Oh, Tannenbaum !#?*!


While I had an almost completely Catholic education — and I mean that in the religious and cultural sense  — because St. John of the Cross School did not have a kindergarten, I began my education smack in the public sector.

My first visit to Hamilton Avenue School, a low-sling brick structure, was when it served as the ad hoc polio vaccine headquarters for Roslyn, PA.  On that particular morning, a summer day one month before I started school, for the first time I had been allowed to dress myself.

“This is fabulous!,” I thought, as I chose my favorite blue flowered dress. Now, of course, I understand my pregnant Mom was just too busy tending to my baby sister. But it unleashed a feeling of power. The patent leather Mary Janes and white ankle socks were easy. But while my 5-year old arms could reach behind my waist, my 5-year old brain couldn’t visualize how to tie a nice big bow behind my dress. So being a problem solver even then, I wrapped it around to the front and tied one there. I thought it was dashing. My mother disagreed.

Once I’d been readjusted (lest anything be out-of-place!), we all took the short walk to Hamilton Avenue School. The vintage 60’s building had a modern entrance that could have served as a carport for George Jetson. Streaming in and out of this opening were mothers and strollers and children. But the thing that caught my eye as we entered the school corridor were the nurses. There were tables and tables of them lining the halls, starched, white and proffering tiny paper cups. And inside? A sweet cube — a sugar square dosed with magic medicine. You were invited to take it and suck on it. Or furiously chew it to bits. Either way, delicious fun. I liked this place! And this was where I’d be going to school? Sweet!

My next visit — the first day of kindergarten — was different and bit more daunting. There were no baby carriages or smiling nurses and all the traffic was going in not coming out. And this time my Mother walked me down the corridor into a bright, windowed room that smelled of chalk and permanent markers. She told me to be good, said goodbye and walked out the door. I stood still, afraid — not necessarily of being alone but of not knowing what to do. Even though I had yet to study the Baltimore Catechism, I was well aware that making a mistake was a CARDINAL SIN.

The teacher, Mrs. Roche, looked comfortingly like a cross between my own and my best friend, Judy Crouthamel’s mom. Tall with a familiar blondish hairdo and red lips. So, I relaxed a bit and looked around. There was a huge (or so it seemed at the time) round table in the middle of the room, large enough for everyone in class to gather round. An art nook around the corner featured easels, brushes and paints in primary colors, the kind that came in little glass jars which, when you opened them, smelled vaguely of clay and vinegar.

A huge stack of green mats sat patiently waiting for nap time, which I soon discovered was the daily activity following cookies and milk. I was not a napper and never slept during this period. However, not wanting to break any rules, I lay motionless on the mat with my eyes closed, steadily inhaling the perfume of plastic and floor polish as the minutes ticked by.

Everything in the room glowed, from the polished blond wood of the tables and chairs to the sun streaming continuously through the huge corner windows. I have fond memories of the day Mrs. Roche’s son (a strapping 4th grader who seemed super adult and dangerously exciting!) visited our classroom. We made butter in a mixing bowl using a hand beater. Everyone got to turn it three times. Then Mrs. Roche made her son do the real work. Our efforts were quickly eaten, spread on saltine squares and served with milk. And then, we napped. It’s still a favorite treat (the saltines with butter, have moved on from the milk…)

But I have a not so fond memory of one particular art class in early December when, decked in my protective cloth smock, I stood at one of those easels, dipping my brush into the little pots of primary color. I was valiantly working on my masterpiece.

Now, I knew what I wanted to paint, but something had gone very, very wrong. And every time I attempted to correct my egregious error, it was compounded instead by that nasty blue I just couldn’t remove from the end of my brush (RGB: 30, 59, 222, in case you need a visual.) I was becoming frustrated and annoyed — no way this was not a mistake and you know what we think of those…

As Mrs. Roche approached me, I started to sweat. My 5 year-old mind tried to will her away. I said a quick Hail Mary, but apparently God was already booked.

Her shadow fell upon me. “So, what are we painting today?”  DRAT. Trying to ignore the third person address, which annoyed me even then, I avoided her gaze and mumbled the words “Christmas Tree” into my smock.  Maybe if I didn’t fully engage her, she would go away. I was desperate to get back to the repairs at hand. Santa was coming to town and this was clearly bad advertising!

But, no such luck. “A Christmas Tree?” she queried, her voice clearly stating she was having difficulty matching the image to the title. A slight pause, then “And what’s that? On the top?” And then it happened. She pointed right at my terrible, awful, no good, very bad mistake. I froze, hoping to disappear. It doesn’t work for bunnies and it didn’t work for me.

The light actually changed as she reached over and tapped the paper right near that blaze of blue. “Is that a —present?” she prompted with a sing-song lilt to her voice. The word echoed in my head, “Present, present, present…”

The combination of her tone and the clearly illogical question immediately cast her as my very first “art patron-izer.” And I didn’t want one. I let rip with a serious “tchh” of the tongue followed by a sigh worthy of the most “oh my GOD. Mother, I can’t believe you asked me that” teenage girl. She didn’t flinch. I was cornered. So, like a wounded animal, I continued to lash out.

“A present?” I sneered, “At the top of the tree?” I swear, although I didn’t know the word, my tone clearly implied “…you bitch!”

But kindergarten teachers are tough, and she kindly ignored this. She did, however, bend down and in her determined schoolteacher block print using a black, permanent marker, forever saddle my creative effort with the mocking title: CHRISTMAS TREE. And then she put my name on it.

Cruelty, thy name is kindergarten teacher.

“She was five,” you’re saying to yourselves. “Clearly a bit of hyperbolic fiction.”  Sadly, folks, I used to cultivate the annoying habit of cataloguing every slight and humiliation I perceived. I’d file them conveniently on a shelf ready to pull out should I start feeling too good about myself. (Ed. Note: See earlier reference to Catholic education.) Though I doubt Mrs. Roche remembered this conversation 10 minutes after it occurred, in my head it’s still clear as day.

Perhaps my retention has something to do with the fact that my parents immediately took said masterpiece, matted and framed it boldly in red. And starting that year and for several afterward, as the holiday season rolled around, displayed my CHRISTMAS TREE on Dad’s easel. And each year, it taunted me. Even when I was pretty sure he wasn’t real, I still worried Santa would find some way to use it against me…

Luckily younger siblings supplied artwork of their own and eventually it was relegated to the basement gallery (right next to my Dad’s college rendition of Toulouse Lautrec’s JANE AVRIL. We were an arty house.) At one point Dad repainted the red frame to black and that’s how it remains today — safely bubble-wrapped in my Manhattan Mini-storage locker. Where it can do no harm.

Okay, I admit. I got over the mistake of my CHRISTMAS TREE. In fact, I love that I still have it around. If I’d had kids, would have hung it in their rooms to teach them that making mistakes is the real pathway to making your own art. Instead, when I move to a bigger apartment, and finally have my office, I’ll hang it up for me — to remind me of that very same lesson.

So next time you’re in a position to judge someone’s creation, be kind but don’t pander. Because — to borrow from Three 6 Mafia  and John Bradshaw — it’s hard our there for an inner kid.

Oh yeah, Merry Christmas!

The Masterpiece

This is a Ma’am’s World…


… This is a Ma’am’s world. But it wouldn’t be nothin’, nothin’  —

Oops — wrong music.

Eastside, westside, all around the town…

Recently, as I walk the sidewalks of New York, a strange thing has been happening. People are passing me by. In droves. I mention this as strange because I am one of those fast, clippy New York walkers. Apparently, the truth is that I used to be one of those fast, clippy New York walkers. The evidence is clear, in the sidewalk game, I’m no longer a leader of the pack.

Here in the city, sidewalks are actually pedestrian roadways. That means, just as with the yellow cabs zooming by, New Yorkers are bipedal vehicles getting where they need to go as quickly as possible (all while trying not to get ticketed for jaywalking.)

I pause for a little safety tip for NYC visitors: nothing marks a tourist faster than someone slowly meandering down the sidewalk. Or groups stopping to gawk at a map. That’s akin to a couple of cars braking mid-highway for a picnic lunch. It can be downright dangerous.

Sidewalk prowess is a point of identity for Manhattanites. Outta’ my way, sucker, I know where I’m going… So the realization that I might be losing my skills cut me to the quick. I started searching for an explanation. Clue #1: Perhaps it was the recent foot surgery. Despite having chucked the cane a few weeks ago, I guess it’s still a temporary handicap. Clue #2: Perhaps being off my feet for those weeks of recovery took a bite out of my usual stamina.

But none of that helps as people continue to step, even zoom past me on the sidewalk, without even breaking a sweat. I’m chagrined to share that recently, when boarding a bus, someone who appeared to be around my age got up to offer me their seat. This happened more than once. I actually checked behind me for their target before I understood it was me. Not that I’m not appreciative of a gracious gesture, but it makes me wonder “Just how tired do I look today?”

And I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the contribution of my old dance injuries, as I delight in romanticizing them, when it comes to getting around town. My knees are pretty much shot. So on a bad day, climbing into a bus or rising from a sitting position can sometimes appear to be an amuse-bouche for avant garde dances to come. Cue Mia Michaels and SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. I’m available to tour.

Despite these truths, I confess nothing makes me feel older than when I am called “ma’am.” I understand it’s a contraction of “madame,” a polite sign of respect, especially when addressing the Queen of England. But, I’m usually sans crown. (Although, there have been occasions.) So whenever that palindrome is tossed in my face, a virtual arthritis sets in. Suddenly I’m tucked into a rocking chair on some picturesque mid-west porch knitting my own lap robe as I watch life pass me by.

On the occasions I am met with a full-fledged, flat-out  “Pardon me, ma’am” I instantly shrink to become Miss Kitty’s wizened grandmother receiving a tip of the hat from that whippersnapper, Marshall Dillon. (What, you GUNSMOKE fans don’t remember Miss Kitty’s grandmother? Apparently she was too old to appear on television, even back in the kinder, gentler ’50s. That’s how old this makes me feel.)

Now, at the utterance of this delightful phrase, do I smile benignly like a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s? Nope, I want to reach out and slap someone. Apparently, I’m not alone. It’s a widely-held source of annoyance, as illustrated by U.S. Senator from California, Barbara Boxer (Please Don’t Call Me Ma’am) and my illustrious fellow blogger, Kristen Hansen Brakeman (Don’t Call Me Ma’am) — not even a ‘please’ there, it’s that serious. Check them out to appreciate the scope of this comprehensive sociological issue.

Me, I’ve decided to tackle this head on. I’m not interested in finishing out my game, a beachball with a slow leak. I’m back in training, sharpening my skills to rejoin the bustling New York throng. As to that four letter word? I vaccinate myself against it! From now on, I’ll jump up to offer my seat on the bus. I’ll take the E train instead of the C because (woo hoo!!) it means I can climb an additional two flights of stairs to reach the street. I will stop purchasing exercise equipment from TV and actually unpack the AbDoer Twist that’s been sitting in a box in my living room for the past 3 years. (Game on!)

So, there it is. I’ve decided. I will not go on living in a ma’am’s world. Not to be hard-nosed about this, for it’s a lovely form of address — just not for me, just not right now. Perhaps in my 90’s I’ll be ready to embrace it.

So the next time that term of honor comes tumbling from someone’s lips, I’ll put my hand on my hip and pointedly say:

“You can call me Madame. You can even call me Miss. But please…don’t call me Ma’am.”

Grandma 2

I’ve Been SMASHED!!


No, this is not a tale of mammograms, or the movie of the same name from last year which no one went to see. And it sure ain’t a chronicle of my inebriations past (unless we’re talking the morning after a family-size bag of Kettle Chips.) What this is is a status report on one of my current TV passions.

With their move to Saturday nights at 9pm (starting this week) it’s clear the hammer is about to drop on Ivy and Karen and Tom and Julia and Derek and Eileen. Yes, boys and girls, I’m talking about that full on fan letter that supposedly pulls back the curtain on the Great White Way — NBC’s SMASH.

Out of the mind of Steven Spielberg and creatively birthed by Theresa Rebeck (one of my favorite playwrights), the first season of SMASH generated lots of buzz and a flock of die-hard fans. But crappy ratings.

Me? I’m there watching every week. As television musicals go, this ain’t no COP ROCK (apologies to that other Steven – Bochco – though I applaud his effort.) Smartly recruiting forces from the actual Broadway community lends an incomparable level of craft to SMASH, despite the necessary evil of compressing the time and process of creating a Broadway musical into fifteen 42-minute TV dinners. Add to that the multiple layers of television and film experience involved and, baby, you’ve got yourself a show that works (sometimes…)

Last season while I enjoyed many of the characters and could swallow most of the storyline, I did take exception with all those fully costumed, choreographed and well lit workshops. (No, I’m not referring to the dream/fantasy sequences.)  I have never attended a workshop with such incredible production values. Or seen one in a rehearsal space that bright and clean. Everyone’s usually wearing their own clothes and still on book. But I’ll issue a creative license on that point. After all, over the years I managed to embrace such NY shows as FRIENDS and THE GOOD WIFE, despite the fact the wardrobe and apartments their characters inhabit are a total urban myth.

While we’re on the subject of real estate, can I get an “are you kidding me” on the size of Tom’s apartment? Julia’s — maybe, since it’s in Brooklyn. And that penthouse where they installed Derek — it’s too painful to even think about. However, when the show wraps (which appears to be soon), could somebody get me a broker’s appointment to rent Eileen’s “downsized dump”? It’s just perfect!

Back to the story — does the business of show as seen on SMASH ring true? Caveat here, my opinion is filtered through my vast personal Broadway experience — in other words, three years bartending in Broadway houses, several creative team call backs for long-running musicals and one four-month audition process that almost had me treading the boards with Vanessa Redgrave (another post, perhaps…) So, dear reader, snack on this story with as much salt as your taste buds require.

Though I can’t technically call myself a Broadway Baby, over the years I’ve had plenty of friends who are. Despite this connection, and despite the vicissitudes of portraying live theatre within the confines of a TV series, I continue to tune in each week, fingers crossed. So that says something.

I’m sad to learn that the newest Law & Order casting carrot for NY actors may be no more. I really thought this time I had a chance. I’ll admit, over the 20 plus years the legendary Dick Wolf series shot here in the city, all I managed to book was background on two episodes. But as they say, it’s never over if you won’t give up. Or something like that.

After the flush of Season One I started planning my attack. SMASH — just like LAW & ORDER — shoots everything right here in New York. So last summer, I took it as a sign when this notice appeared on my block:

It reads:

Dear Residents and Merchants,
We will be filming scenes for NBC’s second season of “SMASH” in your neighborhood on MONDAY, July 30th, 2012…

I live in what’s referred to as the “theatre district.” Times Square is a block and a half from my front door. My neighbors and I are used to production crews. Many years ago late one hot August night I returned home from work to discover MONEY TRAIN had transformed my entire block into a winter wonderland. It looked so real that, despite the 88 degree temperature, I felt a chill. Another time, I was sitting in a movie theatre watching the 2009 remake of FAME (not by choice, I feel compelled to explain.) Suddenly there was my apartment building on the 30 foot screen, at least triple its normal size. May I say that proved to be the high point of the film for me… 

SMASH shot on my block for several days and didn’t really impede my existence. In fact, it was kind of fun. I kept hoping to see Megan Hilty or Katherine McPhee carefully descending the steps of any one of the giant corrugated Kleenex boxes known as production trailers which lined my street. My friend, Eric did hear Megan rehearsing a duet as he passed by late one afternoon. Alas, no sightings.

So a couple of weeks later, in a completely different neighborhood (where I work in Chelsea), as I left the office one night, a familiar notice was dotting the block:

I did a quick 180 to see if it was Ellis trying to gaslight me. (Poor, Ellis, we hardly knew ye. Although, oddly, that was enough.) Nope, no Ellis. And no Jerry Rand, the reigning villain of the television theatre family this season (played by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Michael Cristofer who just happens to be the brother of a former boss of mine. Six degrees…) This notice was genuine. SMASH was not only shooting on my home block, they’d followed me to work! Odd or opportunity?

Oh come on! Clearly, the serendipity of these shoots could not be ignored. Here it was, my way into SMASH. I just needed to interface with someone, anyone from the SMASH crew, and get my butt on that show. But who? And how?

As I strolled toward my office the fantasy began. I casually pass a trinity of SMASH folk engaged in a frantic (though highly unlikely) conversation.

“What ever will we do?,” Casting Director says to the Producer, “There’s a police incident on the Number 6 train. Our character woman is stuck on the subway.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Episode Director explodes, “We’re just about to shoot that seminal scene inside the Broadway theatre bathroom and I need that Ladies Room Attendant on set NOW! She’s crucial to our story arc.”

“There goes my budget.” sighs the Producer and they fall into a worried silence.

This is it — my chance!!  I take a breath then stop in front of them, ready to pull my best Claudette Colbert, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT hosiery adjustment. (Okay, I no longer submit to shoving my legs into nylon casings, but this is my fantasy so go with it.) Just as I’m about to seductively straighten of my seams, back in reality I trip on the sidewalk. I glance around the real world. No Director. No Producer. My only possibilities seem to be a couple of gaffers, a best boy and a woman from hair and makeup who’s looking pretty cranky. Not exactly what I had in mind so I continued toward my office.

Suddenly I saw this:

All right! With my new-found knowledge, that day at lunchtime I decided to head east which took me right past Megan’s trailer. But no action. I left work early that day but returned in the evening to finish a project. Upon my return, my taxi dropped me on Fifth Avenue right in the middle of a familiar crowd. Tourists with cameras behind red velvet ropes: a genuine “shoot sighting.” I glanced across the avenue and saw the production set-up.There was lots of activity — clearly they were just about ready for a shot.  Feigning nonchalance, I tried to snap a picture. This was great, perhaps Megan was about to leave her dressing room on her way to the set. I scurried over to check…

Alas. I continued upstairs at my desk and I dialed my friend, Eric. Before I could spill, he said, “Guess what?”

Me, “What?”

“I was just walking down your block,” he continued, “…and decided to drop by Kathy’s [a friend who also lives on the block.]  And guess who was sitting on her stoop?”

“No idea,” I replied.

“That guy who plays the composer on SMASH, I can’t think of his name right now…” he paused, “…and the blonde, Megan Hilty.”

“Wait, wait. On my block? You saw Megan Hilty on my block?”

“Yeah, sitting on Kathy’s steps. Both of them. I had to ask them to move so I could get in the building.”

“Hold on, you’re saying SMASH is shooting on my block?”

Tiny deliberate pause. “Yes.”

“And Megan Hilty is there?”

“I believe that’s what I said.”

Dammit. How and why was Megan Hilty 25 blocks north of her dressing room? Who was shooting on Fifth Avenue? My mind was churning. Eric continued.

“I welcomed them to the neighborhood and told them we were happy to have them shooting here. Mentioned they were both terrific in the show, but I didn’t want to bug them while they were working. So I said goodnight and stepped inside.” Classy guy.

“What’d they say?,” I prompted.

“Oh, you know – thank you. They were very gracious and seemed pleased by the compliment. It was kinda’ fun to see them just sitting there on Kathy’s front stoop.”

I quickly flipped the possibilities, but knew I could never make it home in time. Of course, ultimately it wasn’t necessary because the pattern was now clear. The universe had finally revealed my truth: the SMASH crew was my new neighbor. My television BFF. At work, at home. I’d be seeing them again. And next time, by God, I’d be ready.

EPILOGUE

Well, since Season Two filming completed without me and the news of the likely cancellation of the series, it looks like I’m back to my LAW & ORDER reality. Always the bridesmaid. Never the bride. Perhaps I should try a new wedding planner. I’m open for recommendations…

I Fired Aaron Sorkin

Quote


Technically, true. I did fire Aaron Sorkin.

It was sometime in the mid- to late-80s and we were both working for a concession company, bartending in Broadway theatres. We were far from friends, but certainly acquaintances. I distinctly remember one night, working the Jackie Mason show at the Brooks Atkinson with Aaron because as soon as the show started, he handed me a script to read. It was his first play — a one-act called “Hidden in This Picture.”

The Brooks Atkinson is an old, small theatre — no cushy lobbys like some of the other houses. You work out in the open with the audience and must remain quiet throughout the performance. So as the show got under way I sat down on one of the theatre’s “antique” settees and quietly began reading Aaron’s script. It wasn’t long before I was beating my hand on the cushion in an effort not to laugh out loud. To this day, I have never experienced anything as funny as the moment when the cows appear on the hill in “Hidden in This Picture.” I don’t want to ruin it for you so I won’t explain how he managed to write cows into a stage play and make them funny, but trust me — he did. Soon there were tears running down my cheeks as I continued to choke down the laughter. I wasn’t wholely succesful and a few audience members turned around to give me the stink eye. Thankfully, Jackie Mason didn’t notice.

A while later I was working with Aaron again, this time managing the bar at the former Alvin Theatre — newly renamed in honor of playwright Neil Simon. Matthew Broderick was reprising his role as Eugene Morris Jerome, the somewhat autobiographical stand-in for the playwright himself. This go round featured BILOXI BLUES, the middle child in the Simon Trilogy. Earlier at this same house, I’d worked the run of the trio’s first-born, BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS. The baby of the family, BROADWAY BOUND, came along soon after.

Bartending on Broadway was a nifty little gig. Not a whole lot of money, but then it didn’t require a whole lot of time. You showed up 90 minutes before curtain, set up the bar and leisurely served drinks before the show (in industry parlance, the “walk-in”.) There was that 15 minutes of human chaos known as intermission, but it wasn’t long before you got to break it all down and say good night. What made this gig different, the delicious cherry on this bartending sundae was you got to watch Broadway actors in Broadway shows—for free!

As this was a cash business, a representative from the concession company made the rounds every night, you know, giving everything the once over: Was your bar set up properly? Are you wearing the correct uniform? Are you keeping your hands out of the till?

Now I was a good manager from the standpoint that I was honest, hardworking and responsible (not to mention incredibly quick, regularly serving 75 people overpriced drinks in the span of 15 minutes.) That, cashing out for the night and inventory was usually all that was required. But one week, Ida (from the office) stopped at my bar after the walk-in. She leaned on one elbow, sucked hard on her cigarette (this was the 80s, remember) and with all the gravity of Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR, pronounced,

“Aaron’s not wearing his tie.”

I smiled pleasantly, but when she blew a steady stream of smoke past my ear, I realized she was expecting more of a response.  “Oh, okay.”  She still didn’t move.  “I’ll speak to him?” She nodded silently and was gone.

Now, at this point in my life I could barely confront myself, forget about anyone else. If you’d asked me, “Hey, what do you do?” I would have replied “waitress” or “bartender” despite the years of music and theatre training. Sure, in my heart of hearts I thought of myself as an actress but I wasn’t going to tell anybody about it. That would be forward. That would be gauche. I would wait silently until somebody else told me I had earned my chance at the spotlight…Cue John Houseman, my mother and the Catholic Church. So the thought of disciplining anyone, let alone someone daring and creative enough to write one of the funniest plays I’d ever read, presented a definite challenge.

Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, did not appear hampered by similar self-doubts. That evening after the show started, when he walked down to the lower lobby to relax until intermission, I took a deep breath and quickly said,

“Aaron, you’re not wearing your tie.”

He barely looked in my direction as he settled onto the sofa with his newspaper. Slightly uncomfortable pause. Well, it was uncomfortable for me.

“Aaron, excuse me, but you need to put on your tie.”

“I don’t have a tie.” He didn’t even look up.

Had he done so he might have seen me smile — not a happy smile, more a facial tick to cover my panic and confusion over what to do next. Crap, you’re the manager. This is part of your job. You need to—

 “Aaron, Ida said you have to wear your tie.”

So there.

There was an almost imperceptible pause. “Well, Dee,” he said casually, “I don’t have a tie.” He turned the page of his newspaper and continued to read.

Bob — the understudy for the role of Eugene Morris Jerome’s Dad, who sat with us in the lower lobby every night until intermission on the off-chance the actor he was covering would sprain an ankle, choke on prop cornflakes or mistakenly walk off the front of the stage — watched me out of the corner of his eye. Seconds seemed like hours. “Well, Aaron,” I finally replied, somewhere between a whisper and a choke, “I guess you’ll just have to go home and get one.” Bang. Zoom. To the moon, Alice!!!

“If I go home, Dee, I might not come back.” He lazily turned another page. [Ed. Note: Aaron lived a 3 minute walk from the theatre. This stand-off was purely academic and may have served as an influence for the tone of THE WEST WING, specifically any scene involving President Bartlet.]

Bob’s eyes clocked back to me like he was watching the final volley at Wimbledon.

“Well. Aaron…If you’re not wearing your tie you — I guess you don’t — I mean, maybe you shouldn’t come back.”

Okay, not exactly an ace. But as passive aggressive shots go, it at least cleared the net.

So Aaron Sorkin slowly folded his paper, tucked it under his left arm and left the theatre, sans neckwear. And he did not return. As I envisioned his chastened journey home, chest emblazoned with a scarlet “A” for arrogant, I scurried to the payphone (again, this was the 80s) to report in to Ida. I was nothing if not the dutiful schlub. So they sent me a replacement bartender and that was that.

A few months later, ME AND MY GIRL opened at the brand new Marriott Marquis Theatre. My good friend, Eric Johnson (yes, dear readers, that Eric) was in the original Broadway cast. (Check him out as the Pearly King with Robert Lindsay and cast at the 1986 Tony Awards. He’s the guy with all the shiny buttons and spoons.) As I was invited to attend the opening night, I walked into the theatre feeling like a million bucks. And who should I see blithely managing the bar in this brand new palace of pleasure, a gig that turned out to be the golden calf of Broadway bartending, raking in unprecedented tip money as a monster Tony-winning musical hit? You guessed it, Aaron Sorkin. Big as life, not a shred of shame or embarrassment at his previous comeuppance, but this time — I noted — wearing a tie. I side-stepped to another bar and ordered a stiff drink.

It took me years — and a few more Aarons — to process the complexity of the life truth it’s as simple as doing what you want. No, I mean actually doing it. After his success, when someone learned that I’d crossed paths with him, their inevitable “What’s he really like” was met with, “He’s an asshole.” After a while I was amending it to, “He’s an asshole — but that’s why he is where he is today.” And I mean that as a compliment.

I have always been his fan, for a while albeit a reluctant one. But now I understand that despite how he appeared to me, and despite the fact that he has been so incredibly successful doing what he loves, he probably has as many insecurities as the rest of us. He just didn’t use them to plan his TripTik.

So should I happen to run into Aaron on the street again someday, and should he happen to inquire, “Dee, how are you? What have you been doing?” I’d reply without hesitation, “I’m great. Still an actor. And now a writer, too — a little like you.”

However whether he’s wearing one or not, don’t think I’ll mention the tie.

She’s Back…


To paraphrase the iconic Carol Anne, she’s back…

No, I don’t mean me — although it is true RIPE and I are finally on the move again. (Yippee!) I’m actually talking about my new BFF. You all know her. I’ve mentioned her here before. The woman I would most love to sit down to lunch and talk low-cal, high fiber recipes with. The gal whose opinion I am curious about — does she watch the THE GOOD WIFE primarily as a law procedural or more for the character-driven drama? And more importantly, is it BREAKING POINTE or BUNHEADS? Or both? (There’s no denying the lady likes to dance, right?)

Of course I’m talking about that first lady of sweater sets, the one who lately has graced every taping from LETTERMAN to LIVE! with KELLY (and dig that co-host of the week), where she actually jumped rope with aplomb. I’m talking about your friend and mine, Michelle Obama.

I’ve been hearing from Michelle quite a bit lately, we just haven’t managed to connect. There was another letter this week. And few recent emails about a lunch get together. But we ran out of time. She’s been busy. I’ve been busy. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.

I haven’t written back yet, but this won’t sully our friendship. Nope, cause I know she’s got my back. Well, strictly speaking that’s more feeling than fact, since we haven’t actually met. But everything about her points toward the positive. It’s almost like we’re having a conversation when I read OBAMAFOODORAMA, the Blog of Record About White House Food Initiatives, From Policy to Pie. And you all know my food focus of late, so I relish the good info.

Last fall, when I received that first letter from Michelle — the one that helped inspire my first post on THE RIPE PROJECT — it was totally unexpected and just the kick I required. Actually that reminds me of the time I just couldn’t get my head around cleaning and organizing my apartment. I procrastinated. And procrastinated. Then finally, when I could stand it no more, I cleaned my apartment. [Ed. Note: For those of you who are home – not apartment – dwellers, this reference may lack a certain punch. Here’s a little game: take at least half your furniture and belongings and move them into two contiguous rooms of your house. The rest of the space is off-limits except as a storage facility for the overflow, for which you pay $225 a month and can only enter from 8 am to 6 pm. Now, go ahead: live and be neat about it.] Anyway, once I finally broke down and just cleaned the place, you know what happened? It wasn’t that big a deal. I had a much more enjoyable living space and I found a $100 bill. No, it wasn’t magic. I’d always had the money. I’d simply lost track in all the self-created chaos.

My point is, same thing with Michelle. There I was last August struggling for clarity, trying to locate the lost kernel of my idea for this blog when — voila!!! Une lettre de la Première Dame des Etats-Unis! It stopped my in my tracks. At first I was stumped. Compared to Michelle Obama, why should I even try. But a moment later it became just the creative compass I needed. As I compared the map of my life to the map of Michelle’s, at first the differences seemed insurmountable. Eventually Michelle helped orient me to who and where I am and where I want to go.

So take a few lessons in living from our First Lady. Eat healthy. Stay active. And write a letter to a friend. Help keep the US Postal Service in business (it’s nice receiving something other than bills.) Now that we have the Forever Stamp and you can buy them online, there’s no excuse. And won’t your Grandmother be proud?