Washington DC, 1986.
I had a day off from my job as a circus clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and I decided to take in some theater. Culture is good, right? I chose Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring Jack Lemmon at the National Theater. Jack Lemmon. Hmmmm…might be tough to get a ticket at the last minute. Probably sold-out for weeks. NOPE! Scored a single seat in the THIRD ROW of the center orchestra section. One of the best seats in the house. The Fates were smiling on a hardworking clown.
On the off chance Mr. Lemmon might be willing to talk to me after the show, I went around to the stage door before heading in to take my seat. I knocked, and the door was answered by a guy about my age who identified himself as Jack’s assistant. I told him who I was, and that, if possible, I’d like to pay my respects to Mr. Lemmon after the show.
“Wait right here. I’ll find out for you.”
Not two minutes passed before the stage door opened again, and my new friend said with a smile, “Mr. Lemmon will be glad to see you, but asks that you not call it “paying your respects” because it makes him sound like he’s dead.” Holy cow. Jack friggin’ LEMMON was going to talk to me after the show! This was getting better and better.
I settled into my awesome seat and struck up a conversation with the better half of the older couple in the seats next to mine. While we chit-chatted I noticed that earnest-looking young men in the seats in front of us and behind us were attempting to chat up her husband, but I couldn’t figure out why. He mostly ignored them and studied his program. Just before curtain, she asked me who I was and where did I work? It seemed slightly odd, the “Where do you work?” part. But OK. I told her. She uttered a thoughtful, “Hmmmm….” just as the show began.
The first act was incredible! If you only saw Jack Lemmon in films, I feel sorry for you. His range as a stage actor was astonishing.
As the lights came up for intermission, we all rose from our seats and scooted into the aisle. The nice lady from the seat next to mine said to her husband, “Honey, I want you to meet Kevin. He’s a clown with Ringling Bros.”
“Really?” he said, linking one arm through his wife’s and the other arm through mine, and like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man, we sailed up the aisle to the lobby. It struck me as odd, but what the hell? They were nice people. Fun. Easy to talk to. He even bought me a Coke at the bar. The earnest young men were visibly disturbed that my new friends were paying them zero attention.
We made our way back to our seats in our now-comfortable linked-arms formation. Then it hit me. Who my new friends were.
“Excuse me, but are you Senator Moynihan?”
“Yes I am,” said one of the most powerful men in the world.
Holy shit. Pat Moynihan. Bow tie and all. Then it REALLY hit me.
“These guys trying to talk to you…They’re lobbyists, aren’t they?”
“Yep,” he grinned.
“And you just used me to cock-block them from talking to you during intermission, didn’t you?”
“You bet!” he smiled, winking.
“Cool.” I said the lights went down.
My brush with limitless power ended when the Moynihans left just before the end of the play. But no matter. I was going to meet Jack Lemmon!
I presented myself at the stage door, and was ushered into Jack’s dressing room. He was seated at his mirror, removing his makeup. He was dressed in a white t-shirt, boxer shorts, and socks with garters. Jack Friggin’ Lemmon. The grin, the voice, the PRESENCE.
I was struck dumb. Literally. Like Wayne and Garth in front of Alice Cooper. Like Ralph Kramden caught in a lie. Homina-homina-homina.
Fortunately, he was extraordinarily kind to me. He kept the conversation going from his end with questions about the circus and clowning. All the while, I was desperately trying to think of just one single film he’d made. Blank. No Some Like It Hot. No Mister Roberts. Not even Grumpy Old Men. Nada. I was Raphie on Santa’s lap, “A football…..yeah.”
In the middle of this, two of the young actors from the show came in to see what was going on. Jack introduced them as Peter Gallagher and Kevin Spacey. Remember, this was 1986, long before they were PETER FRIGGIN’ GALLAGHER and KEVIN FRIGGIN’ SPACEY. They, like me, were two young actors on tour. When Jack introduced me, he mentioned that I was a circus clown. As soon as they heard that, they both spun on their heels and wordlessly left the dressing room. Harsh.
But Lemmon and the Moynihans? They were coooooooooooool.