A Noble Gas

I love the neon of parks and carnivals. Beacons offering a promise of adventure, fun, and maybe even a little romance.

Elephant ears, cotton candy, corn dogs, and lemon shake-ups at the grab joints. Zillion calorie, zero nutrition discomfort food.

Games which, even if won, cost more to play than what the prize is worth.

Rides which barely pass safety inspections run by thin, deeply-tanned, nicotine-fueled men who nightly ask the eternal question, “Wanna go FASTER?”

Of course we do.
trooper

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Road Story: Last Night

You can pay $10 to see a movie. The best Hollywood has to offer. $100 million worth of movie stars and special effects. It’s terrific. If you come back the next day, you can see the exact same movie for another $10. Everything will be exactly, precisely what you saw the day before. It’s terrific. It’s also the polar opposite of live theater.

You’ll pay three times as much to see live theater. (At least you will at my show, Defending the Caveman.) Each performance will be at least slightly different from the night before. A line, a movement, a laugh, not quite where it was or how it was. That’s where the magic lives, in the sacred space between last night and tonight. That is what makes live theater worth the extra cost. It’s a living work of art which only that night’s audience will experience.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll see a performance not even CLOSE to the one from the night before..

It was a normal performance. On track to run about 70 minutes, no intermission. The jokes were funny, and the drama was poignant. Everyone, from the audience, to the crew, the new bartender, and the cast…me…was having fun. Midway through the show, something odd happened. Something I haven’t seen in 44 years in showbusiness. Fully FIFTY PERCENT of the audience got up at the same time and headed to the showroom bar to get a drink. Half the audience, all at once.

The show can’t continue as planned under those conditions. The people at the bar will miss vital plot points, and their ordering and chatting will distract the ones still in their seats. Did I mention that the bar is 20 feet from the stage, at most? Since the show could not continue as planned, the show continued temporarily without a plan.

Troy Geiges is a comedy genius. He’s 6’3, good looking, and almost always the funniest person in the room. He’s my performance partner. Even though he never appears onstage, his presence is definitely felt. Troy is our technical director. He runs lights and sound for the show. Troy has over 8,000 sound effects, songs, and snippets of songs in his computer, and can access any of them in less than three seconds. Which he does, improvisationally, in response to things that happen in the sacred space between last night and tonight.

Once half the crowd was up and moving, Troy took over and played a hilarious intermission song. A bossa nova with a male voice occasionally sighing, “Intermission!” The audience in the seats and at the bar accepted that the show was now temporarily off the rails. For my part, I made the only logical choice available in the moment. I danced a credible bossa nova for 16 bars of music. A generous audience member handed me a double shot of Jack Daniels, and we all spent a few minutes sharing a drink and some off-script jokes about Las Vegas in general and Fremont Street in particular.

As soon as everyone was back in their seats, the second half of the show began. It was a completely different audience from the first half. The formal relationship between audience and cast had been completely thrown aside. We were all friends now. As we dove back into the script, the audience, Troy, and I all contributed, creating an entirely new show based upon the script, our unusual incident, and our new collaborative relationship.

All the major plot points were covered, but now the audience was adding in their own experiences. I took their additions and wove them back into the fabric of the script, all supported by Troy’s music and improv sound effects. It was a wonderful, totally immersive performance.

There was one small problem.

With the added time of our impromptu intermission, the show as-written was about to run fifteen minutes over our allotted time. There was another show scheduled after ours, and the clock was ticking. I began cutting the script in my head in order to compensate. At the same time, I was performing the script AND improvising with Troy and the audience. The double shot of Jack helped.

The show ended precisely on time. The crowd went nuts during the curtain call. As they should. It was their show as much as it was mine. Troy tells me that once I had exited backstage, the audience started shaking hands, high fiving, and chatting. A small community had been built, even if it was just for the space between tonight and tomorrow night.

You don’t get THAT at the movies.

Aunt Maude

In the book Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: A Haunting Collaboration, Gregory William Mank writes about an interview he conducted with Hope Lugosi, Bela’s fifth and final wife. Mank asked if she had any special memories of the wedding. Hope answered, “Yeah, Lugosi was drunk. That was easy to remember. I had a friend, Pat Delaney, my matron of honor, a big, tough Irish woman. She was ugly as a mud fence, but boy could she keep Lugosi in line. Yes, indeed. She came to pick him up for the wedding. By this time, he’d been drinking and was having a few misgivings. Pat said, “No you’re not—-GET DRESSED.” She got him dressed, (to her husband’s horror,) she then hustled Lugosi up to Manly Hall’s house, and said, “He’s not going to stand up a friend of mine, with all this publicity and all. No, no!”

Lugosi-wrangler Pat Delaney always called me “Keevin.” I have no idea why. She was my Great Aunt, and she knew full well how my name was supposed to sound. She also called Bela, “Beela.” I have no idea if that was correct or not.

Born Maude Burke somewhere around 1899 in Illinois, Aunt Maude moved to California, seemingly as soon as she was able. She became a “continuity girl” at the RKO movie studio. Continuity’s job was to note details of a scene such as, which hand did the actor pick up a class with, which book was thrown across the room, was an actor seated or standing on a particular line, etc.
While in Hollywood, she picked up the nickname “Pat.” I have no idea how. She was also NOT “ugly as a mud fence.” Aunt Maude was a very handsome woman with blond hair and bright blue eyes. The “big, tough, Irish” part was absolutely correct. She had a non-nonsense, take-no-crap attitude that was….allegedly….Norman Lear’s inspiration for the title character of his TV series, Maude. I don’t know if that’s true, but if you watch an episode of the show, Bea Arthur might as well be channeling my Aunt. It’s truly uncanny.

Along the way of her Hollywood adventures, Aunt Maude met and married Jim Delaney, a controller whose clients included Desi and Lucy, as well as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Jim was a tall, thin Irishman, very elegant, and very quiet. Maude and Jim were not quite Hollywood royalty, but they certainly traveled in the higher circles.

My times with Aunt Maude were short and infrequent but memorable. She would occasionally visit us in Indiana, and would always take us out to the finest restaurant in town, Tiebel’s. One night when I was six, we walked Tiebel’s together. Maude was wearing a gorgeous full-length sable coat. As we entered the spacious lobby, we were greeted with the sight of the local glitterati. The men wore suits, and the women wore mink stoles, in which they posed and preened for each other as though establishing some sort of pecking order. Maude took in the scene, shrugged off her outrageously expensive coat, took me by the hand and said, “Come with me, Keevin.” She then dragged her coat across the lobby floor, and casually tossed it onto a random chair as we sailed into the dining room. Maude had style.

During dinner, she asked, “Keevin, what would you like that Aunt Maude can get for you?” With the impulsiveness of a six year old, I answered, “A bus!” Maude chuckled and said, “I’ll see what I can do.” Three weeks after Maude returned to California, a package arrived. A BIG package. Inside was a three-feet long, perfect-in-every-detail replica of a Greyhound bus. As I said, Maude had style.

When I was 12, my parents and I drove out to California to visit Aunt Maude and Uncle Jim. It was the stereotypical early-70’s trip. No air conditioner in the car, windows rolled up, both parents chain-smoking. It seemed to take forever. Once we got to Cali, we went straight to Aunt Maude’s house, which was a block or so from the Nelson’s. She was in her 70’s at that point, but seemed ageless to me. We sat in Maude’s living room for hours, listening to stories of Old Hollywood. “Keevin,” she said, “When I would visit the studio, Ricky and David Nelson would head straight for me. They never wanted to cash their paychecks, and would “borrow” $5 each from me. If I had all those $5 bills back, I’d be wealthy.”

Some of the Hollywood talk, I didn’t understand. Names like Fairbanks and Laughton had no meaning for me at that age, but when the name Lugosi came up, I was all ears. At 12, I was at the height of my Universal Pictures monster movie craze. “YOU KNEW BELA LUGOSI???” I think I screamed. “Yes, Keevin. Beela married my girlfriend, Hope. Jim and I stood up at the wedding.” she said. “It was a shame when Beela died. All these horrible fans were scrambling about trying to steal souvenirs from the gravesite. They kept trying to take the silver cross on the lid of his coffin. I always meant to return it to Hope, but…..ah well….” she trailed off.

I held my breath for her next words. Could ownership of the silver cross from Bela Lugosi’s casket be in my immediate future? Imagine the 12-year-old bragging rights which go along with THAT.

“If only I’d known you were a fan of Beela’s, I wouldn’t have given it to the boy down the street last week.” Nope. No Bela cross for me. However, later that year, an envelope arrived for me from Hope Lugosi in San Francisco. In it were three publicity photos Bela had autographed before he died. Maude had style.

We returned to Cali a few years later to visit Aunt Maude. Time had finally taken it’s toll. Maude was in Cedars Sinai hospital due to complications from her Type 1 Diabetes. She was in rough shape, but in her usual high spirits. After an hour or so, she said, “This has been lovely, but you’ll have to excuse me. My friends will be arriving shortly for cocktails.” As we were leaving, heading into Maude’s room were David White (Larry Tate on Bewitched) and Blossom Rock (Grandmama on The Addams Family.) Oh my, Maude had style.

Maude passed in 1977. I took the call informing us of her passing. I’m not sure who was on the other end of the line. It wasn’t Jim, nor was it any family member I knew. Strange.

Many years later, I took a trip to Hollywood to see if I wanted to pitch my tent there as an actor. On impulse, I called the office of David Nelson, who by then was a film, TV, and commercial director. I spoke to his receptionist and gave Aunt Maude’s name, but used her nickname, Pat. “Just a moment,” said the receptionist. Within seconds, a man’s voice came on the line, “This is David Nelson, who is this?” I gave my name. David asked, “And you’re whose nephew?” I told him. “Are you busy for lunch?” he asked. I was not at all busy! He asked where I was, and I told him. “Great!” he said, “I’ll pick you up in half an hour,” and hung up. Half an hour later, I was seated comfortably in David Nelson’s Rolls Royce as he drove us through the streets of Hollywood.

David remembered my Aunt very well, and obviously with great fondness. He took me to Musso and Frank’s, a legendary Hollywood eatery. We discussed acting and the current state of the business, it was wonderful. He told me he could see me playing young Martin Sheen-type rolls. This was shortly before Martin Sheen’s two sons emerged as actors and scooped up all the young Martin Sheen-type roles. After lunch, he drove me back to my hotel. As I got out and turned to wave goodbye, he rolled down the window and said, “You know, your Aunt had style.”

Amen, David Nelson.

The Day I Got Screwed Over By An Oscar Winner

A “stand-in” is a warm body with the same height, weight, hair color, and skin tone of a movie star. The stand-in takes the place of the star on the set while the crew focuses the lights and figures out camera angles. It’s a fun gig, especially on a big film.

In 1983, I was Cliff Robertson’s stand-in on the movies CLASS. (The one where Jacqueline Bisset gets frisky with Andrew McCarthy in a glass elevator.) Rob Lowe was in it, as well as a bunch of young Chicago actors.

In one scene, Cliff’s character has to race through the woods on a horse. The company which insured the film during production did not want to risk the possibility of paying out on an OSCAR winner who fell off a running horse and broke his neck.

Hmmmmm, now who looked JUST like him, and could ride a horse? (Well, who looked just like him and was about to claim to be able to ride a horse?)

Director Lewis John Carlino waved me over to join the conversation between Cliff, the guy who owned the horse, the cinematographer, the 1st assistant director, and himself. “Can you ride?” he asked, quietly. “Yes sir.” I kied. “Can you REALLY ride?” he said. “Yep!” I lied again.

As he turned to the rest of the group to inform them that I was going to ride in the shot, Cliff smiled at the guy who owned the horse and said, “Ya wanna be in the movie?”

Mr. Carlino looked and me and shrugged as if to say, “Sorry kid. That’s showbiz.”

It’s probably just as well. I’d have broken my foolish young neck.

Road Story: Peter and Me

Christmastime in London, 1989. My girlfriend and I were walking arm-in-arm along Shaftsbury avenue feeling very international. A light snow was falling. It was positively Dickensian. Strolling past the historic Apollo Theatre, I noticed a poster for their current play. It looked interesting. It featured a lanky, rumpled man sitting on a barstool with a drink in one hand and HOLY SHIT IT WAS PETER O’TOOLE ON THE POSTER!!!!

SIDEBAR: If you don’t know who Peter O’Toole was, go look him up. Find out how he lived his life. Maybe watch his film MY FAVORITE YEAR. Seriously. I’ll wait.

You back? Good. Yeah, it was THAT Peter O’Toole.

The play was JEFFREY BERNARD IS UNWELL, a mostly one-man play about a drunken writer trapped overnight in his local pub.

Jeffrey Bernard was a real-life writer for The Spectator, whose column “The Low Life” was once described as “a suicide note in weekly installments.” Bernard was a lifelong alcoholic. His column would be frequently replaced with a single-page “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” when he was too indisposed to write. He was also hilarious, chronicling his daily intoxication in a way that was rakish and compelling. Peter O’Toole was born to play him. I had to see this.

Tragically, the run at the Apollo was completely sold out, according to the nice box office lady. As we sadly turned away, the nice lady said, “Unless…let me check something.” A moment later she returned with two tickets for that night’s performance. “They are season tickets which have been returned for this evening, if you would like to purchase them,” Nice Lady said. “How much?” I asked.

I don’t remember the exact amount, nor the exchange rate. But she made it clear that a number near $100 was involved, a lot of money for a ticket in 1989. This was a problem. I only had cash enough to buy one ticket. “No,” she said as though talking to a small child, “It’s $100 for BOTH tickets.”
Wallet empty, tickets in hand, we breezed into the theater. As it turned out, our seats were, without question, the best seats in the house. The Stage Left Box Seats. Pictured in this post, they were on the left side of the stage, and level to it. Perfect. Why on Earth someone would return tickets for those seats at that performance is absolutely beyond my understanding. But whoever you are, I thank you.

At this point, we still had no idea what the play was about, but we knew we had kickass seats to watch whatever it turned out to be. The lights went down. The play began. Peter crawled out from under a bench on the show’s pub set. The pub was closed. He was locked in. All he had to get him through the long night were his memories, a few regrets, and an unguarded bottle of vodka. The next two hours were magic. Peter was 56 years old, (the age I am now,) and was at the peak of his abilities.

I was spellbound. (My girlfriend, on the other hand, does not remember even having attended. Another detail beyond my understanding.) I had seen Peter’s films, but had never seen him in person. In-person Peter was far more magnificent than on-screen Peter. As Jeffrey, he flung himself around the set with a joy and abandon I’ve never seen from another actor. Best of all, I was only five feet away watching a level of artistry I am forever chasing, but seldom achieve.

I sat there on the edge of my seat, mouth agape, soaking in every glorious moment of the finest performance I have ever seen. And I was close enough to high-five him. Two-thirds of the way through the show, Peter noticed the “awestruck young actor” look on my face. I imagine he recognized the same look he had as a young actor watching a master at work. He grinned that famously sly grin, turned so only I could see his upstage eye, and winked at me.

Peter O’Toole, in the middle of one of the greatest stage performances of the 20th century…

Winked.

At me.

Every night, onstage, I strive to be worthy of that wink.

Road Story: Yul

From 2003-2007 I toured playing large theaters with 1,500-2,000 seats. These were theaters which had been around for many decades. Each one came furnished with a crusty old stage manager who had also been there for many decades.

They had a wealth of stories.

One of the questions I would pepper them with was, “Who is the most memorable actor to come through your theater?” 90% gave the same answer; Yul Brynner. There were two stories I heard repeatedly.

Story 1) In the mid-1980’s, Yul was touring in the final production of his OSCAR/Tony winner, The King and I. The show calls for Yul’s character, the King of Siam, to dance the polka with Mrs. Anna, the English teacher he has hired to educate his many children. It is a critical scene in which the two characters realize they are hopelessly in love, but can never take it further than one innocent dance. It is a very vigorous polka which goes on for 2-3 minutes. Nothing an actor in decent health couldn’t handle.

Yul, sadly, was not in decent health at that point. He was dying of lung cancer. He had to be wheeled in a chair from his dressing room to the edge of the stage. But from that point on, he was the Kind of Siam and nothing less. Each stage manager would get a sense of wonder in their voice as they talked about Yul dancing that polka, his painful moans covered by the loudness of the orchestra, but never missing a step. Never once betraying his condition to the audience. All they saw was The King.

Yul was the living definition of “The Show Must Go On.”

Story 2) Yul had extremely sensitive hearing. He was known to shush women in the audience who would get a fit of giggles over his sheer damn manliness. (No joke.) He also required absolute silence backstage during the show.
Stagehands know exactly how loudly they can whisper to each other and not have it carry into the audience. Yul didn’t care. HE could hear them, and it hurt his concentration. Yul had a remedy. Without breaking character, or breaking the flow of the scene, Yul would look at the offstage chatterboxes and bellow, “NO TALKING IN PALACE!” and from that point on, there would be no talking in palace because of the deep respect the crew all held for the one and only King.

You Never Read This

There’s no proof the comedy club owner was ever involved in any illegal activities. What was known is that he belonged to a fraternal organization, some members of which most definitely engaged in VERY illegal activities.

Very.

The comedy club itself was a joy to work. It was well-run and well-patronized. Comics were given a great deal of freedom, the only hard, fast rule being “No X-Rated Material.”

(At this point I’m compelled to say, if you’ve figured out the name of the club, or the club owner, I want you to mightily resist the urge to post names. DO NOT POST NAMES. Just. Don’t. Think a moment about just whom you would be yapping, and shut yer yap.)

I finished my set and walked offstage. It was the end of the show. The audience was standing up to leave. At the door, I was stopped by one of the club owner’s fraternity brothers. He was dressed in a way that whispered elegance, style, and incredibly good taste. Everything from his Stuart Hughes suit to his Corthay shoes spoke of a successful man who had no definable job, yet whose work is undeniably profitable. On his arm was one of the most beautiful women on Earth. By any measure, standard, or preference, she was stunning. She was his girl.

I know she was his girl because he said to me, “Would you mind signing an autograph for my girl? We really enjoyed your performance.”
Of course I would.

The Man pulled out a gleaming Mont Blanc, and a $100 dollar bill. “Sign right here,” he said, indicating the face of the bill. “Good!” he said inspecting the signature, “Now your autograph will always be worth at least $100.”

Brilliant.

As we were parting, he thought for a second and said, “We really liked your show. Is there….anything I can do for you? To show my appreciation for your work?”

Was a straight up gangster offering to put a hit on someone for me? I began making a mental list.

“How about I give you a horse?” he inquired.

I thought about the things I could do with the money from a fixed horse race. Pay off my student loans. Pay off my parents’ mortgage. Pay off BOTH if I could scrape together enough valuta to make a sizeable enough bet. It was a long two seconds of dreaming and scheming followed by two more seconds of all the “small favors” I would owe.

“No thanks,” I said, ‘though I really do appreciate the offer.”
“I’d really like to do something for you. If you think of anything you need, just let me know. The offer is always good.” he said. “I will, thanks,” I said, feeling as though I had just escaped a Richard Dreyfuss movie.
That was 20 years ago. I still keep his number handy…just in case. (And remember, you never read this.)