The Day I Dismissed Captain Fiction

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The setting: New York in the mid 1980s. Warm summer day in June. One of those delicious, sparkling, clear afternoons in midtown.

I was in my 20s and had just started my Madison Avenue copywriting trek. I had summered in the Hamptons and wintered in the Vermont with a treasure trove of ad creatives, the best and the brightest the business had to offer. Better still, I had learned that the preceding nouns – summer and winter – were verbs. Something that this Texas gal had never heard of.

That afternoon, I was strolling with my friend, Richard, down 54th street and laughing at one of his remarks about some celebrity he knew or had just seen or wanted to see. We were guffawing and being conspicuously loud.

I saw a man walking towards us. He just kept walking, not veering to our side as common sidewalk etiquette dictates.

Suddenly, there he was, this man, firmly planted right in front of us – in my face, actually.

He was older. Greying with some distinction and dressed in a smart expensive jacket, no tie.

“You are a good looking woman, you look like you would know if a man was gay or not…look at this,” he said, while he fumbled to retrieve a rolled up magazine clutched under his arm. In a split second, he unfurled it, and flipped through the pages with a fury until his hand karate-chopped a place in the center. The destination: a spread of four men in a checkerboard configuration of photos.

The headline of the page read “Dressed to Quill”.

“Which of these two guys do you think is better looking?” he said, jabbing his finger at the pages. My mind was scrambled.

Who was he? Why was he asking me this? Why me?

I looked at the man on the upper right. He had salt and pepper hair, and donned a tweedy jacket. Had sort of a sly smile. Behind him was a bookshelf.

Mr. Lish

The other man on the lower left had dark curly hair, was a bit balding, wore glasses, and sported a dark jacket. I chose this man.

Brodkey

“Aaaaah, ooooh, I KNEW it,” the man said. He snatched the magazine out of my hands, slapped it closed and left us just as quickly as he had appeared.

RIchard and I looked at each other.

“What just happened?” he said.

“I have no idea. New York is bizarre,” I said, and we walked back to my office.

After I returned to my office at Ogilvy & Mather, I couldn’t shake what had just happened.

That evening, I found the magazine – I think it was an Esquire – at a newsstand, thumbed through it and realized that this mysterious, forthright man who had stopped me was the person in the spread, Gordon Lish. His opposition: Harold Brodkey.

I had chosen Brodkey, and rejected Lish.

Oh dear God. What have I done?

I had dreams of becoming a writer beyond the ad agency world. After my discovery, I was stymied. Frozen. Paralyzed. Why had this magazine editor come upon me? And why did I make the wrong choice? Why had I thwarted Fate?

While I was in New York, I had sampled all the city had to offer in the literary arts. I dubbed it my Journey Through the Genres. I had taken a fiction writing class at the West Side YMCA from the daughter of James Jones. A poetry workshop in the East Village. An improv and acting class at H.B. Studios. Finally, two playwriting classes at Playwrights Horizons and Ensemble Studio Theatre, which jettisoned me into a decade of playwriting. Even though later I had a workshop production of a play in Los Angeles at the Tamarind Theater, I remained unproduced. I was nobody.

I did more research on Mr. Lish and was even more confounded, horrified, and tied in a knot. I discovered he was a famed editor at Alfred A. Knopf and at Esquire was known as Captain Fiction. He had launched the careers of Raymond Carver, Cynthia Ozick, Don DeLillo, Reynolds Price, and Barry Hannah. Also in his steed were Rick Bass and Richard FordAmy Hempel dedicated “Reasons to Live” to him.

He was big. Important. I was flattened.

After my ill-fated meeting with Mr. Lish, I was a whirligig of nervosa that I could not shake for months. At this time in my life, I was untreated for OCD. Anything could set me on a crash-and-burn course of spinning thoughts and sleepless nights. This did it.

My mind, a relentless bully, birthed a loop of passages, beginnings and endings, of a letter that was a story of our sidewalk meeting. I wrote this in fits and starts. Mulled over it. Wrote, wrote and rewrote it over and over, late into the night. The obsessions came and went in waves. I was manic. Even had unexplainable leg pains. I had so many juicy thoughts to share. “It was you I should have chosen in the spread, but my sight was obscured by your shining in person, dashing good looks.”

Despite my scribbling, I remained constitutionally unable to send my letter. I was shackled in fear. This obsession plagued my psyche on and off for a decade.

By the end of the 90s, after moving back to Dallas, getting meds for OCD and coming to terms with the stasis of my playwriting career, I discovered my letter with my ramblings to Mr. Lish. I finally cobbled together a short letter, one which was more clear, and cogent than my original composition, and sent it to him.

A few weeks later, I received a small square envelope. I opened it to see a note on “Gordon Lish” letterhead and typed on what looked like a real typewriter. He said that he remembered the event clearly and stated that I had not correctly identified his competition – I wrote that the other man was Harold Brodkey. He said that the man in question was Joseph Brodsky, a vastly more important writer who had won the Nobel Prize.

In my letter I had remarked that I was mediocre, that I was striving for excellence. He replied (and I’m paraphrasing) that at some time in our lives, we must all come to terms with our mediocrity. I was startled. Touched by what seemed to be genuine humility and sweetness. My heart kind of swells with happy sadness when I think back on this.

Mr. Lish also extended to me an invitation to his writing workshop in San Francisco. I should have gone. But at the time, I had no sense of self, and could not imagine presenting myself to this master. Besides, I was thick into a relationship of Wagnerian proportions that would send me into a downward spiral, a mire of warp speed quicksand that would take me yet another decade to recover from.

When I look back, in only a sliver of my life do I see a thread, a pattern, that makes any sense. Mostly, all the synchronicities of my life seems like a bunch of crossword puzzle pieces dumped on the floor.

But today as I write this, I see two potentially interlocking pieces: Gordon Lish and Barry Hannah (see him below.)

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I participated in a Writer’s Residency at the Vermont Studio Center in the mid 90s and who was my teacher? Barry Hannah – who was mentored by Gordon Lish. Mr. Hannah didn’t quite understand my story. I was crestfallen. It was about Wah Wah, my beautiful aunt Addie Willie Leopard, who was an invalid and spinster. I had even won a local Honorable Mention PEN Women award for it. He did, though, like my play. Part of it was given a reading during my stay at the Center. He was a kind, generous man. I learned a lot from him. I was sad when I read he had died.

I later took the story to a summer seminar at Bennington and my teacher, Elizabeth Cox, got it. I was heard. It felt good.

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Lish also launched the career of Reynolds Price, who was the college mentor of a young magazine writer I dated while in New York. Yet another connection, albeit weak.

There is an small overlap, but what it means, if it means anything at all, is like a big wad of Christmas lights that I am still trying to untangle.

Only now, at 54, can I look back at this odd happening with some sobriety, some hope. After 30 years of writing ads, I quit my job six months ago. I am freelancing. Writing this blog. A novella. A screenplay. And I am desperate for help. I need an editor in a bad way.

I have survived my father’s death, numerous job losses, financial failure, a colossal amount of heartbreaks and getting sober. I have been through the wringer, the storm, and any other cliché you can think of.

I am laying myself wide open for criticism, ruthless painful editing, barbs, ridicule. All the wonderful things that only a writer can appreciate and long for.

I am ready.

Now that I am out here strolling, my eyes are open. My head is up. Maybe I’ll meet a new Captain Fiction. All I can hope for is for Fate to smile on me one more time and help me find a kind pair of eyes to show me the way.

 

 

 

My Della Femina Debut

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 “From those wonderful folks who brought you Pearl Harbor.”

 – Tagline suggested for a prominent Japanese firm by Jerry Della Femina.

Yes, you read it right. This was what Jerry had suggested in a meeting full of top executives from Japan. Or so the legend goes. This shocking verbiage was also the name of Jerry’s best-selling, hilarious book. Equally provocative was the subhead, which read “Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War.”

Book It was a war. And I was in the trenches. Even though it was 1983, Della Femina, Travisano and Partners, the hallowed, revered Madison Avenue ad agency that birthed the Creative Revolution in the 60s, was still in full, uproarious swing.

Mad Men, step aside. Back away from your egos. This was the real deal. And my very first job as an ad copywriter.

I was fresh out of The Bubble, SMU in the Park Cities in Dallas, Texas, where I had been sheltered and coddled by a society and ecosystem that was a breeding ground for a big nest of WASPS.

HPAnd here I was, smack dab in the middle of the New York ad world working for a witty provocateur who also famously said that “advertising was the most fun you could have with your clothes on.” Oh, and did we. In those days, we were allowed to smoke (#guilty) in our offices and cocktails were shaken and stirred for any reason, or no reason at all – I mean, who needed one?  It was a par-tay waiting to happen. At any given moment. Of any given day. It was a odd, endlessly exciting world, one unlike any other I had ever encountered. Actually, it was more like an adult playpen. Extended adolescence. But a place, nevertheless, where magic happened.

My colleagues sported exotic names like Frank DiGiacomo. Joe Della Femina. Phil Silvestri. Mark Yustein. And Karee Rubenstein.  Lots of Italians and Jews – everyone dark and swarthy all around me. Then there was pale-faced me, Lisa Johnson, or Junior Miss, Miss Texas, and any of the other nicknames du jour they lovingly called me. In any event, there I was, Sue Vanilla (#white bread) trying to stay afloat amidst this colorful crew, daily standing back in awe watching them create killer ads effortlessly. To top it off, I was one of two female writers at this famous boys club. Despite the fact that I tried to dress the part of a New York copywriter by doing the whole Antique Boutique vintage thing, Della Femina was still a lot for this little Dallas girl with frosted blonde hair to take in.

I was not good at what I did back then – no creative muscle to speak of. While I was good at puns, and was the ultimate punographer, ad concepts I just could not generate. I had gone to the School of Visual Arts and taken portfolio classes. I had cobbled together a “book” , a model’s portfolio full of my speculative – “spec” – ads drawn on typing paper with Marks-a-lots. I got the job, which to me, was a miracle. But at this point, I was painfully slow and needed remedial help – I had no Concepting Legs. I could have used a walker.

In addition to “ideating” and  “papering the walls with layouts” as we used to say, the offices were always abuzz with lots of hollering and laughing and yucking it up  – until 5 p.m., at which point on Fridays, it was time for a bit of liquid inspiration. The location: the bar in Frank’s office, where he had a little fridge full of wine and beer, as well as a small table with all kinds of other liquors and libations.

As the only Junior Copywriter in the bunch, I was chronically afraid to go into this gathering of seasoned pros – they had won every award you can name. (#Cannes, #One Show, #Clio) Though one afternoon, I had to venture in. After I had slaved away for hours coming up with just the right headline, I wanted to get my supervisor’s approval of it.

As I sucked up my courage to walk in, I approached Mark (#prince of a guy), and said, sheepishly, “Hi can I get you to look at this?” He smiled and said, “Lisa, this is cocktail hour. We’ll look at that tomorrow.” I need to add that Mark Yustein was an Ad God. As an art director, he was part of the team that came up with the famous line for Meow Mix, “Tastes so good, cats ask for by name”. He also partnered with several writers to pen the brilliant Blue Nun wine radio commercials featuring the inimitable banter between Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara.

As you can see, I was surrounded by Awesomeness. So it was only natural that during this time in my life, I was a bit more serious about the ad game – staying late nearly every night, honing my craft, puffing away on Marlboro Reds and having giant, heart-clogging pretzels with mustard for dinner.

One day I was rather upset and distraught that the client had changed one of my headlines for a newspaper ad. I marched into Ron Travisano’s office simply beside myself. How could this have happened? What was the client THINKING? Ron Ron tried to calm me down, but I just wouldn’t have it. Finally he said, “Lisa, get a hold of yourself. People use these to line the bottom of their bird cages. Relax. This is only an ad.” Boy did that hit me like a Mack truck. WHAT? You can’t be serious. I was in this for blood – and awards! And an award I got with the help of Senior Writer, Rita Senders. A Clio Finalist, complete with an invitation to the ceremony at the Waldorf. I still have the menu from that day and on it, a nice dime-sized stain of mustard vinaigrette.

Even though Jerry was the head guy, he was frequently out of the office, I’m sure, rustling up new business. I didn’t present work to him (thankfully), but one day, I had to. My bosses were out on a shoot. His assistant set up some time for me to see him. So in I went.

Nervous, fidgety, overly-apologetic – scared as a little church mouse – this was me as I sat across from Epic Greatness in the form of Jerry Della Femina. Clad in his sleek Italian finery with the top of his iconic hairless head gleaming in the neon lights above, he smiled, and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “Have a seat, my dear,” he kindly said to me. So I did as he said.

We were working on an ad for the New York Times for First Boston, an investment bank.

FBostonI was really struggling with what to say in the headline. I didn’t do math or numbers, much less banking. But I did come up with a nugget of an idea. So I presented it, we lobbed it back and forth a few times, then we birthed: “What every great banker needs is a great banker.”

Oh what a feeling! (cue the “Flashdance” anthem.)

I was titillated, energized, but also relieved that my meeting with him was over and I was no longer in his office. He was kind of just too much for me in my meager 23 years of life and my yet-to-be-fully-developed frontal lobe.

The only other time I really got a good chance to see Jerry, other than when I saw him in Frank’s office deep into storyboards, was when he walked down the hallway one day playing the ukulele. It was joyous site to behold.

Another fun event was when the office was getting redecorated. For some reason after the walls had been stripped bare of wallpaper, we created a contest involving toilet paper rolls. Whoever could stack them up next to their doors in the most creative way got a prize, which I think was a hotdog.

But it wasn’t always so magical.

I was working on a radio spot for Six Flags Great Adventure, a :30 spot. Problem was, it was coming in at :40, according to the account guy. I took another pass at shortening it and thought it was fine. In the days before email, I would just put the copy that I typed on a typewriter (#fossil) in the chair of the designated AE (account executive.) Then he/she would read it and walk it back over to my office.

On my way to lunch, I dropped the radio copy off with the AE, sure I had nailed it. I can’t remember his name, so let’s call him Fred.

When I got back, what appeared at my door was an irritated, red-faced, spectacled Fred fiddling with his police/porn moustache and puffing on a cigarette with an inch-long ash. “Um, Lisa. This is not working. You’ve got exactly thirty minutes to make this thirty seconds,” at which point he hurled a stopwatch at me, narrowly missing my nose, skittling and clanging across my glass-topped desk, and knocking over my pencil holder. He stood there, swaying to and fro like a buoy in the Connecticut Sound. I could smell him six feet away. Apparently, he had just returned from a 16 martini lunch.

After he staggered away, I burst into tears, then got up and went into Mark’s office sniffling and trying to speak, barely able to eek out what happened. After I explained the situation, Mark was not happy. Fred got in big trouble. I hate to say it, but I was so happy.

The other moments that stand out were the Christmas Party at the River Café in Brooklyn. The lights of Manhattan twinkled on the East River as we partied and danced the night away.

cafeI also had the distinct privilege of working for Luke Sullivan who penned “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” He was later inducted into the Copywriter Hall of Fame. I learned a tremendous amount about ad writing – and life – from him.

At one point, EST was The Big Thing. EST stood for Erhard Seminar Training. Everyone in the office was doing it. But I ended up declining. It was rumored that they locked you in an auditorium full of strangers for an entire couple of weekends and wouldn’t let you out to go to the bathroom or wear a watch, all the while pummeling you with data, shouting at you with depressing facts about humanity (so I heard) that wore you down to a nub. Then on the last day, you were supposedly rid of all your painful childhood memories, limiting beliefs and were built back up. Made all new and pretty – rarin’ and ready to change the course of your life.

The last phenomenon around the office I remember was The Hunger Project. Sounds good, right? Like you’d be helping the world, right? Well, I went to a meeting after work one night along with some other folks from the agency. Jerry even went.  During the evening, we were presented with staggering, heartbreaking facts about hunger along with sad faces of precious children. I was weeping through much of it.

I had asked a good friend of mine to go with me that night, but the whole presentation was REALLY dragging on and on. Way too much information. About halfway through, we saw Jerry get up and leave. I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “He’s probably like, ‘Let’s get outta here. All this talk about hunger is making me hungry. I am diein’ for a big plate of spaghetti.’ ” We could hardly contain ourselves after that.

The sad truth about The Hunger Project was that while the overall purpose of the movement was admirable, they were criticized for using most of the money for educating the public about worldwide hunger rather than actually feeding people.

But after all of these kooky happenings, the most fun, most insane, most deliriously ZANY event at the agency was…

The Sex Contest.

No, it wasn’t a live sex show. But the vibe of the whole thing was deliciously wild and racy. Women voted for the man they’d most like to have sex with, and men voted for the women they’d most like to boink. The winning couple would be announced at a luncheon called The Secretaries Luncheon. The prize: a weekend at the Plaza. Beyond Fabulous, right? But here’s the thing: each winner would not be getting their own room. The prize was one room…that the two lucky winner swould share…to ostensibly get lucky. Second prize was one night at The Plaza. The third prize was a night on Ron Travisano’s office couch.

The day arrived for the luncheon and the big announcement of the winning couple. We shut down at noon on Friday and all headed over to a Mexican restaurant on the Upper East Side – one that we had rented out for this soon-to-be-raucous party.

The afternoon was somewhat of a blur. All I remember is that after the winners were announced – they were both way too sexy for their shirts – the margaritas and funny cigarettes (#mary jane) started flowing. Secretaries were sitting on top of the laps of the wasted account guys as well as some handsy creative directors. I crawled out of there at some point, blotto and bleary-eyed, and went to bed for what may have been the entire weekend. Oh yeah. It was some party, the memory of which is both vague and achingly specific in my mind. Some things that happened there…I’ll never share.

Lots of stuff happened during my stint at Della Femina. But it was one of the best years of my professional life. I can honestly say it was a balls-to-the-wall year of true Mad Men revelry that glows and sings and Snap Crackle Pops in my memory.

My Afternoon with Norman

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” Give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy.”

– Norman Berry, Creative Genius and Ad Legend, Ogilvy & Mather.

I quote him often.

He was my big boss from 1986-89 in New York when I was a copywriter at Ogilvy.

I frequently saw him dashing by atwitter, burgeoning with disruptive, brilliant ideas, clad in Omar Sharif collared shirts inspired by Dr. Zhivago and made by Turnbull & Asser.

collared shirt

He would be hunched over with laser-focused attention on the print ad or TV spot at hand, chain smoking, and moving his head about in bird-like sharp movements with lovely, deep, caring eyes. His laugh filled the atmosphere in any room with hope and endless possibilities.

norman

My assignment was for New Freedom Maxi Pads, a product from Kimberly Clark. First, I worked on Pull-ups, those in-between baby diapers that kids wear when they are potty training. Now it was time to move on to more mature bodily emissions. The dreaded period.

pads

How might my partner, fabulous Senior writer, Alice Henry Whitmore, and I make this interesting or most importantly, tasteful? How could we hook people in and prevent them from being instantly turned off by the decidely intimate subject matter, and change the channel the second they heard the words “maxi pad”?

Well, we had an idea.

For historical context, let’s remember that this was in the late 80s. It was before the end of the Cold War. The world was a different place.

People in communist countries had little to no freedom, especially the women.

So for our New Freedom project, Alice and I posited this intriguing question at the top of our TV spot:

“What if the women of Moscow discovered New Freedom?”

But here’s the kicker: the entire spot would be spoken in Russian – with English subtitles.

While the startlingly beautiful model we’d cast was moving freely about Red Square (oh yes, LOVE the irony) you would hear her extolling the virtues of these awesome maxi pads that were the best thing since sliced bread (visual intended) while the translation populated the bottom of the screen:

“I can wear it everywhere I’m allowed to go…I can even wear it with my Official Party Dress. I can carry them in modern pouches of plastic…even in Red Square.”

And so on.

Red Square

The campaign would also extend to the oppressed Chinese women and have the same opening line:

“What if the women of China discovered New Freedom?”

Our lovely Chinese model would be elated about her newfangled maxis while English subtitles played on the screen.

Chinese

We were tickled. We loved our idea. We thought for sure we had a BIG win. A smash hit, one that would march us right into the Copywriters Hall of Fame.

We couldn’t wait to present this to Norman.

The day arrived for us to see him. I was terrified. Sweating. Obsessing about what to say – writing my notes for the set up for our brainchild, then scratching them out in a furry, and starting over again and again and again. I was a mess.

I finally calmed myself down before we went in.

When Alice and I arrived at his office, we were surprised to see Norman sitting on the floor in front of his coffee table puffing away on a cigarette wearing his signature Omar shirt. We sat down and joined him. I was wearing a skirt, so sitting cross-legged was not an option. Didn’t want to flash anyone. I was no Sharon Stone.

I was already a bit jittery to begin with. As I positioned myself on the floor in what felt like the most awkward of poses, my leg and hip started to cramp. I thought my elbow upon which I was leaning was going to give way. But that all went away once we launched into our idea.

I got off to a sputtering start, “So we thought that, well, I mean, we were thinking that, um, women in Communist countries who had few liberties would be a good juxtapose, sorry, juxtaposition to the name, New Freedom,” I said.

Luckily, Alice jumped in and saved me while she pulled out the key frames for the TV spot.

Norman inhaled on his cigarette with such force, I knew we were in trouble. His brows furrowed, his eyes half shut.

With an exhale like God breathing life into the universe, he said, “This is brilliant, simply brilliant. I love it. Great work, darlings.”

We couldn’t contain our elation. Alice and I both tried to disguise our smiles, giggled a bit, but were still focused on the work.

“However, ” Norman said, “this would never fly in the States.”

We were heartbroken.

“It would play smashingly, swimmingly in the UK,” he said. “There, you don’t have the strict social mores like we have here. It would be a brilliant there….but not here,” he said.

He went on.

“I applaud your bold creativity, loves,” he said to me. “Can you all come up with something else as brilliant?”

Alice and I both nodded eagerly like little cocker spaniel puppies indicating, “yes.”

We thanked him for his time and left.

After that day, I saw him at department meetings where he’d give a rousing, encouraging speech to all and then show some stellar, recently finished spots – Seagram’s Wine Cooler spots featuring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd who were the stars of “Moonlighting”.

Bruce

I had worked on the radio and it was presented to Edgar Bronfman, CEO of Seagrams, with my voice recording of the spot I had written (thrilling!), but it was never bought. (See the dashing fellow below.)

edgar

Back in those days, we had an Ogilvy bar, replete with a bowtie-wearing bar tender who would serve up terribly strong drinks and bowls of peanuts to the wayward, haggard account execs who needed to recover after being beaten up by the client or weary creatives who needed to birth a new idea after theirs was savagely killed.

I loved hearing Norman give the State of the Agency address at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, where we had our holiday meetings, after which, the Ogilvy Choir would sing. Yes, a choir filled these famous halls with lively Christmas cheer that somehow made me think of fruitcakes – the food, not the people. Also offered while I was there was a bevy of swag in Ogilvy red: watches, umbrellas, and finally, a flannel unisex nightshirt. I still have mine.

ogilvy

With Norman at the helm, it felt like a club. Not a company. Not a job. But a place, a home, where you could make memories, history and lifelong friends. I think there was even an Ogilvy alum newsletter – way, way before social media hit. This was a place that just got things right.

In those pre-Cold War days, we could have never foretold something like Facebook. The world is radically, immeasurably different today – especially in the ad business. Web is King, the Grand Poobah of all. Mobile is Queen. Google is a verb.

The nerve-wracking days of meeting our air date or print deadline are mostly over. Ideas are distributed through a dizzying array of channels and are evaluated through a new lens: your Followers, SEO, and all those other things that makes my head spin. It’s a whirling dervish, a technological cauldron of activity which, if I let it, can become a time-sucking life invader.

These days, if I am in a meeting with ad folks, I will invariably quote him. Sadly, few people know this classic maxim. It’s too bad. It has helped me many times when explaining to a client why the TV spot filled with 50 competing ideas just won’t work.

Here’s to you, Norman. My time with you was brief, but meaningful – indelibly etched on my heart.

Because after all the hoopla of new media is said and done, and we’ve moved on to The Next Big Thing, you and your timeless, tightly defined words still reign.

 

 

 

Near-Clapton Experience

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The year: sometime in the late 90s in August.

The place: Village Recorders in Santa Monica.

It smelled of rock stars. Their sweat, cigarettes and booze had all soaked into the 70s shag carpet, become part of its DNA, and it slammed me in the face the moment I stepped inside.

images (3) On every inch of the this dimly lit, bad faux-wood paneled museum to Rock was a concert poster with signatures from every band you could ever think of. Aerosmith. Johnny Cash. Elvis Costello. The Doors. Janet Jackson. George Harrison. Little Richard. Mariah Carey. Ringo Starr. Elton John. B.B. King. John Lennon. The Stones. The Who. The Beatles. Fleetwood Mac. Dr. John. Janis Joplin. It was dizzying, really, when you walked down the halls and saw this shrine to the Musical Gods of our time.

I thought that any second, I’d see some brooding guitar great pop out of a studio. Or I’d run into some hot mama songstress in the ladies’ room. The place felt alive  – electric – with adventure around every corner.

But once again, here I was in LA working on yet another batch of JC Penney Christmas spots. At the helm of this undertaking was a husband and wife music team.  Both were virtuosos and lovely. Hip and young. There was a good vibe between us.

One morning during our week of finessing the tracks for the spots, we were sitting in the studio. The engineers were busily adjusting little black nobs up and down on the ginormous sound board. Such a mystery to me, the luddite, to watch them zero in on raising the level on the spine-rattling bass or dulling the timbre of a shrill, eardrum-splitting horn or softening the snare drums on a track. It’s like surgery. Boggles the mind.

images (2) The woman of the husband/wife team had gone upstairs to the coffee room.  When she came back, she looked like she had just swallowed a mouse.

“They’re up there,” she said. “Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson.They’re taking a break upstairs in the coffee room.”

As if on cue, I stood and said, “Well, this means I’ll just have to get some coffee, too.”

In those days, I just reacted. Without thinking. I charged ahead into adventures without thinking of what I would say or do, or what would happen. I just trusted the universe.

As I entered the coffee room, which was no bigger than a walk-in closet, I smiled at Eric, Robbie and another unidentified man. The quarters were so cramped that they each had to move out of their way as I offered pleasantries. Since it was so small, I am sure I was overpowering them with my Clinique perfume, which I had sprayed on myself prior to my sojourn upstairs. It’s strong to begin with and I think I saw Eric Clapton wince as I moved passed him.

imagesUQ7V3CQ6 imagesJK3W4NGY“Excuse me, gotta have my joe,” I said as I walked between them. I was about six inches from both Eric and Robbie, as I passed through their personal spaces. Each smiled. Each were pleasant. Each were non-remarkable in their presence. Except that in my mind I was screaming, “THEY ARE ROCK STAR GODS.”

Eric was surprisingly short, while Robbie towered over me. Not sure why I thought Mr. Clapton would be tall. I suppose on screen and on the screen in my mind they are all immortal, statuesque – like Goliath.

Nevertheless, Eric has graying hair and wore glasses. He had a kind face. Robbie had a mass of curly dark hair.  He looked kind of wild and wooly. Eric wore a t-shirt and jeans. Robbie, all black.

I filled up my coffee mug, turned on my heels, smiling at each as I left. My heart was kind of pounding as I raced away, burning my hand with overflow from my too-full coffee cup.

I arrived back in the studio, breathless with my skin tingling, and reported my encounter, such as it was, which was really inconsequential. Neither of them did anything remarkable other than just behave like good humans, stepping out of the way as I moved towards my destination.

I don’t know what I thought they’d do. Perhaps drop to their knees and launch into air-guitar solos?

Nevertheless, we all giggled, glowed and were atwitter about the Greatness that was gathered above our heads on the premises.

Our production lasted a week. I didn’t see them anymore, Eric and Robbie, but I did see one of their crew nearly every day: Eric’s guitar tech, Lee.

We chatted each other up a bit each day, learning teeny pieces of info about the other. (See Lee below in his official duties pose.)

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On the last day of our production, as I was walking out the door, he asked me for a date. I declined, as I was dating someone in Dallas. He then said, “If you’re ever in London, look me up.” He tore off a piece of paper and gave me his number. And that was that.

 CUT TO SIX MONTH LATER

In the ad commercial music world, when you hire musicians to play and sing on your track, you pay them something called “T & R,” or Talent and Residual.

(We always called it “T &A,” but that is something else entirely.)

Nevertheless, it is sometimes customary to buy out the talent for a fee, and it made sense from a budget standpoint, in that, we’d realize a savings. But here’s the thing: this stipulation was not applicable in the U.S. So where did we go?

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London

Yes, we flew over to London to work with the music company. But not just any music company. We worked with a true patrician – Lord David Dundas.

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Yes, he was royalty. He had worked with George Harrison’s HandMade Films as well as many other prominent Brit Pop stars.

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We stayed in Chelsea at this quaint, oh-so-British place called the Sydney House.

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The elevator was so old and small, it could not fit both me AND my luggage in at the same time. Now, I will say I had a reputation for over packing and taking steamer trunks (full of inappropriate spindly heels, mostly) on production trips so my bag was sizeable, but honestly, this elevator was the size of a phone booth – if that. So the porter took my bag up without me. Then I followed, as did my art director, Mitch Jackson aka Miss Jackson.

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After I got settled into my matchbox-sized room, I remembered what Eric’s guitar tech, Lee, had said: if you’re ever in London, get in touch.

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So I rang him up. He asked if I would like go to see/hear Eric play at Royal Albert Hall in a tribute to Robert Johnson titled something like “24 Nights of the Blues,” during which he would play NO songs of his own.

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Lee and I arranged to have dinner before, then go to the concert. Dinner was lively, lots of chattering about my life in Dallas and my white lab, a subject that Lee was quite interested in for some reason. Unlike me, he didn’t have a cocktail, as he told me since Eric was sober, he only hired people who didn’t drink. I imbibed in what was (back then) my signature buttery chardonnay.

When we got to Royal Albert Hall, we breezed right in past security through the backstage door.

Jimmie Lee Vaughn, Stevie’s brother, was opening for Eric.

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The green room was lit with harsh fluorescent lights and on the table was a spread from craft service. But not what you’d typically expect like crudité, chips, evil sugary snacks and gum, for example. No, the table was filled with a brownish substance that looked like cole slaw as well as gherkins, mackerel, anchovies, black and green olives, a smattering of cheese and cold, hard bread. When they say that the English are not known for their cuisine, I now get the full distasteful picture.

Jimmie and crew were talking in a group so we just kind of observed and hovered for a bit, awkwardly, then we left.

“Come up on stage,” Lee said. “I’ll show you Eric’s guitars and what I do.”

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As we walked onto the stage, people had started to arrive a mill around inside the Hall.

I am glad he suggested that we do this because until that point, I had no idea what a “guitar tech” might do. Would be repair busted strings? Strum a few bars then hand the guitar off to Eric? Come in on cue, guitar in hand, and dance a robotic jig to tech music?

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I’m sure that a true guitar afficionado would have been on cloud nine as we traipsed around admiring all the cool guitars on stage. But their distinctions were lost on me.

I did though walk away with a few of Eric’s guitar pics. I gave them out years later to various guys I was vainly trying to impress.

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So while Jimmie Lee was on stage, we hung out in the green room. Lots of assistants and long haired, tatted dudes were flying in and out of the room.

Finally it was time for Eric to go on so Lee escorted me to my seat, which was up on the left side in a small balcony very near the stage.

Jimmie Vaughn’s opening set was good. But I could tell that the audience was a tad restless. Not a lot of catcalls or hollering out to him.

About 10 p.m. Eric took the stage. He was basically alone, save for my friend, Lee, bringing him guitar after guitar.

Eric played a lot of different kinds of electric guitars and a variety of acoustic. He wailed soulfully and crooned like the old Robert Johnson himself. His range was impressive, as was his sweaty brow that screamed his passion for the heartbreak of the songs.

He was on fire.

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After one song, some (obviously) drunk person yelled, “Layla.” He was summarily ignored.

This night was not about Clapton. It was about the blues, the iconic, mythic Robert Johnson from Mississippi.

The concert was astonishing. Amazing. I “got” Clapton, which I must admit, I didn’t before. I attribute this to the fact that radio stations played “Layla” OVER and OVER during the 70s. However, I do love the song “Bell Bottom Blues.” That one never gets old. But the repetition of “Layla” obscured my fondness for all other Clapton songs. Silly, I know.

There were a couple of encores at the end. The crowd was bold and full of camera snaps and hoots and whistles.

They loved him. Clapton killed.

Since the concert was over quite late, I had to wait for Lee to finish up. I had hoped I would get to see Eric again, but alas, I didn’t.

The closest I got was within inches of him in the Village Recorder’s coffee room and the guitar pics I clutched in my hot little hands. I twiddled them, and played with them. I felt kinda cool.

Lee finally came out and I ooohed and aaaawed about Eric. We then agreed to get a nightcap.

I was going back to the States the next day so I couldn’t stay up too late.

We entered my miniscule room at the Sydney House. The only place to sit was on the bed. There was also a mini-fridge that housed some adult beverages.

At the concert, I had a few plastic cups full of some house wine. So I was feeling no pain, kind of teetering from side to side like a sand-bottomed punching bag doll at this point.

I flung open the fridge and didn’t see anything. So I picked up the phone and dialed Mitch.

“Got any beeehhhr in your room?” I asked him, slurringly. But just then, there was a knock as I had forgotten that I had ordered a full bottle of wine from room service.

“Oh don’t worry, we’ve got some whhhiiine now.” Then I hung up.

It was 2 a.m.

Mitch was not happy.

From that point on, I remember bits of pieces of my conversation with Lee and him asking if he could smoke out. I said, “Suuuuure! Whaay not?”

We talked more about my dog and then there were long periods of silence as we were both on the brink of incoherence. Or at least, I was.

Then he left.

(My boss, who unbeknownst to me was in a room below mine, asked me the day I got back to the office, “What were you doing in your room that last night? Moving furniture?” No more need be said.)

The next morning, after this most colorful night, was one of the most painful experiences that I can recall.

I awoke with a dry mouth that could not be quenched by any sort of liquid or food. Not even another drink helped. Hair of the dog was useless at this point.

My head felt like it had been split open by a hatchet.

And I moved in slow motion.

But this was not good: I was already about two hours late to get to Heathrow to catch my flight. Mitch and my boss had taken an earlier flight so I was on my own. Again, not good. I needed assistance. Like a walker or a Segue. My legs just didn’t want to move. Well, they couldn’t move.

As I walked, it was as if I was walking through a muddy river as I gathered my things, donning shades. I then realized and understood the name “Muddy Waters.”

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He must have felt like this when he was hungover, as if he was crossing a river with murky, muddy water – his feet gouged, immovable, firmly embedded into the sludge on the river bottom.  It was so apt. Sadly with this revelation, it did not inspire me to anything other than sickness.

I called downstairs, frantically as I could, given my condition, and told them of my plight. I needed a cab. And I needed it now.

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The cab arrived and I was shoved in by the porter and away we went.

He ran red lights, took back ways, and generally broke the law the entire way there. Luckily, no Bobbies pulled us over.

As we pulled in, I threw a ton of English money and coins at my driver, and ran towards the gate.

The British Airways flight attendants were hurrying me along and frowning. (Imagine the lady below with down-turned lips.)

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The doors closed five minutes later.

After take-off, and we could “move about the cabin,” I had some crackers and soda and began to perk up.

But my head was still a mess.

I needed to be lying down flat. But since I was in Coach, no such luck,

Then I saw a spot that was calling my name: right underneath the movie screen that was positioned in the middle section of the plane.

I went there, laid down on the cool floor right underneath it, and stayed there all the way back to Dallas. I actually passed out, with sleep, and my feet were sticking out in the aisles (I was later told) and I was a roadblock for the carts that went by.

The attendants were not happy, but they understood. Or so I told myself.

So this story is admittedly not that spectacular because I never really did have any meaningful interchange with Eric Clapton, just walked past him, perhaps invaded his personal space… met his tech, got a tour of his guitars and snagged a few pics.

Further, it ends with me not in my finest hour. However, it serves as reminder to me for a couple of things:

I am happy I no longer drink.

Leave plenty of time to board international flights.

Seize the day.

Had I not run upstairs to get coffee, this entire hijinks-sy story, though both exhilarating and painful, would have never happened.

Life is to be lived. All of it. Good and bad. But in the end, the bad can sometimes be a meaningful teacher. This has been true for me.

So what’s the moral?

Life is gone in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Be in it.

Don’t succumb to fear.

Live it.






Julie Newmar: Real-Life Super Hero

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So as the story goes, I was in LA visiting friends in 2006 over Labor Day. I decided to treat myself as well as indulge in a little bittersweet remembrance of times past when I had a per diem and wined and dined on JC Penney’s dime during shoots in the 90s.

I booked a room at the very green and white, posh hotel, the Viceroy, with interiors by Kelly Wearstler, international style icon with dreamy, fresh colors that pop admist neutrals. Very yummy.

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However, the only wrinkle is, well, wrinkles.

Mine.

Those facial lines and crow’s feet that I could not escape seeing when I was there, as on every bedroom wall there was a collage of MIRRORS. Big mirrors inches apart. So everywhere I turned, I was faced with myself. The good, the bad and the ugly. I decided to not make eye contact with myself, but look down at the carpet when walking about the room. I got dizzy doing this. I just gave up after a while. What I saw was what I got.

One night, when I returned from dinner, I walked up and there was a long snaky line out front that was topped off with a doorman and a dreaded velveteen rope. I say “dreaded” because in New York when club hopping, especially during winter, unless you were a super model (not me), a movie star (not me) or on the list (not me), you shivered out in the cold in blustery winds until you either miraculously got picked, tailed in after someone, or gave up and decided to go to an old, broken down, has-been club like Danceteria got to be in the 80s, ashamed and defeated, and sipped on watered down Manhattans.

So I had a visceral reaction when I saw this, a bad flashback flinch in my gut. Luckily, I was a guest! I was not only on the list, I was sleeping there. So I walked right up in front of everyone, flashed my room key and waltzed right in. Liberation, at last.

The party was at the pool, a pool area that glistened in style and populace. The hotties were out tonight! The area was swimming in tanned legs in spindly tall heels upon which gazelles teetered when they hobbled past. I saw guys with hipster stubble and matching baldish, fuzzy heads with sunglasses on at night. Some wore hats, porkpie hats a la John Lurie in “Stranger Than Paradise.”

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Note: I don’t do hats. I can’t. I look like an egg head and I feel like Marty Feldman – my eyes always wide with fear and awkwardness about the said hat I am trying to pull off. MV5BMTIwMjA5ODc4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDEwOTg2._V1_SX640_SY720_

This night, I wore no hat or any Daisy Dukes or anything remotely revealing. In fact, I wore jean shorts to my knees – JORTS. And mules. I baby-stepped my way down to the pool – I don’t walk too well in backless shoes. Been known to topple over and sprain my ankle on occasion so I wasn’t taking any chances.

I took a seat alone on a little tree stump. It probably wasn’t a stump, but it felt like one it was so uncomfortable.

I was about knee/butt height to all who passed me so it was an odd vantage point. But I liked it. I felt safe. I could sit here, inhale the electricity and dynamic of the night while gazing at the soft, blue waters of the pool. The palm trees were as tall as skyscrapers and added a nice ceiling to the evening.

Then he appeared. A man. Dressed in white linen from head to toe. He was tanned, too. But thankfully, not like George Hamilton.

New York Premiere of "Hollywood Ending"

He asked if he could join me. I smiled and said, “Of course.” As soon as he sat down, he started talking. We exchanged the usual pleasantries like name, where from, what doing here, etc. Turns out this man was a lawyer. On and on we chatted about everything and nothing.

Then somehow, some way, he asked me if wanted to go work out with him tomorrow…at Ryan O’Neal’s gym.

What was I hearing? Seriously? As if I would be seen in a leotard exposing my extra 30-pounds-since- college body to the starry, Ken doll beau of “Love Story?” Getting into certain undignified and highly awkward work out poses, some spread eagle? In my mind, I screamed, “NO WAY!”

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But, as if by it’s own will, out of my mouth came, “Why YES, I’d love to!”

I winded down in my responses, yawned, then excused myself. Told him I needed to get some rest for tomorrow morning. We exchanged vital contact info and off I went.

As I was walking away, I was still reeling from my decision – what my renegade mouth had said. That night, I didn’t sleep very well, obsessing about the morning. But I made one big decision: I would wear a butt wrap with my leotard. You know, a SOFA – Sweater Over Fat Ass. An appropriate camouflage. Oh and I wouldn’t get into any machine that required me to spread my legs like at the gyno (inner thigh machine). Not pretty.

What would I say if I was introduced to him? And what about makeup? Without it, I have no eyebrows. I look very Elizabethan.

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So I decided I’d wear brown eyebrow pencil. I had to.

My mind, on a loop, didn’t calm down until around 2 a.m.

I awoke with a start and popped out of bed waiting for my friend to call. I ordered breakfast. Then I looked out, well, no, I craned my neck to see the ocean view I had been promised. There was big busy street between the hotel and the Pacific…then there was a good chunk of buildings, THEN the ocean. If I looked carefully, I could see a bit of it, but a bit was better than none – coming from landlocked, concrete Dallas. (See my view below.)

Viceroy

I dawdled around a bit more. Still no call. So I called him. Turns out he had stayed up a bit late, or that is what I heard in his gravelly voice. He asked if we could go to Ryan’s gym the NEXT day.

WHAT? I had wrung my hands and thoughts for no good reason? Lost sleep?

I was not happy. But I agreed to his offer to get a burger at a diner. With all the outdoor places to sit in the sun, I was not crazy about doing this, but I decided to just go with it.

The diner was in Brentwood. It felt kind of like an old Hollywood place that Lucy and Ricky might have frequented. He had his burger. I had my soggy, sad iceberg lettuce Chef salad.

He then said, “You know, there is someone I’d like to introduce you to, a friend of mine.”

“Who would that be?” I said.

“Julie Newmar,” he said.

I had heard the name, but couldn’t immediately place her.

“Catwoman, the original Catwoman. I have done some work for her and she’s really a great person,” he said.

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This was finally getting interesting – an Old School super hero! I was psyched.

“Let’s go!” I said.

Julie’s house was very near the diner. So off we sped through the winding streets of Brentwood.

When we arrived he drove up the driveway all the way to the back. The house was California chic and as those houses go, smallish and deceptively expensive.

We walked in through sliding glass doors. There she was. Julie Newmar.

She was standing and feeding a young adult man who was seated at the table. He has some sort of disability – I believe he was Down Syndrome.

She was glowing. Her face, her hair, her smile. All glowing. She was very, very thin – a former dancer.

We said “hello,” and introduced ourselves. She introduced me to her son who she said was deaf. At that moment, I was obviously struck deaf because I said to her son, “Hi John,” at which point, both my friend and Julie in unison said, “HE’S DEAF.”

I shrunk a foot. My mouth had a mind of it’s own yet again.

My friend told me that Julie had John when she was around 50. Since then, he said she has been a selfless, dedicated mother to her boy.

As she stood and talked, she delicately, lovingly lifted spoonful after spoonful of food into her sweet son’s mouth. He had rich, dark hair. Doleful big eyes. I was touched by her composure and unflinching grace. She kind of purred.

She then gave us a tour around her house. It was marvelous. Tasteful design and decoration. She even took us around the outside of the house and told of a feud she had with her neighbor, Jim Belushi, concerning a fence. I am not sure of the details but it was pretty brutal. She talked about it with passion and fervor. I could see a bit of her claws coming out, but they quickly retracted.

She was alive and moving fast – it was hard keeping up with her as she scampered around her property.

I believe at the time she was near 80.

When I got close to her face, it was shining and flawless. My friend said she had not had any work done. No cosmetic surgery. Nothing. I believed him.

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In her heyday, she was an exotically gorgeous dancer, singer and actress – the daughter of a Ziegfield Follies performer. Her career had been magical, kissed by fate at every turn. (There was even the movie “Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” that she did later, but one I never saw nor had any desire to. Really bad title.)

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“Well, now, I don’t ever have to see that film because I have met the real thing!” I thought to myself.

Julie Newmar was as beautiful then when I met her as she was as Catwoman.

But she was leagues more beautiful to me now. Her adoration and care for her son shone brighter than her outer physical God-given features. To me, now she really was a super hero. A woman, a mother, who loved her son unabashedly, a mother who would undoubtedly take a bullet for her son.

The juxtaposition between Julie’s physical perfection and her son’s handicap ripped my heart right out of my chest. Her son’s seemingly compromised life seemed so unfair. But life as we well know is decidedly and often, not fair.

Once she was leaping tall buildings in a single bound. When I met her, she was gently depositing food into her deaf son’s mouth, nourishing, I’m sure, his soul as much as his body.

I am so blessed to have met you, Julie Newmar, especially, now that you are in your role of a lifetime.

You are, indeed, a real live super hero.

 

 

Malkovich Mash Up

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The year was 1987. I was on a flight to New York’s JFK from Chicago.

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I don’t remember why I was in Chicago, but I suspect it was for work. It was probably a Focus Group for potty training baby diapers, Pull-Ups. I believe I had connected in Chicago to go to Neenah, Wisconsin, to meet with the client, where we’d go to the groups together.

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I had worked on this product for an entire year at Ogilvy & Mather, and during it, had the distinct pleasure of rewriting the jingle that went, “I’m a big kid look what I can do. I can wear big kid pants too… and I can take them up and down…”

Jaunty musical interlude: Ba da da da dah.

“I’m a big kid NOW.”

End of :30 award-winning commercial.

There was much concern from the client if, when we were saying “up and down”, we were encouraging children to take their training pants OFF… to become little exhibitionists, rip off their Pull-Ups and run around the freezer section of Piggly Wiggly nude. (See creepy demonstrative doll below.)

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So we tested “up and ON” and “up and OFF” to assuage the unhappy mommies that had written in…and the winner was the former – “up and ON.” Whew, what a relief. Now perhaps the nastygrams the client was receiving would cease.

Dizzying amounts of money was spent researching this nugget, this insight.

Nevertheless, I was returning from this trip, sitting in Coach (of course) when I learned somehow from some flight attendant murmurings that we had a celebrity on board in First Class…Mr.John Malkovich.

Immediately, I was titillated. I loved John Malkovich.

I fantasized that he was returning from a play rehearsal at the famed Steppenwolf Theater. Was he Hamlet? Romeo? Just who WAS he? What was he doing there?

To calm my racing thoughts, I summoned the flight attendant and ordered a little mini bottle of chardonnay. How fitting, I thought, in light of the film, “Being John Malkovich”, during which there was one (or many, can’t remember) of ceilings being low and therefore, everything small, miniature. Perhaps that would be my entre when I met him – I’d offer some remark about the irony of this. Better yet, I would send him a note that summarized my observation attached to my mini bottle of chardonnay in First Class.

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Nah. Strike that. Too corny. I’ll just continue to think of my plan of approach.

I sipped my mini chardy all the way back to JFK. I could not come up with anything that I felt comfortable saying to him. Plus, I was kind of scared. I didn’t want to ask for his autograph. Too normal.

I had seen him in “Burn This” on Broadway. As we know, he’s bald, or near bald with a little top fuzz.

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But in the show he wore a wig, kind of a page boy that was brunette but didn’t have bangs. He whooshed his locks around with great abandon – like a wild stallion galloping around the stage. Plus, he had a sexy ciggie in hand.

I was spellbound by his performance. He was seductive. Handsome. And oh-so-witty, thanks to the brilliant playwright, Lanford Wilson. Thus, my faraway crush.

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After we landed and we were de-planeing, I figured I would just see him at the baggage claim and admire him from afar.

As I stood at the baggage claim carousel, there was no sight of him. Perhaps the John Malkovich Squad had grabbed him, put a brown paper bag over his head to quell/avert the excitement and tucked him into a limo.

I was kind of sad that I didn’t have a celebrity sighting. But figured, hey, no biggie. Life goes on.

I saw my standard over-packed giant suitcase on the carousel creeping towards me. It was a massive black heap with strange bulges all over it. I could have been smuggling in a small Pull-UPS wearing child.

I was on the front row so I could grab it, heave it up and then head towards the cab stand.

So there it was, my big-lug-of-a-bag. I grabbed it, and gave a heave-ho. But in fear of not being able to lift it combined with a sudden adrenaline rush, it came flying off in warp speed, and as I whirled it around, there he was.

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John Malkovich.

You see, I just didn’t whirl it around. My bag (the size of a cruise trunk) came whipping around violently, with a purpose and…within an inch of clipping him at the knees.

I could imagine him being hit, breaking his knee caps, the EMT people rushing in, the sirens, the flashing lights… it wasn’t pretty.

He then looked at me and smiled.

“Can I help you with your bag?” he said to me. His hand reached out and neared mine on the handle – I had a death grip on it. Then…his hand graced the top of my hand. It softly tickled the top of my knuckles.

Faint. Swoon. Chills. Tingles. An explosion of sensations like fireworks on the fourth of July.

(I think I even peed my pants a wee bit. Where were MY Pull-Ups?)

“Oh,” I said,”No thanks. I’ve got it.” (What was I thinking?)

“I am okay, just a crazy Texas girl who overpacked.”

(Again, what WAS I saying?)

Then I went into a torrent, a verbal vomit – BIG diarrhea of the mouth.

“I saw you read at St. Bart’s the day that the Challenger went down. You read from ‘Franny and Zooey’, by Salinger. I use a quote from his book in the play I am writing, and I quote – from the book, not my play, I want to be clear – so here’s the quote, ‘I wish I had the courage to be a nobody.” Franny says this to Zooey when she is struggling with being rejected from her auditions, she wants to be an actress, you know, have you read the book in it’s entirety? I just love it… she’s so existential, wild and SO ME….oh and then you read from ‘Endless Love’, by Scott Spencer, and it was so wonderful, much MUCH better than the film, did you see the film, ‘Endless Love’?”

After this stream of my nervosa descended upon him, there was a pause, the kind that is seconds but feels like hours. 

Darn it if he didn’t smile again. His sleepy, sexy eyes kind of smiled, too.

“That is so nice of you to remember. That was quite a day with the Challenger going down.”

John Malkovich said Going Down. To me. He said these actual words. Hallelujah – what a vision sprang to mind!

My mind raced with his face planted amidst and among my Lady Parts. I could not look at his face, as all I saw were my legs wrapped around his near-bald head.

The entire time we spoke, I just kept moving and hauling my suitcase. He didn’t offer again to carry it, as I did my best to look un-needy, un-weak, you know, girly.

He then said, “Would you…” at which point I was so nervous, I just interrupted him and said, “Okay, so nice meeting you… buh bye!!”

And off I limped towards the lonely cab stand… to my lonely life in Manhattan.

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In retrospect, I imagined that he was going to ask me to share a cab into the city, which would of course lead to an affair (wasn’t sure if he was married or in between liaisons or he, himself having an illicit affair with some other star.)

The thought was intoxicating. I love me some Naughty.

But the affair would end with my getting ditched, crushed in his palm like a used coffee cup, and thrown in the trash with all the others who dared to canoodle with Mr. Malkovich.

What’s a girl to do?

Well, this girl had a follow up plan.

A few weeks later, he opened in a new play on Broadway. I wrote him a letter (phone number included) reminding him of what happened, when and where, and… could I buy him a drink?

I took it to the stage door and handed it to some unknown stage worker.

For days, and weeks, I jumped every time my phone rang. Every time I got home and my message machine light was blinking, I knew it was him.

Remember, this was back in the olden days before anything cell phone, laptop, social media. No Facebook or Skype. No Instagram. Nada. My only source of contact was my home phone and answering machine.

He never called.

But of course he wouldn’t.

I had run away from him.

Or…. this is what I like to think, humoring myself.

Now when I see him in films, I remember that day, his smile and his hand gracing mine.

For a moment… there was magic, the kind of stuff that some days, makes me feel all warm and mushy inside… bittersweet and when I am sad or depressed, somehow, electrically alive.

And then I think of peeing in my Pull-Ups…and I am complete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olivia Newton-Johnson

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During high school, the church was my second home. I lived, breathed and ate church. I was in the youth group and I also sang in the youth choir called The Variations, a clever name derived from the wide variety of musical numbers we would perform each year as well as a neat little pun out of the music lexicon. I like neat, precise puns. They make this old gal happy.

The Variations toured every summer. We went to exotic places like Texarkana, Baton Rouge, and one fated summer, San Antonio, where I would be the center of a prank instigated by one of the church’s senior clergy.

As a Variations member, I got to wear a cherry-red polyester leisure suit that had a matching polyester shirt, replete with ginormous lapels. The shirt was white and on it was a scattering of little red and blue shapes akin to Pac Men. Kind of early emoticons. untitled (4) We sang at churches, old folks’ homes, burn centers, and orphanages. Our repertoire ranged from selections from Christian youth musicals like “Celebrate Life”, “Tell it Like it Is” and “Lightshine,” each with distinct, jazz-hand centric choreography, square dancing moves, kick lines, as well as snappy contagions. 1242 One time we performed a three-part round that kicked off one of the musicals. It consisted of our running down the aisles in succession in three groups, our hands flailing about our heads as if the church was on fire, hollering at the top of our lungs: HE is alive, he IS alive, he is ALIVE.

You can imagine the effect. I’m sure the entire congregation was terrified.

So this one summer evening in San Antonio we had performed at a orphanage. The very same night Olivia Newton-John was in town for a concert.

After our dinner, the group decided we would take a boat ride down the river, one that cut through the shopping and dining area called The Riverwalk. imagesH1BUPZB8 Since the boats were not that big and couldn’t carry all of us, we broke up into groups. I got on the boat with my buddies, as well as the senior pastor, Dr. Ben Oliphint.

About midway through the boat ride, Dr. Oliphint let out one of his signature siren sounds. Yes, he would howl out from the depth of his lungs this noise that sounded EXACTLY like a fire engine coming down the road. He could have made a lot of money in Hollywood being a Foley Artist!

So as he was letting out this deafening siren blast, he then yells out, “Olivia Newton-John…Olivia Newton-JOHN, everybody…RIGHT HERE!”, at which point he said, “Stand up Lisa and start waving.”

Now in addition to the enormous lapels on my shirt that flapped in the breeze, I also had a big, frosted blonde Farrah Fawcett hairdo with Texas-size wings that flapped in the wind right along with them. At that time, Olivia and I had the very same hair.

From a distance, I looked the part. I was her body double, doppelganger – this was my chance to put my youth choir performing chops to the test!

So up I stood and I started waving. Suddenly, people started waving back, and some started running down the Riverwalk with cameras snapping photos.

The lights flashed, one after the other. Click, click, click! It was paparazzi fest!  The farther we sailed, the bigger the crowds got. Large groups of my “fans” started running down along each side of the riverbank, snapping more photos and shouting “Olivia! Olivia!”. LisaRush The more adulation I got, the more I waved!

I then broke into a rendition of “Have You Never Been Mellow?”, which was not half bad. I was rockin’!

We sailed on a bit more and I sat down. The ruse had run its course. Everyone on our boat had a good laugh.

As we docked, I was praying that no one would come up to me and give me a frowny face for not being Olivia.

But then…just after I had gotten off the boat and walked into a restaurant, a little girl comes up to me. With her big, brown puppy dog eyes, she takes my hand, looks up to me and says, “Are you really Olivia Newton-John?”

My heart just broke…and sank…I just couldn’t continue the joke…so I said, “No, I’m not.” Her face dropped right to the ground and I could feel her disappointment in my bones…UGH.

Her mother came up to fetch her. We both smiled and she grabbed her hand, gave me a look of disappointment and lead her away.

So what is the morale of this story? First, this story is a testament to the fact that the cult of celebrity does seem to get a crowd all stirred up. Why? Because it’s as if when we get to touch the hem of their garment, we’ll be healed, or blessed – God-like.

Case in point: I was on a shoot in the 90s in LA and Michael Jackson was shooting a music video right next door to us. michael-jackson We all had our eagle eyes out to catch a glimpse of him. One time during a break, we saw Michael Jackson emerge from his trailer, but it was from a distance. He was wearing his signature surgical mask. (He was a germaphob – a known OCD sufferer so no surprise.)

We were all atwitter, all abuzz. We had seen him! Michael Jackson! We had chills – a big adrenaline rush! We all just walked a little taller back onto the set, bragging to the crew about our siting.

Sadly, we later found it that it was his body double. I think knew, perhaps, how that little girl felt. It was a buzzkill, a letdown, for sure. That feel-good extra specialness, that just a little bit better than feeling escaped like a just-popped helium balloon.

But such is life. Many of us live ordinary lives sans celebrity – our “quiet lives of desperation,” to quote Thoreau. 3264616-henry-david-thoreau_custom-9ae367cce97607ec7c89076878a316c8b4c48b7c-s6-c30 My dad used that quote from time to time. I think he felt that way, desperation because he felt he hadn’t lived up to his potential by only owning a small business and never lived his dream of going to law school.

He died in 2003 and to this day, he is still my hero. That’s why in his honor, I try to live every day as if it were my last. It squashes the desperation right out of my soul.

This is the star-turn I live for.

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Afterword

Many years after the whole Riverwalk event, from time to time, I’d think about that little girl. Should I have lied to her? Would that have been better than disappointing her? I honestly don’t know. I think what tipped me towards telling the truth was, well, TRUTH. No matter how painful, truth is always better. At least, this is what I learned from church…the First United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas…where I was, for one brief shining moment on a river boat in San Antonio, Olivia Newton-Johnson.

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Devolution

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Mutato. This is the word I think of when I think of Devo. The word “mutato” (according to Mark Mothersbaugh, lead singer) is a mash up of “mutant” and “potato.” Thus the word, “Mutato”, which is the first part of the moniker for Devo’s commercial music venture, Mutato Muzika, and is the very place and way that I came to work with this epic band. images27OYON2A The year: 1998. The project: the JC Penney Holiday Campaign. The client had selected 15 “hot gifts” (read: cheap/affordable) that ranged from generic, slightly festive teddy bears to mini colorful TVs (yellow, pink, blue – they were cute as buttons) to somewhat okay sweaters in mostly unnatural, scratchy blends. We decided that for the maximum media punch each should be :15 and run back to back. The consumer would get a quick flurry and assault of cool stuff they just couldn’t live without.

Some spots were live action and we shot with Robb Pritts from Backyard Productions. Some required more complicated shoots so we worked with Rhythm and Hues, the company famous for the Coca Cola white polar bears and the film, “Babe: Pig in the City.”

We looked at a few music companies to work with, but decided that Mutato Muzika was The One. I mean, who could pass up the opportunity to work with Devo? Not us. untitled (21) The tracks were always done after the shoots and after the editing. So when we traipsed into Mutato, we pretty much had the final product. Each :15 spot required a different musical approach. If my memory serves me, (and it usually doesn’t so apologies will abound after this), different teams were responsible for each of the spots. My art director, James, and I worked on a number of them.

But the one in particular that stands head and shoulders (sheep’s, that is) was the spot for wooly sweaters. (Sheep don’t have shoulders, but I couldn’t resist.) The concept was simple: the sweaters, each with wintery, earthy tones and crazy patterns, were from sheep who had grown these unique patterns on their fuzzy, woolen bodies –  as if the pattern was in their DNA.

It was as if JC Penney found these mutant (a theme!) sheep, shaved them then turned their little patterned coat into sweaters.

Can’t picture this? See this work of art here.

Nevertheless, it was the late 90s and the whole production took many days involving green screen, layers, lots of post work, and yes, live sheep. The idea was that the sheep would cross in front of the camera. Problem was, the mama sheeps wouldn’t budge. Only when we positioned their babies on the opposite site of the set would they come a’ runnin’. And when they’d come a’ runnin’, they each left a trail of nice poopy pellets behind. The PA’s would run after with a shovel scooping up their smelly trail, thus their moniker (instead of Production Assistants) “Poop Assistants.”

Other spots involved golden retriever puppies pushing the mini TVs, puppeteers a la mimes operating the frolicking teddy bears, and a stunt mouse. Yes, the later had a  “wrangler” (full-sized human) who worked with him in a little “practice set” that was a shoebox. In it was his bed, a sardine can lined with a thin layer of cotton. The mouse’s job was to totter over in front of the camera and rub his nose, as if he was waking up. Cheese was put on his nose so when he was supposed to be rubbing his eyes and “waking up,” he was actually using his little mouse hands to eat the cheese. The proximity of his eyes and mouth were so close that him stuffing his little face could be mistaken for him rubbing the sleepy out of his eyes. Very intricate and nerve wracking, the whole kit and caboodle.

This particular spot was for one of those modern things called “online shopping,” and his cue line was, “…not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Ba dum dum. Big hilarious punch line. Rumor had it that our budget for this entire project was $2.5 million. I think it actually was, as it was the tail end of the Clinton 90s, the good old days.

But baaaaack to the sheep spot.

As was the practice, we’d have a conference call with the music guys/gals before the production, give them ideas about music, the direction, the vibe, etc., then after the shoot, gather to hear the track played up against the rough cut.

For some reason, we didn’t do this with the Devo dudes. We all showed up at their Sunset Boulevard address without a plan, at least, this was the case with the sheep spot. The building was decidedly, mutantly cool. It was a round building from the 50s that used to be a bank – a solid, green orb, that was painted in their signature Mutato green. untitled (20) We all filed into the work room. At the helm was Bob Mothersbaugh, Mark’s brother. He sat in the engineer’s chair at the sound board tapping away, moving buttons, doing all the mysterious things that sound guys do. Above him was the monitor.

James and I sat down on the comfy couch. It was just the three of us, and our producer. So there we sat, enduring the silence and waiting for Bob to spin around from his perch (his chair and board were elevated a tad) and talk to us. After the typical intros, requisite questions and discussion of where we had lunched, we started discussing music for the spots. The wooly sweater commercial came up and unlike the others prior, we were kinda stuck. We tossed around a couple of ideas, then decided to look at the spot one more time in hope that it would jog loose a crumb of something.

Then, it happened.

Deep from the recesses of my childhood came a melody from my soul, one that I could not not share…and just like Old Faithful erupting at Yellowstone, I, too, erupted with the song, singing at the tippy top of my lungs:

“Have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and that way…have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and that…go THIS way and THAT way, go THIS way and THAT way…have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and THAT.”

The look of shock on everyone’s face was as if I had just stood up, pulled up my shirt and revealed my bare breasts. Luckily, at that very point, in walked my salvation: Mark Mothersbaugh. The head guy. The one with taste. The one Who Knew that I had hit upon something. He asked me to sing it again…and again, I sang.

I could then see the uncomfortable looks on my colleague’s faces transitioning to that of delight, their heads bobbing “yes” to one another. (I’m so glad no one high-fived.) Mark, Bob and our team continued to discuss what instruments and then before we knew it, Mark brought out his accordion. As if he were atop a mountain replete in Tyrolean splendor (I even imagined him in lederhosen), he played the tune again – sans my lyrics or singing. The accordion breathed, expanded and contracted mightily – it was alive! We all watched in amazement as Mark cranked out this simple, yet highly jaunty tune on his giant squeeze box. imagesXY5QHJM2 Beaming, we all heaved a collective sigh of relief. But it wasn’t over. As I was walking out the door to go to the ladies room, I sensed a presence behind me. It was Mark.

As I walked down the circular hallway that wrapped itself around the building, I felt Mark’s hand clasp mine.

And then… …we started skipping together, hand-in-hand, down the hallway, laughing and giggling about the childhood song I had birthed from my memory and heaved out with my lungs. “Skip, skip, skip to my loo, my darling,” is the refrain we sang. We skipped nearly all the way around the building…and then our hands drifted apart and we laughingly separated.

Cut to the next day.

We had sent the tracks to the agency to get approval before we did any more work, any polishing. So we gathered once more in the room with Bob and Mark. We cued up the tracks and played several of them on the speaker phone so our Dallas crew could hear them. The response for all of them was resoundingly enthusiastic, especially the sheep spot. But one track just wasn’t doing it for the folks.

When Mark heard the lack of love for one track, I could tell he was rattled. After we hung up the phone, Mark said with a sullen, sad face, “I’ve got to stop hurting people. I’ve got to get back in therapy.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. Mark actually cared what his clients thoughts, so much so that he felt personally responsible for their reaction! And his sharing of his need to go back into therapy, the transparency he displayed… it just broke my heart.

In my ten-year stint working with a large number of musicians in commercial houses, NEVER have I thought any of the people cared – to this extent. I could be wrong about my assessment. I hope I am. Nor during this decade had I ever met someone so willing to be vulnerable. Indeed, he was an artist of the highest caliber. A fine, dear man.

The overriding feeling I walked away with was that Mark, superstar that he was, didn’t put himself “above” others. He didn’t think himself a God like so many rock stars do. Despite what the band’s name represented, which was the DEvolution of society, Mark had actually done the opposite: he had Evolved from the disposition that some rock stars possess – egos the size of Alaska.

Mark’s demeanor, his soul, was so refreshing and startling…just so cool. The other very cool thing about working with them is that we all walked away with Mutato Muzika knee socks with each word stacked vertically on each sock so that you would read “Mutato” on one side and “Muzika” on the other. AND…we snagged some “handsome man” hats!  (See pic below.) What a kick they were. devo-new-traditionalist-hair-shot These days, when I hear “Whip It” or any other Devo song, I am reminded of Mark, his lack of egoism and his kindness. And…in honor of that fanciful day with him, when I hear a song, I without fail seem to always get just a little more bounce, a little more skip in my step. Imagine that.

Cranston Christmas

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When you work on ads for a retail company, your seasons are always all mixed up. Like crazy mixed up. During the Spring we were writing ads for Fall. During the Summer we were creating campaigns for Christmas. Everywhere,  everything was freakin’ Christmas – fluffy green plastic trees decked with festive shiny balls, frosty snowflakes on the walls, fleecy white tree skirts hugging the tree bases, red and green bows on large boxes that adorned the room – even some scary elves. These sinister miniatures with pointy hats were positioned in nooks in store shelving we had created, next to the classically unsightly patterned sweaters – patterns that were akin to a tornado or at the very least, pizza upchuck.

We endured all of this prep and production in record heat. Some days got up to 108. So in Cali where we did all of our work, it wasn’t just hot. It was Africa hot. I recall one shoot that was especially insufferable. We were in the desert handling sweaters and courdoroy jumpers for a Back-to-School sale. We got so sweaty and haggared that we looked like we had all been out changing a flat tire on our scouting van.

Finally, we decided that we’d had enough of near heat strokes, sweaty pits and smeared mascara running down our (female) collective cheeks. We decided to shoot in the store. This meant that we would have to shoot inside an actual JC Penney store – but after business hours. So we’d start shooting at 9 p.m. and break at dawn.

Prior to our LA shoot, during the “concepting” phase at the agency, we usually all got together to write the script in a cluster – and we all had positions. There was Mr. Beginning. Mr. Middle and Mr. Ending. (This was the classic structure of a :30 spot.) I didn’t care if I was called a mister. In this group, being a “mister” was an honor.

As was per usual, we all gathered in one of our very brown, dull conference rooms, cranked out a script quickly then spent even more time trying to figure out where we’d go for lunch.

We then took it to the client, presented it, and bing, bang boom it was approved.

We shot all of our spots in LA. In fact, we had to go to LA, as our big boss (head honcho guy) saw something that we had shot locally, was horrified because the film was so sub-par, and demanded that we not do this again. We didn’t.

So off we jetted to Hollywood to prep.

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We hired a very hip, very glittery Hollywoody couple, who were married, and who had names that went well together, kind of like Sam and Libby, but not Sam and Libby. I think it was like they had one name that was a mash up of their names like Nancy Michael. Something that rolled off the tongue and a name I’m sure our client (God love him) could drop when he was picking up girls at Champs.

The Man Director had a shock of black curly hair and a goatee, way before it was The Thing to Grow. The Woman Director was slim, brunette and sexy. She was interesting. Not a Barbie Doll.

A few days before the shoot in LA we usually did our casting. We needed someone funny. We would have loved to get a famous comedian. At the time, Seinfeld was IT. THE guy to hire. Could we get Jerry Seinfeld? Uh no. I don’t think any of us really thought Jerry Seinfeld would hawk any JC Penny sansabelt slacks. But we could dream.

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What about Carrot Top, someone asked?

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No. Too frightening. We would get slammed with customer letters for sure. Plus, my art director had a fear of red-heads, you know, ginger people. They were from the devil.

And then we hit upon an idea: if we can’t get Jerry Seinfeld, what about someone who was ON Seinfeld?

Enter Bryan Cranston, Elaine’s re-gifting dentist boyfriend.

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We had hit the jackpot.

The day of the shoot arrived and for some reason, I was the only writer on the set along with my brilliant boss.

There I was, all self-important and smiling about the script. All our witticisms, turns of phrases, and so on that we had birthed.

In walked Bryan. He was handsome. Cute handsome. Cute boyish handsome with dimples that grabbed my heart and yanked it out of my chest.

I think he even sparkled.

He examined the script, read it to himself, musing (I thought) over our clever monologue he was to deliver.

In the spot, we had a series of things that Bryan was to “interact” with as he made his way through the store ostensibly Christmas shopping: old man jeans, jewelry (teeny tiny chip diamond stuff), perfume, stuffed animals puppety things called Pillow Pets, and finally, roller luggage.

See this work of art here.

For the last scene, he had to deliver a line that went, “I got in, I got out. Nobody got hurt.”

Bryan gave us oodles of takes. All good, all different…but they just weren’t what I had in MY mind.

I stood back and let the directors do their work ….but not without yammering in Glenn’s ear (my boss, best one ever) about this one last take. He who was accustomed to (God bless him) putting up with my crapola calmly told me to hang tight, that “we’d get it.” But I could see he was irritated.

I finally walked up to the directors and gave them a line reading.

“You know, it needs to be more…more…off-handed…casual…no, I mean, it needs to be more…proud…” On I went. What I wanted to say was that it needed to sound like ME. But how would I tell them this?

The Woman of the Man-Woman team gave him the line reading…and my skin started to crawl. It was so NOT the way I had said it. It needed to be FUNNY.

She was not funny.

But since they were being paid thousands each for their day rate, I clinched my hands and smiled a Charlie Brown smile.

So again, Bryan delivered the line, “I got in, I got out, nobody got hurt.”

By this time, I wanted to hurt someone.

The Man of the Man-Woman team looked at me. He turned from his director’s chair and gave me a thumbs up, as in, “Do we have it?”

I inched closer to the directors’ chairs and asked that he try it again.

I could see that Bryan was growing weary. So again, nice guy that he was, he did it again.

Still…it was not exactly what I had in mind.

I got a look from the frustrated directors and heard, “Lisa, why don’t you give him a line reading?”

I was already overstepping my bounds and awkwardly lodged between their two spindly-legged canvas chairs. So when I heard this, I made a beeline for Bryan, jostling them each a bit when I busted through with my child-bearing hips.

Trying to be coy and flirty, tense as I was because the clock was ticking (and I could see the crew giving me a lot of rolled eyes and frowny faces), I gave him the line reading.

I inched close to his face and said, over articulating, “I got in, I got out, nobody got hurt.” He looked at me. I looked at him. We connected.

Then the heavens parted.

He did the line. It was perfect.

And prince of a guy that he was, he kept on repeating the line a few more times just the way I liked it…just for grins.

The directors called “cut” and it was a wrap. I had gotten my way-too-important line reading.

The truth is that he made each scenario in our TV spot LEAGUES funnier than it had originally been scripted, just by being himself.

After the shoot, he and I got a Polaroid of us together. I cherish it, as it shows my younger, thinner self and him with more hair.

Here it is:

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Cut to many years later.

I knew Bryan had landed the dad role in “Malcolm in the Middle,” which tickled me.

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But when he became Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” I was elated.

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Unlike his comedic role on Seinfeld and in our TV spot, what emerged in Walter was this genius actor who revealed his true talents to the world. I hung on every episode and stayed up until the wee hours watching, unable to tear myself away from each gripping, cliff-hanging story.

I was an addict.

These days, his career has exploded and he has arrived. I feel really lucky to have worked with him.

Looking back, of course, I am embarrassed of my hubris – me, the average Jane copywriter giving the lauded Bryan Cranston a line reading. When I think back on his humility, good humor and humoring of me being so self-important, I just have to smile.

Every time I see him on TV, I experience a fondness for him and gratitude for his giving me this ridiculous memory of myself during his rise to the top.

And I must admit, to twist his iconic phrase, I am Breaking Happy each and every time.

 




Crowe’s Feet

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In 1999, I was in LA on a job. I was producing a radio spot I had written for JC Penney. At the time, my mother was in the Russell Crowe fan club. She and her friends, both in the Crowe’s Nest and the Silver Crowes, were agog about all things Russell: his latest movie, where he was filming, who he was dating (sleeping with), where he was last spotted, who he was with and I’m sure, what he had for breakfast and if it gave him gas.

She and I had travelled to Austin a number of times to see his band, TOFOG, perform. TOFOG is an acronym (sort of) for a film term: Twenty Odd Foot of Grunts. You heard me. Grunts. As opposed to laughs, or snorts, or farts.

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During my trip to LA, she suggested I contact some LA fans as there was a party where TOFOG was playing they were going to that I must attend. It was a wrap party for the movie, “Mystery, Alaska,” starring Russell and Judith Ivey. It was at the Viper Room, the place where River Phoenix tragically died.

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I didn’t know any of my mom’s friends. They were all sizes, shapes and ages. Gray hair retiree. Young tall blonde dentist/actress. Another who had tattoos up and down each arm. Totally sleeved out and wore a pair of overalls and t-shirt to display her body artwork and of course, endured pain. One woman in particular was an email pal of Russell’s.  I don’t have any idea of how this was possible. It remains a mystery to this day.

So prior to the fete, we decided to meet for dinner then go to the Viper Room, where we could be on The List.

It was not dark yet, perhaps around 6 p.m. We arrived, the motley crew that we were. In front of the door was an enormous, round black man the size of a bus. He wore a black suit, white shirt and shades. He did not smile.

Up walked one of us, the tall blonde dentist/actress. She had pretty white teeth and was herself lovely, so we thought she was our best candidate to approach this formidable wall of a man.

They exchanged pleasantries and then, the velvet rope was lifted and we were in.

Inside the club looked like a 40s nightclub. All around the room were white leather booths. Atop some of these sat white, crisp name cards that read “Reserved.” There were a few tables in the middle and on one wall, the stage, where TOFOG would play.

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En masse, we moved towards the bar, of course, to get our adult beverages. I got a house chardonnay. The others indulged in stronger fare: vodka, tequila, and whiskey. The lights were dim and moody, except for the wall of bright white light behind the liquor bottles that were on shelves behind the bar.

The crowd was thin. Guys with hipster dark hair, goatees, soul patches, in worn sexy jeans.  There were a few older guys with gray beards who looked like they might be electricians, gaffers, etc. There were some beautiful young women in revealing, hipster clothes who milled around who gave lots of hugs to everyone – air kisses, too.

We had trouble finding a table, as they were all reserved so we decided to assume a position at the back of the room.

Then it happened.

The buzz. The whispering. The gasps.

Russell Crowe was in the house.

With lots of craining of necks and subtle (and not-so-subtle), secret pointing we located him.

His hair was wild and wooly. He wore a navy blue shirt and jeans. Nothing special.

It was at this point that I felt it. The urge to go up and meet him. My mother had been so nuts about him. Every conversation ended up being about Russell. As I said, “All roads lead to Russell with mom these days.”

I felt I had an obligation.

I threw back a big gulp of the terribly average chardonnay. And made my approach.

Tapping him on the shoulder, I said, “Hi, are you Russell”? Looking back, I am awed at my talent for stating the obvious.

“What’s your name?”, he said.

I told him my name.

“My mother is huge fan so I just had to come over and meet you and shake your hand.”

His eyes were blue, stained glass windows, a kaleidoscope of sky blue and deep azure. His Aussie accent was thick, as was his five o’clock shadow.

“You tell your mum hello for me,” he said.

Then all of sudden, I got short of breath and was stricken with panic. The awkward silence was reigning down inside of me. We were face to face, locked in a gaze that was heavy with interest from my side and perceived (mine) slight interest from his side. At that point, I just slid my hand out of his manly grasp and stepped back. He smiled. I smiled. That was it.

For now.

I ran back, breathless, atwitter, exhilarated. I was a mini-celebrity within my group! Then the questions came: what were his eyes like? How did his skin feel? How close were you to his face? And so on.

TOFOG was slated to play in about a half hour so we refueled with a variety of spirits: gin, vodka, whiskey. And of course, my mediocre house chardonnay – sadly, un-buttery.

The place filled up pretty quickly around show time. We craned our necks to see Danny DeVito and Kim Basinger at those hallowed reserved tables. I did get a glimpse of the shine atop Danny’s cue ball, bald head.

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Kim was nowhere to be seen.

Then the lights dimmed…and the crowd cheered.

Russell and band were about to hit the stage.

The velvet curtains opened, parting like the Red Sea, and the drums struck and guitars wailed.

All eyes were on Russell.

Now, our valiant group had managed to work out way through the crowd to be on the front row. I was just left of the microphone and pressed up against the stage. My wine glass sat atop the very edge.

They started their set with an all-time favorite, one with jaunty, jangly guitars and lyrics about crossing a river. Russell then sang about heartbreak, lost love – each with a pained look, expressed through his eyebrows and furrowed forehead a la James Dean.

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I had imbibed a few more chardonnays so I was feeling a bit daring, even more so than I had been when I met Russell.

I was eye-level with the stage…and Russell’s feet…and Russell’s feet were bare. I could see the hair on his toes.

They were so tempting! They looked so cute, like little pink (albeit hairy) shrimps right in a row!

Then, as if I was possessed with some foreign spirit, all reason escaping me, I reached out and grabbed his foot.

Without flinching he yanked his foot from my grasp, and launched into another song.

Then, he looked at me. He smiled and wait for it…he winked at me.

I then let out a hideously “yahoo/squeal” like a wildebeest.

I had been validated. I existed. I was A-Okay.

Why was this so important? Why did I need a celebrity to validate my existence?

My take on this: we hold up celebrities in our society as modern day Gods from Greek society who possess immortality and/or super powers.

We don’t want to be invisible. We want to matter. We want to be loved.

If we are approved of by this lot, then somehow we, too, become elevated from the masses.

And then, for a brief moment, we shine.

When the concert was over (and after two encores), the band escaped out a side door. Our group rushed as well as we could through the cloggy crowd after them to beg for autographs. One even went out the front and around to the side to see if she could see The Man, or better still, snag a band member. They were more accessible than Mr. Crowe and many of my group actually knew them, emailed then, had phone calls with them.

But alas, they had vanished.

It had been rumored that they were staying at the Bel-age (nicknamed the “Gar-baahge” by my former ad world colleagues) so we got the bright idea to go in search of them at the hotel.

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We snuck in and then took to the stairwells, yelling their names, opening doors on each floor to see if any heads popped out of any doors. I’m surprised we weren’t arrested.

This continued for a while until we gave up. No such luck. It was time to go back to our hotel.

That was over a decade ago. Since then, Russell has won an Oscar, had two kids and gotten a divorce. And until his recent starring role in “Noah,” (a far cry from the young, strapping gladiator years earlier), he has seemingly slipped from Hollywood’s radar.

How quickly one can disappear, like a vapor, from the limelight. How fickle the studios can be.

I wonder if Russell ever felt invisible during those days of non-screen time. Perhaps.

The last pic I saw of Russell reflected an older, greyer man. The man whose foot I grabbed, now had, yes, crow’s feet.

Time can be cruel to the beautiful.

Happily, though, my memory of meeting him is not tarnished. Both of us, he and I, will always be young, less wrinkled and vibrant. No sagging, high LDL, or dark circles.

I can safely say this man, Mr. Russell Crowe, and this memory of meeting him that star-filled night will always bring me to my feet.