Posts Tagged ‘Broadway’

Life defines us, not always but what happens, but by what doesn’t happen. When I look back, a lot of things almost happened to me – some good, some bad. My dad almost killed me a couple times. He didn’t. My grandfather almost took a hot stock tip back in the 50’s that would have made us all millionaires. He didn’t. We almost moved to L.A. – according to Mom, at least one agent begged us to go out there. We didn’t. I always liked the West Coast, and wonder what might have been different. When I was 13, I almost made music and film history. Almost.

After Tim wrapped up Les Mis, he ended up booking a movie – his first. Uncle Richard was so proud he could have burst, and I thought he was already proud as hell he to see Tim on Broadway. I remember him coming out to see the show one winter. He was bundled up in a long black topcoat and scarf – he looked like a gentleman who stepped out from a different time. Anyway, I was writing everything back then – I wrote songs based on books I was reading, on movies I watched…I literally was writing anything and everything. Sometimes I was inspired, sometimes I was just trying to fill my quota of writing a song a day, and naturally needing something substantial to show Mom and Russ. Anyway, I don’t know how this got into my head, exactly, but I got the idea that I could get my foot in the door by writing a theme song for a movie. Theme songs were kind of a thing at that point – not every movie had them, but a lot of them did. It helped sell soundtracks, and movie tickets. Anyway, I read the script for the movie and I loved it. In a brief fit of inspiration, I wrote a song loosely based on the movie. At the time, it was one of the best songs I’d ever written (I was 13). I played it for Russ, and he flipped.

Russ: This is pretty good, Danny! You should change this…

He leaned over with a pencil and crossed out a line. He wrote something new above it.

Russ: I think that looks better.

Mom was excited, practically bouncing up and down in her seat.

Mom: Do you think it could get in the movie?

Russ: Maybe! We should record a demo and pitch it to them.

We went into the studio the very next week and recorded a demo. I was “handling” the business end of things myself by that point, so I talked to the director personally. When I say “handling”, what I mean is, I made the decisions and the phone calls, and Mom second guessed them and/or suggested things I should have said instead (Did you tell them you’re a genius? A prodigy?). I explained to the director that this song would make music and film history, in one fell swoop – it would put his movie on the map, at least in terms of the record books. He was very intrigued, and began to seriously consider the song. Granted, he had so much going on – hell, he was directing a film for God’s sake – and I don’t think a theme song was on the top of his mind. But I was flattered and emboldened that he even considered it seriously.

He eventually came back and suggested we do some different things with the song – maybe make it more general, maybe not have the title of the movie in the song, etc. Thus began a series of rewrites and different incarnations of the song. I tried a full on gospel version, sung by an African-American choir. I tried a blues/gospel version, with a semi locally famous soul singer. I tried a country version, a pop version…you name it. Mom had even decided – for whatever reason – that we should do one with Tim and I singing together as a duet. It was horrible. I mean, really horrible. Tim and I hated doing it, and he objected the entire time. We finished the recording, shoved along by Mom and the fact that we were actually paying for studio time – time spent arguing on the clock was money wasted. Still, that recording haunts my dreams. I don’t wake up in a cold sweat over it anymore – thanks to years of therapy –  but trust me, I am mentally and emotionally scarred.

Anyway, none of these versions seemed “right” to the director – who definitely seemed interested in doing something with the song. He pointed us to the movie studio, who gave us some insight.

Studio Executive: We don’t really want to put any money into this.

Me: Okay…

Studio Executive: Basically…if you find a big name artist who wants to sing it…we’d be interested.

So, essentially, they wanted it gift wrapped, with a bow on it and delivered to their door. I had zero contacts with “big name artists”, so how the hell was this going to happen? Still, that didn’t deter me – I was a ballsy little fucker. I spent hundreds of hour tracking down info on people – specifically, managers of artists who might be interested in singing the song. It was risky – most artists don’t want to be pitched to directly. They want to hear from a reputable publisher or record label guy. They don’t want some 13 year old off the street to throw a demo in their faces, explain what a genius he is, and ask them to sing his song. Still, that’s what I did. And – amazingly – I had some success. I’m not saying it was easy. For every 30 people I called, I got 1 “maybe”. But I worked the hell out of those maybes. My “script” for talking to people went something like this.

Me: Hi, I’m a 13 year old genius songwriter trying to make music and film history. I’m writing the theme song for an upcoming movie starring my brother and released by a major Hollywood studio. I’m currently looking for a high profile artist to sing it. Would you or your client possibly be interested?

I got it all in in one breath, if I could – if you gave them an opening to say “no”, the game was over. I had no shame. Of the people that asked me to send them a demo, only about half took me seriously. Keep in mind, I was negotiating directly with adults – seasoned entertainment attorneys and agents – and I wasn’t even shaving yet.

Of the people I met with, a couple stick out in my mind. The first was an agent out of Nashville, who worked with quite a few singers. I don’t remember how we got in touch with him, exactly, but he listened as Mom and I sat across the desk from him.

Agent: I’ve got a couple people I want to pitch this to. Let me see what I can do.

He played it for Bob Carlisle – of “Butterfly Kisses” fame – who loved it and wanted to cut it. Unfortunately, he had just finished cutting an album so there was no real way for him to record it. Still, it was an open door for me in Nashville.

In the meantime, Mom invited the director over for dinner – Grandma was a hell of a cook – on the premise that we would discuss the theme song possibilities with him. We asked Russ if he would be there – he had a lot of musical experience, and he had several hit songs under his belt. Him being there and talking to the director may have made an important impact.

Russ: This is a great idea. Yeah, I’ll be there. When is it?

Mom told him.

Russ: Great, great. I’ll clear my schedule, guys. Hey, by the way, do you have the number for the studio executive you’ve been talking to? I might want to give her a call…

We passed along the info to him.

The night of the dinner, the director and his wife showed up – we had a lovely time. A place was set for Russ, right near the head of the table – between me and the director. It was empty the entire night. Mom called Russ several times, and got no response.

Mom: I’m sure he’ll be here soon.

I don’t know whether she was assuring the director, or assuring herself. For my part, I didn’t feel terribly assured. I tried to call him, too…left a couple messages. We never heard back.

I soldiered on the best I could, but I was a kid who had literally done nothing in the field – it was hard to be taken seriously. Especially when the director kept staring at the place setting where Russ was supposed to be. Whether this was true or not, I felt Russ’s silence damning everything I said. It was almost the opposite of a ringing endorsement, and I felt judged. Inch by inch, I shrank in stature throughout the night – or at least I felt I did – in the director’s estimation. I’m sure he wondered, as I did, just where the hell Russ even was. Besides, if this was such a good thing, wouldn’t someone of Russ’s caliber be there endorsing it?

The night ended pleasantly – the director and his wife were very nice. But what started out earlier in the evening as a positive tone regarding my song ended with “Maybe, we’ll have to see.”

The following week, Mom asked Russ what happened.

Russ: Oh, was that last weekend? I thought it was this upcoming weekend.

Mom: But you cleared your schedule for it. Remember?

Russ: Oh, yeah…

He made some jokes, and Mom quickly forgot that she was upset in the first place. I didn’t forget. I hadn’t decided yet if Russ was completely unreliable or actually trying to hinder my progress, but the wheels were turning in my head. Looking back, I see a third possibility: He wanted nothing to do with my loopy mother. If I had asked him to come along to a one on one meeting between me and the director, I think he might have – provided Mom wasn’t involved. Considering, though, that Mom was a helicopter parent of the worst order – and obsessed with Russ, to boot – that wasn’t going to happen.

Anyway, I somehow managed to get through to LeAnn Rimes’s manager, who expressed an interest and wanted to meet. He invited me backstage to meet with him before a show. Again, Mom put her faith – wrongly – in Russ. She told him when the meeting was going to take place, and where.

Mom: Will you be there this time?

Russ: Oh, yeah. This is a big deal.

Mom: Will you be there for real?

Russ: Yeah.

I asked too, but my faith was shaken. I fervently hoped he wouldn’t let me down again, but I had a feeling he would.

The day of the meeting came, and Russ was nowhere to be found. We went to his studio, but his car wasn’t there. Hoping for the best, I knocked on the door. No answer. The lights were off, the doors were locked. How could he forget such an important meeting? We called him, no answer there either. Mom left a few long winded messages – I tried to tell her that wasn’t going to help, but she did it anyway. Mom made me leave a message of my own, and I did so with great reluctance. I was pissed and disappointed. Stressed, I did the only thing I could think of to do – I called Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard: I can be there in 5 minutes. Just let me get ready.

Me: Really?

Uncle Richard: Yes. I can tell them I’m your agent. That way you’ll at least have someone credible. I don’t know much about the music business, but it may help.

Relief flushed through me. Whatever came, I knew I could depend on Uncle Richard. I told him I’d talk about it with Mom and call him back.

Mom: I don’t think it will help. Besides, it may be a test.

Me: A test?

Mom: Russ and the Mafia might want to see how well you do on your own.

Me: …

Mom: Unless you want me to come…

Me: NO!

I knew this was no test from Russ – and I doubted the actual Mafia cared enough to orchestrate one.  This was negligence, as far as I was concerned – I hadn’t yet decided whether it was malicious negligence or Russ was simply down at the race track or something. I called Uncle Richard back. Though I really wanted him there, I did as I was bid and declined his offer. He wished me luck, and gave me some pointers .

Uncle Richard: Look them right in the eye. you’re their equal. You’re not some snot nosed brat…you know what you’re doing.

I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing – not having any backup shook me. Still, cancelling the meeting was out of the question. Excited, scared, and disappointed, I walked into the meeting backstage. I asked for the manager, and waited amongst crews moving equipment. When he appeared, he seemed perplexed. I think he was looking for an adult – an agent or manager or some other representative. I don’t think he wanted to deal with a 13 year old kid, and I don’t think he took me seriously. Taking Uncle Richard’s advice, I squared my shoulders and went into my speech: I was a 13 year old boy genius and this was an opportunity to make music and film history and the studio wanted a name artist attached to the song and LeAnn would just be perfect, and blah blah blah.

He was polite enough, but I could see the wheels turning in his head. He asked for some lyrics and a demo tape – which I was obviously prepared with. He said he’d listen to the tape and think about it some more. I walked away hopeful, but I had a feeling it didn’t go as well as it could have. When I tried to make followup calls, I was shunted right to voice mail or told he was unavailable, and never got a phone call back. After a few weeks of this, I got the picture and stopped calling. To the uninitiated, this may seem rude, but it actually wasn’t. That’s how business is – if they’re interested, you hear. If they’re not…they’re not going to waste their time calling you and telling you “no”. I didn’t take it personally, I just moved on.

At the next lesson, we again asked Russ where in the hell he was.

Russ: I had something come up.

Mom: Oh.

Mom never held his feet to the fire, never asked him hard questions, never took him to task for things like this. It didn’t matter how pissed she was, when she saw him, she just melted into a puddle of puppy love.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t really hold him to account either – and when I did, it was extremely polite and in a roundabout way – but that’s because I was afraid of reprisals from Mom for upsetting Russ. I was genuinely upset this time, though, and I really wanted to know what was so important.

Me: So what, uh, what did you have going on? Nothing bad, I hope…

He took a moment to consider.

Russ: Uh, my brother Joe had to go to the hospital.

Mom: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!

I mumbled that I was sorry. Not that Joe wasn’t sick – he may have been – but Russ had three go-to excuses: Either Joe was sick, or a pipe burst in his basement, or he twisted his ankle going up the stairs. In the 20+ years I knew the guy, I probably heard each excuse hundreds of times. Mom – who had been so agitated before the lesson – was now as calm and meek as a sunbathing kitten. She sat there making googly eyes at Russ throughout the entire lesson.

Russ: Oh, hey…do you have LeAnn’s manager’s number?

I kept a poker face, but I was incensed. He had nothing to do with the meeting – I had gotten that contact myself, worked for it myself, and even met with the guy all on my own. And Russ wanted to piggyback off my success? Fuck him.

Me: I may have lost it. He never called me back, so.

Mom and Russ both looked shocked – they expected me to jump and say “of course!”. Anything less – at least to Mom – was heresy. I could see the panic in her eyes. She was worried about not giving Russ what he wanted. It was all in her mind, though, because really…what was he going to do? Her fear, I think, was wrapped up in her delusional world – that the Mafia was connected with Russ and could make or break my career, that we needed to watch our Ps and Qs, that we were being watched and tested, etc.

Mom: I can dig it up. I’ll get it for you.

I was openly glaring at her.

I sincerely hoped that she’d forget about the whole thing, but she didn’t.

Mom: Russ wants that number…did you get it for him?

Me: No.

Mom: He wants it to help you, Danny!

Me: I doubt it. He probably wants to try to pitch his own stuff. He couldn’t even be bothered to come to dinner, let alone a meeting with this guy. No. He’s not getting the number.

Mom: But he could be calling to help you! To make up for the fact that he wasn’t there!

I sincerely doubted it.

Me: Mom, just no.

At the following week’s lesson – despite having several private discussions with her about my wishes – I watched in horror as she opened the address book and recited the number to Russ. I was freaking furious. In the car, I practically yelled at her.

Me: What the hell do you think you’re doing? I asked you not to give him the number!

Mom: I know. I couldn’t help it.

Me: You couldn’t help it? Oh my God, Mom. It was so easy. Just don’t give him the number.

Mom: I know, but when I get around Russ….you know.

I knew. I shook my head and glowered the entire ride home.
In the end, I almost made music and film history. Almost. The song didn’t get picked up by anybody, despite my Herculean efforts. Even if it had, I don’t think the movie studio would have been down with putting it in the movie – turned out, the movie sort of bombed. They knew it was a bomb, and put off its release for several years. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I was pretty crushed it didn’t happen. I was only going to be 13 once, and only going to have this chance once. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t think about this stuff. I do. But I think of it less often than I used to, and I guess that’s good. I’ve also started to think of it more positively – it got me experience, and certainly allowed me to cut my teeth in the adult world. You don’t always get what you want, I suppose, and maybe my life would have been totally different – in a negative way – if I had.

As I think I mentioned before, when I wrote music before it was very scattershot – I wrote basically every genre under the sun. Hell, I even wrote a (bad) Reggae type song. But, ultimately, it was important for me to pick a genre and stick with it – and, ultimately, it was decided that I should do country music. At the time – early to mid 90’s – country was exploding. It was also deemed by Mom to be the “easiest” to break into. So, she bought me boots. And hats. And Western style shirts, with fringes. I’m not exactly joking, but I wish I was. I looked like a Nashville tourist, except I was walking around NYC. I didn’t quite have the sense of self to realize I looked like a moron, but as I write this I am literally slapping myself in the forehead. I was cranking out songs by the dozens – by the time I was 16 I’d have over 400 – and each week I’d bring them in to Russ and he’d critique it, deciding if it ought to be recorded. The stuff I was writing at the time was total garbage. Good for my age (12-13) but really bad. To make matters worse, the arrangements were really bad MIDI recordings. Don’t get me wrong – Russ was a brilliant producer – but bad fake synth versions of real instruments make my skin crawl. Unfortunately, that’s what we had to work with – we weren’t going to be hiring live musicians…it would have just been too expensive.

The next step was how to break into the industry. I had a hand in it, in that I agreed that we should go about things this way, but Mom masterminded the whole thing. So how to do it? By going to shows of famous singers and hoping to talk to them in the autograph line. I’m not joking, but I wish I was. You hear that sound? That’s me slapping my head again. So we went to show after show…trying (somehow) to corner these singers and slip them my demo. Even though it rarely worked (I don’t think we ever got close enough, really, a lot of the lines were just too long) Mom wasn’t discouraged. Autograph lines were clearly the way to get discovered. The realization came (painfully slowly) that perhaps trying to accost the headline act wasn’t going to be fruitful. Instead, for whatever reason, Mom decided we should try the opening acts instead. I met some very nice people who graciously listened and took my demo, but it went no further.

A guy came by the back stage door once, when Tim was on Broadway. I don’t remember why or how, but Mom struck up a conversation with him, noticing that he had a Southern accent. She just assumed he was from Nashville (he wasn’t) and that he knew people in the music business (he didn’t – he was some sort of contractor or something). Mom insisted on taking them out to dinner, getting them a backstage tour (which they really appreciated), the works.  They didn’t realize that they were the unwitting recipients of Mom’s craziness. He had a daughter roughly my age, and Mom had it in her head to hook us up.

Mom: I’ll set it all up. He’s very rich…you guys should date.

That was basically the only time me dating people was okay with Mom – if they were rich or influential. Otherwise, they could go to hell. It was almost like she viewed the world in terms of some sort of middle ages royalty type thing – I could only marry “up”. Preferably way up. I really had no interest in the people she wanted to hook me up with, specifically because she wanted to hook me up with them. This was a nice girl and everything, but I wasn’t going to date people for money or influence. I thought (and still do) that was backwards and asinine.

Anyway, Mom talked a lot about my music, and we passed them demos. They graciously listened, but admitted they knew nothing about the music business. Mom seemed to think that was bullshit, and pressed them on the subject anyway. They were really nice about it, and we exchanged numbers and information. After several months (and several demos), Mom kept calling them. Finally the guy threw up his hands, and in as nice a way possible, told her to fuck off.

Guy: Listen…I really appreciate how nice ya’ll have been. But I honestly know nothing about the music industry. I’m a contractor.

Mom: A contractor?

Guy: Yes. I mean…the music’s great, but I can’t help you. I really can’t.

Mom amazingly took no for an answer and dropped pretty much all contact.

I did get a piece of advice from Dolly Parton that was actually rather useful – she directed me to an organization that helped songwriters with their craft. We thought we were getting the brush off, and didn’t really pay it any attention (even though she took the time to write a very nice letter). So clearly getting the attention of famous singers wasn’t working out…what next? Contests. For God’s sake, let’s try some more contests. I did every country contest under the sun. I auditioned for theme parks, for God’s sake. Every year, Opryland (a now shuttered theme park in Nashville) had open auditions for people to sing at their theme park. These people would walk around the park singing or performing or whatever I guess. We spent money on plane tickets to fly down there, hotels, money to enter the contests…etc. I was, of course, very under age – a lot of these had cutoffs of 16 or above. Ironically, even if I had won, I’d have been ineligible to win and thus been disqualified, probably. Anyway…I was always going there singing to tracks of my own original songs –  it always made me feel a lot more like a pageant contestant than an artist. Add to this the fact that everything I did was over-rehearsed – so over-rehearsed that the spontaneity was wrung dry out of every performance. Mom would keep asking me to go over and over and over and over the song, looking for that “one time” that I got it right. When I got it right…I could never get it again. That’s not to say I never got it right in reality. She would just watch and shake her head.

Mom: You know, three times ago? That was it. You don’t have it. You lost it. You’ll never get it again.

Panic would rise in my chest, and I’d think back on what the hell I might have been doing differently three times ago (I could think of almost nothing, and in reality…I was probably correct). I’d try it again and again, hoping for approval.

Mom: It’s…okay. I don’t think you’ll win. If you do it like you did that one time, you’ll get it. But you’re just okay.

She would walk out of the room, concluding the practice session and leaving me with nothing but fear and paranoia that I had somehow missed a shot at greatness.

Anyway, this one time – I think it was my 3rd or 4th  time auditioning for Opryland – this girl auditioned right after me. She was sticking to me like glue the entire time…and finally I got that she liked me. She was like some sort of runner up for a beauty contest or something (I remember her telling me all about it). I was completely oblivious socially, and in my head most of the time, so I had no clue I was being consistently hit on (and hit on very hard, at that). Finally, I think she gave up and just went the direct approach.

Girl: So…what are you doing later?

Me: Oh, I dunno. Probably going back to the hotel.

We bantered for a while about where we were each staying. She kept laughing and touching my arm, which really creeped me out (I really didn’t like being touched as a kid). Finally she leaned in.

Girl: You want to get a drink later?

Me: Uh, like…at a bar?

She laughed.

Girl: Of course at a bar.

Me: Uh. I guess I could have iced tea…

Girl: You don’t drink?

I took a moment, as it sunk in what was going on. This girl was in college, at least – I’m guessing maybe 19 or so. I rewround our conversation and realized that she was coming on to me. I was both flattered and perplexed.

Me: Um. I’m 14.

Her jaw dropped, and she walked away red faced and embarrassed. To her credit, I always looked a lot older than I was. Even when I was underage, I was never carded going into an R rated movie, even if all my friends were.

I still remember the first time I went down there. We literally had thrown our bags on the bed, and Mom grabbed the Nashville phone book and plopped it down in front of me.

Mom: Make some calls.

Me: …to who? You want pizza or something?

Mom: No. Call record labels and publishers. See if they’ll meet with you.

In sales, this is known as “cold calling”. It almost never works. More than half the time, I got a disinterested secretary – a secretary who, I have no doubt, received several hundred similar calls a day (conservatively). I was inevitably patched to someone’s voice mail or simply told not to bother.

Mom: Call them back.

Me: Why? They said no.

Mom: Did you tell them you were 13? And a prodigy?

Me: Yeah, I guess…

I didn’t feel comfortable flying that around.

Mom: Well, did you?

Me: No, I guess not.

Mom: So call back.

I sighed, but did as I was bid. I got similar results. One thing I learned as an adult is that you never, ever do what we did when I was a kid. You never go to Nashville waving your demo in everybody’s face, and you certainly don’t go around in a 10 gallon hat. That pretty much screams at everyone that you have no idea what you’re doing, or you’re just an ass. I think I got away with a lot of that because I was a kid, but I certainly would never try such a thing as an adult.

Anyway, after probably hundreds of calls, I got a couple people who were willing to listen (mostly small publishers). I counted this as a victory. They listened very graciously, and offered me their input on my music.

Publisher: This is really good for your age.

Me: Thanks.

Publisher: I want to encourage you, because you are very good. But you need to get a little bit better. You need to be even better than what’s on the radio. You know what I’m saying?

Me: I think so, yeah.

Publisher: I’d love to hear more from you whenever you have something new.

I felt at the time that what they were saying was that – because of my age – I really needed to rise above what was out there, ability wise. I think that was true, because it would have been hard to justify hiring a 13 year old if they weren’t the best thing you’ve ever heard. At the same time, I think I was also a curiosity, which sort of went along with the prodigy/genius thing. I often felt like a zoo creature, or an organ grinder’s monkey (considering the clothes Mom put me in, that probably wasn’t far off). I felt like the people that were interested were interested because I was an oddity, not because they necessarily thought I was amazing.

Looking back, even though I made some inroads, I despise the music I created and the way I went about doing things. Not because I hate writing, or hate country music or anything of the sort, but because it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t real or true. I was just a monkey in a ten gallon hat, dancing to the tune of an organ grinder.

 

Mom used to be absolutely bonkers for contests. Still is, actually. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t worth my time, or if it was a long shot…she thought it was a great way to get “a foot in the door”, as she put it. A foot in the door is an old salesman’s term – it means that you literally would stick your foot in the door so they couldn’t close it all the way. Theoretically, they had to listen to your spiel. Anyway, she was always thinking of the next “big thing” – the problem was, whatever she came up with was either ridiculously implausible or difficult to pull off. I remember her reading a magazine once, and getting excited.

Mom: Danny, look! There’s a contest and the winner gets to play at a fair in Iowa.

Me: Why would I want to play at a fair in Iowa? 

Mom: It’s a great chance to get discovered.

Me: In Iowa?

Mom: Yes! They’re having open auditions…

The auditions, if I remember correctly, were at the crack of dawn and it would have been a total cattle call. That’s what we called auditions where there were hundreds of people. Not that I have anything against Iowa in particular – I’m sure it’s fine – but it doesn’t strike me as one of the top places to get noticed in the entertainment industry. Besides, I was already doing great with acting. I shot this idea down with extreme prejudice. Mom grumbled quite a bit about it – something about me “not listening” to her and being a “rebellious teen” – but the idea died rather quickly, thank God.

Anyway…one idea I couldn’t buck was this contest that Paul Simon was holding. It was a Doo Wop competition, and the winner got the chance to appear in his upcoming Broadway show the Cape Man.

Mom: You should do this!

Me: But I don’t sing Doo Wop. I don’t have a group.

Mom: Well, get a group!

Me: It’s in like…2 weeks. How am I supposed to do this?

Mom: We’ll figure it out.

I sat down and cranked out a quick 50’s style song – I figured my odds would be better if it was something original.

Putting a band together on the fly is a hell of a task – but it’s made significantly more simple if you’re friends with some of the top jingle singers in the business. After a couple quick phone calls, I had a bunch of my friends jumping onto the project with me – Jackie, Eden, Lisa, and Jeff. In their own right, they were all totally awesome singers – somehow, we pulled it together in just a couple rehearsals. Then came a curveball. Turned out, after reading the rules, that you had to be 16 to enter. I was 13.

Mom: So just lie. You could be 16. Who would know?

I shrugged. I was a little worried they would ask for me ID or something (they didn’t), but I figured I had come this far. Mom also wanted us to work with Russ, but Philly was kinda far considering most of my group lived in NY and surrounding areas. I have no idea why she thought this would be productive, but she actually wanted me to sing into Russ’s answering machine so he could hear what we sounded like and offer tips. I thought that sounded silly as hell, but basically went along with it. I figured it couldn’t hurt. We went back to practicing some more. For whatever reason, Jeff started being really ridiculous. Not just hitting on the girls, but actually saying really crude stuff.

Jeff: Mmmm. Tasty!

He flicked out his tongue at one of the girls who had her back turned to him, and slowly licked his lips. The girls asked him to quit it, but he just wouldn’t stop. I watched the girls get more and more uncomfortable as crude gestures were made and more comments were said. Not only was he upsetting my friends, practice was being disrupted. If I have one cardinal rule in my life, it’s this: Be A Professional. Somewhat loosely, it translates to being on time, being prepared, working hard at your given task, and having a positive attitude. There are only a small handful of things that set me off – I’m fairly easygoing – but someone Not Being Professional is one of them. People being demeaning to women and/or minorities is another, so really a couple of my buttons were being pushed. I took a quick assessment of the situation, and looked at the girls. They all looked upset. One of them was sitting on the floor, trying not to cry and doing her best not to look at Jeff. I also decided that Jeff wasn’t going to listen to anyone in the room – it had to be an adult. I didn’t really think, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I decided the best answer would be to rile Mom up against Jeff (there was probably a 50/50 shot she’d actually care about what was going on). I knew exactly what buttons to push, and walked out to her.

Me: Mom, Jeff says Russ doesn’t know anything. He asks why we’re even listening to him.

Mom’s face turned several shades of red and blue in quick succession. I immediately regretted my decision – I had used at atom bomb when a scalpel probably could have done the job. But it was too late. Mom was a bulldozer. She practically charged into the practice room, her eyes full of Jeffrey.

Mom: I WILL TELL YOU SOMETHING. THAT MAN HAS MORE TALENT IN HIS LITTLE FINGER THAN YOU WILL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFETIME!

Jeff stood there, gaping. He had no idea what he did, just that this bear of a woman was coming down on him with all the fury of an enraged rhino. He tried to speak, I think, but I don’t think he got much to say. Mom literally roared. Jeff’s Mom came to his defense, grabbed him, and started a (blessedly brief) shouting match before leaving. Mom, evidently happy with her defense of Russ, stalked out of the room.

The girls and I were dumbfounded.

Eden: I guess we just lost our bass.

They were all upset…possibly even more so than before. So was I. I felt dirty. I had never before used Mom’s psychosis was a weapon against her, or her as a weapon against others. I tried to tell myself there was no other choice, and I made the right decision, but it didn’t wash with me. Even if I did the right thing, the ends didn’t justify the means.

We talked for a while, each noticing that the sense of palpable tension had left the room. The practice got back on track – we were all professionals, and we had a job to do. We quickly reworked the harmonies without Jeff. From a production standpoint, I missed that bass, and I was sorry he had left. But from a group cohesion perspective, it worked much better.

It wasn’t until years later that I put together what was actually going on. Jeff was gay – a fact clear to everyone (at least the adults) but him. A lot of the mothers made comments about him. I got – vaguely – what “gay” meant, but I didn’t really understand. With some years under my belt, and hindsight, I get that Jeff was struggling with his sexuality and probably overcompensating. At the time, I just saw a bully who was being an ass…I didn’t see his struggles underneath it. I can’t tell you how much of a shit that makes me feel, even today.

Anyway, the contest made the news, and our group was all over the highlight reels from the night. During the intro, I slipped on the stage – not one of my prouder moments – but I recovered. That wound up on the news, too. We made it to the second round, but we didn’t ultimately win. Still, we got to meet Paul Simon. One of the girls the group – Jackie – did something I’ll never forget, and always love her for. She snatched a demo tape out of my hand (I had been carrying it around on the off chance of giving it to someone) and marched up to Paul Simon.

Jackie: You see this kid right there?

She pointed at me.

Paul: Oh, hey there.

We shook hands.

Jackie: This kid is enormously talented. He’s an amazing songwriter. Listen to his stuff.

She pressed the tape into his hand, with a surprising amount of force.

Jackie: I’m serious. Don’t chuck it in the trash. Listen. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

I was flushed. Nobody had ever gone to battle for me like that before, and no one has since – not like that, anyway. I thought so then, and think so even more now – she had a mile of guts. I had no idea before that moment that she thought I was good, or  even if she did that she actually believed in me that deeply. This may sound almost silly, especially after everything I’ve written about, but it was one of the most flabbergasting, and pleasantly surprising experiences of my life.

She grabbed me by the shoulder and led me away.

Jackie: If he doesn’t listen, I’ll kick his ass. I don’t care who he is.

We laughed.

The group disbanded after that – not that we weren’t all friends and saw each other often, but we ceased to be a Doo Wop band. It wasn’t really a marketable kind of music, and there wasn’t a whole lot of places for underage kids to play. Besides, who had the time? We were busy making money.

So I hate moving (even though I’m actually about to do so). Even as a kid, I couldn’t stand it. Aside from the thought itself being terrifying, it was a huge pain in the ass. When we moved to New York so Tim could do Broadway, it was another fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type operation. We hit the city with nowhere to go, so we stayed at a place Tim and I affectionately called the Mildew Palace. This was a hotel that had maybe been nice in it’s heyday, but was now falling down around the ears of the proprietors and unwitting guests. Signs promised “New Renovations!” and HBO. I assure you, the renovations – if they existed in the first place – weren’t any newer than a couple decades old. The best thing I can say about the place is that there were no rats (at least, not that I saw) and it was clean-ish. We checked in for what would be a two month stay (and actually felt like several years) in the middle of the worst heat wave I had ever experienced. To my memory, it was 110 degrees in the shade, but maybe it just felt that way. The best part was that our hotel did not possess central air (evidently not one of the “New Renovations” promised on their banners). There was an old window unit that looked to be from the 1970s and sounded like a Harley Davidson when it started up. I’m serious, you could not watch TV or have a conversation when it was on. So this led to a vicious cycle of us having to turn the air off to talk or watch TV, getting way too hot, turning it on again, getting annoyed by the racket, and turning it off for as long as we could handle it. There was, as I recall, only one setting – HIGH/COLD. Despite the noise it did managed to keep the room cold as long as you were right by the unit. Tim and I used to fight for a spot right by it – we’d usually just end up taking turns, but the argument was over who would go first.

Tim: I’m hot.

Me: I’m more hot. Look, I’m sweating. Plus I’m older.

I often played the “Big Brother” card – I had no shame. There were several times I would open the mini fridge and stick my head in for a few minutes. The fridge looked suspiciously newer than everything else in the room (New Renovations!), and frankly I would have opted for units that didn’t sound like a semi truck or expel waterfalls of condensation down the sides. What can I say? My priorities and management’s obviously differed. That latter bit – about the water – was exactly why Tim and I called it the Mildew Palace. The condensation from the AC unit was so severe – and had been going on for so long – that there was mildew everywhere. The room kind of had a stale smell to it, too, but I’ve found that’s par for the course in all but the nicest hotels.

Anyway, after our time at the Mildew Palace came to an end (it wasn’t a stay, it was a tour of duty), Mom found a place through a friend of our agent. It was an older apartment, but it was nice. We were going to be subletting it from a guy named Ken for a couple months while he was off on tour. I didn’t really deal with him, or pay much attention to the deal that Mom made. I was hot, I was tired, and I was not looking forward to carrying heavy bags block after block. In retrospect, I’d say this guy was pretty picky. He gave Mom some kind of list with the things he wanted taken care of around the apartment. There were two trees (really more like bushes) that seemed to be an area of concern.

Ken: I need the trees watered, like twice a day.

Mom nodded.

Ken: And I want my cleaning lady to come in at least once a week.

Mom said okay. I honestly doubt she was listening.

Ken: And don’t paint or anything, and please don’t hang anything up…

There was a laundry list (or so it felt to me). Ken wrote it all down for Mom, who handed the list to me.

Mom: Here.

Me: What’s this?

Mom: It’s the stuff we’re supposed to do. Make sure it gets done.

Me: Okay, sure.

I ended up losing the list, somehow. The trees were watered sporadically the first week, then completely forgotten about. It wasn’t anywhere close to being on Mom’s radar. I tried to do it for a while, but I kept forgetting. I was 12. I had books to read and songs to write. Watering trees was not my responsibility. Besides, Mom was supposed to be the one doing it. I reminded her a few times, but she forgot too. The tries died a slow, miserable death.

The cleaning lady did come, though – that’s probably the one part of the list that Mom kept up with (though she did bitch and moan quite a bit about how expensive it was). This place was literally around the corner from a movie theater, and 2 blocks away from where a friend of mine lived. We had met each other at auditions and hit it off – he was as avid a reader as I was, and into comics as well. We only got together a couple times while I lived there, but he turned me onto a pretty cool comic shop that had tons of back issues.

It was a studio apartment, and frankly too small for 3 people to live in, but Tim and I didn’t complain. Anything was better than the Mildew Palace. There was a couch, a queen bed, and a floor. Mom took the bed, and I insisted on the couch. This left Tim with the floor, but he didn’t seem to mind – he claimed to prefer it. At first I was skeptical, but I have actually seen him turn his nose up at a bed (or a couch) and sprawl out in blankets on the floor. Anyway, it was a hard wood floor – I can’t imagine it being very comfortable – but we got him a sleeping bag and a ton of blankets. When I was making my couch/bed, I spotted something behind the cushions. Actually a lot of somethings.

Me: Dude, come here.

Tim ambled over.

Me: …what the hell is this?

I showed him what I had in my hand. He examined it.

Tim: A pill, I guess. Hm.

He was already fairly well read in medicine and science, so if anyone know what this was, it’d be him. He turned it over in his hands.

Tim: I think it’s Prozac.

Me: Huh.

I examined the pill more closely, and damned if he wasn’t right. PROZAC, it announced, in serious lettering along the side.

Me: Well, there’s an awful lot…

We pulled off the cushions, and found about 15 capsules. We told Mom, who concluded that Ken was some kind of crazy drug user.

Mom: Prozac…isn’t that the pill that makes you crazy?

It was an anti-depressant that had been getting some bad press lately – there had been some killings or something and Prozac was being blamed.

Me: I don’t think it makes you crazy. I think its supposed to stop you from going crazy.

Mom: Well. I bet he’s taking too much. Look at all these pills!

Freaked out, she called Clint. Clint was the son of Doc, who was our family doctor starting with Grandma. Our families went back generations. Clint was an egghead’s egghead – he had a business degree, a law degree, and a degree in medicine (he practiced none of the above, and pretty much existed taking care of his aging father and living off his investments). He was abrasive, crude, and jocular…as a kid, having a conversation with him was always enlightening. He used to tell lots of dirty jokes I didn’t get until I was much older. He told her that the guy was probably depressed and depression doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous. Her fears assuaged, Mom dumped the pills in the trash and said no more about it.

One of the cool things (to me, at least) about where we lived was that I could people watch. I wasn’t trying to be a peeping tom or anything, but it was difficult not to see in people’s windows when they’re right across from you. I’d glance over and see some guy making dinner, or a woman walking around in a bathrobe, or a fat guy in shorts watching TV (as far as I could tell, this guy never moved. I wondered several times if he might be dead). I’d look down at the street below and watch the tops of people’s heads bob past – the hatted and the hatless, bald spots or curly locks. It was actually a rather egalitarian view.

Another thing I was interested in was Ken’s CD collection – he actually had a rather nice stereo as well. I discovered Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell, but he also had a ton of Billy Joel CDs. I was already a big fan, but this guy had CDs I didn’t even know existed. I listened to a lot of music.

After a few months, Ken came back. The apartment wasn’t exactly in disarray – as promised, we kept the cleaning lady coming and didn’t put any holes in the wall. The first thing he saw when he walked in was his dead trees. He gasped.

Ken: My trees!

He ran over to them, running a hand through the dead leaves. By this point, they were pretty much a lost cause.

Ken: Did you even water them!?

Mom: Yeah, we did. They just died.

We totally did not water them, but I wasn’t going to open my mouth. I’d rather deal with a pissed off guy for 20 minutes than my Mom for several days.

He checked out his stereo, and found a CD had gotten jammed. I have to admit, that was totally me – I feel bad about it, even to this day. It was a total accident…I went to swap out some Cat Stevens for some Billy Joel and somehow the tray got pushed in before the CD was totally flat. It had actually happened a few weeks back, but I had been too embarrassed to tell Mom. Besides, I could hardly blame it on Tim who cared exactly zilch for the stereo system – I was the only one to actively use it.

Ken: WHAT.

He pounded the EJECT button. The system whirred, but didn’t give up the CD. It was no surprise to me – I had been trying for the last few days and gotten similar results. I suppose I could have pried it open with something, but I didn’t want to risk damaging it further.

Ken: …what.

Mom: What now?

Ken: Who the hell broke my stereo?!

Mom walked over.

Ken: It’s jammed, see?

He smashed his fingers against the EJECT button repeatedly.

Mom: I don’t know anything about that.

True. She didn’t.

Mom: Danny, do you know anything about this?

Hot panic rose inside my chest. I didn’t care so much about Ken, who, for all intents and purposes we never had to see again, but I didn’t want Mom pissed at me. And I definitely didn’t want 2 people pissed at me. And Mom would definitely be pissed if she had to pay for a broken stereo. I quickly ran through possible dialogue options in my head, and decided on the simplest one.

Me: I have no idea.

Mom: I didn’t think so. Maybe the cleaning lady did it?

Ken practically exploded.

Ken: The cleaning lady!?

He stormed into the bathroom, where he had evaluated another disaster. He was pointing, like the finger of an angry god, at the bathtub.

Ken: And I suppose that’s her fault too!?

The tub was stained around the drain – nothing huge, I’ve seen it several times with many tubs. Just rust or whatever. I wouldn’t have said it was the cleaning lady’s fault per se, but it was either there before or she started doing a lousy job on the tub. I knew when to keep my damn mouth shut, though, and did so.

Mom: That was there before.

Ken: No it wasn’t!

Mom: It was!

Ken: It was not!

He was practically spitting now, and Mom was getting herself worked up even more. Not good. Not good at all. Tim and I exchanged a look and removed ourselves to the main room while they bickered.

Ken: Get out!

Mom was belligerent, and they argued some more. Fortunately, we knew the last day of the lease was coming and we had our stuff mostly packed. Again, I sighed inwardly at the prospect of carrying bags and bags of shit for blocks. Mom returned the following day with a check. Since subletting technically wasn’t allowed in the apartment complex, we had to say we were cousins of Ken’s if anyone asked (no one did). I think everyone basically knew what was going on, but kept their nose out of it. Subletting was sort of an open secret in New York – everyone did it, but nobody knew anything about it. Mom decided she’d get revenge by blowing the whistle – but she was afraid to take the heat of blowing the whistle, so she sort of did this weird passive aggressive thing. She flashed Ken’s check to the doorman – probably too fast for him to see what it was, anyway, and I doubt he would have cared if he knew. But Mom felt she had pulled one over and gotten “revenge” so she was satisfied.

The search for another apartment was on, and we were in a crunch. At the repeated urging of both of her sons, however, we did not return to the Mildew Palace.

 

 

 

 

Ah, hairspray. And hair gel. And hair products in general, really. These were a daily part of my existence. My hair had to be perfect – Mom was always fussing with it. All the other actors in my age group were well coiffed – quite a few had the miserable existence (like myself) of being Helmet Heads. Helmet Head is what I called it when Mom sprayed way too much hairspray (CFCs be damned) and/or used so much gel that my hair wasn’t going anywhere. Literally not one strand out of place. I felt like it gave my hair a stiff, artificial look – under no circumstances would it have blown in the wind (which was kind of the point – the hair-do wouldn’t get messed up). Thus, I called it Helmet Head. It kind of felt like a helmet too. Back in the day, there was a huge emphasis on the actors looking “perfect” – you had to have great teeth, great hands, great hair. Ideally, blonde haired and thin. Look at commercials from the 80’s and 90’s and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I wasn’t particularly thin, but I had perfect hair damn it. Mom would fuss and worry about my appearance. Some of this was stage mother stuff – lots of kids in the business had that experience. Sort of a helicopter mom who quasi-worshiped her son and obsessed over everything. The hair was such a big deal to her for whatever reason, though. She even insisted I get a perm at one point (a horrible experience at a cheap cut and blow place). Every once in a while, she’d just start picking on something else, though.

Mom: Let me see your teeth.

I showed her.

Mom: They’re horrible. They’re so crooked!

I couldn’t argue, but I had seen worse – regardless, I didn’t think they warranted that kind of reaction. She acted as if she had never seen my teeth before in her life.

Mom: Let me see again.

I showed her again.

Mom: They’re so yellow…come closer.

After a while I got tired of holding my mouth open for her to peer in – I wasn’t at the dentists, for God’s sake – and shut my mouth. Cue a never ending parade of retainers, cleanings, and dental visits. They’re still not straight, by the way – a little better, I guess, but by no means the perfect, bleached white teeth Mom fervently sought.

Sometimes she’d just be looking over at me and blurt something out.

Mom: God, you’re getting really fat Danny.

I was surprised because this came out of nowhere.

Me: What?

Mom: Look at your gut.

I looked at my gut. I was kind of getting a pot belly, I guess.

Mom: You’re not going to book if you’re fat. You have to lose weight.

She decided on a whim to enroll us all in a weight management program. I don’t remember which one it was – I think it may have been Weight Watchers. The first day, she got into an argument with the lady leading the group.

Weight Counselor: So portion control is a foundation to weight loss. You can’t just have a big plate of spaghetti. You need to limit your intake.

Mom became alarmed.

Mom: Well, what do you mean that I can’t have a big plate?

Weight Counselor: You need to measure your portions. Like maybe an amount the size of a baseball.

Mom: A baseball?

Weight Counselor: Yes, that would be about the most you should eat in one sitting.

Mom: That’s not enough to live on! That’s hardly anything.

Weight Counselor: Well, you can have a salad, or add vegetables.

Mom: Salad?! I don’t like salad. And why would you even have vegetables with spaghetti. That’s stupid.

The counselor argued valiantly – offered up nutrition facts and figures – but Mom was getting more and more steamed. Finally she stormed out of there, muttering about baseballs and vegetables. We tried Nutri-System, but she hated the food (I didn’t think it was so hot either). Thinking we could use exercise, she enrolled us in karate classes. We went to one class before she got into a heated argument with one of the instructors.

Mom: I thought the uniforms were free.

Instructor: It’s a free uniform or a week of free classes.

Mom: Well, why do they even need uniforms?

Instructor: It’s required, it’s part of the training.

Mom: That’s silly. He can just wear sweatpants and a t-shirt. The uniforms are expensive.

Instructor: Well, if you take the free classes you have to buy the uniforms. Or you could just pay the enrollment fee and get free uniforms.

Mom: This is a racket. You people are thieves!

She stormed out, and we never went back. Kind of a shame, really…I sort of liked it.

It wasn’t long before we were back into old habits – her weak efforts at getting us to eat right and be active gave way to piles of spaghetti and drive thru dinners. I don’t think I did this consciously, but watching her erratic behavior made me more cautious and steady. I hate risk. I hate not knowing. I hate abandoning things. I crave consistency at all costs – sometimes to my detriment. Change is a part of life, but it makes me incredibly nervous. Change calls to mind my mother bouncing madly from obsession to obsession, never accomplishing anything of value.

We flew by the seat of our pants a lot. Sometimes I’d forget a script at home, and we’d have to get it faxed to a rest stop en route to the audition. Sometimes we wouldn’t get a script that we were supposed to have gotten, and I’d walk into an audition cold. One time, we got a last minute call to audition for Les Mis on Broadway. I had auditioned when I was much younger, but the casting person took one look at me and turned me away.

Casting Lady: He can’t play a street urchin. He looks too intellectual.

I couldn’t argue. Mom was kind of pissed, though. Anyway, this audition happened to be for Tim. Since it was last minute, we had forgotten the sheet music he was going to audition with at home. He didn’t even really want to audition. He whined about it, but in the end Mom twisted his arm. He weighed the pros and cons of protesting versus being temporarily put out for a 5 minute audition. He chose the latter. I should point out that Tim was a regular kid by every standard – he went out and played in the dirt (something I never, ever did – I was never dirty). He caught frogs. He was loud. He jumped and ran up and down hallways when he took a notion to. He literally ran into the audition and jumped up and down and fidgeted during his interview. Somehow, they thought this was funny and he got the role. I’m not saying he wasn’t good – he was a great singer and actor, too. But the role required lots of energy and Tim had it in abundance.

Several days later, after it was confirmed that he indeed got the role, it became clear we’d have to move to New York. I likely don’t have to tell you this, but rent is insane in the city. Mom actually debated running back home daily between the shows. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but she actually sat down and did a cost analysis. Turned out it was cheaper to rent an apartment than schlep back and forth every day for 4 hours round trip.

Mom: I guess we’re moving to New York, guys.

And we did – but not without first packing copious amounts of hair gel.

My third project on the stage was On Borrowed Time – a play about a boy who traps death in a tree so that his Grandfather can live forever. I got to work with George C. Scott, Nathan Lane, and several other luminaries of the acting world. I guess I wasn’t technically on Broadway, though, since I was an understudy. Understudying can actually be somewhat heartbreaking – you learn the part, sometimes several parts, just in case someone calls out sick and you get to go on. It’s been known to happen – sometimes the main actors will be kind and be “sick” for a particular day, letting the understudy have their time in the spotlight. It’s a very cool thing for them to do, but in my experience it’s kind of rare. Sometimes lead actors are suspicious of their understudies – leads have been known to fall down the stairs after being “accidentally” bumped by those who would be interested in taking their role. In my experience this, too, is an overblown misconception – with only a few exceptions, every actor I’ve worked with has been 100% professional. It’s a job, and they’re there to do it.

George C. Scott was a bit of a card – I remember there was one guy in the audience who couldn’t stop coughing. He stopped the play and yelled: WOULD YOU JUST SHUT THE HELL UP? He insisted the guy be removed before he would continue the play. The scuttlebutt backstage was that he drank quite a bit. If rumors were to be believed, he rarely gave a sober performance. One night, a gun was supposed to be loaded with blanks – George’s character was supposed to shoot someone on stage. The gun didn’t go off, and George turns to the audience and breaks the proverbial Fourth Wall: YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO PRETEND, OKAY?

The Stage Manager was a cool guy – he was always really nice to me. Sometimes he let me leave a little early if the play was almost done and it was obvious I wasn’t going to go on. He seemed tired a lot – I expect he was a bit exhausted from dealing with all the backstage drama. Mom somehow got into her head that we had to become good friends with this guy, and that to do so we needed to give him some of my toys for his kid.

When I was much smaller, Grandpa had gotten me a plastic horse named Clip Clop. It bounced up and down when you rode it and made galloping sounds. I loved it. I was too big for it, but it was something I really loved and wanted to save it. Mom insisted for whatever reason that we had to give it away to this guy for his kids. I was pissed. Even as a kid, I had a sense of trying to preserve things – I was always trying to “save” a particular favorite toy or shirt or whatever. Putting things in boxes or Ziploc baggies. I think given all the death I encountered at an early age (my Grandfather, a close Aunt, and later Uncle Carlo) I knew that time was fleeting and I needed to hold onto the things I cared about. Mom and I got into conflicts about this a lot – I was saving “junk” to her. I suppose, at times, I became a borderline hoarder. Hell, I even saved candy that people gave me. I literally have chocolates that are 25 years old. Granted, they’re special chocolates – say, a musical note made out of fudge given to me on my 7th birthday – but it’s still 25 year old chocolate. It’s practically fossilized now, and I have no idea what possessed me to save it.

The kid that went on in my stead every night was from somewhere in the South – I can’t remember exactly where, but his mother was the picture of a Southern Belle (or pretended to be). She was absolutely obsessed with sex – even as a kid, this was fairly obvious to me. She kept sneaking into the men’s dressing rooms “by accident”. She’d make a big deal about it.

Southern Belle: Oh, my! I can’t believe I actually did that! I just got so confused! This theater is so big! Would you mind if I sat down and had a glass of water? I feel faint from walking up all those stairs!

By the 3rd or 4th time this happened, nobody was under any illusion that it was an accident. I thought it was pretty damn stupid, myself, and sort of viewed her scornfully. Granted, I wasn’t yet a teenager and probably didn’t have a concept of a sex drive, but even then I probably would have looked down it.

One of the coolest people I met there was an understudy like me named Kate. She was older than I was, probably in her early 20’s I’d guess. We connected, and I guess I had a bit of a crush on her. I thought she was really pretty but more importantly, she was really cool – she liked sci-fi and horror. She was even in Night of the Living Dead (the remake) and told me all about George A. Romero‘s zombie trilogy. I was fascinated and insisted that Mom let me see it at once. I wasn’t allowed because it was “too gory”, but I did sneak peeks of it when it came on TV. I have her to blame for my fascination with zombies. Anyway, she’d give me different sci fi or horror videos to take home and watch. We’d talk about it after I’d seen them, and she’d tell me about how important they were.

Kate: Have you seen the Twilight Zone?

Me: No. What’s that?

Her jaw dropped.

Kate: You *have* to. Promise me you’ll see it. It’s AMAZING.

Me: Okay, what’s it about?

And our conversations might go on like that. One night, she did get to go on – someone called out sick. She was thrilled, and I was thrilled for her. She was combing her hair in the mirror and seemed to have a thought.

Kate: Sorry you don’t get to go on tonight.

Me: It’s alright.

Kate: You’ll get a chance.

Me: I know.

Girl: Would you watch me? Let me know how I do?

Kate: Sure.
I watched her part from back stage, and I thought she did great. I had seen the rest of the play many times by that point – I knew all the lines and the blocking, and the rest didn’t interest me. Besides, I didn’t want to get in the way of the stage hands. I gave her a hug after, and told her she did great.

When the show closed, Katie gave me a video of The Day The Earth Stood Still. She told me to watch it and write her with my thoughts on it. The letter she gave me with it is long gone – it had her contact info, I’m sure, but also an in depth explanation of just how cool the movie was. By the time I had gotten around to watching the movie, I had lost the letter with her info.  The last time I saw her, she gave me a huge hug and promised me we’d both be big stars one day. She’s doing alright for herself these days, and I’m very proud of her. I never kept  in touch, which I regret – kids are pretty much rubbish at that – but I’ve been happy to see how successful she’s become.

 

Back stage one day, shortly before the play finished up, one of the bigwigs passed by my dressing room. He was a great guy, and I had met him on several occasions – he clearly loved the theater and actors. He asked me not to divulge what I made, which was perfectly fine with me – it was nobody else’s business anyway. Besides, numbers meant very little to me at that point. That very night, though, one of the older kids I worked with came into my dressing room. He was not terribly subtle.


Kid: Hey, dude.

Me: Whats up?

Kid: Uh. Listen. How much do you make?

Me: From the play?

Kid: Yeah.

Me: Um. I really don’t know…you’d have to ask my Mom…

Kid: Well, if you had to guess.

Me: I’m not sure. I think it’s in the hundreds. Maybe the thousands. I don’t know.
I couldn’t help but give him a useless answer, even if I wanted to tell him the truth – I was terrible with numbers, always getting them backwards or mixed up. I would frequently misread commas when a number reached into the thousands. He left, but I felt as if something was amiss. A great ball of ice began forming in my stomach, and never really went away for the rest of the play. The theater was a very special place for me, and although I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, I hated seeing it spoiled by politics. My mind didn’t have the bent for Machiavellian plots that may or may not have gone on – it still doesn’t. I don’t think it’s that I couldn’t come up with ways to be devious, it’s just that it never sat right with me. I told Mom all about what had happened – I didn’t keep secrets from her, and as far as I know she never kept secrets from me. At least not at that point. We were very close, made even more so by the constant threat of danger and the highs of success. She found out rather quickly that some elements in the theater were discontent with the number of union actors in the plays – they were paid higher wages, and it left fewer roles for the locals. The ice ball in my stomach grew, and I worried that I had done something wrong by even talking to this other kid. As an adult, I know I didn’t give any valuable information away – even if I had, I doubt a 10 year old would have tipped the scales any. It’s still an event that weighs heavily on me when I think of it.

The last night of the play, that ball of ice had melted into black premonition.


Me: I’m never going back there again.

Mom: What?

Me: I won’t be doing another play there again.

I started crying – one of the few times I’ve ever openly done so.

Mom: I don’t think so at all! You did great, they’ll have you back.

Me: No. No, I think that’ll be it.

My premonition was oddly accurate – I never again did a play there. I heard through the grapevine that the discontent elements won their fight – less union actors were used. It’s also possible that no appropriate roles came up, or that Mom somehow said or did something I was unaware of that offended the theater owners. The latter is something I’ve come to suspect happened in other cases – cases where people that otherwise loved working with me suddenly stopped talking to me altogether.

Even though I didn’t go back for a play, I was invited back for their New Year’s Eve Gala – a black tie, star studded event. They even let me sing and perform the first song I ever wrote (the one about the dinosaur). It was an amazing experience, and one I’ll never forget.

I saw several plays there over the years – mostly ones my friends were in, or had directed or produced. My favorite production, I think, was Sweeney Todd. I was probably altogether too young to have seen it, but Mom never vetted anything and rarely policed what I watched (with the odd exception of He-Man, which supposedly contained “magic”). As usual, Paper Mill l did it brilliantly – blood appeared to gush from the necks of Sweeney’s victims, their bodies made loud thumps as they dropped to the floor of his barbershop, and I believe they used real ground beef to make the “meat pies”. Just really good, Broadway-quality (and sometimes even better than Broadway) theater. It’s one of the reasons I loved it there. Nevertheless, I was relegated to enjoy this particular theater from the other side of the curtain from then on.