Posts Tagged ‘New York’

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.

It was one of those months – which was basically every month, at least to me – we were either short on cash or Mom was worried we would be. We would have a roof over our heads – Grandma made sure of that. She paid the electric, water, cable, and mortgage herself. Mom paid a pittance in “rent” – due whenever, and usually in the amount of whatever she could afford. As a kid, I just knew I had to work harder – book more things, bigger things – because, as Mom would lecture me repeatedly, “Everything is so expensive”. There were years I made $100,000 (and this was in 90’s money, which went quite a bit further). There were years I made more. And still, we scraped the bottom of the barrel by the time the end of the month came. As a kid, I did not question this – it was a fact of life. Money was finite and fleeting. As an adult, I understand that mistakes were made. The money wasn’t handled improperly; it wasn’t handled at all. Hundred dollar bills slipped through my Mother’s open fist like sand in the hand of a small child. I don’t blame her for this – I blame her mental illness. I have learned that shopping sprees (of which hers were frequent) and the inability to handle and understand money can be indicators that something is seriously wrong. I didn’t know that then, and didn’t much care. I was doing what I wanted to do – acting, music, etc. I understood (vaguely) that money made all this possible. I didn’t much care where it went beyond that it afforded me the opportunities I sought.

Mom would often spend hundreds at the grocery store, and she’d be in there for hours (or what felt to my brother and I like hours). We would wander off to amuse ourselves while she agonized over which brand of peanut butter to buy. We’d wander back some time later, only to find her staring into space – either still agonizing or zoning out completely, we couldn’t tell. Grocery lists were not an option. She could not explain to us exactly what it was she needed most of the time – we offered, in hopes that it would make the grueling trip go faster.

Mom: I don’t know. I need stuff.

Me: But what? Like, eggs? Milk? I can run and get it.

Mom: Just stuff, Danny. Let me think.

And she would wander the grocery store hunched over the cart and think. We’d pass through the same aisles several times before she’d decide she needed something there or abandon the aisle completely. She’d buy whatever was on sale – and way too much of it. By the end of the week, it either went bad or had to be frozen, and she’d have spent several hundred dollars. She would make a return trip the following week, regardless.

When she wasn’t horribly depressed – sleeping or writing letters to the various Russes – she would be extremely energetic and insist on taking us clothes shopping. She’d run out to the store and buy herself (and us) lots of clothes. It didn’t matter what the style was, or if it looked good, or even if it fit properly – if it was on sale, she bought it. I remember her holding up a sweater for me to try on. It was beige, relatively shapeless and had multicolor squiggles and triangles on it. It sort of looked like a Cosby sweater. She decided that it was “only $5” and thus I should get it. I didn’t question her, though I despised the sweater. When she asked me to wear it, I’d tell her I couldn’t find it, even though I knew right where it was. She eventually forgot about it, and other “sale clothes” replaced it. They weren’t all awful, exactly, but they didn’t look right. Let me put it this way: In my teens, I was wearing acid wash black jeans (on sale), a giant blue FUBU sweater (another killer deal) and cowboy boots (she popped for expensive ones, because she thought they made me look tall). From a fashion standpoint, I was a horrific mess. Not that I knew any different. There was also this one shirt that she insisted was “hip and cool” and it made me look like a deep sea diver. It was short sleeve and had sort of a turtle neck and was made of meshy stuff. But it was on sale! My point in all this being, even though she shopped “cheap”, she shopped a lot and bought awful clothes in bulk. So, yes, a sweater might be $5, but if you buy 10 and then some shoes and then a few blouses and then something for Tim…it’s not $5 anymore. I don’t think she ever got that concept.

When things were tight, she’d still go to sales and the grocery store. Grandma would offer to buy groceries, and Mom would get angry. If she was feeling particularly surly, Grandma would also point out we had stuff in the freezer. Fights would ensue, ending with Mom hopping into the car and going to the store. Often, she’d try to take us with her.

Mom: Let’s go, Tim. Let’s go, Danny.

Me: Where are you going?

Mom: Out.

Tim: Out where?

Mom: The store.

Me: Which store?

If it wasn’t a store I was interested in, I would be reluctant to go. Some clothing stores had SNES games or SEGA games in the kid’s department – you could hang out and play the games while the parents shopped. I would happily go to those stores. But I couldn’t endure the long and agonizing bargain hunting as a general rule. Sometimes we’d stay home with Grandma, who would make us a sympathetic sandwich while Mom huffed away, slamming doors as she went. Sometimes we’d go with Mom while she brooded and shopped in utter silence. Tim and I would amuse ourselves, talking about games or comics or whatever.

Despite spending big on groceries and clothes, she got panicked and tight-fisted when the money squeeze was on. In other words, we needed to watch what we ordered at McDonald’s.

Mom: Get it without cheese.

Me: …but I like it with the cheese.

Mom: But if you get it without cheese, it’s forty cents cheaper.

I scowled.

Me: Alright, I guess.

To put a fine point on it, a friend told me once that my Mother was penny wise and pound foolish. That about sums it up.

Regardless, one of those times she was in a total panic – this was nothing unusual in and of itself, but she was actually talking about selling stuff to get through the month. Finally, she turned to Grandma.

Mom: What do you have that we could sell?

Grandma: I don’t know, Donna…

Mom: What about jewelry? Do you have any jewelry?

Grandma sighed.

Mom: We need this. We’re short.

Me: What’s going on?

Mom: Your Grandmother needs to find some jewelry we can sell fast. If she doesn’t, you’ll have to stop going to New York. I’ll have to put you in regular school or send you to be with your father. I can’t afford this. We’re out of money!

Her eyes were bugging out, and spittle was forming at the corners of her mouth. She was in a full on, panicked frenzy.

Mom: What about your diamond?

Grandma: I’m not selling my engagement ring.

Mom: No, the one you got when you were 16!

According to family lore, Grandma had been given a blue chip diamond for her 16th birthday by her uncle. Even then, it was worth a bit of money. Knowing this, Grandma wore it only rarely – she was afraid to lose it. Nevertheless, Mom was able to convince her that my ENTIRE FUTURE was at stake! We couldn’t afford GAS for the CAR! The diamond manifested itself, and we piled into the car.

We drove an hour to a jewelry store that was only a little better than a pawn shop. They promised quick cash for gold on the spot. Mom and Grandma marched up to the counter and offered up Grandma’s ring.

Mom: What’s it worth?

The clerk eyed the ring for a moment.

Clerk: Let me check.

He disappeared into the back where, ostensibly, he was to examine it. When he emerged, he shook his head.

Clerk: I’m sorry, this is not worth anything. It is costume jewelry.

He plopped the ring unceremoniously back into Grandma’s waiting palm. She examined it.

Grandma: This isn’t my ring.

Mom looked over at it.

Mom: No, it’s not. That’s a ring from a fifty cent machine.

The clerk blanched. Grandma got angry.

Grandma: You took my ring in the back and swapped it out!

The Clerk stammered. Even to me, he looked guilty as hell. I took one glance at the ring and could see it was cheap – it was even bent. Mom roared at the clerk.

Mom: YOU DON’T KNOW WHO YOU’RE DEALING WITH!

Clerk: I swear…I didn’t…

Mom: I COULD HAVE YOU KILLED! I KNOW PEOPLE.

Mom seemed to turn down her wrath from a rolling boil.

Mom: You don’t even have to worry about the police. Because sometimes…you don’t even know who you’re messing with.

If I had been so inclined, I could have tapped the clerk and he would have fallen over. That’s how he looked. We stormed outside, made a big show about making a phone call from a nearby payphone, and debated what to do.

Grandma: Call the police!

Mom: We shouldn’t.

Me: What!? Call the cops, Mom.

Mom: We can’t. It’s just his word against ours.

Me: Yeah, but there’s three of us…

In the end, for whatever reason, it was determined that we should drop the matter, get back into the car, and go home. Grandma mourned her ring for years. And I always felt incredibly angry and bad about what happened. Mom handled it poorly, and I should have taken the reins from her…somehow. I feel like we could have gotten the ring back if we tried – maybe there would have been footage on one of the store cameras. I also felt like it was all my fault, somehow – if I hadn’t been acting and songwriting, Mom wouldn’t have needed the money or had to sell the ring. I mean, ultimately, the ring was being sold for me (at least in theory). But then logic kicks in, and I realize the truth: Mom would have needed money regardless. She would have found a way to twist arms to get what she wanted. And when the money from whatever she sold was gone, she’d try to move on to another pile of cash to blow. That was the problem, I think, that she got used to having money. And in my line of work, there was always more money.

 

Whenever we were in New York (which was often – several times a week if not more) we would run up to my agent with flowers or candy or whatever and just kill some time chatting. Very rarely did they have any time to chat – or at least not much. Phones were ringing off the hook, and people were running back and forth to fax machines or meeting with clients. Because I booked a lot of stuff, I got a little more face time than the average Joe Schmoe, but it was still limited. We might sit in the office for half an hour to talk to our agent for 10 minutes while she scarfed down an egg salad sandwich. If they got too busy, we just excused ourselves and left. A lot of people might consider this a waste of time, but it was essential for staying on top of their minds and growing a working relationship. It is a fine line, though – you need to not be a pest. And yes, there were “those clients” who called constantly, dropped in unannounced on a regular basis, and just beat the bush to try to get some extra auditions. If you did it in the right way though, you could ask without asking, if you know what I mean.

One of the things a lot of actors freak out about is being type cast. Some people just are naturally type cast – if you look like a big, hulking goon, you’re probably going to go out for roles as a big, hulking goon. Someone with a more “average” look might be able to fit into several different roles, and these people had the most to worry about I think. If they booked a role where they played a serial killer, and they did it really really well – they might only ever get cast a serial killer. I know of some actors who did their jobs so well that casting people were only able to see them as that one, iconic role. They were never able to do anything else. It happens. Anyway, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I referred to as “charactery”. In agent-speak, this meant that I had glasses and was bookish. I could be cast as a brainy prep school kid, or a boy genius, or a nerd that gets picked on, or…well. You get the idea. I wasn’t going out for roles as a surfer. I was one of those people who was typecast because that’s what they were. People always saw me with glasses and a book in my hand, and thought “Oh, that’s the smart kid. Let’s have him play the role of the kid who discovers a new chemical element.” I didn’t mind being seen as smart – in fact, I was secretly very proud of that – but as I got older, the feedback started to shift. I started trying out for more “normal” roles, and the feedback was basically this: He’s not credible as a “real” kid. He’s not a real boy.

I couldn’t disagree with them. I didn’t know how to play, at least in the sense that other kids did. In general, I didn’t know how to relate to other kids – at least the ones that weren’t actors. Actors, at least the ones I’ve ever run across, are usually pretty smart. With rare exception, I’ve never had problems connecting with them – maybe because we had at least acting in common. But put me in a room with “real” kids, and I had no idea what to do. They thought I was weird. I thought they were dumb. A typical conversation might go something like this.

Me: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

Kid: My what?

Me: You know, Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet and stuff.

Kid: We had to read it for school. It was alright I guess.

Me: Oh. Well, have you read any Micheal Crichton?

Kid: No, but my Mom read one of his books I think.

Me: Oh.

Kid: You skateboard?

Me: Not really.

Kid: Oh.

After my interactions with them, I’d feel odd and isolated – almost like an alien having just observed an entirely different race and culture. I couldn’t understand people who didn’t discuss politics, or books, or didn’t have intellectual curiosity beyond hanging out at 7-11. I’m not trying to bash normal people here. I’m just saying that as a kid – with little social skills and living in a bubble – I had little time or patience for them. I was a bit of an elitist in a lot of ways. So no, when a role demanded I “just be a kid” I was utterly lost. I’ve been 35 years old since I was 6.

One of the ladies that worked in the agency once pulled my mom aside.

Agent: You should have him play with real kids sometime.

Mom: Real kids?

Agent: Give him as normal a life as possible. He’s going to need to draw on that for his roles.

Whether Mom had taken this advice to heart or not (she didn’t, by the way), it simply wasn’t going to happen. Public school was out – mostly because I’d have to be pulled out of class on a regular basis. And where to find friends and connect with so called “normal” kids, let alone normal people Mom would trust? Even if I did, where would I find the time to hang out? Add Mom’s paranoid fantasies about Russ and the Mafia into the mix, and the chances of a normal life just slipped to zero.

Any success I had in film and TV work was basically because I played a brainy kid well. My role in a Babysitter’s Club episode was basically as a smart (but very smarmy) kid of dubious moral character who was running for class president. I auditioned for a lot of roles that I ultimately didn’t get – Jumanji, Newsies, The Good Son. I came this close to landing the role of Reggie in Richie Rich. Basically, they were looking for someone to really build the character of an aloof, slightly evil genius. Not that I was necessarily an evil genius (though I admit, I did admire some comic book villains), but it wasn’t a stretch to play someone who was aloof, intellectual, and un-relateable. I got to 3rd callbacks to play this role – everyone really seemed to like me, from the director on down. We even got a call directly from L.A., asking us to send them some candid shots. I didn’t really do anything candid – I was far too tightly wound for that – but in this case it probably worked in my favor and made me seem more like the character. In the end, the role I was auditioning for was cut down from being the major villain in the movie to almost nothing, and they ended up going a completely different way with the character. The kid that booked it had frizzy red hair and wore bow ties – he was actually a friend of mine, and I was really glad to hear he booked it.

It followed me all throughout my life, at least until fairly recently (again, therapy – it helps) – that feeling of being separate, of not being “normal”. Ironically, in my teenage years I would have given anything to be “normal” – to go to the mall or school or movies. To have friends to hang out with all the time. To be not a real boy meant being out of place nearly all the time, except in a very limited set of circumstances. It took me a long time to realize that even if I could relate to so-called normal kids, I would never actually be normal. They would always look at me as an oddity – maybe because I was jumpy and twitchy (I could be assassinated at any moment, after all), maybe because my mother was eccentric, or because I used big words and talked about books. Or because I was “famous” – I insisted to them that I wasn’t, that it was all just a job but they didn’t understand. I told them I was just like them, but they didn’t believe it. I can’t exactly blame them – neither did I. I couldn’t even begin to act like one of them for a 2 minute audition. So I sighed, shook my head, and went back to reading. And when the calls came in for the nerdy kid, for the socially awkward brainiac, I gladly took them. I knew what they were asking for, and it was a part I could play.

Hustle

Posted: April 26, 2013 in Acting, Life, Mom, Music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

One word that comes to mind when I think of those days is hustle.  We hustled a lot. Not just back and forth to auditions and lessons, but we had hustle. I mean…I was pitching demos left and right to anyone that would listen. When I started writing and recording on a regular basis, we’d basically give out the demos to our industry contacts and friends. I mean, if I was meeting you and I shook your hand, I would pass you a demo tape. Most didn’t get listened to, I’m sure – as Grandma might have said, they no doubt wound up in File 13 – her word for the office trash can. Some probably listened out of curiosity. I was a savant, a boy wonder (or whatever…pick your word) and they wanted to see exactly how good a 10 year old kid could write. I enjoyed the attention – almost all of it was supportive and positive – but it wasn’t long before I started to wonder if they were listening because it was good or because I was a novelty. I thought it was probably the latter, and that depressed me. Listening back to my old stuff now is a cringe inducing experience. I imagine it is for most writers. Some, like myself, are bound to have a book or a room or a case where they put all their bastard children (artistically speaking, of course). If they’re anything like me, visits are difficult and rare. Songs I thought were great when I was 8 or 10 I listen to at 30 and cannot believe I wrote such a tremendous mound of dung, let alone peddled the demo tapes to everyone who would listen. They were good for my age, but I realized very quickly that in order to not just be a novelty, I had to be as good or better than the adults who were writing (and who already had dozens of years more experience than I did). I saw this, and worked harder. I put my nose to the grindstone until it was bloody and raw. I don’t like my old work, with only one or two exceptions, but I’m proud of it because it allowed me to cut my teeth and develop as an artist. Someone once said that 90% of the stuff you will write is useless junk, if you’re lucky. The other 10% is hopefully worth something.

Anyway, I used to do a lot of jingles – don’t know if I mentioned that before. It’s an industry that is all but dead now, but in the early 90’s it was still booming. We would get calls (sometimes from jingle houses, sometimes from agents), I’d run in with maybe 3 or 4 other people, we’d harmonize a few times and crank out something great. I’ll see if I can’t find a few jingles that I did and link them at the bottom of the post.

Somewhere along the line, I got the idea (or Mom got the idea) that I ought to write jingles. I hit every jingle house I knew with demos, and most of the ad agencies too. In retrospect, they were never going to hire a kid to do anything like that – it was too much of a gamble – but we didn’t know that. What Mom also didn’t know – or at least didn’t put together properly in her head – was that giving demo tapes to the jingle houses created a conflict of interest for them. Let me explain. Most of the people who worked at the jingle houses were writers and musicians – hired by an ad agency or other client to write, play on, and produce a jingle. Giving them a demo of some songs was in and of itself not a bad idea, but giving them a demo and asking if they were interested in having me write jingles was in poor taste. It would be like walking into a store, handing your resume to the manager, and trying to apply for his job. Rather futile, somewhat offensive, and mostly dumb. But since we didn’t know what we were doing, at least in regards to the music business, we ran around acting like a couple of rubes. Everyone was very gracious in accepting the demos – I never heard anyone say a bad word about it. But in the end, I don’t think they knew what to do with it, even if they wanted to help. I did, somehow, come into contact with a very nice guy who ran a major ad agency. I had done some work for him in the past, and had handed him my demo. Not only did he very graciously listen, but wrote a letter to tell me how much he enjoyed it, and how he would gladly consider me as a candidate if I wanted to apply for a position there in the future. The guy was a giant in the industry – he coined the phrase “It’s everywhere you want to be” for Visa, for instance – there was no reason for him to take the time to listen to some kid’s tape. But he did, and I still have the letter.

A friend in the business told me once “If you were sitting in a theater, and somebody like Madonna was sitting behind you, you’d reach under your seat and hand her a demo tape.” He was joking (kind of) but he wasn’t wrong. I would have. And if I didn’t think of it on my own, Mom would have insisted I do it. I remember sitting in a diner once in rural Pennsylvania, and Mom and I overheard a conversation at the next table. The guy had worked for Pepsi or something, and somehow Mom got the impression he was important. So she sent me over to ask him what he did for Pepsi. This was very rude,  since it would have been obvious we were eavesdropping, but it was also tactless. You just don’t do that sort of thing, you know? Anyway, I did as I was bid and found out the guy was a truck driver for Pepsi. We had a polite (but very confused, at least on his part) chat. He seemed to have no idea why I was explaining that I was a songwriter. I sat back down in the booth, and related our conversation to Mom.

Mom: So he wasn’t important?

Me: I guess not. He drove truck for Pepsi, he wasn’t like, in an ad agency or anything.

Mom: Oh.

I went back to my food.

Mom: Well, hand him a demo tape anyway. He could know somebody.

And, once again, I got up from the table and trotted over to where the poor bewildered soul sat. He thanked me for the demo tape, handed it to his wife who put it in her purse, and smiled at me oddly. He probably thought I was the strangest freaking kid he’d ever run into. And he was probably right.

When I look back on these times, I do feel embarrassed. True, we didn’t know any better, but we could have had a little more tact. Somehow, I blame myself the most, even though I really was just doing what I was told. Mom supposedly knew best, in most if not all cases. In my 30 years on the planet, I’ve learned that if you’re nice to people – really genuine – they want to help you. I’m not saying I wasn’t genuine, but basically walking around asking people to listen to my demo all the time wasn’t ideal. It didn’t make them want to listen. I was some snot-nosed brat off the street, flinging tapes around like a mad man. I didn’t care about them personally, just what they could do for me. Granted, that attitude was learned behavior, but it is a very sorry attitude. I’m embarrassed to have ever had it.

At the same time, although we wanted people to listen, we didn’t know what to do when offers of help came. We didn’t want to seem overeager or rude (ha ha) by asking for help directly, so Mom’s plan was to simply ask for guidance and advice, rather than direct help. Once, we had a meeting with a fairly famous songwriter.

Songwriter: Okay. So what do you need me to do? How can I help?

Mom and I looked at him blankly.

Mom: I guess…just…offer advice.

And he graciously did. But Mom’s plan of asking for “advice” and hoping to get actual help failed 100% of the time. We simply didn’t know how to be direct when the chips were down. Quite literally, we flopped around like a dying fish – hoping that merely by moving and acting the desired outcome would materialize.

Nowadays, I have the opposite problem – probably because of how I feel about all that stuff. I hesitate to give people a demo, and frankly feel a little chagrined about it when I do. I take very specific opportunities, but they’re ones that I ponder carefully and execute with precision. I no longer crassly walk around asking people to listen to my music, or force demo tapes on them. Mom shakes her head at me these days and tells me I don’t have the drive, that I don’t have hustle. And she’s right – at least, by her definition, I don’t. I learned from carelessness, and it has made me careful. But sometimes I miss the frenetic energy, the constant buzz of doing, and I wonder if there isn’t something to it after all.

 

Kool-Aid, Pink Swimmingo

Sprinkle Spangles

 

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.

 

I think most would agree I didn’t have a “normal” childhood in many respects, and social outlets were no exception. Between being home schooled and being on the road all the time, I didn’t have a lot of options to make friends. Most of the people I hung out with were adults – Uncle Richard, Uncle Carlo, Russ, and Mom. If they were not well educated, they were well traveled and wise. They were funny and interesting, and I considered them my peers far more than others in my age group. This cliquishness bred a bit of contempt for normal people – when I met “normal” kids, I could not believe how immature they were. They didn’t talk about books, or talk in depth about  music (other than what bands they liked – they wouldn’t tell me why they liked them, just that they did). Beyond video games, I had little in common with them. I was friendly enough, but they could tell I wasn’t like them and resented it. I didn’t play in the dirt – I despised getting dirty (still do). I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me. When it came out what I did – the music, the acting – even kids I had managed to become friends with would flare in resentment. I eventually learned to shut up about it, but this made me uninteresting to them. Neighborhood kids would sometimes come over if Mom ordered pizza. They’d pretty much eat the pizza and leave. If they did stay, they’d try to take advantage of me in some way – a lot of things went missing from my house, for instance. Not big stuff – mostly toys and maybe some video games would disappear. The big trend at the time was trading cards, and my brother and I got into Magic: The Gathering with the neighborhood kids. They played with us, but they laughed at us a lot. We traded cards with ignorantly (or sometimes gave them away when we were told they were “worthless”) – we got the raw end of a lot of trades. I suppose that’s fairly normal for kids to take advantage of each other, but I did feel as if this had an edge – I was the “rich kid” (I wasn’t, really, but everyone assumed I was).

If the normal world held little for me, I did find members of my own tribe I could connect with. I would see these kids at auditions, and we’d chat in the waiting rooms. Sometimes, if the stars were aligned properly, we would all go out to lunch or hang out. These times were pretty rare – maybe a few times a year – and a lot needed to fall perfectly into place. For starters, Mom had to be in the right mood – if she was grumpy that day, or distracted by her delusions, or wanted to race home in time to catch Russ at the studio, I was likely not going to get to hang out with my friends. My friends, of course, had to have nothing going on as well, but they also had to be doing something that interested Mom. If it was something “weird” (like grabbing Chinese food or watching a foreign film) she was instantly disinterested. Most importantly, of course, Mom had to like them – or at least decide they weren’t plotting against us. If she thought they were “in competition” with us, she’d never have agreed to hang out. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by that. In those days, you had a ” type” and you were sent out on auditions based on that. If they wanted a bookish kid, I got the call. Someone with red hair and freckles wouldn’t be competition for me – or a 300lb kid, or a Jewish kid, or a black kid…you get the idea. The people who weren’t likely to get the same calls as me were the people Mom would gravitate towards.

There used to be a pretty cool place in the city called Ed Debevic’s – it was a retro type place. It had a full on, unapologetic 50’s atmosphere – complete with waiters and waitresses on roller skates who smacked gum and were rude (they were supposed to be). Sometimes they’d even hop on the tables and sing. There was even a giant atomic warhead in the waiting area – I was a little skittish about it at first, because I wasn’t interested in getting radiation sickness. But my friend insisted it was only a metal shell, and I relaxed. My friend and I talked about Batman over dinner, and Mom even let us hit a comic store afterwards. I was euphoric.

Had I lived in the city and gone to school there (there was at least one school of “child actors” that probably would have fit the bill for me), I no doubt would have been happier socially. As it was, I lobbied Mom vigorously for more time with friends, and when I got it I treasured those times. Aside from having my brother, I was pretty freaking lonely. I have no idea what I would have done if I were an only child. Hell, I still have a picture of me and a kid I knew and hung out with a couple times – it sat on my dresser in a frame for a full decade after our last visit together. Like I said before, I eagerly held on to those times I was able to socialize with members of my own tribe.

I read in a book once that the universe subtracts. But I think it can also add and multiply. A lot of things are a tradeoff – I could have had a Dad who wasn’t a psycho. I got a bum deal on that count. But in return, I got not one but 3 incredible father figures. I could have lived a “normal” life and had “normal” friends and done “normal” stuff. Believe it or not, I longed for that normalcy and stability so much I could taste it. In return, I got a career in an industry whose veil few manage to pierce. And I did have friends – as a kid, I called them my New York friends  – and they were all vibrant people. I am, ultimately, who I am supposed to be. I know the people I know and experienced the things I was meant to. Sometimes I wonder how different things might have been – and even if as a kid I had wished fervently for things to be different, I embrace it today. The tradeoffs the universe gives you may not always be fair – they may not even always be what you want – but you need see them for what they are: they are a gift.

Uncle Carlo was always telling jokes – usually, I never understood exactly why they were funny but for some reason my brother and I always laughed at them till we were out of breath. When I tried to retell them later, nobody else seemed to get them. I’ve come to the conclusion they were funny only because of Uncle Carlo’s infectious personality – his accent also made the jokes have a certain rhythm, which made any jokes he told even better. I remember him telling me about sitting in traffic with a famous singer – I think it was Bobby Darin, but I’m not sure – when this guy pulls up beside them in a brand new BMW. The traffic is at a standstill, and the guy is just laying on his horn – he wasn’t affecting traffic, all he was doing was drawing attention to himself. So Uncle Carlo rolls his window down and shouts “Hey, Buddy…what else you got for Christmas?” He laughed rather uproariously while telling this tale. To this day, it still makes me chuckle out loud, although nobody else I tell the story to seems to find it as amusing as me. Maybe it’s because I see his face and hear his voice in my head, and that’s what makes it funnier. It was his story – not mine – after all.

I remember he invited us up to the Poconos with him – he had spent a week or two in a hospital in NY.  He had developed pneumonia, I think, but they had finally got it under control and cleared him to leave. Thinking he needed some fresh air, he decided to take a vacation to the mountains. I don’t know how long we were actually there – my guess is not very long – but it felt like a month to me. He brought his good friend Gasper along, who was basically his chauffeur, barber, and butler. I spent days in a hotel pool looking out at the mountains. I bought comic books at a local 7-11, and read them in my room at night. We’d eat at a local diner that had an arcade – my love for arcades was fully grown by then, and any time I saw one I had to at least try it. My favorites were Golden Axe, The Avengers, and Ninja Turtles, but I wasn’t terribly picky – I’d even play Donkey Kong or Pac Man. This particular arcade game was a driving one – it was probably a precursor to Grand Theft Auto. It had a pedal you could press to accelerate, a steering wheel, and a gearshift. This thing had clearly seen some action – nicks and scuffs were all over the case, which displayed a cartoon cop chasing after a cartoon robber. I think the cop may have had a donut, but I’m not sure.

I ran over to the table where the adults sat, begging for quarters. Like many kids my age, arcade machines turned me immediately into a pan handler. Uncle Carlo laughed, and reached into his pocket. He dropped a fistful of change into my eager palms. He winked at me as I scampered off. The game involved a high speed chase to get away from the cops, which seemed to amuse him even further. I must not have been very good at it, because I was back asking for more quarters within a few minutes. When the rest of the adults at the table turned me down, Uncle Carlo was ready with yet another handful of quarters. I ran off again, pacified. By the third time I ran over, Mom was starting to get annoyed. She tried to warn me against asking for more quarters with her eyes, but I studiously ignored her side of the table. When I approached Uncle Carlo, however, he looked at me regretfully.

Uncle Carlo: No more quarters, Kid. Sorry! Why don’t you come sit with us?
I did, and listened while they talked. Uncle Carlo told stories from the Golden Age of Hollywood (he once talked Judy Garland down from walking off the set of a holiday TV special), and we all listened. Mom fretted and complained about Russ and The Business (a.k.a auditions, bookings, and acting in general), and Gasper chimed in with stories of his own. Those were good days. When I think back, they were some of the most carefree of my childhood. I was surrounded by adults, clean air, and mountains. The hotel pool and the comic books didn’t hurt either.