Newly discovered lovers of the Everglades
They take out a full-page ad in the trades
To announce their arrival
And Mary Lou, she found out how to cope
She rides to heaven on a gyroscope
The Daily News asks her for the dope
She said, "Man, the dope's that there's still hope"--Springsteen song, from the time before he sold any records
I'm thinking tonight of pilgrims I've known on the paradise road to fame. As in Dante, one goes through all measures of Hell finding it.
During my Los Angeles decade, I loved that so many folks who worked in legal offices were not in fact career legal staff. They were instead actors, writers, and musicians.
Waitstaff work is, of course, the more traditional road to stardom, but lots of folks figured out that an MFA in the Fine Arts qualifies one for things other than fetching extra ketchup for the folks in the booth at the places on Melrose. An MFA also renders one more than capable of learning to type 80 wpm and figure out how to comply with local pleading format rules at the rather more handsome compensation, if somewhat more regimented pace, which is the lot of a Los Angeles legal secretary or paralegal.
I liked the part of that old television show Taxi in which Judd Hirsch's character was the only person who saw him or herself as a cab driver, as opposed to an actor, a boxer or a comic. Working in a Los Angeles law firm in the 1980s could be that way. I was a lawyer who actually practiced law, rather than anyone cool.
The late 1980s were a curious time in Los Angeles. The intoxication of the "yuppie life" had degenerated to BMWs lining up to buy crack on Friday afternoons from street pushers in MacArthur Park. You'd see lines of luxury cars, stacked up like a July day at the drive through window of In N Out Burger. The rain rarely soaked any cakes, but often, one would see the soaked-in effects of once-yuppie, now homeless addicts. I'll never forget the earnest, well spoken educated fellow in worn for a week clothes and tennis shoes, who begged for a bus ticket back to North Carolina--but you knew that he never wanted a ticket, really--he just wanted to fly.
Against this backdrop, the pursuit of acting fame, even against desperate odds, seemed not so much a long shot as a lifeline for people born to act, but not yet recognized as actors. The actors I knew were not of the "got off the bus from Kalimat, I'm going to be a star" variety, but instead of the "got an MFA from a top program, dues here I come". They worked for the neatest Equity Waiver theaters, and got the coolest gigs. They could cite fellow theater alums who "made it", a bit. I still can't watch NYPD Blue without thinking that the fellow who plays John, the front desk guy, was in the same theater company as people I knew. That's the weirdest kind of feeble "your Aunt Edna's old kindergarten teacher has a grandson who's a grip on a Mike Meyers movie" kind of stardust association, but it's my own.
Los Angeles is a land of a thousand dances, and ten thousand equity waiver theaters. Unlike New York, a recognized theater capitol, Los Angeles struggles a bit with identity. But on any given Friday night, in any theater roughly the size of a 500 seat shoebox, you can see great theater by great performers.
I just used google to search out what roles the people I knew have obtained. The woman who wanted to be an actress but ended up as an "in-demand" dialect coach has done a lot more movies. What a curious life--to teach faux dialects to others who will appear in films. It's like the epitome of "only in Hollywood" fun--going on location with all those recordings of accents far and wide. Another woman, a truly gifted performer, got a few obscure roles in little television series, which I hope pay her rent and pave her someday ascent to character play fame.
I remember the woman who, by contrast, moved out from Oklahoma so that her husband could become a rock star. Have you ever noticed how in some men (and sadly, for some women who love them and support them) long hair, a way with a guitar and a winsome smile sometimes translate less to "let's live the rock n roll life together" and more like "could you pay both halves of the rent this month, dear?".
I never knew until I moved to Los Angeles that there were so many jobs that allowed would-be rock stars to lounge about high amp equipment, pontificating about what "really rocks", and yet not be troubled with having to actually earn any money. As I recall, the nice woman involved (as to whom, I confess, I was a well-meaning but quite demanding and not particularly beloved boss), showed him the emergency rock star" exit for uttering the immortal line "you're having a baby? Well, you better tell them to cut back your hours, since you'll be doing all the child care!". But do you know that the bright ones among the women who date rock stars always land right side up? Even before giving birth, she'd fallen for a rodeo star and they rode off together in the Oklahoma sunset.
So many people I met in Los Angeles had so much talent. Even now, my friend Ken has had more fun with his screenplay in less than two years than many would be writers have in a decade. Of course, "fun" and "production" are not quite the same, but there's something about all that hard striving I love to see people do.
I salute people who work hard to achieve, whether they be artists or plumbers. I am as impressed with the certificate from welding school (which, after all, gets one a lifetime of employment, including endless Alaskan assignments) as I am by someone landing a job as a script writer on a comedy. But I love the Horatio Algerness of this "office staff by day, star by night" fame bit (if we exclude all the disturbing details about the actual Mr. Alger).
But it's not an easy path, this search for an income and fame. I know a lot of people who pay their rent doing it, but can barely pay anything else. They work day jobs, and dream of night jobs.
But what worthwhile is easy? Well, aside from watching Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, that is.
I've seen people with stars in their eyes, and the stars never fade,but sometimes they turn into gold-dust, and sometimes they turn into biographical sections in the community theater program. I've listened, in amazement, as the woman we knew who obsessively talked about the all-importance of her writing during her screenplay phase turned out to be a great poet when we went to her reading. I'll never forget, though, the way she read a poem one dinner evening about how another guest, married to someone else, seemed to her to lust after her madly. Poetry takes few prisoners, and it often both flirts and scalds. I rarely write poems about people, and when I do, they're surprisingly free of heat and cold. For that matter, I like to say my poetry is pretty much about nothing, because that liberates me from pretty much anything.
Tonight my wife is in a seminar for her club, but I by passed the chance to go see a folk singer. I decided against seeing the singer I almost went to see after I read her website. It was one more website of "opened for Willie, wrote this song for Ry" type of things, with a real, live, "see me pose with Willie, he looks good for a man with IRS troubles, don't he?" photo. Willie is a true great, but does all Texas need to ride his coat-tails? Everyone chases fame, and has a good time, and gets written up in the alternative paper, and then buys back their masters. Me? I've sold four CDs on eBay. A folk singer's life is a hard one, particularly when his mandolin is an electric football field.
But I love the people who really do try, even if they are never going to sell a ticket or play in anything longer than a regional bank commercial. There's a lot of pits in Hell, and acting and singing lead to some of them. But I like to think that he Hell for failed artistes is a bit more like Vegas, and a bit less like one of those sulpherous parts of Nevada. On second thought, though, I've always had a fantasy about a remote Nevada desert vacation. So let's shelve that metaphor.
I remember sitting in a bar with my friend the film guy and his friend, the Grade Z horror film maker Fred Olen Ray. Fred's a cult figure of sorts, and let me hasten to say I do not name drop him with any intent for personal hip-o-meter gain, because I do not know him at all, and he makes movies not to my taste. But I loved the way he can laugh at himself, and the way that you can see a love for the movies radiate from him. Never mind that witless zombies are the high art of his genre films, and it all goes downhill from there. He's in a nice part of Heaven, nonetheless.
But let me pause briefly to tell you about a man who did worthwhile movies about things that intrigued him. He never got big studio money, and mostly made niche documentaries. I knew him in a business setting, and thought he was really cool. But one day some kids ran him over on the freeway, after he tried to stop them and tell them to act better than they were acting. He wouldn't hurt a fly. He died. I went to his memorial, and I have always felt that the remembrance I made about him was dim-witted and self-centered. I'm good with words, it's all I know, and I hated making a fool of myself at another man's service, though it largely went un-noticed. But let me tell you something. He deserved my best speech. He never was rich, and he never was famous. But he had dozens of friends, most of them fellow strivers for fame, and they all loved him. It's not the trip that's worth it, it's the travel. So you wanna be a rock n roll star? Just be sure and enjoy the people you can love around you on the ride.