Very Special Paper, Indeed

Musical InstrumentsIt is 1988.

My father lives in a hunting cabin off the highway near Missoula, Montana. It is Spartan in its décor. There is a cot. A small fridge. A bathroom. He isn’t here much. Most of his time is spent in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, where the U.S. Forest Service maintains a cabin for the rangers.

We have returned from town. His neighbor, a young man with long, wavy black hair, is outside. The man wears a black T-shirt and black jeans. My father has described his neighbor to me as being ‘crazy’. This diagnosis stems from an obsession the man seems to have with paper. My father tells me he has spoken about the ‘special paper’ he needs for his project. He can’t get it in Missoula. He must get it shipped.

We get out of the car and my father introduces me to the ‘crazy’ man. We start talking and my dad excuses himself, leaving us alone. I mention I play music. His interest is piqued. “We should jam some time,” he says. I tell him I don’t have my guitar with me.

He smiles. “Come here. I want to show you something.” The crazy neighbor takes me inside his hunting cabin. It’s the same model as the one my father occupies but this guy had a different decorator. The walls inside his cabin are covered with musical instruments – guitars, basses, a lute. There are instrument cases leaning against the walls – cellos, violas, violins. There’s a piano and an organ, and some kind of electronic keyboard.

An Atari computer displays musical notes arranged on a staff.

My father’s crazy neighbor turns out to be a composer. He plays these instruments. ALL of them. He tells me he is composing a ‘heavy metal’ symphony.

Adjacent to the computer is a tall stand that looks something like a drafting table. Sharpened pencils and a drafting brush for clearing eraser crumbs rest on an oversize sheet of paper, printed with repeating lines of musical staffs. It is the paper a composer uses for writing out all the different parts for the instruments in an orchestra.

Very special paper, indeed.

Jerry Lewis: The King of Comedy has Left Us

Jerry Lewis passed away this past Sunday. For many, who only know his annual telethon toJerry Lewis raise money for Muscular Dystrophy, they have missed out on one of the true greats of film comedy. I came to know Lewis first through his variety show on television and his films with Dean Martin. They were a perfect team, like Laurel and Hardy. Their personalities played off each other in an almost musical way. But not long after I began watching Martin and Lewis films, I discovered a book at the local library called ‘The Total Filmmaker’. It’s author: Jerry Lewis.

I was a film geek starting in sixth grade. I began shooting Super-8 movies, writing screenplays, and directing the neighborhood kids to die on cue. I read every book I could get my hands on about making films or film history. Here was a book by an artist I admired in which he shared his feelings about the medium and some of his techniques.

I learned about the films Lewis made after he and Dean Martin went their separate ways – ‘The Errand Boy’, ‘The Nutty Professor’, and ‘Cinderfella’. He borrowed from the silent comedians who had only their bodies and faces with which to express themselves. And not just Americans. There was a fair bit of Jacques Tati mixed in with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

In his book, Lewis described how his love of the medium had started while shooting the Martin and Lewis films. He wrote that between setups he would wander off to talk to the guys up in the catwalks to find out what they did. He would lose track of time learning about the different types of lights. They would have to send someone out to find him to resume shooting.

There was one thing in the book that did not compute with my sixth-grade mind. Lewis described the act of ‘licking celluloid’ as if it were an intoxicant. Only later, as an adult, did I finally come to understand what Lewis meant.

Lewis claimed to have invented video playback, and many have given him credit. Being able to watch a take immediately after it was shot by recording a separate video image has become the way films are made.

Lewis’ career went through peaks and valleys. While he continued to perform live in clubs across the country, his films ceased to hold the public’s interest – in the United States, anyway. In France, Jerry Lewis was lauded as one of the great film comedians of all time.

I remember one performance from his variety show. He was in the stands watching a red-carpet reception for a film premiere. There’s no dialog. He just watches, waves, tries to get close. Then he gets a brain storm. He paints his chinos and windbreaker black. Sneakers, too. He puts on a scrap of black fabric for a tie. And he strolls down the red carpet himself.

Martin Scorsese was a fan. He cast Lewis in his film ‘The King of Comedy’. If you haven’t seen this film, you have missed one of Robert DeNiro’s greatest performances. Lewis plays a talk show host. DeNiro plays a fan named Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps Lewis. In a strange twist on the skit from Lewis’ variety show, DeNiro (With the help of Sandra Bernard) forces Lewis to interview him on television, so he can be just like all the stars he sees on TV.

Much has been said, and there has been much speculation about, Lewis’ reason for making Muscular Dystrophy his personal cause. Regardless of the reason, he personally raised many millions of dollars for research into this debilitating neuro-muscular disease. May he rest in peace.

 

 

Pancakes, Bacon and Practical Jokes On the Side

PancakesIt is 1987.

My father has recovered from his first stroke. He hikes into the wilderness with wrist crutches. Sunday mornings he makes pancakes for everyone in the Forest Service tent cabin.

My father is a practical joker from waaaaay back. He and his brother, Bill, have jokes they regularly play on each other that started in childhood.

Dad finds a strand of silicone insulation from a window that is being re-glazed. It is long and green and shiny.

One other thing – lateralized sensitivity is a stroke thing. After my dad’s stroke, he can’t feel his right nostril. People are always telling him to wipe his nose.

One Sunday morning, he announces the pancakes and bacon are ready, turns to the famished hoard holding the platter with a pile of pancakes on it, and a long, green, slimy strand of construction-grade snot making like a pendulum back and forth just above the top pancake.

It is 2001.

Dad’s second stroke. He is depressed and angry. He has given up. He wants to die.

After rehab, I move him around the corner from me. I read the news to him in the mornings. In the afternoons, I come back to ask him questions about what we read. Memory exercise.

He can’t remember the word ‘remote’, as in ‘remote control’.

I read that the brain can make new pathways and it could be remembered a different way.

“Dad,” I say. “What do they call the thing they dig around a castle?”

He thinks about it a moment. “The moat.”

“And if they dig it a second time, they have to (wait for it) re-moat the castle.”

I do this a couple of times. He gives me dirty looks.

I sell my place and move with him to our house in Idyllwild. One day we are sitting in the living room. He reaches for the remote control but it’s just a little too far away. He looks at me like a child, pleading, and he asks me: “Steven, can you hand me the moat?”.

I look at him in horror. What have I done? I am ‘moatified’.

My father smiles. It is the first time he has smiled since his stroke.

He smiles at his little joke.

Goin’ South and Other Colloquial Expressions

It is 1997.

I am a technical instructor based in SoCal. I’m teaching in Hong Kong 75 days before Kiss, Bow, or Shake Handsthe British return it to China. I am told the students all speak English.

We have a book called ‘Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands’. The book explains issues that can affect business communications, whether they be cultural, behavioral, or linguistic. I learn, for example, that in China one presents one’s business card with both hands, by the edges. I also learn that, while the students and I may speak the same language, there will be another issue that will affect my training.

The Chinese have a sociological concept Westerners know as ‘face’, referring to one’s sense of dignity or prestige. I learn that students in China do not ask questions of their instructors. Questions imply the instructor has not done a good job of teaching.

There is a certification test given at the end of the course and none of my students have ever failed it. I am committed to making sure my Chinese students don’t either. I develop a rigorous system of daily reviews in which I grill them on each concept covered in the preceding days.

On Friday morning, we assemble in the classroom. Their manager joins us for what will be their final review before taking the test. By Friday the review takes 45 minutes. Every student answers every question posed correctly. I am thrilled. So is their manager, who stands in the back grinning.

It is 1999.

I am conducting the same training in The Great White North, Toronto, Canada. As I cover the section on database maintenance I explain that if the components of the system get out of synch the system would ‘Go South’.

I realize that this is a colloquial expression and remember what the book said about avoiding them when doing business abroad. I apologize to my students for using such an expression.

“‘Going South’ probably doesn’t mean the same thing here as it does where I come from,” I tell them.

They look at each other, then they look at me. They smile and nod.

“Yes, it does”.

 

Live, From L.A. It’s Saturday Night!

Big BandIt is 1978.

Vince Carroll, Chris Callard, Kim Long and I enter the Roxy Theater as Steve Allen’s Big Band plays. We are late because Vince was working at Vons and couldn’t get off early. He picked us up straight from work and is wearing an ensemble that – well, he doesn’t always look like this. And it’s not just the polka dotted tie/striped shirt combo. He has decorated his shirtfront with a good-sized purple ink stain from marking prices on canned goods.

The show has already started. We get the last table in the place. An usher brings us in between numbers. I knew Steve Allen as a comedian from television’s Golden Era. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew he had written a song or two but as the band goes through their set, I recognize every song. The man is wildly prolific and a damn fine songwriter.

During a break between songs, Allen addresses the audience.

“This is the part in the show where I’m supposed to introduce someone in the audience. Last night the stage manager handed me a card with the name Dr. Sydney Weinstein. I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world but wasn’t familiar with Dr. Weinstein’s work. And, as it turned out, someone was just having a joke on him.”

The audience laughs.

“But tonight, the name on the card is one I recognize. He is a man who has helped bring live television back and I am pleased to introduce Mr. Chevy Chase!”

The spotlight comes on and I am in it. I blink and applaud as I look around. A man at the next table stands and it is, in fact, Chevy Chase. He waves and nods. The band resumes their set.

Chris and Vince are aspiring stand-up comedians. At the end of the show, Vince makes a bee-line for Chase’s table.

“Mr. Chase!” he exclaims, grabbing the comedian’s hand and pumping it furiously. “I’d just like to thank you for making me laugh!”

Chevy Chase takes in the striped shirt and polka dot tie, and the purple Rorschach stain. He pumps Vince’s hand right back, grinning.

“And I’d like to thank YOU for making ME laugh.”

Putting the Performance in the Performance Tools Workshop

It is 1997.

I am in a staff meeting of the education department at FileNet Corp. in Costa Mesa. Department Manager Barbara Hubert is presenting us with our role in the upcoming user conference at the Disneyland Hotel. We will have a conference room and my supervisor, Peg Schwink, is going to do a workshop based on our performance tools course. Barb shows us posters with pictures of hammers, screwdrivers and saws. The she holds up the canvas tool belt those supporting the workshop will wear, printed with FileNet Education.

I think ‘If you’re going to do a performance tools workshop, why not go all the way and do a riff on ‘Home Improvement’ and their show-within-a-show, ‘Tool Time’. I scan the room, searching for a likely Al, the Tool Man’s pal.

Meeting over, I walk out into the hallway where I find Dale Niksch, a slightly stout and bearded course developer waiting.

“Tim?” he says.

Dale has a little theatrical background. I’m a 20-pound ham in a 10-pound can.

We race to Barbara’s office. We tell her we have an idea to enhance the performance tools workshop. She invites us to sit down.

“Before you say anything I want you to know that I already know what you’re going to say,” she tells us.

“You do?” I ask.

“You want to do ‘Tool Time’.”

“As an introduction,” I say, looking at Dale. We are making this up as we go. “Maybe do a little humorous bit to set it up.”

“Spend whatever you need to get costumes. Do you have tools?”

We haven’t gotten that far. She offers to bring a crescent wrench.

Barb’s husband, a former firefighter, has refurbished an ancient steam-powered pumper drawn by horses. The crescent wrench is huge and weighs 50 pounds. I couldn’t have asked for a better prop.

“But how did you know what we were going to say?” I ask as we get up to leave.

“Well,” she says with a big smile. “When you interviewed here, Peg came to me afterwards and said ‘Doesn’t he look just like Tim Allen?’”

I am dumbfounded.

“You must get that a lot.”

I’ve never heard that in my life.

Santa Claus in a Sushi Bar

Santa Claus in a Sushi BarIt is December, 2011. I am in Mission Valley in San Diego, drinking beer with the sushi chef at a Japanese restaurant. I am celebrating a new job. I am celebrating a new life. We toast each other’s health.

I hear the bells on the door. “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

I turn as Santa Claus enters. “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

He waves a white-gloved hand to the room filled with families enjoying teriyaki and sushi. He Ho-Ho-Hos his way into the restaurant. His appearance stops everything.

Santa waves as he walks between the sushi bar and the tables, jauntily swinging a handsome walking stick. I try not to stare but – IT’S SANTA CLAUS IN A SUSHI BAR!

He walks through the entire restaurant. Turns, waves again. He makes his way purposefully to the restroom. Everyone in the restaurant is watching as Santa Claus makes his way to the restroom. TO. THE. RESTROOM. OH. NO.

A white-gloved hand reaches for the door handle. It is what they refer to as a ‘one-holer’. The door is locked. Occupado.

Santa looks surprised, as though unlimited access to restrooms is one of the perks of his job. Then he looks a little nervous. There is no noise in the restaurant. Everyone is watching Santa try not to break into the pee-pee dance.

I wonder about all the children, the psychological scars that are forming. But they are nothing compared to the ones inflicted on the poor boy who unlocks the restroom door to find Santa waiting. The kid realizes he has gone so far past the naughty/nice dichotomy that there is a new category for the train wreck of future Christmas mornings he’ll be facing.

The boy stands in the doorway looking up at Santa. Santa looks at the boy, smiling. Or grimacing. It’s hard to tell from this distance. It’s dark, too. I could be mistaken.

The boy finally steps aside. Santa beams at him. “Merry Christmas!” He steps into the restroom and quickly shuts the door. The boy stares at the space where Santa had been. Then he looks up.

Everyone in the restaurant is staring at him.

He looks like he’s about to cry.

A Three-Year-Old’s Perspective: John Frankenheimer’s ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

The Manchurian CandidateIt is 1988. I am visiting my friends, Rick and Claire, in Redondo Beach. We are trying to decide what movie we’re going to rent at the video store. Their three-year-old, Dietrich, is with us in the living room.

I mention ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, a film I didn’t see until it was released on VHS. But from the first viewing, John Frankenheimer’s film blew me away. There’s an interesting look to the film, with its deep focus shots and yet the film has an almost documentary feel. The technical accomplishment of staging a scene showing the brainwashed American soldiers mixing reality with their programmed perceptions is remarkable.

And then there’s my favorite scene, in which Major Marko (Frank Sinatra) meets Eugenie (Janet Leigh) on a train. The dialog, straight from Richard Condon’s novel, sounds like two spies negotiating a complicated series of pass phrases.

But that is not what we are talking about.

Claire tells me she saw the film when it first came out in 1963. She tells me it scared her.

I ask why. It’s a suspense thriller. Not scary.

She says it was the scene where Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is being treated for snakebite by Josie (Leslie Parrish), who removes her blouse to use as a tourniquet. Claire was a young girl when she saw this, so scared isn’t what she means.

It ‘disturbed her’, she tells me. She didn’t understand what was going on.

Dietrich listens quietly.

I tell Claire about the whole ‘mother’ thing, with Angela Lansbury, his controlling mother, being his American controller for the Communists. The way Raymond shoots Senator Jordan (John McGiver) through a milk carton held before his chest, which proceeds to leak milk, is a clear reference to maternity in my mind (Director Frankenheimer makes no such claims – he just wanted to find a different way to stage a shooting).

The time has come to decide what movie we will rent at the video store.

Three-year-old Dietrich has a suggestion.

“I want to see the scary milk movie.”

Toast the Victors, to Whom the Spoils Go

French ToastIt is 1984.

I am in Fresno at a journalism conference with The Viking, student newspaper of Long Beach City College. It is the morning after the awards ceremony and we are in bad shape.

We had been informed we couldn’t use our Macintosh 512s in the competition. No other schools had them. It wouldn’t be fair.

But there was nothing in the rules stipulating we use typewriters, let alone prohibiting computers. And the industry has begun using computers.

They decided we could use the Macs.

They may not have helped us write better, but they enabled us to rewrite faster. Regardless, the result was the same:

We. Kicked. Ass.

We stumble into breakfast late. Most of the others have eaten and are packing. We walk the line of near-empty chafing dishes for the last scraps of sausages and eggs. Dr. Richard Gordon joins us. Dr. Gordon is a real doctor – a Ph.D. in PoliSci. He joined the staff hoping to make a living writing about political science instead of teaching all over Southern California at three different schools.

He is brilliant. We co-wrote an editorial about the U.S. bombing of Libya that was echoed detail by detail in the New York Times’ the following Sunday. Not bad.

He sits down and slathers butter on a stack of toast. He douses the pile with syrup as he listens to us bragging about our win. He cuts into the stack and forks a couple of pieces into his mouth. In about two seconds they reappear, accompanied by retching. Conversation stops. All eyes turn to Dr. Gordon, who looks like he’s about to spew all over the table.

He gestures at his plate. “That is the worst French toast I’ve ever had in my life!” He gulps water.

“There wasn’t…any…French – “

He points towards a group of now-empty chaffing dishes. “It was in one of those over there. I took the last pieces.”

Coming in late, Richard took the pieces of toast remaining in the dish that had held the bacon – the slices that had soaked up the grease.

Victory tastes sweet, but even butter and syrup can’t make THAT breakfast taste good.

The Night Marty Feldman Almost Ran Me Down on Sunset Boulevard

It is 1980. photographer-16022_640

KUCI DJ Patrick Zetterlund and I are shooting the Sunset Strip on a Friday night. Between us we have several cameras. lenses and a bunch of film.

Our line is that we’re from a Swedish magazine. Patrick is Swedish, so that’s easy. I’m half Swedish on my mother’s side. I have blonde hair and blue eyes. We decide he’ll do all the talking and then ‘translate’ for me into Swedish. I know how to say ‘thank you’ in a reasonable accent.

We start shooting traffic as the sun goes down, doing some time exposures of head-and-tail lights on color slide film. We’re breaking down our tripods when a Porsche Carrera passes us at a ridiculous speed, followed immediately by a white Highway Patrol Trans Am. We follow the tail lights as they disappear around the bend.

Our next stop is Tower Records. Patrick pitches the manager our story and the guy swallows it like he’s at a Smörgåsbord.

We roam the store taking pictures of the customers looking at records, at the staff waiting on customers, and cover the store. We’re about ready to leave when the manager says “I bet you can get some really good shots from on top of the counter.” I almost blow it by jumping directly up next to the register, but manage to wait long enough for Patrick to ‘instruct’ me in Swedish.

We move up the Strip, shoot the exterior of the Whisky A-Go-Go and walk the line, taking shots of all the punks waiting for the show. Then we return to the other end of the Strip to finish at the Roxy and the Rainbow Grill. We park on the street and walk back to the Roxy. There isn’t much going on. We wander across the driveway to the entrance to the Rainbow.

We are talking to the valets, trying to find out if there are any celebrities inside when a dune buggy comes flying up the driveway. I turn to find Marty Feldman driving at me wearing a ball cap with moose antlers. I dive out of the way just in time. As I pull myself to my feet and try to get my camera into shooting position, Feldman stumbles into the Rainbow.