Neewollah

189143_106824046067080_2529733_nA few years ago, San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre, ran the film Picnic.  I was lucky enough to be in town when it was playing and I went to see it with my friends, Michael and Kim.  The Castro is a gorgeous old theatre on Castro street, smack dab in the middle of the Castro, San Francisco’s gayest neighborhood.  I’d obviously seen the movie a few times before, but I’d never watched it with two hundred gay men and their straight girlfriends and I listened to it for the first time through the filter of my people.  I’ll never forget the shrieks of laughter that occurred when Rosalind Russell came to the window, her face covered in cold cream, and pondered, “Anyone mind if an old maid school teacher joins their company?”  But the thing that touched me the most was the pride I felt when Kim Novak sailed down the river, the newly crowned Queen Neelah, and the townsfolk called out to her, “Nee-woll-ah, Nee-woll-ah.”  And while the Neewollahs of my own youth did not include the queen riding down the Verdigris River on a candlelit float (that’s not safe!), it did remind me of the many, many Neewollahs that I’ve enjoyed since I was knee high to a grasshopper.  

It doesn’t matter, where I am: when this week, Neewollah week, rolls around, I keep an ongoing timeline of what is happening back home.  Last night as I was driving home, I wondered who the new Queen Neelah was going to be, even though I’m sure I did not even know any of the candidates.  This morning I thought about how today is probably the first day of the rides at the carnival.  Also, it used to be that today was the first day of the food vendors.  I can taste the jaffles and apple fritters even still.  Friday afternoon, I’ll be thinking about the Kiddie parade, where one year I went as an astronaut (Dr. Ryan Stone?) and the next year, I wore a frog mask and the same astronaut costume and went as the Martian who killed said astronaut and stole his ensemble.  On Saturday, when I am at work, believe me, I will wish that I am at the aptly named, Grand Parade, running into old friends and feasting on barbecue and cinnamon rolls, and sneaking in another jaffle.

I haven’t been to Neewollah for about 15 years now.  That seems unbelievable, but it’s true.  The last time I went, my Dad had just recovered from his first bout with cancer and I remember it felt like we had something to celebrate when we went to the Parade.  We did. The Grand Parade is for many of us who grew up in Independence, a holiday like Christmas and New Years that marks the passage of time.  

I’ve travelled a certain amount and I’ve lived in a few large cities.  I used to live in New York and I never went to the Macy’s Parade.  I live miles away from where the Rose Parade takes place every year and I’ve never gone to that either.  I guess you could say that Neewollah spoiled me on parades, when you’ve grown up with the best, you have no interest in lesser versions.

I’m 45 now, at an age where I’m realizing that few things I experience will resonate in the way the memories of my youth do.  The scariest Magic Mountain roller coaster will never compare to the Tilt-a-Whirl, Yo-Yo Ma will always be second fiddle to Jana Jae. No brush with celebrity compares to the time HBO came to film a concert with Roy Clark, Ronnie Milsap and Merle Haggard and we all thought it was going to make us famous. The prettiest beauty queens will always be Gail Moore and Jeannine Bailey and Missy Housel and Shelly Nelson and Kara Woods. And of course, the most exquisite, sophisticated, delicious, exotic food will always be the jaffle.

Laughter Through Tears

Picnic-dancing-scene-Kim-Novak-hot-heatIt’s been over a week since my last post.  I had a show on Saturday night that I was nervous about, I felt that I had to conserve all my creativity for that.  It ended up being a great show and my set went pretty well, if I say so myself.  That being said, all I can think about is the saying that goes something like, it never went as good or as bad as you think it did, which, of course, I only think about when something goes well. I tried googling the expression, but just came up with a lot of articles about this.

Anyway, I will tell you what I talked about on Saturday.  The theme was theme and the show’s host, my good friend, Traci Swartz, asked us to explore our themes.  What’s your theme?  Everybody comes to Hollywood with a theme.

A couple weeks ago, I was at home by myself with the dogs on a Friday night.  Eric was in Temecula visiting his parents.  There is something that I like about being home by myself, like it’s a little date with myself.  I had a nice bottle of wine, some leftover pizza I’d made (in my show, I said I’d made a delicious turkey sandwich, which was an unintentional lie, I found some old notes, indeed it was pizza, not that it’s integral in ANY way to this story), and I curled up on my couch like the Little Mermaid to watch Turner Classic Movies, specifically, an interview with Kim Novak, the notoriously shy pinup girl from the 50’s and 60’s, most famous for movies like Vertigo, Pal Joey and of course, Picnic. I’ve always been a little judgemental about Kim Novak’s Madge, that she was a little too much of a movie star in the role, but listening to her talk about the film and the character, I realized I’d been wrong.  Much of Novak’s own life echoed Madge’s and I understood how Madge’s beauty was a burden for her.  Novak spoke of director Josh Logan’s autobiography where he commended her performance and wrote that Novak wore her Queen Neelah crown as if it were a “crown of thorns.”  And I think throughout Novak’s career, she always had to fight to be seen as an actress instead of as a movie star.  

Later in the interview, Robert Osborne (and let me just take a moment to say how much I love Robert Osborne, no one could be the spirit and voice of Turner Classic Movies better than him) asked her about the movie Liebestraum she made in 1991.  She said that she’d been nervous about making a movie, because she had not made one for a while, but when she talked to the director, Mike Figgis, she felt like they were on the same page.  Then when filming started, things went awry, she and Figgis had problems communicating.  She became quite emotional sharing that she wanted to talk to him about it, to get things on track, but she didn’t and that she regretted it.  Fidgeting with a crumpled tissue, tears streaming, glistening down her face (even today, nobody cries more beautifully than Kim Novak), she confessed, “I just couldn’t make a movie after that.”  Maybe it was the sauvignon blanc, maybe it other things, but I immediately burst into my own, less videogenic tears.  It resonated with me, because I have my own tormented relationship with acting, that at times, it’s just too painful.  And I have this thing about how much we all need our art to survive.  We are all artists, and that’s not to say we are all good artists, but I believe it’s something our souls need.  

And then I became VERY emotional, I got up from the couch and walked into my bedroom and flung myself on the bed where Millie (named after Picnic, btw) was on her pile of pillows, licking them.  I took her into my arms and buried my face in her fur, drowning it in my tears.  I wept for Kim Novak, that I’d been so judgemental all these years about her Madge, for her hypersensitivity, that she might someday act again.  I wept for myself, weeping for the acting class that I left because the teacher told me my Vanya was too weepy (can you imagine?), for the fact that I had not had an audition in weeks.  I wept about my day job, that has become increasingly soul crushing.  And I wept about a few others things, too.  And the weeping sort of turned into wailing.  It turns out, I had a lot of pain that night.  Ricky had joined Millie and me on the bed and he couldn’t understand what was going on.  I was moaning and wailing.  Millie was growling because she doesn’t like anyone touching her pillows.  And then Ricky started howling.  Wail, growl, howl.  Wail, growl, howl.  We made for a loud, dramatic chorus.   While I was weeping for all that made me heart break, I had a little out of body experience where I could see, or rather, hear, how we must have looked, and it made me laugh.  Actually, it made me laugh pretty hard.  And then as I lay on the bed, tears, growls and howls subsiding, I immediately felt better, something had been released.

Big surprise here:  when I was little, I cried a lot, and I always remember my mother holding me, patting me on the back, saying, “It’s okay, get it all out.”   I think we all have a few themes, one of mine is that I cry, a lot.  Someone once told me that I luxuriate in my tears and if I wasn’t so true, I would have been offended by such an outrageous statement.  But we need our tears, as much as we need our laughs.  Stresses and sadnesses and hurts build in our body until there has to be a combustion.  

I feel like Robert Harling really nailed it when he wrote Steel Magnolias, that there is something synergistic about crying and laughing, that not only can they feed the other, perhaps it’s their job to feed the other.  Either way, I agree with Mr. Harling and Truvy Jones and Dolly Parton, in fact, it is my theme:  Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.