Nomaville: Mime in Time

Mime time.When last we spoke, I was being schlepped onto the Cork Theater’s stage to do a star turn in “Rapture in Suede,” a production with which I’d only become familiar moments earlier when I read my name on the playbill. Permit me to recall the last time something like this happened to me, when I was about to be lynched by a few hundred angry Bulgarians.

Now, I’m the kind of self-styled chap who is necessarily inured to the spotlight – as an accredited member of the media I’ve often moonlighted as the toastmaster type, gladly cutting ribbons, judging martinis, giving talks, leading presentations and generally being a self-inflated fish to any small pond in need. A panicked event coordinator will call, desperate for a last-minute replacement, and I’ll be there, especially if there’s booze, a buffet and an envelope with my name on it – though I’ve been known to waive my customary fee and just take the booze.

Such was the case when I was asked to introduce Krassimir the mime, beloved in his native Bulgaria, where, ironically, the young gallant was equally known as a “popera” singer who crooned operatic pop numbers to throngs enthralled. In an attempt to knit this schism in his career, he moved to Hollywood, where poly-hyphenate performers take to the fishbowl like mimes to glass boxes. I met him between pitch meetings while stringing for the L.A. Downtown News and wrote a feature about the “language of mime,” which inspired his then-handlers to ask me to introduce him at a live gig at the El Dorado in North Hollywood. I happily accepted (no envelope this time) and eventually found myself onstage in the midst of a glowing, spoken rehash of my article.

When I was about to bring out Krassimir, I caught his publicist’s eye in the wings. “Do more,” she yelped sotto voce. Seeing as I done my prepared bit, I obliged and riffed a little on Krassimir’s contribution to the craft of not only pantomime, but also “popera, a burgeoning new musical genre sweeping Eastern Europe.” The audience, it slowly dawned on me, was comprised of mostly Bulgarian nationals, who had about 60 words of English among them. I turned again to the publicist, who hissed, “He can’t find parking. Do five more minutes.”

Now, I can riff and by the loosest of definitions, it can be said that I can even improvise. But five minutes is an eon in stage-time. Moreover, my professional patter and persona is almost entirely dependent on my facility with the language, which was useless to the Bulgarians. Then, in a flash, it occurred to me – the people of Bulgaria and I did share a vocabulary – the universal language of mime. I had done the research, I knew Krassimir’s schtick – I’d just vamp until he relieved me. This glorious misstep would have been forgivable had I not positioned it as a parody of Krassimir himself by pointing at myself and uttering “Me, Krassimir” after pretending to be walking against a stiff wind and playing with an imaginary dog. Once the chorus of shouts and boos snapped me out of my stupor, I realized that I was not only offending a living Bulgarian national treasure, but that a mob of guys in back row had decided to kill me. I froze – just long enough for Krassimir himself, clad in a striped shirt and beret, to appear like an angel of mercy. He made like he had just pulled up in a fancy car, opened my hand and drop his actual keys in my palm as if I were the valet. I drove his pantomime car offstage and out the door.

Nomaville: Cork Theater

Entrance not for everyone.Not one for confessional writing (at least not since that psychology researcher claimed to be using my work to recalibrate their “diagnostic model”), permit me instead to attempt a new genre: the alibi.

This much I remember: we had an impromptu Press Club meeting at Meritage – the cast included Diva Donna, Spitzy and the Dame, J.M. Berry, our ace shooter Flash, your humble narrator and enough vodka and vermouth to earn our table the nickname Martini de Sade. Dinner at the fig followed, then Steiner’s, by which point our group had pared down to the Contessa and Diva Donna, but we acquired Cavemen front man David Hinkley on the way out as he helped me dodge the usual sidewalk scrapes erupting around us. We proceeded to cavort in the Plaza like teenagers.

This is where the film school jump cut occurs: the next thing I know I’m playing cards with two dudes in a van. A brief conversation still echoed in my ears regarding my attempted scaling of a chain link fence, which was discouraged by the taller of the van dudes (Brett from my regular café, I later realized). I remember explaining that it was a shortcut (to where, I have no idea) but he pointed out that it would likely be a shortcut to the emergency room. Or at least the tailor. He then invited me to play a card game with him and his crony, who offered me a can of warm beer.

The name of the game, its objective and my subsequent losing streak are beyond the scope of what remains of the night’s memory. Suffice it to say, it was only by sheer chance (or a perverse turn in destiny) that the last hand I was dealt resulted in my winning the better two thirds of a torn $10 bill and a ticket to a show at the Cork Theater. As I collected my winnings, it was pointed out to me that the ticket was only good for another 15 minutes.

The Cork Theater, by all accounts, doesn’t exist except when it does. That’s how it was explained to me, and when I asked Brett to clarify without all the Zen, he merely smiled and said that he’d take me there. If I weren’t face down grappling to keep my guts from coming up and ruining the van’s sheepskin seat covers, I might be able to recount which of his swerving turns went where and hazard an approximate street address, but for now “side of the road” will have to suffice.
The theater itself is an unassuming building. It lacked a marquee or even a meager sandwich board. It seemed all but desolate – one of any number of vacant buildings that dot the valley. A sinking feeling began to grow in my belly, which alas wasn’t a martini attempting to repeat itself.
Printed on the ticket beneath “The Cork Theater” was what I presumed was the show’s title: “Rapture in Suede.” I protested to the thug manning the theater’s door that I was not a fan of suede and asked if I may return the ticket for cab fare back to reality. He shook his head, then spat inches from my shoes. I considered scalping the ticket, but there was no one there but the doorman and I. And he didn’t want it. Trust me, I tried. A sudden chill rose in the air and with nowhere else to go, I stoked up my courage to face the suede.

Inside, the Cork was much more posh than I had expected, especially given the building’s exterior which recalled an auto garage but without the charm. An usher donned in a brimless cap and epaulettes took me by the arm and pressed me into a velveteen seat – the only one left in the house. I found myself asking the usher “Who are all these people?” only to be shushed by the program he shoved in my face. I unfolded it to read: “Rapture in Suede – starring Daedalus Howell.”

To be continued…

Nomaville: But Wait There’s More

Chop, chop!Rob Walker’s Consumed column in Sunday’s New York Times magazine served as something of a remembrance of Arthur Schiff, a TV commercial writer credited with creating the four most repeated words in television advertising – “but wait, there’s more.” Schiff’s ubiquitous pitch cut its teeth, so to speak, on the genre-defining Ginsu knife spot, which famously depicted the cutlery cleaving an aluminum can, a tree branch and a nail before effortlessly swishing through a tomato and reinventing the notion of sliced bread.

First aired in 1978, the Ginsu commercial was a mainstay of my early television experience and one that I would later reference in my own work for the small (and smaller) screen in a flick titled “Hold Me With Your Robot Hand.” The moment comes during a montage in which an android prosthetic is shown crushing a tennis ball (lifted directly from the title sequence of the “Bionic Woman”), karate-chopping a cinder block (a trick replicated thousands of times by the “Ripley’s Believe It, Or Not” crowd) and finally slicing a tomato a la the Ginsu. Compared to Schiff’s masterpiece, my parody reads a little hollow. For all its carnival barker bluster, the original Ginsu spot was an apt metaphor for its time: the blade brawny enough to chop down a tree yet refined enough to halve a tomato with ease and finesse, could be construed as the symbolic synthesis of the masculine and feminine, a notion then reverberating throughout the culture, most notably in the form of the “sensitive man” archetype padding through the media in Earth Shoes and a turtleneck. Think Alan Alda, but not as dull.

Though made in Ohio, Schiff gave the Ginsu its faux-Japanese name thus making a simultaneous stab at the perceived exotica of the East and the consumer sensibility of the West. That said, the Ginsu made for an ironic metaphor since the purpose of a knife is to largely separate bits of things from each other rather than unite them. Of course, it wasn’t intended to be emblematic of a cultural shift, it was intended to sell for $19.95 direct to the consumer, themselves eager to cut cans and tomatoes.

In terms of cutlery, the Ginsu’s sole rival, in my opinion, was also released a year prior in 1977 – at least in film form: the lightsaber. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster, it was an elegant weapon for a more civilized time, which the post-Vietnam ‘70s were comparatively speaking (albeit, I was a kindergartner at a progressive school in northern California – halcyon days indeed). Using a lightsaber to slice your tofu would be like using a revolver as a remote control – it was, after all, modeled after a sword, not a mere knife. However, that didn’t prevent endless debate between my neighborhood friends and I over which would be more effective in a schoolyard skirmish.

The fact that lightsabers did not exist outside the fantastical world of “Star Wars” was the least of their proponents’ issues. It was accepted that they should exist, so, you know, end of story. What hobbled the pro-lightsaber camp was what could be termed the “battery conundrum.” They were, as we surmised from a billion toy commercials, not included. If one were to drain the lightsaber’s power while unsuccessfully swinging at some sixth grade Ginsu-wielding ninja, one could expect to be sliced and diced in a manner that would make Benihana proud (the culinary acrobatics depicted in the chain restaurant’s commercials made them nearly as popular as Ginsu’s). Claiming to have an “infinity battery” was looked on as a chump move so the would-be Jedis dissuaded from making any mention. Conversely, the Ginsu gang mistakenly believed that their weapon of choice also included the cleaver shown chopping the pineapple in the commercial. Wrong. Though the complete Ginsu eight-piece arsenal could be had for under $20, it was inconceivable that any kid on our block would have that kind of cash. In the end, however, most schoolyard battles resolved with little more acrimony than a few expletives tossed around the bike racks. After all, we were all sensitive guys.

Nomaville: Download in case of Death

Where stars go to die.When I was a cub reporter at the Lumaville Daily Echo (in the last century, as I like to say to burnish the recollection with a sense of antiquity), a frequent request made of me by Old Editor Hedgebrow was a form of slave labor he quaintly called “outputting the obits.” Writing obituaries is meticulous, mind-numbing work, more akin to arithmetic than writing seeing as accuracy was of paramount importance, unlike these hazy recollections that are often rendered in gauzy soft-focus (buoyant as my memories be, they float on a sea of wine).

Prior to craigslist, copy-editing classifieds was the newsroom’s bane of choice, but since the late ‘90s it’s been obituaries – literary tombstones, whole biographies in 500 words or less wherein even the slightest typo is construed as disrespect. This happened to me once: I inadvertently left an asterisk at the end of a write-up which sent survivors trawling for its mate before realizing the lonely star was an empty promise keyed by a slapdash young hack. In retrospect, I think that all obits should end in an asterisk – it admits to the mystery of an individual life cannot be known in its entirety, and just as often, not even by the individual in question (there I am again, taking the “art” out of Sartre). Of course, I would prefer a question mark rather than an asterisk – better to fake one’s death a few times to get it right. I once knew an old daredevil who strove all his life for an exclamation point, but instead slipped away, quietly with a schwa. His last word was “huh.”

Between humiliations in the screen-trade, I would kill time at the Hollywood Forever cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard, where, I suppose, dead stars eventually turn into either white dwarfs or black holes depending on the currency of their waning star-power. The cemetery proffered an attraction dubbed “Library of Lives” in which one could peruse video of the deceased prepared by one of their “professional LifeStory specialists,” dedicated to gathering images, audio and ephemera to be “captured and stored permanently in our unique LifeStory theaters.” I ventured into one of these multimedia mausoleums, closed the door and pushed the button that activated a private viewing screen. Through speakers, a pleasant voice cooed “Hello, welcome to forever.” I clicked through half a dozen lives, theretofore unknown to me, before realizing I should be out living my own.

Writer and blogger Clive Thompson recently profiled Microsoft Research Labs maven Gordon Bell, who, for the past several years, has been recording every piece of his life into a surrogate brain – images from a miniature camera worn around his neck, audio recording of every conversation he has, e-mails, web pages read, everything from the mundane to the meaningful. This proactive (or preemptive) effort makes LifeStory theater seem like a puppet show by comparison and obituaries mere haiku. In the very least, Bell seems to be fulfilling the promise of a pre-bubble start-up I was once sent to profile, which was proffering a similar service, though theirs was then considered the forefront of neuro-technology. As the publicist explained, “We’re going to scan your brain.”

“For what?”

“For its contents. Think of it as a back-up drive for your mind,” the publicist explained, tapping a little black box the size of a thimble.

“That’s kind of small don’t you think?”

“You’d be amazed at how little you know.”

A couple of lab techs strapped a skullcap festooned with wires to my head and put a bite-block in my mouth so I wouldn’t bite my tongue, or talk, or both. They were a dour duo for whom the novelty of the procedure was long gone. One flipped a switch and the other shook his head. For a moment, the back of my head felt vaguely warm, then it was over.

The publicist beamed and tossed the data-cube to me.

“What do I do with it?” I asked, smoothing my hair.

“Nothing,” the publicist said. “But your biographer is going to love you.” *

Nomaville: Drowning in a Fishbowl of Love

Don't tap the glass.In the early days of being a writer loosed in the Wine Country (which is to say nine months ago), I would often tell tasting-room attendants that I had a new-ish palate. Some would reply, “Funny, you don’t look new-ish,” and make a nod to the reporter’s notebook I had conspicuously placed on the counter. Though not a professional oenophile then, I was and remain a professional writer (I went pro in ’96 after walking out on a college creative writing class) who has long believed it a courtesy to reveal my secret identity in such situations. I’ve found doing so inspires a certain generosity amongst the staff and causes tourists to vainly search for something recognizable in my face so that the may report home that they’ve met “someone.” When I tell them I’m “no one” they insist the opposite until I’ve pronounced my unpronounceable name for the nth time and they finally turn away disheartened. (Mind you, putting a pall over someone’s Wine Country weekend is not the endgame of my antics, nor is getting the tasting fee waived, though both have been known to occur.)

The Contessa and I dropped into a popular Point Reyes eatery last weekend and oddly, my identity issues came up again. Twice. I was recognized, I’m assuming, from that grubby mugshot up top (I was trying to look smoldering, but only got as far as “moldering”). A kind gent – Norman, as he introduced himself – said he had recognized me from the paper and identified himself a fellow Sonoman, the latter of which was salient in our exchange as it seemed he is not an avid reader like your brilliant selves. The other encounter, however, was a tad bit disquieting. A grey-haired man just stared until the Contessa and I felt the faint breath of social discomfort fogging our glasses. I made various friendly gestures and nods to acknowledge the man’s apparent interest and invite an introduction – anything – but alas, his furtive glances continued until he finally exited, craning his neck.

I conjectured that he, too, may have been a Sonoman and knew me from the paper. Or perhaps he spotted me in my only other public appearance of late – the History Channel’s “Man, Moment and Machine.” In the series I’ve played a slain Macedonian messenger and most recently an Iraqi soldier circa Episode One of the conflict in the Middle East (I’m usually pigeon-holed as a Mediterranean mutt but the producers thought I could skew about as far east as Bahrain with the help of their wardrobe department). In the scene, I’m in a bunker that’s about to be turned into a crater by a stealth bomber. There’s general panic and some frantic business with a telephone before the scene cuts to file footage of an explosion. My total screen time is about four seconds if you count the footage of the back of my head. Then I die. No wonder the man was staring. It must have been like seeing a ghost for him.

“You thought I was dead, didn’t you infidel?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Now you have learned the power of television. Perhaps you want my autograph, or my Web address?”

Sometimes, while sifting through the volumes of invites and fawning e-mails I receive daily, I’ll uncover an angry little missive, usually handwritten in smudgy pencil and decrying this or that of something I wrote. Let me re-phrase that – something I was paid to write, which is likely what stings these aspirant scribblers of invective in the first place. Example: “We know you know that you know too much. If you know what’s good for you…[expletive]…[coffee stain]… [illiterate misspelling] …then because!” signed by the Order of the Golden Star. I hate these guys. Another type of correspondence I’m loath to receive are these official-looking letters that open with the line “This is an attempt to collect a debt.” Now, that dude has to get a life.