Friday, February 17, 2017

"The Age Factor"

When I was young and I turned my nose up at the provided split pea soup – it tasted fuzzy on my tongue to me – my mother devised a compromising strategy to induce me to dip my spoon into that unpalatable concoction.  She’d say,

“Eat your age.” 

It worked well when I was six.  Less so when I was twenty-one.  I had to refill my bowl to accommodate the quota. 

You see, that’s the “funny part” – an original strategy outliving its appropriateness.  Which conveys my borderless mind – naturally – to George Burns and Gracie Allen.  That’s “naturally” if you are me.

Starting in vaudeville, the husband-and-wife team of George Burns and Gracie Allen proceeded to radio and subsequently to television where their popular sitcom The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show ran successfully for eight seasons (1950-1958.)

Performing a “double act” George played the reasonable “straight man” to Gracie’s irrepressible “dizzy dame”, her signature stock in trade, an idiosyncratic mindset of “illogical logic.”

Example:

GRACIE:  “You know, George, my teenaged nephew has three feet.”

GEORGE:  “You say your teenaged nephew has three feet?”

GRACIE:  “That’s right.  I got a letter from his mother the other day.  She says that her son’s grown another foot.”

(You can’t do that kind of humor anymore.  Well, you can, but now the “illogically logical” one is Matt LeBlanc.)

Anyway, during a troubling trough in their generally flourishing careers, George, the show biz mastermind of the operation, pinpointed the team’s debilitating malady, observing,

“Our material is too ‘young’ for us.” 

Which turned out to be correct.  The frothy “boy-girl” frivolity they had begun with ill suited the longtime married couple with maturing children they had eventually become.  A stylistic reimagining was undertaken and the bump in the road became clear sailing.  (Forgiving the “land to water” combination.)

Which reminds me of a Burns and Allen story unrelated to our theme but worth reprising nonetheless. 

The spotlighted personage herein is the beleaguered Burns and Allen show’s editor.

Consistent with the fashion of the day, the Burns and Allen “half-hour” was shot like a short movie, employing a single camera and no live studio audience.  (The “single camera” technique involves re-filming every scene from various angles, each episode taking two or three days to fully complete.  That’s why there was no studio audience.  They’d have to bring multiple rations and a change of underwear to take part.)

Adding an innovative wrinkle to the proceedings, George Burns had the “Final Cut” of the episode screened before a live studio audience, to insure actual laughs for the accompanying soundtrack rather than, as was traditional back then, besmirching their filmette with artificial “canned laughter” from a machine.  Burns instructed the editor to leave room in the assembled footage for those laughs.

The question for the editor became how much room was he expected to leave?

Oy.  (Meaning “What a predicament!”)

If the editor left insufficient “air” after a punchline later enthusiastically received by the studio audience, the big laugh could spill over, covering the dialogue of the following setup, thereby imperiling the un-teed-up punchline to come. 

On the other hand, a joke that fell flat with the studio audience where the editor had predicted a longer laugh resulted in an incongruously gaping “hole”, which the editor, at additional time and company expense, would have to return to the Editing Room to correct.

Unless the editor timed those “laugh spaces” perfectly, Boss Man George Burns was definitely not going to be happy.

Imagine being that editor, trying to gauge the inherent funniness of each joke in order to leave the precisely-calibrated “room” for a laugh that had not yet materialized. 

“Henry, hand me the bottle!”

Anyway, back to our story.

As an experienced showman, George Burns understood that to maximally succeed – or least not maximally fall on your face – the “act” you present to the public must be evolvingly “age appropriate.”  Triggering the question…

Is mine?

I agree with George Burns’s assessment.  With the passage of time, the once “precocious” will inevitably become “puerile”, the avant garde, miscalculatingly icky.  (Think:  Amy Schumer at 85.  “I’ve had sex every guy in the ‘Home.’  Or was it the same guy and I couldn’t remember?”  Ew.)  (Immediately regretting the example.)

So what about me?

Well…

I have retained a binder containing copies of two years’ worth of weekly columns I  composed for a now defunct daily newspaper, The Toronto Telegram.  I have read many of them over.  I believe I even published one or more of them in this venue.  I was twenty-three to twenty-five then.  And you know what?

Those columns are not all that different from I am doing today. 

My second outing in the series was entitled, “Can A Dwarf Become President of the United States?”, exploring the parameters of electoral acceptability?  Change “dwarf” to “megalomaniacal vulgarian” and I am plowing similar terrain… except the answer was “No” then and “Yes” today.  (Meaning what, that times changed and I haven’t?)

I am arguably technically superior now, but we’re not talking about “technically.”  Stylistically, there is a recognizable fingerprint.  I write the same way, mixing small words and big words and words I made up.  My “way of looking at things” is identical.  My sense of humor rings a familiar bell.  I tell ya, I could have pretended that old column was from today and easily executed the subterfuge.  Rereading it for blogal consideration, I recall thinking, “I wrote this when? 

I have not changed that much.  (You should see what I am wearing right now.  I look like I’m ready to go to camp.)  Does that mean I am out of sync with my elderliness and I need to belatedly catch up?  What I am doing feels contemporarily compatible to me.  Is it possible I am embarrassingly in the dark?   

Maybe it’s time to make an adjustment.  Maybe I should start “writing my age.”

The thing is,


What exactly is “seventy-two” supposed to sound like?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Acting"

Rummaging through my biographical dossier reader cjdahl60 discovered that along with my voluminous “writing credits” there were also seven “acting credits”, leading to queries about those experiences. 

(Further IMDB investigation reveals that I also have one “music credit” (I wrote the theme song for Best of the West.  Call me “Mr. Versatility.”   Substantially unbalanced in the direction of the writing, but still.  How many songs is Aaron Sorkin credited with?)  (I did not look.  It could be a lot.)

The first thing to notice is that of my seven “acting credits”, none of them were solicited by me.  Friends and colleagues said, “Do you want to do this?” and I said, “Yes.”  I never auditioned for any of them. 

How much better would I have fared as an actor had made legitimate efforts in that direction?  An unanswerable question.  Like asking how well Bo Jackson might have done if he had exclusively played baseball rather than the combined baseball and football.  The only difference is that in Bo Jackson’s case, people actually discuss that.

Anyway… acting.  What comes immediately to my mind?

Makeup.  A costume.  The “butterflies of excitement” rarely experienced by a writer.  (As distinguished from the “butterflies of anxiety”, which I am experiencing right now. )  You show up and you’re “in it.”  Not behind the cameras.  In front of them. 

Believe me, it’s different.     

Not that I ever starred in anything, but that has little to do with it.  I felt the same jangly exultation playing the “Guard” in the Toronto Hebrew Day School Purim pageant.  Though I’d have admittedly been more excited had I played “Mordecai.”  (A substantially larger role, in the production and in the history of Purim.)

Let’s break down those seven “acting credits”, shall we?

Two of them involved miniscule speaking parts in films written, directed, starred in and produced by a longtime friend of mine who makes movies on his iPad.  He includes me in his productions, partly because he knows I can competently do the job but mainly because he always has, perceiving my active involvement as a personal “Good Luck Charm.” Making me less a working actor in this scenario than a thespianical “Rabbit’s Foot.” 

I was paid nothing, and neither film enjoyed a theatrical release.  Which, jumping ahead, can be said about every film I ever appeared in. 

Another “acting credit” involves a Hart and Lorne (Michaels) Terrific Hour Canadian television special, where, in a sketch I co-wrote, I portrayed one of the renowned “Corsican Brothers”, wherein, in traditional “Corsican Brothers” fashion – in which when one brother is injured the other brother feels the pain – I was engaged in a furious battle, involving each imprisoned Corsican Brother attacking himself mercilessly to get the other Corsican Brother to talk.

(I have seen a tape of my performance as a Corsican Brother.  To my eternal embarrassment, you can see me laughing during the scene.  As Robert O’Neill my Actors Workshop teacher would have observed, I was at that moment “loving myself in the art” more than loving “the art in myself.”)

So that’s three.  No Oscars.  No (Canadian) Juno Awards.

Four.  (And I have to move this along.  I have a lunch date with my financial adviser.  Which I look forward to.  For his congenial company.  And for the tangible reassurance that he has not left town with all of my money.)

I was a “Regular Performer” in The Bobbie Gentry Show, a “summer replacement” series that ran four episodes and went pffffft.  Every week, I performed material that I had written, including a “telephone sketch” playing a character called “Charniecki” whose hard-to-spell moniker he was continually clarifying:

“That’s ‘Charn’, as in ‘charn bracelet”… and then you add a “niecki.’”

Hey, I didn’t force them.  Somebody said, “Do it.”

Then there were two movies…

Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman’s Cannibal Girls, where I played “Third Victim” in a film that was entirely improvised.  Needing someone who could invent usable dialogue, they came to me for my writing abilities rather than my acting chops, which proved so deficient that when they finally bumped me off they dubbed in another actor’s agonized screaming.  That was definitely not me dying.

On the heels of my breakthrough debut in Cannibal Girls, I was hired to act in The Merry Wives of Tobias Rouke, the producers of which ultimately ran out of money, stranding the tins of unedited footage of the movie in the trunk of the director’s car.  

From which, to my knowledge, it has never emerged.

There was nudity in that movie – I recall one scene where the actress’s wardrobe was… nothing.   Despite their pleading imprecations, however, in a scene they claimed called for it but that nobody had “heads-upped” me on that requirement, I adamantly refused to remove my “long-johns.”

My enduring recollection of that experience was me, standing underwear-clad in a swampy pool of water for what seemed like hours, while a school of minnows nibbled hungrily at my submerged lower parts.

Ah, memories…

Finally, a writer-friend and co-creator of the short-lived but noteworthy Buffalo Bill invited me to essay the role of “Crazy Eddy” Felsik, the “Human Salmon”, a man made “Buffalo-famous” by repeatedly traversing Niagara Falls in a barrel. 

I had one line.  An important one, being the scene’s climactic “button.”

The shooting of that scene involved numerous re-takes, which were undeniably because of me.  (I knew that because after every take, the director came up and asked, “Can you do it any better?”) 

As I stood in that barrel, sweating profusely in my wet suit under the punishingly dehydrating lights the foremost thought in my mind was, “If I could only rewrite this line.” 

There’s this statute called the “Taft-Hartley” Rule, stating that you can be “waivered” for just one acting job before being required to join the union, of which I was never a member.  After that single performance, I did not acted in television again.  I like to think that was due to the “Taft Hartley” restrictions rather than my underappreciated performance as “Crazy Eddy” Felsik.  (I am telling you, it was the material.)

Anyway, there you have it.  Seven “acting credits”, two owing to my employer’s superstition, three doing material I had written myself and four which never made it to the theaters, for which my cumulated stipend was zero.

Hardly a Streepian oeuvre.

But you know what?

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"cjdahl60 (Bless Him Or Her) Asks Me About My Acting"

Two Quotes Relating To My Acting:

I once met the late Jack Rollins – Woody Allen’s longtime manager and producer – when I went to his office to submit material for a possible writing job on The Monkees.  When Rollins answered the door, he took one look at me and he said,

“You look like a writer to me.”

A professional evaluation of my “actor potential”:  I had a “Writer’s Face.”

Two:  (An experienced mentioned before, but harboring the memory for fifty years suggests it indelibly left its mark.)

When I suggested after attending UCLA’s “Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop” that I would like to stay on and get a Master’s Degree in Theater Arts, my discouraging teacher tersely observed,

“You have a ‘certain quality’.  But I would not call it acting.”

Another knowledgeable expert weighing in.  And not in a good way.

Still, here’s cjdahl60, having accidentally encountered the film Cannibal Girls in which I prominently participated playing “Victim Three”, asking me, with, I swear to the Jewish Torah as we used to say, no prodding or inducement on my part, and I quote:

“I’d be interested in reading a blog post(s) about your experiences as an actor.”

Man!  I mean, be me for a second.  You’re sitting at home, filling your time as best you know how and, as a wonderful older writer named Bob Schiller once described, “deteriorating on schedule”, and out of the blue, you learn that somebody is…   “interested” is the word cjdahl60 employed, not “curious”, not “You, an actor?” – interested – in what can very generously be described as an ancillary career.

“cj” – hear this with the appreciation that words on a screen can only marginally convey:

Thank you.

For being interested.  And for, at least momentarily, thinking of me as an actor.
Which is a stretch.  In a Rolling Stones profile, impresario Lorne Michaels once called himself a comedian.

Same stretch.

(I love to kid the monumentally successful.)

After blundering upon Cannibal Girls – although admitting they were unable to endure – and I don’t blame them – until my scenes came on, so even “cj” has no direct evidence that I am truly an actor – their subsequent visit to IMDB (the “International Movie Data Base” which includes television credits as well) revealed, and I quote once again, because it’s much sweeter when somebody else says it,

“Your IMDB bio lists seven credits as an actor.”

(Note:  I would have placed “as an actor” in accentuating italics but it was already in italics and there is no way to italicize italics; it just reverts back to normal.  Just know that if there were a way to italicize italics I would have.  Seven credits as an actor.  I am so proud.)

Still… (as you now watch me being ungrateful)…

Where on the ostensibly comprehensive IMDB list of accomplishments are my acting credits from Camp Ogama?  Where I always scored big, most spectacularly as “Smee” in the Senior Show production of Peter Pan? 

Where also is my Toronto Hebrew Day School credit as “A Guard” in the school’s annual Purim Play?  (Not that I stood out, but somebody stole my new Scotch Plaid flannel bathrobe that I wore as a “Guard” costume that day and I thought that a “mention” might tug at their conscience and they might surreptitiously – better late than never – deposit the purloined article of clothing onto my front doorstep.)

Where too is the inclusion of my performance in the “Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop” production of The Private Life of the Master Race, where, with only a handful of lines, I somehow – likely due to my inimitable “certain quality” – received “positive mention” in the Los Angeles Times?

And where, pray tell – since the “I” in IMDB stands for “International” – is the inclusion of the London “Actors Workshop” production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, where I had one line – one line, mind you! – and still, to the chagrin of the lead actors in the play, a major British newspaper critique praisingly included my name. 

I had one line!

That’s silly, you say.  IMDB is for professional productions.  Only jobs where you get paid. 

Oh really?

Let me tell you that of the seven “Earl Pomerantz Acting Credits” annotated in IMDB, I made as much money on four of them and I did in the Toronto Hebrew Day School Purim play.

So why them and not the others?

All right.  As requested by cjdahl60, I shall touch lightly on each of those experiences next time.  (‘Cause I expended all today’s time on the build-up.)

Just know – and regular readers likely already do – that in my secret dreams and hidden aspirations I was never a writer and always an actor. 

Which, according to IMDB, I actually was seven times.

I also dreamed of being a ballplayer.

And there, I never got up to bat once.


Not even in Hebrew School.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"My First Valentine's Day"

My records indicate that I have not posted this story for three years.  For those readers who have arrived since then - and also because I like it - I am offering it again.

Happy Valentine's Day.

And here's my story.

      
                                                      My First Valentine's Day

                                                          By Earl Pomerantz


I had just turned seven when our First Grade teacher, Miss Platt mentioned Valentine’s Day.  In a few days, she told us, there would be a time set aside in class when anyone who wanted to could exchange valentines cards with their classmates.  And maybe slip one to Miss Platt, who was beautiful, at least to a First Grader’s eyes.  Which were the only eyes I had at the time.

The Valentine’s Day announcement created a buzz of excitement in our classroom.  So much, in fact, that Miss Platt was forced to slam her yardstick down on her desk, returning us to our First Grade study of the alphabet.  Every day, we’d learn a different letter, which meant if you missed a day, as I once did, you’d have trouble printing your entire name until the Review Period, which would take place after we’d finished learning “z.”  Because of my absence, on the day they taught the letter “r”, there was a time there when I was writing my name, Eal Pomeantz.

I need to backtrack for a minute.  The entire Saint Valentine’s Day experience was completely alien to our educational environment.  From Nursery School till Elementary School graduation, I attended the Toronto Hebrew Day School, a religio-centric institution where we studied Hebrew subjects half a day, and an English curriculum the other half. 

This was a hardcore Orthodox operation.  I once got a month’s detention for slipping off-campus and partaking of a non-kosher hamburger.  A number of my classmates went on to become ritual slaughterers, while others served as rabbis who oversaw the ritual slaughterers.  It was not a place where you heard a lot about Saints.

Regardless of the incongruity, Miss Platt said we’d have Valentine’s Day.  Maybe she was a rebel, or maybe she was a romantic.  All I knew was Miss Platt stirred up parts of a seven year-old boy’s body that were not scheduled to arrive until later.

The recess talk was all about valentines.  Who was giving, who was getting, and who’d be left out.  As far as I could tell, the distribution would be limited; friends would exchange cards with friends, two or three valentines at the most.  Being First Grade, the boy-girl component was not be a substantial factor, the exception being the irresistible Miss Platt.

To say that I saw an opportunity suggests there was calculation involved.  There wasn’t.  I just spoke before I thought.  And the words that emerged were these:

“I’m giving everyone a valentine.” 

Mouths dropped.  Everyone?  Even the boy who had “accidents” in class and had to be hurried to the principal’s office to exchange his sodden pants for the telltale corduroy replacements?

“Everyone.”

The word spread like wildfire.  I couldn’t back down if I wanted to.  I was now “On Record”:

“Everyone’s getting a valentine.”

When I decided to write this, I searched my memory for the rationale behind this magnanimous overreach.  And I came up with this. 

Six weeks before, my father had died.  Kidney failure, resulting from childhood rheumatic fever.  After the required seven-day absence for the shiva period, I returned to school, where I got sympathetic looks from some of my classmates, while others avoided me, fearful of contracting “Dead Dad’s” disease. 

The bold or more curious ones approached, asking, “Did your father die?”  I had to look them the in the eye and say, “Yes.”  Except I didn’t look them in the eye.  My eyes focused directly at the floor.  The Shame Place. 

As political consultants would say, I needed to retool my public image.  I needed a different kind of attentio.  And fate, via Miss Platt’s announcement, had provided the answer.

“Everyone’s getting a valentine.”

I bought an inexpensive book filled with valentines.  Two or three to a page, each bordered by perforated edges; you pressed the edges and the valentine popped out.  On the back of each valentine were two dotted lines, one above the other.  The top line was the “To”…line, the line below was the “From.” 

I started writing out the cards, twenty-one in all, one for every student in my class.

“To: Zvi.   From: Earl.”

“To: Arye.  From: Earl.”

The book contained a variety of valentines – a boy with a puppy, a girl with a basket of flowers, though all of them included ruby-red hearts.  I made little effort to match the cards to their recipients.  This wasn’t a personal thing.  It was about getting attention.

The next day, I walked into class, a large paper bag held proudly in my grasp.  I could sense the excitement.  Feeling all eyes on me but acting like they weren’t, I “casually” took my seat, sliding the bag under my desk and folding my hands. 

Awaiting My Moment.

Miss Platt tried to teach as if nothing was different.  But it was Valentine’s Day and everything was different.  My classmates struggled to attract my attention, seeking confirmation that they wouldn’t be left out.

“Am I getting one?” mouthed the kid with glasses who couldn’t catch.

I threw him a confirmational wink.

“Am I getting one?” gestured the girl with the sizable birthmark on her cheek.

I smiled in the affirmative.

“Am I getting one?” mimed the kid with no friends.

I nodded a reassuring “Yes.”

Somehow, these surreptitious exchanges caught Miss Platt’s attention.  And she knew where to direct her rebuke.

“Earl!  We have work to do.  Valentines come later.”

Normally, I do not take rebuke graciously.  There is usually blushing involved.  But today was a playful day.  Rather than apologize to Miss Platt for my transgression, I quipped,

“I’ve got one for you too.”

The class laughed.  It’s easy to get laughs when you’ve got a bagful of valentines.

Finally, it was time.  Miss Platt told us to put our books away.  We could now exchange valentines.  Kids got up and moved around the room, trading valentines with their friends.  It took about a minute. 

Then it was my turn.

Reaching under my desk, I retrieved my paper bag, stood up, and climbed casually onto my chair.  Everyone gathered around me.  Including Miss Platt.

My “Big Moment” had finally arrived.  Smiling beneficently, as I imagined Saint Valentine might have, I reached deep into my bag for the first the many valentines to come, and brought out…

…a chicken bone.

That was strange, I thought and possibly even said.  I quickly returned to the bag, emerging this time with…

…a banana peel.

I heard grumbling.  What’s going on?  I was wondering the same thing.  My third dip into the bag crystallized the situation precisely, as my hand emerged cradling…

…egg shells.  Still sticky.

Oh, my.

Oh, my.

The explanation was screamingly transparent.  Mistakenly, I had left my paper bag filled with valentines at home, arriving at school instead with a bagful of garbage.

I don’t remember crying or running out of the room, though I recall wanting to do both.  Then, suddenly, this amazing thing happened.

Sure, some kids walked away, disappointed.  Mine was the only valentine they were certain of, and I had thuddingly let them down.  But the majority, reading the agony in my face, rose gallantly to my support.

“Don’t feel bad,” comforted one.

“I’ll still be your friend,” reassured another.

“We like you.”  That was kind of a group response.

Smiles of support pervaded the classroom.  Though the price of my hubris was humiliation and shame, I was, surprisingly, receiving exactly what I’d been looking for – the good kind of attention.  On some level, I knew their acceptance wasn’t just about the valentines that were back in my house.  It was also about my permanent Dadlessness.  They wanted me to know it was okay.

The healing began, due to little Jews and Valentine’s Day. 


A truly powerful combination.