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Dressing Suitably for the Emmys

Last night’s Emmy Awards reminded me of a story about my dad. I last recounted this story in June when my brother, sisters, niece and nephew sailed out into the San Francisco Bay to dispose of Dad’s ashes. We all told a story about him, and this is the one I shared.

In 1983, I arranged for my dad and his wife Mary Lynn to get tickets to that year’s Emmy Awards show. It was a fun chance to hang out with well-dressed Hollywood stars, even though we were in the nosebleed seats. I get dressed up in my tuxedo (I still owned one then) and Mary Lynn put on a nice gown, but my dad showed up in a dark blue business suit.

I was a bit appalled. The invitation had clearly said “black tie” and he looked embarrassingly out of place in a sea of tuxedos and bow ties, but there was nothing to be done.

The lobby of the Pasadena Civic Center was very crowded and, since we weren’t VIPs, it took us awhile to even get in. Once we finally got inside, Dad excused himself to go to the men’s room. The rest of us found our seats and waited. And waited. It was getting very close to the start time and Dad still hadn’t made his way back to his seat. This was a live television show and I was concerned that if he didn’t return on time, he might get locked out. I was just about to go look for him when he showed up, looking a bit flustered.

“The strangest thing happened to me”, he said. “I was coming out of the restroom when someone grabbed me, said ‘There you are!’, and starting dragging me backstage. I didn’t know what was going on, but I eventually pulled myself free when I saw that he wasn’t taking me to my seat. The guy asked ‘Aren’t you part of the show?’, and I told him no and had to show him my ticket before he’d let me go.”

I should explain here that my dad was an incorrigible storyteller. I had shared many of his adventures and noticed that, in the retelling, certain elements had become, and I say this generously and with affection, exaggerated. I greeted his backstage tale with a healthy amount of skepticism, but let it go as the show finally started.

The 35th Primetime Emmy Awards are remembered mostly for the coarse language that came from the hosts, Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy. For viewers at home, a lot of it was bleeped out, but we got to hear everything in all of its original glory. Cheers and Hill Street Blues won a lot of awards. Judd Hirsch won for Taxi and gave a bittersweet acceptance speech since the show had recently been cancelled. We saw clips of Michael Jackson wowing the world from the Motown 25 special.

There is a time in every awards show where they explain how the votes are tabulated. It’s generally a low point, since it is difficult to make really exciting TV out of rules of accountancy. To spice things up that year, the president of the Academy came out and introduced the Price-Waterhouse dancers. As he explained how the votes were counted, out came a line of men in blue business suits, swinging suitcases and executing a well-choreographed dance.

I turned and looked at my dad, sitting next to me in his blue business suit, and he just responded with an arched eyebrow. I suddenly had a vision of him being pulled onstage with the dancers and stumbling his way through the number, all the while protesting that he needed to get back to his seat. He must have been thinking something similar, for we both burst out laughing.

I think we both received valuable lessons that day: Dad learned to pay more attention to the dress code, and I learned to not always be so skeptical of his wild stories.

 

Lauren Bacall by herself

Here we go again.

Humphrey Bogart was my gateway to classic Hollywood. I started out a fan of his tough-guy gangster films, then moved up to the classics. When Lauren Bacall was introduced in To Have and Have Not, I too fell in love with her. How could you not? Sultry, sexy, elegant, with that smoky voice and eyes you could get lost in, I totally understood why Bogie fell for her so hard.

In 1983, Lauren Bacall was performing onstage in L.A. in Woman of the Year. I got tickets to go with my dad and his wife on July 31st. I remember the date because it also happened to be my sister Shannon’s birthday. For her birthday present, I found a hardcover copy of Lauren Bacall By Myself and brought it with me.

A few days earlier, I had met a woman at a UCLA drama reunion event (I can picture her face but forget her name) who played Helga in the L.A. run. When I mentioned that I was going to the show and bringing the book, she offered to meet me and bring the book to Ms. Bacall.

So there I stood, like a stagedoor Johnnie, when “Helga” came out and found me. I handed her the book with a note inside, explaining that it was my sister’s birthday and asking Ms. Bacall if she would kindly sign it for Shannon. Helga disappeared for several minutes, then came back and beckoned me in.

And a moment later, I was standing in Lauren Bacall’s dressing room.

She was unbelievably gracious, especially considering that she had just spent two hours onstage singing and acting her heart out. She thought it was very sweet that I got this book for my sister. I confessed that, even though it was a present for someone else, I had also read it. She laughed at that, and thanked me. I stammered a few words about what a big fan I was of her and Bogie. I almost regretted it the moment I said that, for he had been gone 25 years at that point and she had since created a great career for herself, but she gave me another, very soft thank you, and I could still see a great deal of tenderness in her eyes.

Our meeting lasted only a minute. She signed the book to my sister, cupped me on the side of my face for just a second, and then I was whisked out of there. It all happened so quickly but it made an indelible impression. It is not everyday that you get to meet a living legend, but especially one so caring and classy.

Lauren Bacall was 89 years old when she passed away today, the last of her kind.

Lauren Bacall's signature

The Man Who Followed A Goat

In the summer of 1989, I was a roadie for a British classical orchestra that was touring the American southwest. My job was to get their delicate instruments from one town to another, often overnight while they slept in their hotel rooms. After a week of this, we were all ready to take a break when we found ourselves at the southern end of the Grand Canyon. I had never been there before and was raring to go on a hike, but I couldn’t convince anyone to join me. Despite what Noel Coward said about mad dogs and Englishmen, this group of British musicians were keen to keep out of the mid-day sun and instead stay inside to watch a film about the Grand Canyon rather than actually go exploring.

So I set out on my own, with a small backpack containing a bottle of water, some snacks, and my camera. At first, I stayed on the marked trail that went along the canyon rim. From there, I could look down, way down, and see groups of people on horseback working their way along the side of the canyon. And even though they were only about halfway down, they still looked the size of ants. I figured that, if they made it all the way to the bottom, I probably wouldn’t even be able to see them anymore.

It was already later in the afternoon when I started. I tried to take a few pictures, but the sun was maybe 30 degrees off the horizon and I was getting a lot of long shadows. I didn’t see many other people on the trail either, but at one point, a motion caught my attention, I looked out beyond the railing and saw a goat. It was an old mountain goat with inquisitive eyes, just looking at me. We stared at each other for a few seconds, but as I reached to get my camera, he turned around and walked away from the trail I was on and around a rock outcropping where I could no longer see him.

I cursed my luck for a moment and then, looking around and not seeing anyone else nearby, I stepped over the railing and followed the path of the goat. I figured that I would just see what was on the other side of the rocks, take a quick picture, and then get back to the trail.

As I came around the outcropping, I did see the goat, but only for a second as he continued walking around another outcropping further down. I decided to keep on going. The path was steep on either side, but I still had light, and I was young and brimming with curiosity, and I just really wanted to get a picture of the goat.

This continued for several minutes. I’d come around an outcropping of rocks, see the goat momentarily, but then he’d disappear before I could take a picture. I did start to wonder if he was doing this on purpose. I finally came to a section where the side of the canyon turned into a cliff and the goat was nowhere in sight. I sat down on a rock, took a few pictures, and wondered where the goat had disappeared to. After a few minutes, I knew it was time to leave, so I turned back the way I had come … and the path was nowhere to be seen.

There was no path, no footprints, nothing to guide me. Just a sheer rock wall, nearly straight up one side, and straight down the other. I saw a ledge maybe 25 feet away and I was pretty sure that, if I could make it there, I could safely work my way back to the trail. But it seemed a long way away, and I had no idea how to get there without ending up sliding all the way down the Grand Canyon.

So I sat on my rock, ate my trail mix, and looked down the canyon walls. The sun was now low enough that the bottom of the canyon was in darkness, and I knew that I would be soon too. I could just barely see the tiny people on horseback below. I tried calling out a few times: “Hello … hello …”. Then “hello” became “help … help …!”, but all I heard back were my own echos: “help…help”. I knew I was on my own. The sun was going down, no one could hear me, and no one knew where I was.

I stared at that ledge and realized I had one choice. I had to get back there, and soon, or literally die trying. If I slipped and fell down the Grand Canyon, that would probably be it. But if I tried clinging to that rock all night, it would get cold, I’d pass out, and probably fall in my sleep.

I looked around at the canyon, the rocks, the sun setting in the distance, and thought “this is a good view. I’m glad I did this.” I told myself that I should stay calm, but I could feel my heart beating faster and I knew I had to just move. So I packed up my food and my camera, took one last swig of water, focused on the ledge … and ran!

How did I not notice on the way out how steep it was? My right shoulder brushed the side of the sheer cliff as I raced along. I didn’t look up, I didn’t look down, I kept my eye on that ledge and I. just. ran.

When I reached the ledge, I skidded and came to a stop. I looked back the way I had just come and I still could not see a clear path. I could not even see how I had made it back to the ledge. But I did. And as I stood there, panting, my heart still racing but starting to slow down, I felt a small shower of rocks fall onto me. I looked up, and there, looking down from the top of the cliff above, was the goat. I said “Hey!”. And he said “Bhaa! Bhaa-ha-ha-ha…!”

I walked back to the trail and back to the visitors center just as the Brits were loading back onto the bus. They told me I had missed a really good film. And I told them that they had missed a really interesting hike. And I never did get a picture of that damn goat.

 

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