I just finished watching "American Masters," the life story of Judy Garland on Channel 13, the local NYC PBS station, and it reminded me of how lucky and grateful I am to have been born when I was.
When I was a kid, however, I used to say that I was born too late, fantasizing that I had come into this world around the same time my late grandmother Jessie did(1910), so that I could have been an adult in the 1930s and 40s. My dream was to be my idol, Jimmy Stewart, and marry Claudette Colbert or Janet Gaynor. It's ironic, though, that later, I'd figure out that I really wanted to date Gary Cooper in all his timeless handsomeness! I still put Claudette Colbert on a pedestal and think she is one of the most stunning and adorable women Hollywood and America has ever known. Sitting in a frame in my living room, next to a wonderful vintage, autographed photo of Maurice Chevalier, is a prized possession of mine--an autographed publicity still of Claudette as Cleopatra that I sent to her when I was 14. She was acting in the Broadway production of AREN'T WE ALL? in the mid-1980s, and I sent her a package containing a couple of my favorite photos of her with a very complimentary letter. Unfortunately, I never heard back from her, until one random day after I'd graduated college in 1993, I received a very tattered package in the mail. This thing must have gone between NYC and Barbados (Ms. Colbert's permanent home), but it was there and included the photos that I had sent her. To my astonishment, they were signed! It was one of the strangest experiences of my life...well, that and having a crush on Jane Seymour all through adolescence and then finally getting to work with her on a project in NYC just a few years back.
I guess what I am trying to relay is how fantastic my life has really been. Now, life is not quite so exciting as I mostly schlep between SoHo and Queens every day for work, but when I was age 14-21, I used to go to the theatre all the time in Dallas, Texas where I grew up. There, I'd use my allowances to pay $35 to see the likes of George C. Scott as Clarence Darrow, Martha Raye as Miss Hannigan in ANNIE, Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney in SUGAR BABIES, Debbie Reynolds in THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN, Joan Copeland in BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, Dorothy Parker in I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, Carol Channing and Mary Martin in LEGENDS, all of whom I actually met in person. I've had hugs from Mary Martin and Barbara Rush and been kissed by Lily Tomlin. These were the talents that have truly made show business as we all used to know it. I call it "the real show business," since it is virtually gone, except for faint glimpses of it when you consider what is on Broadway now. Shows like CURTAINS come to mind--those that strike a chord with those of us who remember what true musical comedy was. Every once in a while, Broadway producers try to revive the classics, but they always seem small in comparsion to the original. In high school, I saw the original Broadway cast of INTO THE WOODS. I'm almost appauled that we have so few great ideas anymore that already a revival was mounted. I love SWEENEY TODD too, but was it really necessary to revive it twice in 12 years? That doesn't even account for the fact that it was originally on Broadway not much more than a decade before that, and I remember that one too! It's so strange that we so desperately want to recapture the past, but ineffectively recreate it leaving us unhappily thirsting for something unidentifiable. Young people, who have never had the experience of seeing some of these shows in their infancy have really lost out. There is nothing more thrilling than sitting in a Broadway theatre, experiencing an uncontrollable case of goosebumps, as you watch and hear the audience excitedly chatter around you just before the curtain goes up on a new show. In recent years, this has happened to me perhaps four times--in the case of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, HAIRSPRAY, THE BOY FROM OZ and SPRING AWAKENING. As the orchestra tuned and the first notes were played and sung, my blood coursed with the energy of the evening--the audience sitting in suspense on seat's edge to see what only a handful of the population was getting to experience. Intently, we listened to every last word and note to determine if we had a hit on our hands...and we DID! What a feeling to be part of history. It happens so seldom anymore, so when it does, I'm completely overwhelmed and become emotional. As a former actor and singer, it hits me in the same place that it does every time I see or hear the number "What I Did For Love" in A CHORUS LINE. The "gift" of the past was really "ours to borrow" as the song says, and we need to "re-gift" those memories to ensure that our memories live on with new generations, who scarcely know who people like Claudette Colbert and Lily Tomlin are. I guess the question is, how do we make them care?
Dare I say that the word "celebrity" has been so overused in recent years by the same generation that tosses "love" around as if it were a frisby during the summer of '69 that they have no idea what true celebrity is? Sure these stars from the "Golden Age" had their vices and problems, but we were pretty forgiving of them, and so was the media because WE truly needed them to make our lives have meaning and get through the day. They made us laugh and smile and gave us hope. Today's stars, even the ones who use their "brands" for charity, are at the mercy of the vicious public and its need to pull them down from the heavens. It's how we now have chosen to make sense of our lives--trivializing strangers to hide the fact that we are unhappy, have lost God, are in debt up to our eyeballs (so that we can look exactly like the celebrities we seek to strip bare), and are fearful about where the world, economy and the war are going. The sad fact is, that as THIS war continues to thrive, Hollywood won't try to keep us and the troops entertained. It will just keep bringing us more reality, the kind that we think we crave, the kind that keeps us cynical, the kind that reminds us how dysfucntional we are, the kind that gives us more reasons not to change, but stay indifferent and wallow in our fears and bask in our sense of entitlement. Okay, now I'm off my soapbox (Do you young folk remember what a soapbox looks like?)
So back to Judy Garland. What a tragedy! She fell apart from drugs and alcohol right before America's eyes, and yet people STILL loved her because she was a true icon. Last week, David Hernandez(http://www.tmz.com/2008/03/05/david-hernandez-if-you-could-see-me-then/)from "American Idol" was criticized in the television and social media for being a male stripper of the gayest kind in the past, but he was voted off of "Idol" because he is the farthest thing from a star. If he had been a true star, filled with that "spark," he wouldn't have needed to dance in a gay club in the first place. He might have a great voice and be a moderately better-looking version of Marc Anthony, but the one thing that Mr. Anthony has that he lacks is "star quality." In comparison, watching clips of Judy dancing and singing with Gene Kelly overwhelms me with emotion because they are so filled up full with talent that they feed me and my need to experience something wonderful and out of the ordinary. Who of our newest generation of "stars" will leave people 50 years from now in awe of their talent? As I sit here with my computer on my lap, watching reality television with the TV on mute, I give thanks to history that I can sit back with a high-ball in my hand, look around the room to enjoy my treaures of the past and "remember when" every once in a while about how things used to be and try not to get too depressed that they never shall be. Perhaps, I was born just in time!