Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green

My first Spider-Man gig, being a Halloween appearance, occurred at the tail end of 1986. As far as I knew, that was it. Pfft! Done! It was nothing more than desperation on the part of Marvel’s Personal Appearance head, Barbara, that landed me the job. Not that Barbara would have hired anyone with which she didn’t feel comfortable assuming the role of the company’s figurehead and world-renowned icon; I was still representing Marvel, after all. But I knew going in that my audition wasn’t for a permanent spot on the roster, just a temporary one.

The Rutland gig wasn’t exactly on the same level as throwing the first pitch for a Major League Baseball game, either (that would come later). It wasn’t even a meet-and-greet at the Grand Opening of a Hill’s Department Store in Chilicothe, Ohio (that also would come later). From what I could glean from speaking with my hosts in Rutland, they were either getting a special rate or a gratis appearance. The comic store I visited while I was there may have helped sponsor the event—I later learned comic shops got a special rate on appearances—and the appearance itself afforded little access to the public. I was to be on a float, waving to the crowds along the parade route. That’s it. In Barbara’s eyes, it was a safe gamble to send a novice. To me, though, it was an E-ticket ride at Disney World. Upon my return, it was back to the mundane world of the restaurant business.

It wasn’t until a few months later that Barbara called me again. And again, she was desperate for an actor for a big event that was going down in the city a few days later. It was now 1987 and the 25th Anniversary year of the creation of Spider-Man in 1962. To celebrate, Peter Parker, the Web-Slinger’s alter ego, was going to get married in the Spider-Man titles to his girlfriend Mary-Jane Watson. As part of the marketing for this event, Marvel was staging a live “bachelor Party” for Spider-Man. In attendance—beside Marvel’s hierarchy and the press—would be a pantheon of superheroes. Actually, whatever ones they had costumes for at the time, which were Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and X-Men members Iceman and the superheroine Firestar.

With the large number of heroes in use, Barbara needed me once again, but not to portray everyone’s favorite neighborhood Wall-Crawler. Hell, no! This event was far too important to throw a mere rookie into the suit. Major Mucky-Mucks and Nabobs from eminent corporations would be in attendance, not to mention the press. I was needed to be Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis The Green Goblin who, in a rare show of respect, was putting away his pumpkin bombs to congratulate Spidey on his impending nuptials. If I screwed my lines up or the appearance in general, it was no big whoop. I was a super-villain. Jeremy would portray everyone’s favorite Web-Slinger. The warhorse and veteran of Marvel’s Personal Appearance Program, Jeremy had been portraying Spidey since the Carter Administration. At the time I began, Reagan was finishing up his second term. He’d be playing Spidey at the forthcoming “wedding” as well as the press junket leading up to it.

Part of my role concerned my entering the festivities by jumping out of a cake that would be wheeled out as everyone sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Upon the song’s completion, I would burst from the cake and deliver my lines. I wasn’t worried about the lines. I once memorized an entire role in a Christopher Fry play overnight in college when the actor originally cast in the role broke his kneecap that afternoon in Movement Class (Yes, Movement Class). My script for this event ran approximately three lines, hastily written by the publicity department that afternoon. Not exactly Shakespeare... or Christopher Fry for that matter.

My biggest concern was the jumping-out-of-the-cake. The giant tiered confection would never have won any awards, nor struck fear in Entenmann’s stockholders. It was constructed of pressed wood—not very well either, if the splinters that covered my body afterwards were any indication—and the shoddy paint job was chipping. It was purchased that day, probably from a prop warehouse and probably after a desperate search, when the marketing wizard, who thought of the idea, got the thumbs-up from upper management. The top tier was hinged onto the base, which had no bottom, and the whole cake was put on a large, wheeled dolly.

The Green Goblin costume was made of similar, if not the same, stretch material as the Spider-Man costume—at least the two-piece under-layer was—and dyed a “cartoony” green, covered with black, silk-screened scales. Over that, was worn a fluorescent fuchsia tunic with matching shorts, gloves and saddlebag, in which the character kept such nefarious weapons as pumpkin bombs and razor-edged, bat-shaped boomerangs. I had none of these. My bag was empty, and I hoped my performance wouldn’t stimulate the need for any. The boots were not so much boots as gaiters that covered my sneakers. They shared the same fuchsia coloring normally reserved for the sort of upholstery only found in strip clubs. And the toes curled up, so they gave the appearance of elvin boots. Unfortunately, they weren’t stretchable and obviously were not made with a size twelve foot in mind. They had a feeble elastic swatch on the bottom that barely kept them in place. My Converse All-Star High-Tops were plainly in view underneath.

But the “boots” were a dream compared to the mask, a hard latex iron maiden for one’s noggin. On the plus side, it looked great and had a long cap—more fluorescent fuchsia—attached to it. On closer inspection, it looked like someone used a case of rubber cement to glue the topper in place.

The eyes were mesh, like Spider-Man’s costume, but hard plastic (or equivalent), not fabric, also cemented into place… dangerously so. No attempt was made to smooth the edges inside, which fit perilously close to the wearer’s eyes. And, as with the cap, no rubber cement was wasted in applying the eyes to the inside of the headpiece. The abundance of hardened glue in the mask produced a potent, malodorous aroma that made one’s eyes water. It also produced the same psychedelic mind-warping that sniffing glue effected. The increased heat and sweat of the wearer only exacerbated the problem. Do I even have to tell you how poor the vision was? The evening was shaping up to be a catastrophe just waiting to happen.

I would much rather have been out mingling with the guests, like the superheroes. Improvisation, I can do, even with VIPs and celebs. Besides, wearing a mask makes interacting with anyone a breeze. Too much can go wrong with scripts and props, especially anything mechanical. So, like any good evil doer, I was left alone to resent the good guys. That and worry about my entrance. At least, the room I was secreted in was just off the ballroom, so I wouldn’t have far to be dragged.

I spent the time working the cake, as it were, climbing in and out while reciting my lines. The cake only rose to approximately four feet from the floor on the dolly, which was about a foot more than my inseam, so I couldn’t just swing a leg out onto the floor. Not that getting a leg out at all was going to be easy. The hole I was to clamber out of was slightly tighter than my shoulder width. I’d have to collapse by shoulders in when “popping” out of the cake. Then, a few quick yoga moves to lift my leg up and over the lip of the cake and “voila” instant villain. I hoped my bag didn’t catch.

Then, I got word that Stan Lee—creator of Spider-Man and a slue of other famous comic book characters, including The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil and The Fantastic Four—was in the house. I don’t know what bothered me more. The fact that one of my childhood heroes was just on the other side of the wall or I was moments away from making a complete idiot of myself in front of him whilst besmirching one of his creations. And of course, in my mind, all the superheroes were kibbitzing and having a grand ole time with Stan, and they couldn’t care less. I was the comic-book geek! If I didn’t know what my motivation was before, I certainly did now. That’s it, Stephen, “use it in your acting,” the ubiquitous mantra of hopeless actors everywhere.

After what seemed like hours, while at the same time seeming a mere couple of minutes, it was time. Captain America came to get me. Cap would be the lucky one to pull the cake into the ballroom, using a thick cord of fraying rope attached to the dolly. Besides being one of the most recognized of the superheroes present after Spidey, his suit was the only one that allowed the maneuverability to do the deed. The cumbersome Muppet-like costume of The Hulk made him ideal for one thing only: walking into things. I shimmied into the cake, the top was secured and I waited for the guests to begin singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

Whoever was speechifying before the song was taking their sweet time. I wasn’t exactly in a state of bliss. This had to be akin to being in a clown car. At least I wasn’t sharing the space with a dozen Krustys. Maybe the speaker was Stan. He was garrulous at the most economic of times. I wouldn’t have minded as much if I could hear him. Then I had a momentary panic that I wouldn’t hear my cue. That quickly passed when I heard the singing begin and the cake lurched forward.

Patience isn’t one of my strongest traits. Still, though I was itching to burst from my cramped confines, I was more afraid of jumping the gun. There wasn’t going to be any Jan Brady yelling “Who goes there?” before her brother Peter shouted, “Hark!” If I was going to ruin the evening’s festivities, I was going to be on time about it. As the guests wound up the third refrain of the song—my cue—I exploded from the top of the cake. I remember my shoulders getting stuck for a moment and the entire cake lifting off the dolly, before it clunked back into place. But I don’t think anyone noticed or heard over my maniacal laugh, a high-pitched, villainous cackle backed by an evening of edgy nerves and discomfort.

I hoped my entrance shocked the room enough that the unfolding of my body and leap-of-faith out of the cake would go unnoticed. It reminded me of the Yogi Kudu painstakingly removing himself from the foot-square clear plastic box on the seventies’ TV series That’s Incredible! or, for the younger of you readers, the alien dislodging itself from the machinery in the final moments of Alien. I slithered out in what I hoped would appear to be a villainous manner, made trickier with my aforementioned size-twelve sneaks. As I extended my leg out the side to reach the floor, the height was greater than my inseam by a couple of inches. I had to brace myself on the cake and hop as a shifted my weight to the outside leg, while clearing the lip of the cake lid with my privates. One slip and my high-pitched cackle would have climbed to even greater heights. Fortunately, it didn’t, and I made it out with my privates intact.

The crack Marvel marketing team’s script was corny, yet dramatic. Stan was most assuredly green with envy. From the bits and pieces that I can remember, the scene went something like this:

(Singing while Captain America enters, pulling the giant cake from the room
behind the podium)
For he’s a jolly good fellow. For he’s a jolly good fellow.
For he’s a jolly good fello-o-o-o-o-o-o-ow . . .

Green Goblin’s villainous cackle cuts the audience off as he bursts from the cake.

Gasp! (Okay, maybe not a gasp, and maybe more than a few chuckles and “Oh, brothers,” but work with me, here)

The heroes in attendance tense for action.

I should have known you’d try something like this Goblin!

Don’t get your webs in a bunch, Spider-Man (Okay, I made that part up, but it’s a lot more interesting than “Relax, Spider-Man,” which is more likely to have been my line). I’ve come merely to congratulate you on your impending nuptials.

Spider-Man hesitates, but finally decides to trust his arch-nemesis (I guess his Spidey Senses weren’t tingling), and the two shake hands.

Like I mentioned, it wasn’t Shakespeare, but given the hokey context, the script worked. And it was blessedly short.

The skit accomplished, I was free to mingle with the guests (read: find Stan Lee) or so I thought. I didn’t realize that my appearance was the Grand Finale to the ballroom festivities. The room emptied faster than a pensioner’s change purse at a slot machine. The only people to greet me as I exited from the dressing area were the wait staff deeply involved in stacking chairs and breaking down tables to clear the room so they too could go home.


John III said...

What? No pics? Would love to see what the costume actually looked like. Ah well, at least you lived through it so you could take over the Spidey role.

Vroom! said...

Believe me, if I had pics they'd be up. There is a close-up of the Green Goblin mask in one of my previous posts (Heroes for Hire, Feb.'09). And I do have one or two anonymous shots of others in the suit. Perhaps I'll post one in the future for reference.

Thanks for commenting, John!


John III said...

You bet! And I will continue to comment as you continue to post excellent memories of your time as Spider-Man! Keep up the good work, and as a certain hero of yours would say, "Excelsior"!!