Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Yours and Mayim

The announcement this week that former ’90s sitcom Blossom star Mayim Bialik has signed on to play a recurring role on Big Bang Theory (Mondays, 9:30 PM E.S.T.) reminded me of meeting the young star at an appearance I made as The Incredible Hulk at the fan festivities—known as FanFest—surrounding the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1993.

Big Bang Theory centers around a quartet of übergeeks, all brilliant scientists, but utter social misfits, who love comics, Star Trek, role-playing games, basically all things synonymous with nerds. Arguably the most popular of the four is Sheldon who is the geek equivalent of Michael Jordan. Bialik will play Sheldon’s love interest.

You don’t have to be a dork to enjoy Big Bang Theory. Most everyone knows or knows of someone like the characters, and Penny—the only regular female character who dates Leonard, another of the foursome who shares an apartment with Sheldon—offers a hilarious “normal” person counterpoint to the boys’ many obsessions.

I will reserve comment on Bialik’s impending role—one online critic described the maneuver as the show “jumping the shark”—instead taking a wait-and-see stance. The show’s writers haven’t disappointed yet, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, as I continue to bail Casa Vroom!—a victim of the deluge that cursed the Eastern half of the country the past two days—I leave you with this photo of yours truly, going green, and the former Blossom star, a most appropriate springtime pairing.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Cowboys in Canada? Mounties, yes. But Cowboys?!!

I have to admit I knew very little about Canada when I was young. And what little I did know came from being a hockey fan. Having had parents who possessed season tickets to the Boston Bruins, at a time when the team was one of the greatest ever, it was impossible not to be a fan. I remember seeing my first live game at the tender age of six, watching the likes of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and John Bucyk, and had memorized the words to Oh, Canada! at about the same time I learned the Star-Spangled Banner.

Canada to me meant arch-rivals Montréal Canadians and to a lesser extent Toronto Maple Leafs. The Vancouver Canucks were in one of the western divisions of the NHL and hardly ever played the Bruins. Hockey, moose, maple leaves—the syrup came from Vermont—and Dudley Do-Right comprised my knowledge of our neighbors to the north.

It’s shameful, really, seeing as I am part Canadian on my mother’s side. I still have cousins in Halifax, Nova Scotia, though I’ve never met them (shameful, remember?).

I hadn’t even heard of Calgary until the NHL hockey franchise in Atlanta, Georgia—the Atlanta Flames—relocated there in 1980. That relatively minor event merely introduced me to the fact that such a city as Calgary existed in Canada. Even the city’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in 1988 did nothing to elucidate me to the history and finer points of the town. I’m sure whatever network was carrying the games provided comprehensive coverage of the site, as they are wont to do, but I was only two years removed from Boston at the time. And as a struggling actor, auditioning and waiting tables, I had little time to enjoy the intercontinental quadrennial contest of all things hibernal.

Two years later I found myself in Calgary as part of a cross-country press junket to promote the release of the first of what would prove to be a series of comics sponsored by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) as a way of getting pro-social messages to children and teens. I was a key selling point in getting the CACP to sponsor the program since the idea of using Spider-Man and comics to reach youths was proposed at a national convention for the CACP in St. John’s less than a year earlier (see “Chill St. John’s, Part I” & “Part II”).

My visit was brief—less than 24 hours—consisting of flying in the eve prior from Winnipeg, sleeping, then participating in a media event held at an ungodly hour the following morning at a local restaurant. The program was announced, a short period ensued of Spidey meeting with local children—brought in for the event—whilst answering questions from the press, and then I was out the door and into an awaiting car to drive me to the airport for my flight to the next city on the tour.

Though my time was limited when I arrived, I found time to take a walk after dinner to clear some of the jet-lag from my weary bones. I got no sense of the city’s rich western history—it’s not like Calgary is done up like Frontierland at Disney World—but I did get solicited by a prostitute. Despite that—or maybe subconsciously because of it (ahem)—I liked Calgary. The architecture was actually modern and it had a hip vibe. Even the hooker seemed coolly understated, not the skanky, overly made-up, big hair, gum-snapping types, with the fresh stitches in their heads and needle marks lining their arms that I was used to on 42nd Street… not that I noticed…

I would have liked to have visited longer, and expressed that sentiment the next morning in answer to media questions regarding my return someday.

“Maybe you could come back for The Stampede,” I recall one member of the press stating.

“I would love to… Sounds like fun,” I replied, though I hadn’t a clue what the enquirer was referring to.

I had learned from the lambasting I received in Edmonton concerning my ignorance of their wondrous shopping mecca years before (see “Survival of the Fittest, Part I” & “Part II”) that when it comes to those signature, beloved aspects of a given city, its citizens want to feel that it is an aspect known and envied the world over. Ignorance, no matter how innocent, is oft times interpreted as a slight, occasionally even an insult. This “stampede” intrigued me. It sounded like the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona: not necessarily something I’d want to take part in, but certainly an event I wouldn’t mind witnessing.

Another two years later and I was back, this time for a publicity photo shoot to promote the fourth volume in the CACP comic series. As with the previous volumes in the series, this issue would take place in another of Canada’s cities, i.e. Calgary. “Chaos in Calgary” sported a beautiful Jim Craig cover of Spidey riding a bull in bronco-busting fashion, complete with cowboy hat held aloft in the hand not grasped tightly around the webline tied around the bucking creature. Though a peculiar and very un-Spidery cover that wouldn’t have gotten past the preliminary planning stages of any of the Web-Swinger’s regular series, it was a fun cover nonetheless that spotlighted Calgary’s history as one of the world’s finest cattle countries.

I’m unclear of the specifics of the storyline save for our intrepid hero’s alter-ego and Daily Bugle photographer Peter Parker being on assignment in Calgary for the city’s aforementioned annual western Bacchanal. The Stampede, which bills itself as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” is a mammoth festival, which features the world’s largest outdoor rodeo. Other highlights include a carnival, midway, First Nations exhibitions, concerts, agriculture competitions and chuckwagon races. It was only fitting that the location of my shoot center around the event’s venue, i.e. the Olympic Saddledome and it’s environs.

The Saddledome is an awesome structure. I felt incredibly small, not merely from the arena’s capaciousness, but rather from feelings of unworthiness. Olympians competed here. My most prestigious competitive claim was a first place trophy in checkers in my teens (Okay, I was on the roster of a championship basketball team when I was twelve, but the water boy saw more action off the bench than I did).

Despite the place being virtually empty, save for me, Calgary Stampede Food Manager Alf Saunders—my guide—the photographer and usual facility employees, there was an electricity in the air. Saunders was a loveable bear of a man with a thick brownish mustache touched with red and matching hair. He sported a cowboy hat, shearling-lined, suede coat and dungarees. He resembled Pat McCormack with more hair and less weight. He showed considerable patience with my persistent questions on Calgary and The Stampede, and made certain I had access to even the most treacherous areas, so the photographer could get the coolest shots.

Believe it or not, there wasn’t a whole lot of photo opportunities. “Smaller” photos, like the one of me perched in a section of the stadium seating, lent nothing to the scope and majesty of the Saddledome. That picture could have been taken in any baseball park in America. We needed a cool Spidey shot that also captured the structure’s breathtaking immensity. Otherwise, what was the point of my being there? As we toured the grounds in frustration, I spied a possible solution.

“How about if I got up there?” I offered.

From the side of the arena, a circular protrusion sprouted, perhaps housing a stairwell to the upper tiers of seating inside. Though not reaching as high as the stadium roof, it rose a lofty five stories nonetheless. One would think that the intense angle I had to crane my neck to point out the spot to my colleagues, might suggest it being a less than safe place to pose for pictures. But it wasn’t the first daring stunt I’d pulled while in costume and it wasn’t to be my last… even that day. In my defense, nothing I did as the character was ever out of character.

Alf lead me back inside whilst leaving the photographer in the lot. Five minutes later an access door was opened and I found myself at the spot I’d indicated only moments before and wondering, What the f*** was I thinking?!! There was nary a lip, never mind a wall skirting the edge of the wing’s circumference. A six-inch band of metal flashing, smoothly folded over the rim, seemed only to increase the risk of slipping to my death.

I am normally not affected by heights. Hell, I jumped out of a plane the summer before moving to the Big Apple. But even though my depth perception was severely curtailed by the eye screens of the suit, I could tell that they’d need a ice scraper to peel me off the tarmac if I were to fall. Still, I wasn’t about to signal defeat, so I trepidatiously made my way out as far as I could. All I needed was a pirate prodding me from behind with a cutlass while his motley crew cheered me on.

Gone were my usual Spider-Man–esque contortions; no crouching, no weird angles. My sole focus was on the position of my feet along the flashing. At the distant call of the photographer, I froze and raised my head in his direction. That’s the photo you see. I didn’t stick around to “work the camera.” It’s a shame, the actual shot conveys little of the precipitous drop of the setting. I guess I should be thankful it doesn’t expose the stain on the seat of my costume.

And yet, apparently I didn’t feel I’d done enough to show how far up my ass my head was. Spanning the main road to the Saddledome, arching twenty feet at its peak, stood a die-cut sign reading, CALGARY STAMPEDE. As Alf, the photographer and I approached the arch on our way back to Calgary proper, I said, “You should get a picture of me on top of the sign.”

I should have known by then that Alf was resourceful. Give him an idea and consider it done. He was not one to procrastinate; he didn’t need approvals; there was no vote by committee to be taken. So let it be said (to Alf); so let it be done (by Alf). One quick walkie-talkie conversation and ten minutes later, a cherry picker was pulling up to the signage. I, still clad in my red-and-blues, leapt onto the vehicle and was soon clambering over its railing, maneuvering carefully onto the “S” of the display’s peak.

The sign was mere inches wide and constructed like a sandwich: lengths of two-by-fours formed the meat squeezed between thin pressed-wood bread. The front mirrored the back, so the display either welcomed visitors to The Stampede or bid them adieu. The decision was made to shoot me with the Calgary skyline—in which the Calgary Tower stood front and center—looming in the background.

Finding my balance without my foot falling into the gaps of the sign was the least of my problems. The sign swayed in the breeze! Though not discernable from street level, it was a characteristic of the display abundantly noticeable to one perching upon it. I anchored myself as best I could in a squat with my left calf hugging the “S” for support before dismissing the cherry picker.

Oddly, I was not nervous, though I had worse footing than that of the Saddledome stairwell housing roof and my new perch rocked in the wind. I guess the twenty-foot drop of the Stampede display seemed like a typical Manhattan pothole in comparison to the fifty-foot one I had experienced mere moments before. I even maneuvered into a variety of poses, “making love to the camera,” as it were, before I signaled for the cherry picker to retrieve me.

These final shots proved to be the best. A magnificent panoramic view of Calgary serving as the backdrop to a sign announcing the city’s premiere yearly event topped by America’s iconic superhero ambassador in perfect pose.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

My Dinner with Johnny Depp

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, opened this weekend, and I couldn’t help but reflect on an encounter I had with the internationally renowned thespian when I was still waiting tables in New York.

By 1991, less than five years since I arrived in the Big Apple, my freelance work as a Marvel character actor and writer for the company’s fan magazine, Marvel Age, had grown to the point that I was only a few months from becoming an independent contractor full-time and leaving the food-service business altogether. I was sometimes bartender, most times waiter at an Italian restaurant called Valentina’s in Tribeca, an area on the lower west side of Manhattan.

It was an unremarkable eatery. The décor was tired and dated: wood-paneled, ecru wainscoting; maroon and graying (from having never been cleaned) paisley-print flock wallpaper; worn Persian-style, wall-to-wall carpeting; miniature, faux-crystal chandeliers, yellowed from age and neglect; tables topped with carnation pink cloth; and heavy, wooden chairs with seat cushions in desperate need of reupholstering. The place had remained unchanged, since its opening decades prior, and so had its clientele, making the appearance of Johnny Depp one evening all the more astounding.

Depp’s cachet was high from his success in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. He walked in one dead weekday night for dinner with a female friend in tow. The maitre d’—an older disgruntled, failed actor named Doug—didn’t recognize the young star, but he wouldn’t have known anyone younger than Walter Matthau. He seated the party in my section—actually, the whole restaurant was my section that night (dead, remember?). I identified Depp instantly.

“Two Pelligrino’s,” Doug reported to me from my perch at the bus station where he deposited the extra two settings from the four-top at which he had seated the future Jack Sparrow, before heading to the bar to pick up the bottled Italian sparkling waters Depp and co. had ordered.

I watched until Doug had the drinks and glasses precariously balanced on a cocktail tray and was returning unsteadily to the table, before asking, “Don’t you know who that is?”

I knew full well Doug hadn’t a clue from the innocuous way he acted when escorting the Depp party to their table. I also knew Doug—as a wannabe celebrity—would react like a dog when asked if it wanted a cookie when I posed the question. But as he was already committed to delivering the drinks, all he could do was continue on his awkward way, only now with the extra onus of serving big stars! As Bugs Bunny would say, “Ain’t I a stinker?”

When Doug returned—fortunately sans incident—there was noticeable sweat on his prodigious forehead and he was visibly shaken.

“Wh-who…? Who is it?” he stammered, barely keeping his voice below a whisper.

“It’s Johnny Depp,” I replied, as if to say, How could you not recognize one of the legends of our time? How could you have been treating him like just another person? Then I proceeded briskly to the table to give Depp and his date the specials for the evening, leaving Doug to alternately fret about his atrocious behavior while also wonder who the hell Johnny Depp was.

I was never one to get caught up in the celebrity of television and movie stars. I provided excellent service regardless of who I was waiting on. From what I’d observed, Depp showed neither haughtiness nor ego. As I approached he and his date were leaning in close to one another, holding hands across the table, giggling while chatting, signs indicative of a couple newly in love. His female companion looked familiar, but I just couldn’t place her face. She was diminutive, had beautiful dark features, short-cropped hair and alabaster skin. I knew Doug wouldn’t be any help in her identification; she was several generations removed from Mary Pickford, after all.

The pair kindly listened as I delivered that evening’s specials before saying they were ready to order. Depp gentlemanly ordered a split Caesar salad for both and a pasta primavera for the lady before pausing.

“Can I get the veal piccata, only with chicken?” he humbly inquired.

“You want chicken piccata.” I replied, as if being asked a trick question.

“Can you do that?” he furthered. In Depp’s defense, veal piccata was listed on the menu, whereas the chicken alternative was not.

“Of course, it’s the sauce that makes it piccata,” I explained. “The chef can just substitute chicken for veal.”

“Great. I’d like that and an order of tortellini,” he finished.

“Do you want the tortellini before the main course?” I asked.

“No, you can bring everything together.”

“That’s an awful lot of food, you know?” I cautioned.

“Yeah, but I’m really hungry,” he explained.

“I think your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” I warned, using a saying of my mother’s when I ordered more food than I could possibly eat. “Let me bring you the tortellini,” I continued. “I’ll check when you’re halfway through, and if you want, I can put in the chicken piccata order then and have it ready when you’ve finished the tortellini.”

He seemed pleased with my compromise and the two went back to making googly eyes at one another while I headed for the kitchen. On the way, I passed Doug interrogating the Hispanic busboy as to the identity of my diner. Unsuccessfully, I might add. Though, I’m willing to bet the busboy knew exactly who Johnny Depp was, but was merely messing with Doug (Ah, I trained him well).

When I saw that Depp’s tortellini was half eaten, I returned as promised.

“You were right. It’s very filling… and very good,” he admitted. “I won’t need the chicken piccata.”

Depp ended up not quite finishing the tortellini, but waved off a doggy bag when offered. He then asked how long the restaurant had been there, explaining that he and his companion were just walking around when they found it. He seemed surprised that he had never heard of Valentina’s before. My feeling was that the place, like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, just needed a little love and attention, so it was nice to hear Johnny Depp give his kudos.

“You are who I think you are?” I then asked. Perhaps, I suffered a moment of uncertainty when he remarked so positively about the place. The food was good, but while being a far cry from the Italian food served from chafing dishes at buffet-style wedding receptions, it was also a ways removed from the cuisine served at any of Chef Mario Batali’s establishments. And had Depp actually took in the place’s ambiance, instead of staring into his gal pal’s eyes the entire time with limited pauses to interact with Doug and me, his opinion surely would have varied. I mean, the restaurant was the sort of place that bowling leagues would rent out for their annual dinners.

“Yup,” was his economic reply.

“Just wanted to make sure,” I explained. “Personally, I couldn’t care less, but whenever I go home to visit, my family always wants to know who I’ve seen.”

I then turned to Depp’s date. “And are you anyone?” I regretted the question before the last syllable passed my lips. The bird in the children’s book, Are You My Mother? didn’t sound as pathetic as I did.

“No… I’m nobody,” she replied, then the pair broke out in laughter. I still didn’t know how badly I’d blundered, but was positive I’d screwed up any chance of getting a good tip.

The check came to a modest sum—just over $40.00. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Depp had matched that total, leaving me $40 dollars. And he left Doug another $20. Maybe he really did enjoy the experience, although in my case he probably just felt sorry.

Soon after they had departed I had a Homer Simpson “D’Oh!” moment: Depp’s cherubic companion was Winona Ryder. The two had met while filming Edward Scissorhands, and their affair was in all the tabloids and magazines, and on all the television gossip shows at the time. And no doubt, you my forgiving Bloglodytes, figured it out almost immediately. I’d like to think I fell victim to the whole stars-never-look-in-person-as-they-do-on-screen theory. Or that my ignorance was a result of never reading those trashy rumor-mongering periodicals or watching their televised equivalent.

Oh, Hell, who am I kidding…

Just call me Doug.