Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Love at First Sleight (of Hand)

I am a big fan of Penn & Teller’s and have been since the early eighties when I first saw them perform on one of the late-night chat fests, most likely the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, although it could have been the Late Show with David Letterman. Then again, it might not have been either. But the stunt they pulled during that appearance was indelibly imprinted in my memory and remains one of my favorite illusions. So when I actually got to meet Penn as Spider-Man, the moment was… er… magical.

To be honest, I can’t say I immediately took to the pair of subversive prestidigitators. Who was this obnoxious, lumbering giant? Doesn’t he know there’s no talking in magic? Why is he picking on his diminutive accomplice? For that matter, what’s with the Marcel Marceau routine of the little guy?

Penn & Teller

Despite all the questions swirling about my noggin and the team’s seeming “wrongness,” there was something hypnotic about the act. I wanted, nay needed, to know what was going to happen next. I had never been so captivated by a simple card trick in my life. And that’s all it started out as, a basic “pick a card, any card,” slight of hand betwixt the sarcastic Penn and brow-beaten Teller, with the former doing the selecting. The application of a hood over Teller’s head may have made the trick slightly more interesting, but it certainly wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.

But then Penn produced a very long, very dangerous-looking knife, which he carefully placed in his wee hooded partner’s hand. Teller fumbled with the bare bodkin like Helen Keller to Penn’s Anne Sullivan at the water pump. The scene was silly and evolved to farcical, when the Teller began swinging the blade about a ducking Penn, who was attempting to spread the deck of cards in which was hidden the previously chosen card on a small table.

At each of Teller’s downward stabs, Penn would barely get his hands out of the way, each time scolding his armed assistant before continuing his mixing of the deck. The tension mounted, even though the two weren’t fooling anyone with their antics. No one believed for a second that Teller was going to “accidentally” stab Penn.

Then Teller did just that.

The knife came down, plunging through Penn’s hand. The big galoot screamed and lifted his wounded appendage to the audience. There, impaled on the knife blade which had seemingly penetrated several inches through Penn’s generously bleeding palm was the card he had selected only moments before.

The abusive Penn often gets his comeuppance at the hands of his brow-beaten partner, Teller

I screamed; I laughed; I OMG-ed. I tried to explain the amazing feat to others long thereafter. But it was like trying to adequately convey a sunset. The trick was so much more than its climax. It was about the unsuave Penn, whose brash, caustic persona was anathema to the recognized ideal of the debonair, often tuxedo-clad magicians up to that point in history. Then there was Penn’s mute assistant. Teller was far removed from the leggy, sexy female assistants which were de riguer of prestidigitation. And rarely, if ever, had illusionists spoken to their helpers, never mind vocally lambaste and humiliate them. By the time Teller was stabbing willy-nilly at the cards, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, Yeah, stab the obnoxious jerk. That’ll shut him up, which contributed to the shock of the trick’s finale.

Sure, Doug Henning introduced a variant style of magic in the ’70s, but in the end it was the same old, same old, only by way of sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Magic tricks, after all, are about the theatrics, not the result. Whether rabbit, glittery assistant, tiger, elephant or ocean liner, something is going to appear or disappear in the end; the audience volunteer is going to get their watch or $20 bill magically restored and returned. And the card randomly chosen from a typical deck of 52 cards will be inexplicably revealed. What Penn & Teller had done—and continue to do—was take a tired magical standard and turn it on its ear.

Since then I’ve seen Penn & Teller perform live on and off-Broadway several times. Their shows feature hilarious debunkings of archtypical magical tricks mixing equal parts silliness, shock and the bizarre. But one trick in particular, presented in their 1994 Broadway show, irked me. It was another spin on the aforementioned card trick, only this time the audience volunteer did not choose a card from a deck, but rather a superhero action figure from a briefcase filled with such.

All four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were in the case, but where was Spidey?!!

Guess who was missing?

Even from my seat in the mezzanine, I could see that Spider-Man was absent from the selection of figures in the case. And there had to be several dozen—60 at least—lining the inside cover and main compartment. All were different. They had to be. It wouldn’t be much of a trick if there were only a handful of characters from which to select. Oh, there was Superman, Batman, those upstart Ninja Turtles, He-Man, Power Rangers of various colors…

(We interrupt this story to take a moment to consider how sad the raconteur must be to have been so anguished over the make-up of action figures in a case that was open for a fraction of a minute during a two-hour lavish Broadway show; not to mention the fact that said Uncle Remus can’t recall much else from the show, yet can pinpoint actual toys in the short span of time they were featured during one trick. Can you say, GEEK?! We now return to our regularly scheduled posting, already in progress...)

As fate would have it, I wasn’t the only one who noticed the affront to Marveldom. No more than two days later, I was called into Director of Personal Appearances Alyson’s office.

“Do you know who Penn & Teller are,” she innocently asked.

“Know them? I was at their show just the other night. You know, they do this trick with superhero action figures and they didn’t even have a Spider-Man. I couldn’t believe it!”

“Funny you should mention that,” Alyson said with a laugh.

Oh, this isn't going to end well...

Apparently, someone else at Marvel, someone of such a level as to make things happen, saw the Penn & Teller show as well. It might very well have been company President Terry Stewart. Unlike traditional head honchos, who keep themselves far removed from the underpinnings of the companies for which they work, Stewart was a fan of comics—pop culture in general, to be precise—and followed the characters religiously both in the books and beyond. I would not have been surprised if he, too, noticed the absence of a Spider-Man figure in that briefcase during a performance. And he could do something about it.

But what?

As President, Stewart could contact the magical misfits or at least their agent and convey a message. But that type of reaction from a big corporation—Revlon owned Marvel at this juncture—is exactly the sort of thing that would rile the duo, who have since made a career of antiestablishmentariantism well beyond the magical realm through their hit Showtime series Bullshit!

The solution was to let Spider-Man himself confront Penn & Teller about his hurt feelings over their snubbing. Fortunately, there was no need to create a situation that would allow the Web-Slinger to gain access to the pair. As is his custom after shows, Penn situates himself by the theater exit where he interacts with the fans as they depart. For Teller to also do so would entail his breaking out of his mute persona, something he never does in public. But for the garrulous Penn, it was only natural.

My mission—which I chose to accept—was simply: Approach Penn as Spidey after a performance and get him to man-up about the personal affront to the Webbed Wonder. And as a token that there were no hard feelings, Spidey would gift Penn a bag of various Marvel action figures that he could then integrate into the illusion.

Getting hold of the toys was simple. Since Toy Biz—Marvel action-figure licensee—was also owned by the same parent company, Revlon, the latest offerings from the toy maker could be found in the comics storeroom at Marvel. It was the comic geek equivalent of the fabled Vogue “closet” wherein the magazine stores all the designer fashions—shoes and hand bags included—used in their monthly photo spreads. Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs updates her look in The Devil Wears Prada at the hands of Stanley Tucci’s Nigel in the film’s homage to the mythical designer depository. Ugly Betty features its own closet inspired by the infamous Vogue vault, as well.

The night of the operation, a car service picked me up at my apartment in Forest Hills at 9:00 PM. The 2-hour performance started at 8:00 PM, leaving the driver an hour to make the 20-minute drive to get to the theater before the show’s completion. I had the goody bag and the backpack holding my suit in hand. I’d have to don the red-and-blue in the car outside the theater. There was no alternative.

Traveling as Spider-Man was not an option. First, I had no idea how long I would be in the suit. Even if everything were to proceed accordingly, it would take two-and-a-half hours minimum before I returned home. I don’t want to think about the potential media backlash were the vehicle to get pulled over or into an accident with Spider-Man as passenger.

Also, the car’s windows were not tinted—Marvel wasn’t about to pony up for a limo—so I would be exposed en route and as I awaited the show’s conclusion, which most likely would engender reaction, perhaps even a crowd—this is New York, after all—around the vehicle; not the most desirable of scenarios for a stealth mission. Pulling off the top half of the costume enough so as not to be recognizable as the Web-Slinger would then leave a half naked man loitering in a black luxury sedan in the heart of New York City’s theater district at its busiest time. Yeah, that would go unnoticed!

No, I would have to transform as soon as I saw the doors open and the first few patrons exiting.

En route it dawned on me that the driver would be completely ignorant of what his passenger intended on doing in the backseat of the car. His brief would simply list the pick-up point, destination and return. I felt it prudent to advise him of the situation, even though he had probably been witness to greater oddities in his rearview mirror over the years. He seemed tickled at the idea that he was commandeering the vehicle in which the idol of millions would be transforming. I’d like to think he was also appreciative of being enlightened of the evening’s job after years are of being kept in the dark and simply told what to do.

The trip to the theater was thankfully quick and uneventful—traffic only happens when one is in a hurry—and the driver pulled over approximately thirty yards from the main entrance, far enough away so as not to be discovered, yet close enough for me to see the doors.

The wait was interminable; I don’t know how law enforcement deals with the inactivity during stake-outs. Finally, the doors opened and the first few audience members started to depart. I’d say I sprang into action, but there isn’t much room for springing in the back of an automobile, even a luxury sedan. Still, I did the best I could, the years of experience I logged over the years changing in smaller vehicles, maintenance closets, Port-O-Sans and the like, coming in handy.

In mere moments I was in Web-Shooting mode. Even with the throngs of departing patrons clogging the front of the playhouse, it was easy to spot the gargantuan form of Penn. Standing well over six feet, the talkative trickster looked like Richard Dreyfus swarmed by the undersize aliens in the final moments of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A quick check with my chauffeur to verify that my face was straight and I was off.

I beelined toward my quarry, dodging tourists and throwing a quick wave in the direction of the several “Hey, Spider-Man”s I heard in the brief time it took me to reach Penn. The prattling prestidigitator’s fans parted like the Red Sea before Moses at my approach.

“Spider-Man!” Penn’s response was less surprise and more like he’d read the script beforehand, though he couldn’t have. I think that because his persona invites all sorts of whack-a-doos to confront him—especially in New York—he’s used to the unusual encounter.

“I got to say, I love your work,” I began. “But I’m disappointed. I was hanging from the ceiling enjoying the show the other night, when I noticed you didn’t have an action figure of yours truly in the briefcase for that one trick you perform. How could you? Me… Everyone’s favorite neighborhood Web-Swinger, scourge of evil-doers the world over… publicly snubbed by Penn & Teller. Tell me you haven’t been taken in by those disparaging editorials by J. Jonah Jameson in the Daily Bugle excoriating me as a menace to society.”

During my playful diatribe Jillette hung his head in mock contrition and chanted a litany of mea culpas until I’d finished.

“I wanted to include a figure of you, but I couldn’t find any,” he offered with genuine concern.

“Part of the curse of being an internationally beloved superhero… constant sell-outs of everything from action figures to Underoos. Well, I’m here to alleviate that and show you that there are no hard feelings…”

Wolverine most likely joined Spider-Man in the goody bag

I presented the gift and the humbled Houdini took the small white paper bag like a trick-or-treater having just scored their latest confection, peering into the sack with greedy wonder. I was dying to know myself. I’m sure there was a Spidey inside, but the bag held 3–4 different figures, and the colorful curled ribbon tied to the handles and matching tissue paper enveloping the toys within prevented my getting even a modest peek.

“Oooo… thanks, Spidey,” he cooed like a young’un. “I’ll get this into the show tomorrow night.”

And with that, I pulled my own illusion and disappeared.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wedding Photo

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 featured the wedding of Peter Parker and longtime gal pal Mary-Jane Watson and was printed with two covers, one for newsstand distribution (right) and the other for the direct market (left). Attendees at the mock wedding on June 5, 1987, at Shea Stadium received the latter version.

With the 2010 baseball season officially under way with Sunday night’s come-from-behind Boston Red Sox win over defending World Champion New York Yankees, it seemed apropos for me to recount my 1987 meeting as Spider-Man with members of another team from the Big Apple, also defending World Champions at the time.

The gig was my third Marvel job overall; a photo shoot geared to producing a poster, which would be handed out in goodie bags to all attendees as they entered Shea Stadium on June 5. The occasion? The mock-wedding ceremony of Spider-Man and Mary-Jane Watson prior to that evening’s game, a loose interpretation of what would be transpiring in the Amazing Spider-Man comic book at that time, in which Peter Parker sans costume would be marrying his vivacious red-headed gal as part of the 25th Anniversary celebration of everyone’s favorite Web-Swinger.

As mentioned, I was to don the red-and-blue, my second time doing so after my infamous jumping-out-of-a-cake appearance as the Green Goblin at Spider-Man’s swinging bachelor party several weeks before. Why veteran Spidey actor Jeremy wasn’t taking up the mantle for this important event, I don’t know, especially since he was the webbed portrayer for all wedding-related media events leading up to and including these pre-game nuptials. I was a mere newbie, still wet behind the webs.

This promotional photo of Spider-Man’s impending nuptials was taken during a press conference, maybe the prior commitment that prevented the actor beneath the mask, veteran Jeremy, from participating in the poster photo shoot.

I vaguely remember there being another more prominent appearance booked at the same time. That would certainly explain where Jeremy was and the absence of any Marvel Publicity Department personnel. Add to that the schedule of the Mets players participating in the photo shoot, which was certainly unalterable; the fact that it was a weekday afternoon gig—a contributing factor in my being the only Spider-Man actor otherwise twiddling my thumbs watching The Price Is Right at home during that time—and the fact that the shoot would not entail an active display of my rookie Spidey prowess or my speaking with the media; and my call to webs—as it were—for this momentous shoot seems plausible. Basically more factors had to align than those needed for the successful invasion of Normandy on D-Day for me to ever be considered for such a prestigious job (Did I mention my low self-esteem?).

The World Champion Mets had just beaten my belovèd Red Sox the season before in the infamous—or famous, depending on who you were rootin’ for—“Bill Buckner” World Series. Since the faux nuptuals would be taking place on their home turf at Shea Stadium, several members of the Mets would be participating. It would be a dream come true for any Mets fan, but a stab to the heart for me. Isn’t it ironic? Alanis Morrisette…you have no idea!

Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and Firestar—or rather the actors who would portray them—and I convened at the Marvel offices, where we were driven to the field. The guy playing Iceman was to meet us there. These were the only superhero costumes Marvel had at the time. Suits for villains Green Goblin and Dr. Doom existed as well, but were wisely omitted. The theme was “super heroes,” after all.

We dressed in the visiting team’s locker room, stepping out onto the field as they would have during a game. Soon we were joined by a quartet of uniformed Mets heroes: Lee Mazzilli, Roger McDowell, Wally Backman and Darryl Strawberry. What kept me from taking a bat to their heads was the sick satisfaction of knowing that the centerpiece to this surreal tableau of Mets stars and comic book heroes; the man around which the Mets players gathered; the star of a poster that was to be given out to thousands of Mets fans; was a devout Red Sox fan… Bwah-ha-ha-ha!!!

Not buying it, huh? How about if I told you that I was paid exorbitantly (I wasn’t) for an hour’s worth of work? Okay, I admit it; there wasn’t much that was cool about this gig for me. Until the end of time when describing this moment to my friends and fellow Sox fans, there will be a spiritual asterisk that reads, “Yeah, but you had your photo taken with the ’86 Championship Mets!”

Ironically, the only one of us superheroes who was a Mets fan was Gary, the actor playing The Incredible Hulk, whose enthusiasm and full enjoyment of his heroes was greatly curtailed by his confinement in the padded cell that was the Hulk costume.

This gift bag—given to everyone who entered the ball park the night of Spideys wedding—contained the Spider-Man comic mentioned above and other goodies

By far, the Hulk costume was the most taxing of all the costumes, at least when I began working for Marvel. Other than the head, each part was basically a stuffed toy, seven components in all. First, the wearer stepped into the lower torso and upper legs, which were clad in The Hulk’s signature ripped purple pants. The “bare” feet/shins/calves sections extended to the knee, high enough to meet the upper legs/lower torso subdivision. Hulkie’s lavender leggings continued beyond the knee, thus cleverly concealing the joint where the aforementioned elements met. There was a 2–3 inches built into the sole of the feet to heighten the actor within. The chartreuse tootsies were designed around the entire area, so the fact that they were essentially platform boots wasn’t noticeable. Of course, the design only exacerbated the unwieldiness of wearing the suit.

The head was donned next. It seemed to be constructed from the same hard substance as the Green Goblin mask. At least, the fumes smelled similarly and had that same wonderful “stoned” effect on the wearer. Contrary to the Green Goblin’s mask, the Hulk’s was not painted, but covered with the same soft green fabric that was used to cover the other body parts of the costume. The neck flap was long enough to be tucked into the chest cavity, which was put on like a hospital gown, with the opening in the back, closed up with a succession of eye hooks. The hands were the final piece. Pushing one’s hands into them was akin to fisting a teddy bear.

The actor within looked out Jade Giant’s mouth, which was covered in hard black mesh. I use the term “looked” loosely, as the vision in The Hulk’s mask would be deemed legally blind. The peripherals were nil and the added height made it impossible to see up to five feet in front of the wearer. In order to shake hands with children, the actor would have to crouch as he bent forward, otherwise he’d tip over.

So as not to scare the kiddies, the mask was sculpted with a less-menacing visage than one would expect from the Green Behemoth. Oh, who am I kidding? He looked goofy. The mask’s bushy, black Oscar-the-Grouch–esque eyebrows, shock of matching tousled hair and bemused grin gave him the sort of relieved look one would expect on someone who’d just passed a stone. “Hulk, SMASH!” would be the last thing one would expect to hear out of him. “Ah-h-h-h-h… I’ll never eat atomic burritos again,” would be more likely.

Hulk Mark still glows from the sweat of wearing the costume at another appearance, where, in a moment of adolescent silliness, he shows off what happens when the Hulk gets excited as opposed to angry (For the record, that's a toy football in his pants; he was not that happy to see me!).

Once ensconced within, the Hulk actor was covered with as much as six inches of stuffed heavy fabric in places and carried an extra thirty pounds of weight. The rule was “twenty minutes in, twenty minutes out.” Any more and the actor risked fainting. Plus, as the costume absorbed the wearer’s sweat, of which there was copious amounts, it became heavier as the appearance wore one. Multiple day appearances didn’t allow enough time for the costume to dry out completely, so it was progressively damper and heavier from day to day. Should I mention the “heady” bouquet of Hulk appearances past that would intensify within the noggin as the lucky performer inside perspired?

All these factors made the Hulk costume the only one that an actor not only needed help donning, but also necessitated chaperoning at all times. Given the limited vision, the Green Behemoth risked trampling wee ones rushing in to offer a hug or shake hands below his line of sight. If children stood within five feet of The Hulkster, they didn’t exist. The attendant would alert the performer, at times physically guiding him to ensure little Johnny wasn’t squashed like a bug. It was also the assistant’s job to monitor the time and “excuse” the Hulk, every twenty minutes, so the actor could cool down and rehydrate.

Another of the treats in the wedding gift bag was this Spider-Man pin commemorating the Web-Swinger’s big day

Once we helped Gary into character and escorted him onto the field, he was on his own. There was no risk of stumbling over anything let alone a small child. And he remained in costume for the entirety of the time the players were on the field with us. Born and raised in Queens, Gary was a lifelong Mets fan, yet he couldn’t even hold a pen, let alone ask for an autograph. And he wasn’t exactly getting a clear view of the Mets players through the small black-mesh maw of the Hulk’s face.

The actor playing Iceman had only recently moved from California and as such may have been a Dodgers, Angels, Giants or Padres fan, not that we could tell with his incessant whining about being fat and how he planned to get liposuction to correct the problem as soon as he’d saved enough. In that regard he was not shy about asking how much each of us was making for the shoot. I had never met a more vacuous individual. He was pathetic. He hardly had “love dimples” never mind love handles. One word buddy: sit-ups! Interesting how exercise was never brought up as a possible solution. He probably still wonders why Barbara never called him back for another gig. Considering the disparaging reviews us “vets” gave his performance and personality, I think we all would have went on strike if she had tried to hire him again.

Meanwhile, Trudy, aka Firestar, had her hands full trying to politely shake off the roaming hands of Roger McDowell who followed her like a stray puppy and persistently tried to pick her up. There is a reason why the former pitching ace has the biggest grin in the poster.

McDowell seemed to be the only Met enjoying the situation—albeit for reasons other than comic-book appreciation. Mazzilli, Backman and Strawberry only ceded their looks of scorn to smile when the photos were being taken. And if you look closely at their visages on the poster, you’ll notice those smile are forced. Perhaps they thought we couldn’t hear clearly in the costumes, because their under-the-breath grumblings about having to participate in the shoot were easily audible.

Even when Mark as Captain America approached each with an outstretched hand in greeting, their lackluster responses and dour countenances were palpable. And Mark was just being polite. He wasn’t even a sports fan never mind a Mets fan. In fact, knowing his relatives and friends would be envious of his meeting these superstars, Mark had us quiz him on their names as we drove back to the Marvel offices so he’d remember them when his relatives asked.

“Okay, don’t tell me. There’s Mazola, MacDonald, Hackman and Raspberry… No, no… wait! It’s Strawberry, MacDougal, Backfield and Mazola…” And it seemed no matter how many times we’d correct him on one, he’d misfire on the others. It’s hard to remember anything when one has no vested interest in the subject matter.

The shoot itself couldn’t have taken longer than 15 minutes. Once the players assembled—several minutes after the characters—the photographer pulled everyone into formation, integrating both sports and comic heroes equally. As Spidey was the raison d’être for this odd tableau, I was placed prominently in the front. My initial poses—signature Webhead moves—were quickly shot down by the photographer. His “vision” included Spider-Man clutching the knob of a baseball bat, held upright between his spread legs and grabbed by Lee Mazzilli and Wally Backman. Can you say, suggestive?!!

I get the “heroes” theme, using members of the Mets, who had just won the World Championship, making them heroes in the eyes of New Yorkers where the wedding would be enacted and the poster distributed. But there was no reason for Spider-Man to be holding a bat, never mind in such an uncharacteristic way. I think the photographer may have had me confused with another superhero.

They should’ve hired Peter Parker!