Sunday, August 22, 2010

To Thee I Web, Part II: Stan the Man of the Cloth

Date: June 5, 1987
Place: Unused locker room at Shea Stadium, former home of the New York Mets

Time: Mere moments before the mock wedding of Spider-Man and Mary-Jane

Situation: Confronted with his hero, Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, Vroom! forces himself forward for an autograph…

“Hello, Mr. Lee. My name is Stephen Vrattos. Could I have your autograph?” I think that paraphrases what I said. At least I’m sure that was my intended greeting. In reality it probably played more like Peter Boyle’s monster in Young Frankenstein when he sang “Putting on the Ritz,” only without the melody.

I held out the poster, which featured me as Spidey, surrounded by a quartet of Mets players as well as Captain America, The Hulk, Iceman and Firestar, that was to be given to every attendee as part of a goodie bag to commemorate the event. Thank God, Stan still held the pen from the previous autograph he’d signed. Had he asked me for a writing utensil, I would’ve shattered; the embarrassment would have been too much.

I pointed to Spider-Man in the poster and blurted, “That’s me.” I’m still not sure whether it was ego—a few wisps still clinging to me from my encounter with Mr. Excelsior! himself—or a need to justify Stan’s signing something that evidently didn’t feature me. I was, after all, not portraying the Spider-Man du jour. That honor rightfully went to Jeremy, with whom Mr. Lee was nigh intimate, considering the amount of gigs he’d already logged with Stan in his near decade of service as the Webbed Wonder.

I suspect it was the former reason given the moronic thing I said next: “I’m playing The Green Goblin today.” No shit, Sherlock! I was only standing in the signature vibrant, green-scaled, spandex bodysuit topped with fluorescent fuchsia hot pants and tunic ensemble indicative of the Web-Swinger’s psychopathic arch-enemy, which Stan created!

If the architect of the Marvel Universe thought for a moment that I was a moron—which would be understandable given the way I was acting—he gave no indication. He told me what a great job I was doing and shook my hand, as he returned the poster. More likely, his magnanimity stemmed from his thinking I was part of a new Marvel initiative to employ people with “special needs.”

I was beaming as I walked back to my corner of the locker room, carrying the poster like it was the Shroud of Turin. As the scene played out, I no doubt looked like one of the thousands of kids for which I—as Spider-Man—signed comic books for in the ensuing years: The mien of sheer terror on their wee faces upon seeing their hero; the methodic placing of one foot in front of the other moving slowly toward the object of their adoration as they overcome that fear; the tremulous low murmur of their names and painstaking wait for the autograph; finally the triumphant march back to their mom or dad, sporting the widest grin imaginable. It was a joy that I’d be bringing to children for the next ten years!

As mentioned, Jeremy was the man of honor, and as such, his costume was the most comfortable, even with the matrimonial accroutrements, which amounted to nothing more than a black tuxedo jacket and white bow tie. Of course, that jacket was designed by Willi Smith. Still, it may as well have been designed by Snuffy Smith. From afar, it looked like nothing more than a standard tuxedo jacket, the ubiquitous sort rented by school kids across the country come prom season.

Upon close inspection, however, one could see the subtle design differences and fine cut of the garment that elevated the piece above those donned by the teenage hoi polloi. But even if you didn’t know your bias from your elbow, you couldn’t fail to be impressed by the unique buttons, sculpted as the theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy. The jacket seemed fated to be worn by Jeremy, who prepared for every appearance—whether filled with the gravitas of an event such as this or of relative obscurity, signing autographs for local young ’uns at a Piggly Wiggly in Mobile—as if he were about to go on stage to play Hamlet.

Conversely, the wedding gown that Tara Shannon—the model/actor playing Mary-Jane Watson—was wearing was more elaborate. Sure, there are probably more than a few bridezillas who might regard it as too simple. Where was the train that needed a small family of Mormons to carry? Where were the endless accessories that would have put Woolworth’s notion department out of business? Where were the floral adornments? The ginormous bows, especially the one usually perched above the ass-crack? The puffy sleeves? And what’s this? MJ’s hair not pulled up into a towering bun, that resembles Yertle and his turtle friends before they toppled and set so tightly as to make even Marty Feldman look Asian? What kind of beauty school dropout and Project Runway loser dreamed up this look?

Oh, just the man who earned scholarships to attend Parsons School of Design in 1965; who won an American Fashion Critics’ Coty Award for women’s fashion in 1983 and a Cutty Sark Award for Men’s Fashion in 1985; who designed the suits for Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when Schlossberg married Caroline Kennedy in 1986; and the clothes for Spike Lee’s film School Daze a year later; who did all this before he died as a result of AIDS before his 40th birthday. That’s who!

I vaguely remember Tara changing in one corner of the room, I say “vaguely” because one moment she was dropping her jeans and the next she was nonchalantly fixing her veil and making the final adjustments to the gown. I’d seen magic tricks wherein a lovely assistant stands atop a caged tiger before lifting a curtain over her head, only to immediately drop the screen to reveal the cat gone and the assistant in its place within the cage, and Tara could have accomplished that and done her nails, in the same instant! It’s one of those strange skills women have, like the ability to take off bras underneath their tops or put on makeup while driving. ’S funny how my wife can do these things and still take two hours to “get ready” for bed. Heck, I just go to bed.

As show time neared, Jeremy and Tara left before the rest of us, because Spider-Man and MJ would be entering from the outfield in a limousine. Soon thereafter, Captain America, Hulk, Iceman, Firestar and Green Goblin—your esteemed blog host—were escorted to the field entrance. It was a beautiful summer evening and still light out, thanks to Daylight Savings Time. A makeshift pulpit was erected midway in front of the third-base line facing the stands where the ceremony was to take place. The heroes and I flanked either side of the podium. There wasn’t any announcement. We simply ambled into place to a few cheers, jeers and choice comments, some pointedly to me and of the “Nice outfit,” “Love your bag,” Going to The Village later?” variety (Ah, New Yorkers…).

This Gobby cartoon was done by the talented Mark Engblom, who pens a great blog—especially for lovers of comics—entitled Comic Coverage

Green Goblin was last to enter and thus standing to the far left or right depending on whether you were a participant or an observer. Later reports mentioned there being “thousands of fans” on hand to witness the event. But even in the Goblin mask, it only looked like several hundred. Shea Stadium did hold nearly sixty thousand at capacity, so my perspective could certainly be skewed with the preponderance of empty seats over filled ones. I’m sure the Marvel and Mets marketing Nabobs promoted the event, but I don’t recall seeing any advertising. Then again, I wasn’t a Mets fan—quite the opposite!—so would not have been attuned to every bobble-head, bat, cap, towel, duffel bag, teething ring, breast pump, whatever, free giveaway night, anyway.

Babs, the wise and wondrous overseer of Marvel’s Personal Appearance Department, handed everyone a script of the ceremony, even though no one but the Announcer, Stan and the happy couple would be speaking. She recognized that we might want a copy as a souvenir. It was quite prescient of her, really. You would think in the years since YouTube started, there would be a video available of the entire wedding; filmed, and later converted and posted by an avid fan in attendance that day. Alas, there is yet none, only clips of the event from entertainment news shows, like Entertainment Tonight, all sorely lacking in conveying the majesty of the moment (Okay, I exaggerate).

The Spider-Man/Mary-Jane wedding script

I’m not sure whether Stan wrote the sequence or not. He was handed the script and looked it over when he got it. This may have been because the piece was entirely new to him or because he was trying to familiarize himself with the words he had written as some point leading up to the wedding—he may have written it in long hand and had someone type it up for him for the event. As I mentioned in my blog posting, “The Coming of Vroom!” Stan’s memory was notoriously bad, so either scenario is possible. And the notes in the margin could have then been added by the marketing department to keep Stan abreast of the blocking, which he would not necessarily have been privy to—it’s not like there was a rehearsal dinner! There are moments in the script wherein one would suspect Stan to have injected signature phrases, but have instead words that seem only in his spirit. Still, having the actual script, the spoken words at the ceremony, is a great memento—although knowing Stan actually wrote them would be phenomenal.

The plus side is the existence of a YouTube video of an interview with Stan, Spidey and MJ on The Good Morning America the day before the wedding, a segment I don’t remember seeing before. I had to smile when Spider-Man/Jeremy mentioned he was “up all night, painting the ceiling,” referring to the bachelor jitters he was experiencing before his impending betrothal. He obviously meant it as a play on Webhead’s ability to stick to walls. But Jeremy actually painted apartments as an additional source of income to his acting work. He may have very well been painting a ceiling the night before the interview! (An astute Bloglodyte—certainly far more astute than I—noted that Jeremy probably said “pacing,” not “painting,” which indeed would make a lot more sense. I guess the poor sound quality of the video and the fact that I do not have external speakers on my computer and thus hear everything through its less-than-ideal internal speakers caused my otic error. D’Oh!)

Here’s the whole megillah as scripted, save for a few typos that I corrected. The parenthetical comments in italics are mine and not a part of the actual piece:

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen… In the early ’60s, two future legends had their auspicious beginnings One was the Amazing Mets. The other was the Amazing Spider-Man. Today, these two great American institutions, Spidey and the Mets (just in case they slipped your mind since they were mentioned two seconds ago!), honor a third, most sacred institution—that of matrimony. The management of Shea Stadium and Marvel Comics invite you to witness the marriage of Spider-Man and his fabulous fiancée, Ms. Mary-Jane Watson. Please cast your eyes to centerfield and join us in welcoming the bride and groom.

(Fanfare as limousines enter and go to staging area… Cars arrive at staging area… Spidey and MJ get out and are guided to stage) (Don’t remember a “fanfare,” perhaps it was “Let’s Go, Mets!” or “YMCA.”)

ANNOUNCER: And here to conduct the ceremony is the Web-Swinger’s creator, Mr. Marvel Comics—Stan Lee.

LEE: Good evening, Culture Lovers! (I suspect Stan may have said “True Believers” had he scripted the piece. Then again, “Culture Lovers” is not entirely out of his oeuvre) We are gathered here in the sight of 50,000 fans (I don’t think so!), superheroes all, to join our Wall-Crawling Wonder and his Tantalizing True Love in the bonds of matrimony; bonds as strong as webbing and as satisfying as a happy ending.

LEE: Now in sight and presence of a coterie of our other costumed crusaders, please prepare to recite your vows…

LEE: Do you, Spider-Man, being of sound mind and super body, take Mary-Jane to be your lawfully wedded Wife, forsaking all other superheroines? Do you promise to never leave footprints on the ceiling, or cobwebs in the corners? And will you pinch-hit for the Mets when you are asked?


LEE: Mary-Jane, do you, being of sound mind and spectacular body, agree to forsake other masked Marvelites, to never ever swat a spider, and to hug, comfort and kiss away any bruises incurred after a long day of bashing bad guys—and stay out of the Mets locker room?

MJ: I do.

LEE: May I have the ring? —Cap gives ring to Spidey (handwritten)
Please repeat after me… With this ring I thee web.

SPIDEY: With this ring I thee web.

MJ: With this ring I thee web.

LEE: By the power invested in me by Marvel Comics, I now pronounce you Spider-Man and wife. You may kiss the bride.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen… Let’s have a big New York round of applause for Stan Lee and our newlyweds.

Spider-Man dipped MJ and planted a dramatic kiss, then carried her to the limousine. As cool as it was to be a part of the wedding, from my vantage behind the screened eyeholes of the Green Goblin mask, I didn’t see much. As the nubile newlyweds drove off, the rest of us followed Stan off the field. He was beaming like a proud father and waving at the fans like a politician in a parade.

But the night was still young and we had a wedding reception to get to!

NEXT: Dancing in the Dark

Monday, August 9, 2010

To Thee I Web, Part I: Idol Banter

On June 5, 1987, Spider-Man got married to longtime gal-pal Mary-Jane Watson in a mock ceremony at Shea Stadium before the then defending World Champion New York Mets confronted the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the culmination of months of events geared to promote the twenty-fifth anniversary of the debut of Spider-Man in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962.

In the Web-Slinger’s titles, Peter Parker’s relationship with MJ—as she was affectionately called by family and friends—starting building well before that. When he finally popped the question, the media coverage was modest at best—this wasn’t exactly the death of Superman, an event that caused a media frenzy ten years hence in the mid-nineties.

The Marvel marketing machine did it’s best to stoke the fires of the various news organizations leading up to the auspicious counterfeit coupling, including a press conference presided over by the bride and groom and a staged bachelor party at which I—jumping out of a cake in my initial take as the Green Goblin (see It’s Not Easy Being Green)—was one of the dramatis personae enlisted to help boost exposure. They even commissioned famed designer and New York native Willi Smith to design MJ’s gown and Spidey’s tuxedo for the faux fête. Still, even with a coveted spot in the wedding announcement section of The New York Times the Sunday prior, the event hardly set the world afire, falling victim to the times.

Willi Smith’s original sketches for Mary-Jane’s wedding gown

In the eighties, comic books continued to be regarded—or more appropriately, disregarded—as puerile entertainment, unworthy of anything more than the attention one gives a bygone curiosity. I cannot tell you the amount of times a passer-by remarked “They still make funny books?!!” at the events at which I portrayed Spider-Man during my tenure as a Marvel character actor. Nerds may have become the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century, but back then, the ignominy of being a comic-book geek surpassed that of being a Trekkie.

Once again I’d be portraying Spider-Man’s nefarious nemesis Green Goblin, continuing the trend of oscillating from Web-Head to Gobby which began with my first appearance in Rutland, Vermont, the Halloween before (see You Never Forget Your First Time). And once again, not getting the call to play the premiere figure in Marvel’s Grand Guignol fazed me not. Are you kidding me?!! I was just happy to be a part of this historic moment, albeit only in the context of comic-book geekdom. I would have done it for free.

Okay, maybe not gratis. But only because my finances were in dire straits at the time. Not even a year into my move from Beantown to the Big Apple, the savings which I’d brought with me were all but depleted—my life was running on fumes. My job as House Manager for New York’s venerable Serendipity III restaurant—the same one featured in the eponymous 2001 John Cusack/Kate Beckinsale big-screen romance—may have looked good on paper, but paid horribly. I was working sixty-hour weeks for a salary that amounted to little more than four dollars an hour. Plus, the schedule of someone positioned in restaurant management is nigh-inflexible, a detriment to an aspiring actor who needs to be able to cover shifts at a moment’s notice, one of the perks of waiting tables.

When I approached the manager about a modest raise after the restaurant experienced a profitable record-setting holiday season, I was greeted with disingenuous comments about my not yet proving myself in the position (Gee, I wonder how much more the eatery would have made had I not been there impeding their sales). So, two weeks before Spider-Man’s wedding, I resigned my position at Serendipity III, reasoning that I could make more as a server elsewhere.

I landed a position with legendary Tavern-On-The-Green within days. Ironically, the interview lasted only as long as it took the Green’s General Manager to discover that I’d managed Serendipity III, at which he had eaten lunch only days prior. He was so impressed with the service, he hired me on the spot, obviously disregarding my “having not proven myself,” though he did display a moment of confusion as to why I would want to wait tables rather than hold a managerial position. The bogus betrothal conveniently occurred betwixt my career change.

The Spider-Man wedding roster (front row, l. to r., Jeremy/Spider-Man, Barbara/Director of Marvel’s Personal Appearance Department, Mark/Iceman, Tara/MJ; back row,
l. to r., Trudy/Firestar, David/Captain America, Stan Lee, Vroom!/Green Goblin and Gary/Hulk)

The cast of seven, plus Director of Marvel’s Personal Appearance Program, Barbara, gathered at Marvel HQ, whence we were shuttled via van to Shea Stadium, the painful memories of which—drawn from the 1986 World Series, which resulted in the Mets besting my belovèd Red Sox—could not supersede my excitement. The character roster mirrored that of the bachelor party, with the inclusion of Mary-Jane. Spider-Man veteran Jeremy was understandably the man of honor. Trudy and Gary reprised the parts they played at the giveaway Poster shoot, Firestar and The Hulk, respectively. David replaced Mark L. as Best Man Captain America and Mark G. was thankfully available to handle the Iceman chores. I guess the newbie from the aforementioned photo gig was too busy getting liposuction (see Wedding Photo).

A professional model/actor, Tara Shannon, was hired specifically to be MJ throughout everything wedding-related, i.e. gown fitting, press junket, etc. It made sense to hire a model. After all, Mary-Jane was a model/aspiring actor in the comics. Plus, Tara was a true redhead, unlike a certain actor who recently portrayed the character who shall not be named (Kirsten Dunst). She also had an uncanny resemblance to the character as envisioned by her creator, John Romita. The capper was her personality. I expected vacuous, frigid, bland and brain-dead, but got vivacious, sultry, charming, smart, sweet and funny, even quirky at times. She fit right in, giving even seasoned Jeremy a run for his money.

The Amazin’s were in the midst of batting practice when we arrived, the stands sparsely filled with a few hundred die-hard fans of the orange-and-blue. The players eyed our motley band of baggage-toting nobodies in bewilderment. They were expecting The Pirates, after all. Gary, our Hulk and the only true Mets fan, dumbfoundedly stumbled along, returning the ballplayers’ stares whilst dragging behind him the military, green-canvas overnighter used to transport the costume. He was like a youngster pulling their wee luggage at the airport, more fascinated with their immediate environs than getting to the gate. Babs completed the tableau playing the mom role, frequently calling back to him, “C’mon, Gary!”

We were led to what appeared to be a dressing room, but certainly neither that of the Mets or Pirates. This was filled with boxes of the special gift bags that would be handed out to early attendees who arrived in time to witness the blessed event (see Wedding Photo, and don’t make me say it again!). Babs graciously distributed one to each of us before a cadre of stadium personnel arrived to haul the boxes to the various entry gates around the sports edifice. I got my first glimpse at the poster in which I partook as ole Webhead several months before (see Wed— Ah, fuhgeddaboudit!), it being one of the cool gew gaws in the bags. Despite the presence of the accursed Mets players who contributed to my Bosox demise, it was pretty nice. Who am I kidding? It was %#@& awesome!!! Me, as the legendary Spider-Man, handed out to thousands of fans, subsequently hanging in the rooms of more than a few kids . . . sigh. I’d become my own collectible!

Just when I thought life couldn’t get any better. Stan Lee walked into the locker room. Besides being the creator of Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil—pretty much the entire Marvel Universe—he was also my idol. Since I started hero-gigging at Marvel, I’d only come as close as a plywood wedding cake to meeting The Man (see It’s Not Easy Being Green), before he drifted off like Keyser Söze in Usual Suspects.

I plotzed. I have no idea what the word means and hadn’t even heard of it before arriving in New York, but I know that what I did at that moment was plotz. Most frustrating, I had no one with which to share my plotzing. My fellow actors and Barb—besides having only a mild interest in comics as they pertain to their job—had interacted with Stan on numerous occasions, so his appearance was no big whoop. To Tara, he was just a genial old man who wrote funny books. To Me, he was the Holy Grail and I, King Arthur.

I was a mess. I did the only thing I could: I started getting into my Green Goblin togs. I donned each part with calculated precision, like a stripper only filmed in reverse. I never dressed with such concentration in my life. You’d think I was performing heart surgery. All to keep my focused averted from the fact that I was in the presence of a god.

We’d arrived far ahead of time, so I’m sure the others watched my strange burlesque with bemusement, chalking my actions up to nerves from being the greenhorn. Understandably, Stan was oblivious to my plight. He was merely looking for a place to relax before the festivities began. I would later learn that few were as unassuming and humble as Stan. Consummate showman? You betcha. Hyperbolic huckster? Without a doubt. But for all the P.T. Barnum he displays in public, Stan is truly a quiet, friendly—shall I dare say it?—shy individual, who is deeply grateful and more than a bit taken aback by his success. At this moment, he wanted nothing more than some peace before the coming hoopla, his way of getting into character, so to speak.

And he loved hanging out with his “children,” his creations and the actors who breathed life into them. After all, Stan was an actor himself; not that his effusiveness wasn’t genuine or that he didn’t believe in what he was saying—the best actors make everything they do come from their hearts. And like all thespians—not to be confused with celebrities who feel they’re not alive unless in the spotlight—when the kliegs are off, they want nothing more than to relax, disappear, let the focus of life divert to someone else. Unfortunately, as the world-renown creator of some of the most hallowed characters in history and lifetime ambassador of Marvel Comics, Stan was always expected to be on whenever in public. He had to live up to his own character of himself for fear of disappointing someone. That, he couldn’t bear because he cared so much about everyone who cared about him. He loved people.

Here, amongst his own, he could relax. A simple “Hey, Stan” from the others—who’d worked with him many times in the past—and they returned to their version of waiting: Jeremy found a private corner for introspection, as if he were about to play Hamlet; Iceman Mark and Captain America David conversed and quipped with one another; Trudy and Tara chatted about whatever it is women chat about: shoes, handbags, make-up (I am so getting a beating for that last bit!) and Gary worried about crashing into something as The Hulk or the amount of time he’d be in costume or possibly passing out if the time was too long or getting up the stairs in his Hulk feet or not remembering to call his mother—Gary worried about everything. I, on the other hand, was a blithering idiot… Ripley, in the moments after she discovers there’s an alien aboard the escape craft in the final moments of Alien; only she overcame her fear and kicked the E.T.’s ass. I just stood there facing Stan Lee, while diverting direct eye contact and rocking like Rain Man.

Should I approach him; he’s trying to relax. But I can’t not approach him; I may never get another chance. What do I say? I’m half-dressed in deep green tights, painted with silk-screened scales, psychedelic fuchsia pants, with matching vest and elvin boots; I look like I didn’t make the cut at the Village People casting call. And I’m going to approach the Stan Lee and tell him he’s my idol.

Suddenly, one of the other actors chose that moment to ask Stan for an autograph for his nephew. Now was my chance. Disregarding my body’s desire not to move—a feeling I had only felt on one other occasion when I was given the thumbs-up from my skydiving instructor that it was time to jump—I stepped forward…

Will our erstwhile hero be able to confront Stan Lee without fainting? Will he make an utter fool of himself if/when he does? Will the wedding go off as planned? Will Gary call his mother? Tune in next time for the next thrilling installment … Same Spidey time… Same Spidey channel…