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…


John III said...

Part 2...Part 2!!

Vroom! said...

I've been waiting for your comment, John! :-)

Actually, I've been swamped and didn't expect to take so long to continue the wedding saga. Much apologies and thanks for your patience thus far!