Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Slept with Stan Lee, Part II: Car Service

Apparently Drew Carey wasn't available

In the last exciting installment our intrepid hero, still reeling from a heart-breaking first encounter with his hero Stan Lee at the live performance of Spider-Man’s wedding to Mary-Jane at Shea Stadium—at which he played the nefarious Green Goblin—eighteen months prior, has been called upon to join The Man on
AM Cleveland in Ohio in front of a live audience at a shopping mall. After weathering a humiliating entrance in a glass elevator, numerous snide remarks from the morning chat-fest’s host, Scott Newell, and falling victim to his own jitters, Vroom! has been ask to join Newell in the audience…

Given my earlier entrance, which was greeted with faux-playful derogatory comments by AM Cleveland host Scott Newell, I wasn’t about to once again navigate the maze of equipment, union members and security clogging up the wings. I hated when my actions appeared like any guy in a Spider-Man suit. I was Spidey, dammit! (with due respect to Eddie Murphy) and I didn’t want to give Newell the satisfaction of another derogatory remark about how uncharacteristically I was performing. In fact, I cut him off in the midst of just such a comment, as a leapt over the shrubbery, which fronted the length of the stage—extending a good yard out—landing a few feet from his side.

Exit... Leaping over the shrubbery... Stage left...
Stage right even...

It was a dumb move: unrehearsed, without any knowledge of what lay before me, or how far I had to jump. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the suit removes the wearer’s depth perception. It was literally a leap of faith. Those who know me from school could verify that when it came to athletics, I made a great water boy. Still, I wasn’t what one would describe as unwieldy and four years of intensive study in both physical and spiritual self-awareness—as an actor, the mind and body are one’s instrument—gave me enough confidence to make the move.

I extended my legs to my toes, every muscle alert for the moment the phalanges hit the ground; then allowed my weight to fall through me as a collapsed to the floor before springing up with a casual flourish, a visual snub that actually got a rise out of Newell’s eyebrows. You can hear Stan cackle with delight either from the host’s or an audience member’s reaction as I sidle toward Newell and he composes himself.

“What's the matter, Scott? Spider got your tongue?”

The answer to Newell’s subsequent query as to my greatest predicament was a reference to Amazing Spider-Man #33, the final chapter of an epic trilogy, wherein the wondrous Wall-Crawler, in battling the nefarious Doctor Octopus, finds himself pinned beneath tons of machinery under the Hudson River while the famous tributary’s waters quickly rise around him. In his webbed hand, Spidey holds a serum that will save his Aunt May, who lays dying in a hospital bed nearby. It is considered one of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever told and its notoriety was such, that even though I’d never read the saga myself, I knew of it.

Unfortunately, my lackluster inflection and ponderous palaver—a product of nerves and inexperience with portraying Webhead in front of an audience and on camera—made my answer sound more like a child’s when asked what they did on their summer vacation, stammers and mumbles abounding. My subsequent response to Newell’s comment about my fighting crime while in Cleveland, however, was handled more adroitly. Perhaps I was settling into the experience, but I was also more familiar with the line of inquiry. It was one often asked wherever I visited.

As I returned to my spot at Stan’s side, deciding to forego the route I took to get off the stage—I’m no Dwight Stone and I was fairly sure Spider-Man Fosbury Flopping the ficuses would not have been construed as a signature move on Spidey’s part—Newell brought out the big guns. Gone were the prerequisite feel-good questions lobbed over the net to foment a false sense of security in the guest. It was now time to slam home the controversial queries, the interrogation that was going to garner Newell his Pulitzer Prize in hard-hitting journalism.

At the time of the show, the Distinguished Competition was in the midst of a marketing campaign that was creating quite the brou-hah-ha surrounding a storyline in Batman. “A Death in the Family” was a four-part saga pitting the Dark Knight against The Joker. What keeps this confrontation with the Clown Prince of Evil different from the hundreds that had come before was the outcome—life or death for Batman’s young sidekick Robin—decided upon by the public via a phone-in vote (… to save Robin press one… to kill Robin press two… to hear these instruction in Spanish move to Mexico!).

The covers to the notorious “Death in the Family” storyline. Can you guess in which issue Robin bites it?

Jason Todd’s death was a foregone conclusion. As with most phone-in campaigns, callers had the opportunity to vote as often as they wanted, and human nature, being what it is, weighed heavily in the Joker’s favor. Think about it. Those good Samaritans or rare Jason Todd fans make one call, and hang up, warm in the knowledge that they’ve done their due diligence. The death mongers, however, call until their fingers are bleeding nubs, stuck in the holes of their rotary phone. There was no way they were going to let that little bastard survive, regardless of the surcharge per call to ensure his swimming with the fishies, albeit in this case, he was strapped to a bomb and blown up! Consider it this way: when people are pleased with something, they rarely make the effort to show their satisfaction with a phone call or letter; whereas displeasure is trumpeted loudly and often. There’s a lot of truth behind the adage, The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Comics were still viewed as entertainment for children and the promotion was decried as being twisted and sick and inappropriate for kiddies. Never mind that concerned parents should be monitoring what their children read—and who they are calling, for that matter—and the mean age of comic readers, even back then, was in the upper teens/early twenties, the press had a field day and DC Comics laughed all the way to the bank, selling oodles of copies of the series. But the subject of killing a beloved hero—in this case a teen one—became the topic du jour.

Batman looks the other way while the calls demanding his sidekick’s execution flood the phone lines

As with most controversies created by the media, this one was based on fallacies and fed off ignorance. Killing heroes, even young ones, in comics was nothing new. Marvel got rid of Captain America’s teen sidekick, Bucky, a score prior. And contrary to the inaccurate reports of the press—shocking, I know—this was not Dick Grayson, the Robin familiar to the masses, most notably played by Burt Ward in the popular 60’s Batman television camp-fest. Grayson, all-growed up after nearly a half century of wearing the tight green shorts and elf slippers, finally retired to become Nightwing. The new Robin was Jason Todd, a replacement much-reviled by the fans. Apparently, Todd was an obnoxious brat, although I think anyone following the adored Grayson would have been summarily dismissed regardless of their character.

Facts be damned! Newell was going to give it to The Man. The poor sap didn’t know with whom he was dealing. Stan brushed off the attack with aplomb, curtailing any further inquiry on the subject and poking the Distinguished Competition in the process. And he did so with a chuckle and a smile. The Man actually did Newell a favor. Had the host pressed the issue, he would’ve appeared a bully, which would only have extended to Class-A Jerk once the reason Stan and Spidey were in Ohio was brought up; that being the Mid-Ohio Con in order to raise money for the March of Dimes. Yeah, Newell… That’s it. Attack the people on a charitable mission to raise money for children with birth defects. That’ll show ’em!

Much a ’do about nothing

If you weren’t aware that this show was taped in the 80s, you’d know it was taped in the 80s. A split-second gander at our perky, bubble-headed announcer, Kim, is all it takes. Her pouffy, teased-to-death, towering hairdo is straight out of Working Girl, and get a load of the shoulder-pads in her dress. How about those microphones? They almost appear comical, like something out of a Guy Smiley skit from Sesame Street or Orson Welles 1938 War of the Worlds radio drama.

Most jolting is Kim’s reading off a typed script. We’ve become inured to television hosts, news commentators and such seemingly looking directly into the camera as they read off a teleprompter, forgetting that it wasn’t too long ago they had to refer to written material… regardless of how trite it might be. I mean, really. The pithy, meant-to-be-clever intro Kim recites was actually penned by some copywriting plebe, probably getting a decent chunk of cash in the process. It’s no more difficult than a line from Poky Little Puppy, but she still needs to read it off the page!

Then there’s the treacly puerile musical intro/outro to the segment: “Hungry Eyes” by Mr. “All by Myself,” Eric Carmen, from 1987’s Dirty Dancing. What was the director thinking when he chose that tune to take the viewer from and to commercial before/after an interview with Stan Lee and Spider-Man? I guess I should be appreciative that the theme from the 1960’s cartoon—“Spider-Man, Spider-Man… does whatever a spider can…”—wasn’t selected. I’d only been portraying the Web-Swinger for two years and that song had already become something of a “Singin’ in the Rain” vis-à-vis Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange to me. I would think the operator of a carousel might have the same reaction to calliope music after a few days on the job.

Why not Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hanging On”? True, it was a year removed from the time of the show’s recording, whereas “Hungry Eyes” was a then-current hit. And it only went so far as #34 on 1987’s Top 100 Hits chart, eleven below the Dirty Dancing ditty’s #25 spot. But at least one could make the argument that the song title is a cute nod to ole Webhead. Fortunately, the music is for the benefit of the viewing audience and not audible to anyone in the mall.

The limo awaited us as we exited the TV studio. We hopped in and our hour-long drive to Mansfield began. I’d evidently handled Stan’s baby with aplomb. He was magnanimous in his praise for my performance and giddy with delight. Truth be told, I think he was most happy to have put the three-ring chat-fest behind him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to talking about his amazing array of accomplishments no one is more unassuming than Celia and Jack Lieber’s little boy.

Alone, Stan was just as giving and friendly as he is in front of a crowd, albeit less animated. He was relaxed and jovial and instilled a comfort that put me instantly at ease. This wasn’t STAN LEE (Exclesior/exclamation point); this was the New York City–born humble offspring of Romanian-born Jewish immigrant parents who liked to tell stories and who was overjoyed to know that someone actually enjoyed them.

The Boy from New York City

After we exchanged notes on how we each felt the other had done on the morning broadcast—a sickening display of humility, self-deprecation and politeness that would’ve driven Emily Post to slap us—I felt assured enough about our blossoming friendship to retrieve the Masterworks volume from my bag for an autograph. Of course, I had a Sharpie on me. One of the initial things I learned about making appearances was to bring my own writing implements. Oftentimes the sponsor would forget that Spidey would need something with which to sign autographs, and I’d amassed quite a collection in just the short time I’d been Web-Slinging.

As Stan blessed my tome with his John Hancock, I couldn’t help but ask his thoughts on a controversy then brewing concerning Amazing Spider-Man. Eight months earlier, Todd McFarlane debuted as penciler for the title. His style was wild, exaggerated and cartoony. There was some disagreement over McFarlane’s depiction of Spidey’s eyes (see “My What Big Eyes You Have”). They were huge, taking up most of the character’s face. The younger fans loved them, while the older fans looked upon the popping peepers as sacrilege. Why not ask the Web-Swinger’s creator?

Stan took the old school stance. He felt the art was exciting, but the eyes were too big. I then reminded him that original Spidey artist Steve Ditko’s interpretation of the Wall-Crawler’s eyes were much larger than what had come to be recognized as the sacrosanct size, far bigger than those of John Romita, the artist who followed in Ditko’s hallowed footsteps, and at times nearly as big as McFarlane’s. I then flipped through the Masterworks pointing out examples to The Man. He had to admit his recollections of Ditko’s Webhead had skewed over time and thanked me for opening his eyes, so to speak, to the situation.

Ditko vs. Macfarlane... You decide!

The conversation was by no means one-sided, either. Stan took as keen an interest in my life as I in his. He sympathized with my plight as an aspiring actor, waiting tables to get by, while I pursued my dream. As is usually the case when discussing the trade, the question of tips came up. Stan related a story of a meal he had in Toronto with twenty or so others. To my horror, he suggested that the waiter cleaned up and maybe a 15% was too much, in such an instance. Conservatively estimating fifty dollars per person, the total would’ve amounted to a thousand dollars with a hundred and fifty going to the server. That may seem like an extremely nice bit of cash for approximately three hours worth of work, which is a safe estimate—dinner service for such a large group could easily take longer.

I explained to him quite the contrary. Although, that one tip may have been large, the waiter was certainly forgoing other tables to concentrate on the larger party. Such a group takes geometrically more time and attention to serve; more drink-runs, appetizers, entrees, coffee & desserts, and more possible instances of problems—any Sally Albright’s in attendance throw the temporal bell curve for a loop (“Could I have that with the vinagrette… but on the side… and would it be possible to have the braised kale instead of the sautéed spinach? On second thought, I’ll have the chicken, but could I have that with the beet puree?”). Plus, it’s a nightmare to coordinate with the kitchen. And that’s if the group is complete and sits on time, which is a huge IF. A big party never arrives in unison and rarely shows up at the appointed hour, leaving the waiter to suck up lost wages while most of his section is commandeered by a fraction of the expected amount.

If he’s lucky, the prompt patrons will order copious levels of beverages and appetizers to sate them until everyone has appeared. But more often than not, those early birds awkwardly nurse a glass of water while they await the stragglers. Then there are those who insist on hearing the specials before everyone is present, necessitating repeat utterings of the restaurant’s daily delights as odd members of their party trickle in.

On average, a waiter has twenty to thirty covers in his section, that is a maximum numbers of customers if every seat were filled at once. The amount could be divided in any number of ways among two- and four-tops, sometimes including a larger table that could seat five to eight. With a mean time of an hour and a half per table, the quads and deuces could easily be turned over three times or more during a busy dinner service, less during the shorter lunch shift. How many tables and subsequent tip money was the waiter missing out on? Do the math. No, seriously… do the math. Simple addition perplexes me; that’s why I’m in publishing. But from experience, I know a waiter can make more on five tables of four than one table of twenty in most cases… and with less hassle.

Also, there is a common misconception about tip earnings among those outside the service industry; that being that cash earnings are unclaimed and thus free from taxes. The restaurants in which I worked reported the gross food-sale totals of each waiter, which I believe is by law. The IRS then calculates fifteen percent of that as part of the server’s earnings on top of what they may be making in general salary or shift pay. Ergo, regardless of whether one’s tips amount to fifteen percent of their food sales, the government is holding them on account for that amount come tax time. So when a waiter gets shafted on a tip, he/she really gets screwed!

Stan absorbed everything, like an eager student. He loved learning new things, no matter how benign. It was as if I’d revealed the secret of the ages to him. He was fascinated. I can only guess that being in the spotlight made such opportunities for quiet discussion with people rare. He listened, laughed, refuted, scoffed and enjoyed every minute of it.

Suddenly, he chimed, “You should be a writer.”

“Huh,” I replied?

“Just the way you tell a story, you’d be a great writer,” he explained.

A writer.

It was never on my list of “What I want to be when I grow up.” “Zookeeper” was there, my earliest dream job, which evolved into “Veterinarian” and finally “Marine Biologist,” before taking a sharp turn toward “Actor.” But “Writer?!!”

This elementary classroom assignment, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” garnered an A. To think only a few years earlier it would've been created on a cave wall.

I’d always created stories, but not always of the written variety. In my earliest story-telling days I was a director. The setting: my room. The cast: my toys. My room was filled with hand-me-down playthings, a few of my own, plastic animals, rubber monsters, Tonka Trucks, Lego’s and a vast selection of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars.

Nothing was safe from my daily casting call. And much like the early MGM roster of actors, each toy played to type in every adventure. The green, bear-eraser with the raised paw, was the compassionate, voice-of-reason to the “good-guy” leader, Chopper, the bulldog of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The goofy-looking duck was the unpredictable, overlooked one, whose silly antics masked bravery that would factor in at the eleventh hour. The vulture was the non-participating, cynical observer, pessimistically commenting from its high perch on the handle of my bureau. There were even those toys, who started out bad, but during the course of events, saw the evil of their ways and switched sides. Even my cars had personalities.

And most stories climaxed in an explosion of death and destruction. Lego edifices would shatter under a barrage of hurled cars, always interspersed with slow-motion action sequences. When the dust settled, the good guys won out, most often with the loss of a loved one or an unexpected hero.

Where I got such complex character profiles, I couldn’t say, but my Mom often let the TV baby-sit me. I loved cartoons, game shows, sitcoms and detective dramas. I would often sneak out of bed late at night and join her in watching Rat Patrol or Mission Impossible. My love of comics didn’t manifest until I was twelve—a late bloomer compared to most.

These adventures proved a good nurturing ground for my imagination. I excelled at all my creative writing assignments at school. Acting was simply storytelling in physical form. Even so, I’d never considered a career in writing.

As the stretch trundled along, the vehicle’s gentle movement began to affect our weary bodies. Stan and I were stretched out like cowboys on the porch of the mercantile. All that was missing was a sprig of alfalfa twixt our teeth. Despite the fun we were having, our chatter dwindled to nothing, replaced by the rhythmic beating of two souls in consort as Mr. Sandman put in a bit of time-and-a-half, and we remained thus until our arrival.

“So what are you doing after the show? I've got a limo...”

We never talked about the incident, but Stan gave me a pet name (see “The Coming of Vroom!”) that evening, and sent me flowers (Okay, it was six years later and he sent them to me and Audrey for our wedding, but still…)

Come to think of it, he never left me a tip!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I Slept with Stan Lee, Part I: The Cleveland Show

I hadn’t seen Stan since the Spider-Man/Mary-Jane wedding, at which I portrayed the Web-Spinner’s dreaded foe, The Green Goblin (see “To Thee I Web, Parts I,” “II” & “III”). In fact, it was at that feted event that I first met the legendary creator of Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, Fantastic Four and a plethora of others that will eventually come to a theater near you. I acted like a young girl meeting the boy she’d been crushing on for a semester, approaching “The Man” like I was testing a new set of legs and babbling as if I’d had major dental surgery only minutes prior.

My first impression was a bad one. How else to explain Stan’s shunning me the rest of the evening; not even a single dance at the reception! I shouldn’t have been surprised, carrying the mantle of the nefarious foe that attempted to kill his most beloved creation on many an occasion and succeeding in ending the life of that creation’s soul-mate, Gwen Stacy. Stan could have any superhero in the cosmos; he most assuredly wouldn’t be interested in a villain. Thus, Spidey’s wedding day ended with a despondent trip home, slightly eased by the knowledge that at least I’d met my idol. How many others can say that?

Fast forward a seventeen months. I get the call from Babs, Marvel Maven of Personal Appearances, to attend the Mid-Ohio Con in a dual capacity as Spider-Man and Iron Man.

The Mid-Ohio Con may never have had the universal cachet of ComicCon International in San Diego—more commonly known as the San Diego Con—but among fans and pros alike, when it was run by its creator and founder Roger Price, it was recognized as one of the warmest, most fun, and subsequently best, comic book shows around.

Don’t judge a con by its cover

Founded in 1980, the con was always held on Thanksgiving Day weekend. Add to that the fact that the event took place on the remote fairgrounds of Mansfield, Ohio, in an unheated out-building the size of an airplane hangar that looked like it was used for judging livestock in the annual county fair, and one would suspect the con to be anathema to luring guests, save the host of the local children’s television show and a smattering of mini-comics creators who were fortunate enough to have parents with deep pockets. But Roger’s ability to construct an amazing slate of comic book and media stars every year was a testament to how beloved he and the yearly extravaganza was.

Roger and Jane Price

In fact, Mid-Ohio Con was the only show hugely popular artist John Byrne attended, which was the case when I made my first appearance the year prior and would be true for the upcoming event as well. But Byrne’s presence was overshadowed by that of not only Spider-Man artist Todd McFarlane, but also Stan Lee (I told you Roger put together some kick-ass guest lists!).

Cool Byrne cover to a Mid-Ohio Con program

I had mixed feelings about seeing Stan again. The seventeen months had done little to assuage my broken heart from our last encounter. But The Man still held a prominent place in my life as both a hero and inspiration. Perhaps the fact that I’d be taking up the mantle of his greatest achievement (my words not his), would cause him to look more favorably upon me. In addition was my dual-duty as another of his famous creations, Iron Man. Surely, my pair of portrayals would provide the one-two punch needed to knock out any ill-will the legendary comic icon may have toward me. Then again, he may see my once villainy body besmirching the name of his babies. Oh, what to do, what to do!

Fate stepped in and decided for me.

I would not be flying into Columbus, Ohio, the Friday before the two-day show’s opening on Saturday. I’d be arriving in Cleveland that Thursday evening to appear as Spider-Man on the next day’s AM Cleveland broadcast to promote the event. And I’d be doing so as sidekick to the morning talk-fest’s featured guest, Stan Lee! There’d be no shunning of Stan at the convention. I’d have to suck it up and confront the Excelsior! exclaimer face-to-face at the TV studio.

Cleveland’s answer to Matt Lauer

I was doubly nervous about being a guest on a television program. Sure, it wasn’t a network show, like Today, and I wouldn’t be going toe-to-toe with Matt Lauer. It also wasn’t as if I hadn’t performed with Stan Lee in a major promotional event—the wedding was kind of a big deal. But it was still live television—anything could happen—and I’d be right by Stan’s side as his most famous creation; not the third spear carrier to the left, as it were. Plus, as a guest I’d be facing questions—flying without a net! I was doomed. My only consolations: it was a local program and I’d be wearing a mask. The internet didn’t exist yet, never mind YouTube; otherwise the additional onus of knowing I’d be the next day’s video fodder would have pushed me over the edge.

But Fate had not yet finished watching me squirm.

With nothing to lose, I packed my copy of the first Spider-Man Marvel Masterworks collection. The Masterworks series was the first time the earliest issues of Marvel’s greatest characters were compiled in order in a high-quality hardcover format. The program had only just gotten off the ground with the first three volumes, which featured the Fantastic Four, X-Men and Spider-Man. I was hoping I could find the proper opening to ask Stan for his autograph.

I so hated being the typical fawning fan-geek, fearing it might further compromise my relationship—what was left of it—with Stan. But he was still a “shimmering star in the literary firmament,” to paraphrase Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain, in my eyes. Stan may no longer sign scads of items for a single person, but two decades ago, he’d autograph truckloads of stuff, signing anything from funny books he had nothing to do with to carving his initials into a fan’s Bonsai Tree. One measly signature for Yours Truly wasn’t going to break him.

As planned, I flew into Cleveland that Thursday night and was delighted to see Roger Price at the gate to greet me. Roger is a diminutive sort. His curly brown hair and matching mustache and beard frame a cherubic face, furthering his gnomish appearance. But one syllable of his stentorian voice is all that’s needed to extinguish those thoughts. It’s deep, rich, mellifluous tones and vibrancy are so clear and resonant as to transcend mere mortality.

Hello... This is Roger, your Time-Life operator...

Anyone familiar with the Rankin-Bass oeuvre to which this blog oft references knows the vocal stylings of Paul Frees. His voice is heard in most of the company’s stop-motion holiday specials, most notably as Burgermeister Meisterburger from Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. More famously was his work as Boris Badenov in Rocky and Bullwinkle, but he also provided the voice of The Thing in the 1967 Hanna-Barbera Fantastic Four cartoon and the voiceover in the final moments of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, among hundreds of others.

One of the hundreds of characters voiced by Paul Frees

But the instance to which I refer you now, Faithful Bloglodytes, occurs at the end of the epic war movie Patton. The four-star general sits atop a white horse whilst reporters pepper him with questions concerning the end of the war—that being World War II. Paul Frees is one of those media hounds, and when he asks his question, it’s unnerving. The body from which the sound emanates doesn’t come close to living up to its sublime tones.

No surprise, Roger had made a nice career doing voiceover work (and still does!). He started Mid-Ohio Con, not only as a way to satiate his love of the comics genre, but also and more importantly to raise money and awareness for the March of Dimes, which funds birth defects research. Roger is a victim himself. He walked with a rocking unsteady gait, his knees unusually drawn in at odd angles, despite the use of a cane. He explained that his hips and knees lacked cartilage, so the bones in his legs joints scraped against each other when he moved. When I winced upon hearing this, he surprised me with his verification that it was indeed incredibly painful. By Roger’s ever-present smile and never-fading friendliness, one would have never suspected the agony he was in.

My joy at seeing Roger again was quickly replaced with dread. “Stan’s plane isn’t due for another hour, so we have time to grab a beer,” he said.

Normally, sharing a beer with a buddy is one of my favorite things—with due respect to Julie Andrews—but my thoughts were filled with impending doom. We’re meeting Stan here… in an hour?!! But he hasn’t had a chance to see me as Spidey, and I won’t have the eye of surrounding cameras, glare of klieg lights and company of bubble-headed daytime show hosts to buffer me.

An hour never went by so quickly, nor was a beer so unappealing. Without so much as a chance to belch, Roger was off his bar stool heading for the gate with me in tow. He told me I should walk ahead, not to worry about keeping pace with his limited mobility. According to the monitors, Stan’s flight was unloading and he didn’t want his prize guest not to be met by someone from the convention. Plus, I knew The Man personally, right? Who better than I to do the deed.

What could I do? Refuse the most selfless, magnanimous man I’d ever met? Oh, did I mention he was physically disabled? Why not just tell him to go to Hell and kick the cane out from under him while I’m at it? I smiled half-heartedly and hoped Roger didn’t hear me gulping before striding forward toward the gate.

At least I never suffered the agony of anticipation—apparently, The Moirae took pity on me—as Stan ambled into the lounge from the exit ramp doorway just as I entered the area. He flashed his signature smile and I melted. All was forgiven… or so I thought.

“Hey, how’re you doing…?” he began.

“Stephen… Vrattos? We met during Spider-Man’s wedding at Shea Stadium,” I offered.

“Of course… You were…?”

“The Green Goblin,” I pronounced in defeat. He may have recognized my face, but he didn’t remember me. I would rather he hated me. You have to remember something, anything about someone in order to hate them. I was crushed, not yet akin to Stan’s notoriously bad memory when it comes to names.

I was spared any further ignominy by Roger’s arrival. He and Stan had never met before, so I thankfully ceded the floor, allowing the conversation to be all about them, as we departed the airport and headed for our hotel. Roger would not be joining us for our early-morning venture to the television studio, nor the trip to Mansfield thereafter. He was driving back that evening to continue preparations for Mid-Ohio Con’s opening two days thence. A private car—a luxurious limousine, as it turned out—would pick up Stan and me at the ungodly hour specified by the AM Cleveland talent caretakers and transport us the hour-long, fifty-seven mile trip to Mansfield after the show’s completion. Great… won’t that be awkward?

As it turned out, the next morning’s AM Cleveland telecast was being broadcast in front of a live audience from a local mall! I didn’t know whether to be more nervous—how could I?—or indifferent. The appearance became more about not making an absolute ass of myself in front of the mall rats than impressing Stan. The one saving grace was the lack of a script. For me, following the words of another was restrictive and stilting, two traits as far from the freewheeling spirit of everyone’s Friendly Neighborhood Web-Swinger as Dr. Doom performing stand-up. Plus, I find forced adherence to a script is more nerve-racking; the gig becomes about getting the words instead of the character right.

Obviously, these feelings do not apply to theater wherein an actor constructs a role over a period of time absorbing the words of the playwright and imbuing them with life. I’d prefer not to attempt improvisational Shakespeare any time soon. I can’t imagine riffing in iambic pentameter. Or adlibbing Brecht. Anyone for offhand O’Neill? Unpremeditated Chekov? Impromptu Ibsen?

Now off-the-cuff AM Cleveland…. that I can do!

The production commandeered the plaza area, which is endemic to malls across America. You know the space. Located at the hub of several main spokes of store aisles shooting off it, the spot is usually sunk below the main complex level, rises unobstructed passing how many different levels the shopping mecca arises and is most often capped by a brilliant skylight. It is the go-to place for events and character appearances, from Santa and Easter Bunny photo ops, to hula demonstrations and instruction, to the local high school glee club’s spring singalong.

This one had all the bells and whistles, plus a glass elevator from the upper tier on its perimeter. It was a crisp, sunny autumn day and light streamed through the glass dome above, which reflected off the mall’s white walls. The effect was blinding to one who has to operate with ivory mesh eye-screens. Fortunately, the stage was backed by a black scrim and outfitted with a plethora of plastic plants, trees and shrubbery, obviously in deference to the Knights Who Say “Ni!”

The only other set pieces were a large cream-colored leather sofa and over-big eggshell coffee table. I’m not quite sure what the stage dressers were going for. The tableau certainly wasn’t “homey,” unless you were a mob boss, and reminded me of the design of The Dinah Shore Show. But it was as far away from mall as you could go while still filming in one, given the limited budget of a morning talk show.

Set pieces from the John Gotti collection

All this I was able to observe from the overlooking tier, to which one of the guest wranglers was obliging enough to escort me before I needed to suit-up. Stan went immediately into make-up. He’d be announced and interviewed ahead of Spidey’s arrival. And I wouldn’t need dolling-up—another “advantageous” quality of being the internationally-famous Wall-Crawler; that and my webbing, with due respect to Todd McFarlane.

NOTE: Please forgive the more obscure geek sub-referencing. The blog’s budget does not allow for the printing and distribution of programs for each posting. Login to any comic chatroom, or for the analog readers in the audience, go to your local comic shop and strike up a conversation with the owner or any customer for exact details on these and any past or future Heroes In My Closet analogies. This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your previously scheduled blog already in progress.

Otis! My Man!

The director’s genius idea was to have Spider-Man descend, not from the rafters as he would if he were an actual being, but from the comfort of the glass elevator while AM Cleveland’s host Scott Newell interviewed Stan. It presented a rather odd tableau, during which I felt the need to strike a Spider-Man–eque pose because, a) the alternative of standing patiently as one would normally in an elevator would have negated the whole point of wearing the costume, and b) I knew that’s what was expected, i.e. it made for good TV. I dreaded the inevitable comments and wanted to rip Newell a new one when he brought up my uncharacteristic entrance—it was his boss’s idea after all.


Stan only exacerbated the awkward moment by explaining that Spider-Man “sometimes gets lazy.” But by his accompanying chuckles and exuberant smiles it was clear he was greatly enjoying my performance, and I realized his response was just more silly banter to foment the brainless commentary of the host. I had to remind myself that this was a morning chat-fest—one step up from the IQ of Wheel of Fortune’s audience—not the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. The rules were different. There wasn’t a comic nerd in sight—this was the late 80s and comics were still the art form non grata. Even if there were, he/she were well-outnumbered and would never have had the chutzpah to correct Mr. Newell or Stan on their indelicacies toward a revered comic icon.

Eyes up here, Ma’am!

Had Newell asked me about my uncharacteristic entrance himself, instead of making the inane remark, I was prepared with a patented excuse that often came in quite handy, whether asked why I didn’t employ my webbing or questioned on any mundane action that could be seen as un-Spider-Man–esque, i.e. swinging.

“With great power must come great responsibility,” I’d explain. “I didn’t want to scare anyone or create a scene with any unnecessary heroics. I’m not even wearing my Web-Shooters at the moment. I knew I’d be shaking hands with my fans and the triggering mechanism in my palms makes it impossible to do so without accidentally sticking to them.”

Am I cold? No... Why do you ask?

After the embarrassing elevator descent, I wasn’t about to nonchalantly stroll down the aisle to the stage. The real Webhead would’ve just landed from above, as mentioned, or reached the couch with a single leap from the rear of the audience. But my portrayal of the Web-Slinger extended throughout his every movement, regardless of its banality, taking Stan’s origin of Peter Parker’s powers emulating a spider’s to its natural conclusion. A spider is ever vigilant; their every fiber ready to spring into action. They move in short bursts from one state of alertness to the next. It was with these ideas I imbued my persona of Spider-Man.

I knew I shouldn’t have had that Orange Julius before the show

Rare was the instance when I simply stood with my arms folded or akimbo. The suit’s effect and allure certainly would have forgiven simpler actions—they still would’ve looked cool—but by adding the arachnid spin to the movements, the result was geometrically greater. And by the audience’s reaction, they thought so too. Newell, though, was less impressed, vomiting another fatuous and oh, so unoriginal comment on how I didn’t have to dress up for Halloween (Oh please… stop… I can’t take anymore… my sides…).

I guess it’s partly my fault. My performance to the dais apparently took longer than Newell anticipated. I’m unsure what he expected. Perhaps, the same sort of Hell-bent-for-leather charge to the stage that crazed The Price Is Right contestants make after they’re told to “Come on down!” When that didn’t manifest, he had to fill time, and improvisation is not the strong suit of most morning talk-show hosts.

Stan Lee; nice to meet you. What was your name again?

I shouldn’t talk. I was a bit of a linguistic lummox myself. I’d finally found my way to the stage, greeted with a hearty, howdy-do and handshake from Stan, and squatted loyally by his side like a Westminster Best-in-Show while he expertly parried each question thrust at him. I may not have been looking at him, but I was mesmerized and finding it hard to remain in Spider-Man mode.

I’d never seen the architect of the Marvel Universe give an interview before. His performance at the Web-Slinger’s wedding at Shea Stadium was brilliant. You would’ve never suspected it was scripted. Stan presented the ceremony with joyous ease and enthusiasm; not a single awkward pause or stilted moment. Yet the event was still prepared. In casual conversation, he was animated, gracious and genuine, with a healthy dollop of self-deprecation. No one was more aware of how they were perceived in the eyes of the public than The Man. And no one was more surprised, yet grateful.

So... You come here often?

But an interview is a different beast altogether. It’s like going into battle without reconnaissance or any knowledge of your opponent. In this scenario, there was the additional onus of a live audience to monitor, as it were, the responses and deliver immediate feedback, whether positive or negative. I understood Stan was far from ill-prepared. He may not have had intimate information on his interrogator, but he had been stockpiling arms in the form of experience for decades. I had just never been a party to his expertise in this regard.

Where I was a taut bundle of nerves barely contained inside a sheath of spandex, Stan was relaxed and jovial, sitting on the sofa as if he were at the dinner party of a close friend, kibitzing about the good old days. He took on Newell’s questions without hesitation, responding in a refreshing, vibrant way, even though most of the queries—especially those concerning the origins of his creations—were ones to which he’d responded ad nauseam in the approximately quarter-century since he conceived them.

Take the Hulk... Please!

I’d read interviews and introductions to Marvel Comics collections wherein Stan spoke of the geneses of his characters. Although the answers were the same, he continually made them fresh, approaching from various angles, adding new details, or in the case of a live exchange, changing his inflection at different spots. In the ensuing years, I was lucky enough to participate in more team-ups with Mr. Excelsior. His stories never got boring and I was ever absorbed in his tales. He was the consummate storyteller.

My interview skills improved dramatically, even directly following this sketchy AM Cleveland appearance. And during subsequent get-togethers with Stan, I’d more readily and easily interject with a witty Spider-centric witticism, playing off the fact that I was seated with my creator, reacting appropriately when The Man delved into my adventures.

Say something clever... Say something clever... Huh? What...? Damn!

But in this instance, I was a first-year piano student expected to play a duet with Oscar Levant, only I wasn’t given the music. As Stan tried to include me in a bit of verbal repartee, I was caught completely unawares. I’d lose a moment cursing under my breath for not being at my improvisational best—something I prided myself in—and Stan would lob another floater my way. Swing and a miss! Again! OY!

To his credit, Stan never skipped a bit, actually filling in the lines for which he was setting me up; in essence saving my ass. The most I could do was playfully mime my reactions and let the magic of the suit takeover.

Then Newell asked me to join him in the front of the audience, whence he was conducting the show, for an emcee-to-Spidey one-on-one…


NEXT: Let’s go to the videotape!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Happy 20th Anniversary Lorraine Shave Ice, and Double Kudos to Guy and Lorraine on their 40th!

Home of the best banana bread, shave ice, coconut & banana cream pies, beef jerky, passion-fruit jelly, toasted coconut, chocolate-covered bananas and coconuts, AND PEOPLE on Maui!

My Faithful Bloglodytes already know of my love for Lorraine Shave Ice as professed in the previously posted and lauded “Worth the Trip: Maui’s Road to Kahakuloa.” That memorable tale recounted the thrilling adventure the Wondrous Audrey and I made driving north on Route 30 and the perilous County Road 340 during a trip to Maui in 2009. We discovered Lorraine Shave Ice and made several subsequent visits during our vacation, braving the treacherous, cliff-hugging, one-lane road in order to partake of the homemade delights and Spirit of Mahalo that Lorraine specializes in.

Audrey and Lorraine from our 2009 trip. Lorraine scolded me for not featuring The Wondrous One in my previous post about her magical mercantile of mouth-watering munchies!

But Audrey and I are not alone in our love for the place. Of the twenty reviews on, eighteen gave a perfect five out of five stars and the other two gave four. The harrowing ride on County Road 340 was the only concern of one of the latter less-than-perfect reviews and the other ended with “Go check it out. Add your picture to the wall and become a regular :)” without citing a single negative—obviously the type of person who does not believe in giving perfect scores, holding to the idea of perfection being something ever sought, yet never attained.

Upon our return to the mystical Island of the Sun last May, we couldn’t wait to risk life and limb once again to see our friend and her equally endearing husband, Guy. Lorraine greeted us like long-lost family members. It had been two years but there was no mistaking her recognition of us—although I’ve been told, I’m hard to forget and not necessarily in a good way! She and Guy had been playing cribbage, and Guy wasted no time in challenging me to a game. It was obvious he had just had his way with Lorraine and he could smell fresh meat ready to be devoured on the peg board.

The Wondrous Audrey enjoying a humungous Lorraine Shave Ice eponymous frozen delight, which are far bigger than her competitors but at the same price!

Unfortunately, my recollection of the game, which I played over one summer with my dad, was gone, replaced in my teeming brain with comic-book and various pop culture minutia. But that didn’t stop our kibitzing with Maui’s most gracious couple about everything, including Lorraine’s yummy treats, all of which, other than the meat with which she makes her beef jerky, are made by her with fruits cultivated from her own backyard, from the bananas and coconuts—either chocolate-covered and frozen or served in her scrumptious cream pies—to the passion fruit used in her jelly. Plus, she offers hand-crafted quilts and bags!

To call passion fruit tart would be an insult to tarts!

Another sweet staple of the island is coconut candy, a processed, overly sugary product much bally-hooed by the guide books. Lorraine makes her own toasted coconut shavings—nothing but the fruit baked in its purest form—and it is heavenly. When I asked her how she made it, she reacted as if she were the Colonel and I’d asked for a list of his famous chicken’s seven herbs and spices. Others had offered to buy her recipe or even sell her unparalleled coconut in mercantiles across the state, but she covets its safety like a mother cobra protecting its young.

Lorraine guarding a bag of her delicious toasted coconut

She also makes an unforgettable banana bread, a particularly contentious snack on the island. Lorraine has two rivals bookending her establishment on County Road 340, including the notorious Julia’s, a gaudy, fluorescent lime-green bus stop of a shack just past Lorraine Shave Ice on the left, which was said to have the “best banana bread on the planet” by author Andrew Doughty in his bestseller Maui Revealed.

Behold Julias chicken coop... er... I mean banana bread stand

Even if you were unaware of Doughty’s fallacious (to me) exaggeration, the workers at Julia’s are not shy about screaming the fact with as much tact as a cocktail waitress in a bowling alley to every passer-by. The owners have also compromised Maui’s landscape by posting signs, complete with B&W photocopies of the travel guide’s cover and pertinent page, at every vista point and natural sight noted in Doughty’s book. Apparently their definition of the Spirit of Mahalo in which Hawaii prides itself includes vulgar and obnoxious displays in order to make a quick buck.

Days of fuchsia past à la Maui

Not to be outdone in the crass department, the competitor on the south side of Lorraine Shave Ice, the name of which escapes me, has painted the boulders skirting the road opposite the trailer out of which they conduct business a matching putrid day-glow pink. In case the defacing of the island’s natural beauty to line their wallets wasn’t despicable enough, they also have the local children run in front of traffic in order to slow the cars down as they approach, a heinous act Lorraine made me aware of only after I’d told her of nearly hitting a local child on a bike while maneuvering around the blind corner that leads cars into the small village of Kahakuloa where these banana bread wars are fought.

This quaint church greets southbound travelers entering Kahakuloa. Beware small children as you round the bend to the left of the steeple!

Lorraine Shave Ice has nought but a modest sign hanging at the entrance. But unlike its rivals, there is parking, seating and hospitality to go with truly delicious fare. Lorraine is pistol-whip smart with a take-no-prisoners, yet generous, personality that had me swearing she was secretly from New York City. Guy is the calm to her storm, but no less friendly and giving. They are the Lucy and Ricky of Maui and as much beloved by all who meet them.

Sign of great things to come

Lorraine was born and raised in Kahakuloa, but moved to Honolulu to accommodate Guy’s work. They built the house and opened Lorraine Shave Ice in 1991 with Lorraine shuttling between islands to run the shop on weekends before Guy retired and they turned their full attention to the business. Julia—if there is such a person—may or may not be originally from the area, but from the seemingly Scandinavian accents of the Aryan youth who man her booth, they most certainly are not. The European connection may explain why Julia’s charges six dollars for a loaf of banana bread the size of a box of Barnum’s Animal crackers where Lorraine’s is the same size and price at half the cost, but just as delectable if not better—perhaps the conversion from euros to American dollars got skewed. And Lorraine offers one with real bittersweet chocolate chips, again at the same price!

She revealed that she hadn’t changed her prices since she first opened the business twenty years ago! When I told her she most assuredly could raise them and should, she referred to the current economic woes of the country and rhetorically asked how she could do that to people. No further proof was needed to confirm my suspicions, that as nice as the income is, Lorraine Shave Ice was most about the proprietor’s love of people and wanting to share her home and treats with the world.

As we chatted, I mentioned to Lorraine that I had exalted Lorraine Shave Ice on my blog. She and Guy are happy luddites and wouldn’t know a website from a talking picture. But one of her fans had printed and sent her a color copy of my post, which after some rummaging, she pulled from a stack of puzzle books and other ephemera by the side of the picnic bench where patrons can enjoy their gastronomic goodies at leisure. She hadn’t connected the dots until I’d spoken of taking a picture next to one of her pineapple plants, a photo worthy of Ansel Adams featured in the entry. I was pleased she’d seen it and doubly so with her cheerful response—she loved it!

Lorraine’s reaction when she discovered that Spider-Man was a fan of hers

Audrey and I also discovered that Lorraine and Guy would be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary on August 1st this year, making for a dual dose of conviviality. The Wondrous One and I feted our sweet sixteenth on our last night on Maui this year. Upon hearing of our impending day, Lorraine jumped from the table and hurried upstairs, returning moments later with a fresh slice of banana cream pie she’d baked the night before when she was having difficulty sleeping. Her insomnia proved to be our good fortune. We attacked the creamy confection like Cookie Monster, likewise leaving a smattering of crumbs. It was one of the best anniversary gifts ever!

The true Spirit of Mahalo!