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!


Ben Churchill said...

So that's where it started...well, at least you knew where you stood with him. So, was his suggestion that you become a writer what started you on the current path, or did that take some additional time?

Your relating how you played with your toys reminds me a lot of myself; however, without the violence. While my friends were playing war with their G.I. Joes, mine were content with domestic life. Building houses, decorating, exploring. I had/have a very vivid imagination and usually had complex "inter-toy" relationships going on. My mom caught me one day playing with several of my stuffed animals. There was a married couple, and the wife was seeing another furry on the side. The husband was none too pleased, and wanted a divorce. So, they went to court, and the drama unfolded. She asked me where on earth I was learning this stuff, and I guess it must have been TV? Obviously I observed quite a bit of adult situations, but couldn't pinpoint it. She broke up the proceedings and told me to go play outside, and please, no more domestic squabbles between toys...

Vroom! said...

Stan recommendation that I pursue writing certainly was the seed, Ben.

As for your toy adventures, your carnal knowledge was far more advanced than mine at that young age!

I had a plethora of stuffed toys as well that served as the audience to the epics I produced with my smaller toys. There were couples but my mind never went as far as their sexual escapades.

And my high-octane scenarios may have appeared overly-violent, but not when compared to my family life! We put the "fun" in "dysFUNctional."

Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Ben Churchill said...

Thanks. It's funny, because I was not a kid obsessed with sex at all. I was pretty naive. However, for some reason, I decided to act out a Jerry Springer episode, I guess, LOL.

Oh, and I meant to add that I can appreciate both the Ditko and Macfarlane Spidey designs for different reasons. It depends on my mood. They both have their merits, but I understand people who are very passionate about their love of one or the other. It's about what they are familiar with.

I get like that too, especially with a lot of these Hollywood remakes of classic films. I do get upset realizing that something I loved is going to be done in a different, and possibly disastrous way.