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!

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