Briefly Among the AngelsJuly 18th, 2009 at 18:00
In 1978 I arrived at LAX on a plane from Denver, the last leg of my journey that began with leaving behind my hometown of Ann Arbor and seemingly all the values and community that encompassed my youth and went with that special college town. I had had a number of compelling adventures in my life so far, most notably eleven weeks of backpacking on my own through Europe, but none more profound than this half-baked plunge as a very little fish into the very huge pond of Los Angeles.
I had been warned! I had seen Andy Warhol’s movie “Heat” laying out in every grotesque detail the worst case scenario of being a nobody wannabe with delusions of grandeur in the City of the Angels. I had heard my fellow Michigander, Bob Seeger’s song “Hollywood Nights” and the Door’s “LA Woman”, and knew that there might be no there there in “tinsel town”.
But I was a fool, in the fullest sense of that Tarot-deck archetype, with the smallest of bundles walking off the biggest of cliffs (enough of all these metaphors already… do you get the picture?) I also had the determination and sense of invincibility of a warrior adventurer. I had survived a depressed, at times suicidal mother, and lonely train station midnights in Western Europe… so sure, I could do this as well.
I was picked up at the airport by my former theater mentor, Michael, who had offered me a place to stay in his home in Toluca Lake, in the (thanks to Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit’s song “Valley Girl”) soon to be infamous San Fernando Valley, just five miles north of Hollywood and its iconic Boulevard. I remember that late September nighttime drive through the foggy “marine layer” over the Sepulveda Pass on the 405, finally descending into the Valley. I spent the night in my room in Michael’s house, with my window looking out into his backyard and one of the many ubiquitous swimming pools that have apparently raised the humidity of these otherwise dry, deserty, Southwestern cities.
Though not quite an Andy Warhol protagonist, the plot quickly thickened on my adventure when Michael’s colleague Colleen recruited me to work (for free) as a production assistant/gofer for her on a feature film shoot that she was running as the production coordinator. The film was called “Summer Camp”, and was kind of a soft-core, not quite X-rated teenage comedy with the sensibility of “National Lampoon’s Animal House”, but with more nudity and more explicit sex. The director Chuck, gay himself, had made his name making real porno movies (I would later learn that the San Fernando Valley was the porno movie capital of the US), and “Summer Camp” was his first venture into more “legit” exploitation movies.
Colleen was the perfect major domo for Chuck and the rest of the motley crew of wannabes (including me) trying to break into “the business”. She was a brazen, chain-smoking, blonde-haired, hard-boiled yet naïve cynic, who could have been the model of a perfect Warhol heroine herself. She took me under her wing, and probably did not try to eventually hit on me (which I was told she was notorious for) only because she inadvertently thought I was gay, due to a remark I made at a party.
On the two-week shoot, I not only had the opportunity to drive Colleen’s car from our shoot location in the Santa Monica mountains into the city to pick up rented costumes and props, or buy makeup, but also the be an extra on screen. In “Animal House” fashion, our movie included a “Toga Party”, and I was one of the celebrants, dressed only in a sheet with some sort of fake laurel wreath on my head. I even had a line, “Sock it to her Doctor Fox!”, which made it into the final cut of the movie, though not with me on-camera delivering it (which I later figured was maybe a blessing!)
I think it was the end-of-shoot party where the now humorous misinterpretation of my sexual orientation occurred. It was at Colleen’s big ranch house in Sun Valley, tennis court, swimming pool and all. Well instructed by my “Feminist Aunts” to not be any sort of macho man, and shy as I was and still feeling out of place among my “Summer Camp” colleagues, I ended up smoking way too much marijuana with Colleen’s very cute, very British boarder Yvonne. Barely beyond virginity myself (having lost it just weeks before the start of my LA odyssey), and high on weed rather than the inhibition-lowering alcohol, I was not about to make a pass at Yvonne. The same did not hold true for her, and she looked at me as we shared yet another joint and asked, “So are you straight?”
So in my naïveté about the language of discussing sexual orientation, somehow thinking that by “straight” she meant “not high”, I said “No”. Well that short exchange apparently quickly made the rounds to all the people in the circles I was now involved in to the point that the only people that were taking an interest in me were the gay guys, though I would so politely decline their overtures, and would not learn until a year later of the imprecision of my remark and its consequences.
Completing the movie shoot with my dignity maybe semi-intact, now three weeks into my LA adventure, I started to develop an elevated temperature and feel lousy every afternoon. Michael sent me to his doctor friend, who after $700 of blood tests (which having no health insurance I eventually had to pay for myself), diagnosed me with mononucleosis. I contemplated my options, and though Michael thought I should ride my illness out in my new digs, I opted to bail (at least temporarily) and return to the Midwest to convalesce.
On my flight back to the Midwest, it gnawed on me that this milieu I had spent the last month in, full it seemed of semi-talented wannabes talking their way into work they were not fully skilled for and making exploitation films of questionable taste was not really the milieu for me. If I returned to Los Angeles, and still pursued some sort of Hollywood dream, would it continue to be just more of the same or would I find projects, circles of colleagues and personal friends more grounded in the values and vision I had brought with me from Ann Arbor? Was I just a naïve kid from an ivory tower college town finally coming face to face with the real world of the big city?
As I have said before, life, at its best, is an adventure; not always successful, not always happy, but a compelling narrative worth living and sharing with others. In retrospect, though I doubted it at the time, I really was prepared to take that adventure in Los Angeles and keep my sanity and self-esteem and eventually my physical health as well. I just wasn’t skilled and savvy enough to make it more that an awkward learning experience with me as the somewhat foolish, somewhat wise protagonist.
Nearly thirty years later when my own young adult kids embarked on what seemed to me to be half-ass journeys or other ventures, I would have to calm my own path-of-least-resistance parental tendency to want to nix their efforts, and maybe doubly so recalling my own experiences. Let my son drive to Texas with a carload of friends in his newly purchased, very much used, semi-functional (as it turns out) old VW camper van only to have its engine catch on fire on the return trip and strand them in western Arizona, with him having to pay for the tow of the wreaked-engine vehicle (after spending so much buying and fixing it up) all the way back to Los Angeles. And even after that debacle, urging him on to, or at least not standing in the way of, other possibly quixotic adventures that he and his friends might conceive.
Maybe if Michael hadn’t been so convinced that if I left I wouldn’t come back, I wouldn’t have been so determined to prove him wrong and return. After five long months in what felt like purgatory in my recently remarried parents’ new home in Dayton Ohio, not really feeling sick but with my mom’s doctor assuring me that I was not yet well yet (at least my dad’s insurance was paying for the lab tests), I did in fact prove Michael wrong and return to Los Angeles and continue my adventure in a place still way out of my league until, eventually, that was no longer so.
See the next chapter at “Game Show, Gas & Gofer”.