14 December 2014

Crazy Dancin’ Christopher (No, Really)

I remember dancing at a very young age. As I grew up, I danced in theater, taught dance, and danced for recreation. I mean I danced a LOT. (You can see very early footage of just how crazy I was about dancing here.)

When I was young, our summer vacations always ended with a huge Labor Day picnic for the employees of the company where my father worked, Western Gillette -- sorta like the big company fete you see in the movie musical Pajama Game. It was always held in Paradise Valley (Arizona) at the Paradise Inn (pictured) -- a big, old, sprawling resort that opened in 1944 and had a real Western feel to it. It’s now long gone, with the Phoenician Resort sitting where it used to be. I loved those picnics because they had a big bar-be-que, games for the kids, drawings for prizes, swimming and lots of fun stuff.

One year, when I was about the same age as the above video, I entered a dance contest at one of the picnics. It was open only to kids, and there were many rounds where the winner worked his/her way up. Kinda like a March Madness of dancing. It was a tough slog that finally got down to me and this little blonde girl a couple years older than me. Well, I whooped ass and won! For my efforts, I got a huge box of chocolates.

The picnics -- and, really, my childhood -- ended sometime in the early or mid 1970s when Western Gillette was bought out by the Roadway company. I don't think they ever had company picnics again. If they did, I know I didn’t go to any. Isn't that sad?

11 December 2014

Another San Francisco Storm

Looking at the images of the huge storm battering Northern California today, I’m reminded of a massive storm that struck while I was living in the San Francisco area.

It was Friday the 13th (really), November 1981 and I was working at my bank job in Rossmoor, California. A huge storm had come in during the day and I kept my ear glued to the radio at work, wondering whether I would be able to drive home (I traveled the 4 highway to my apartment in Pinole). There was talk of mud slides, driving rain, etc. Well, finally, 6:00 p.m. arrived. The bank closed and I started home.

The rain was driving very hard. I turned on my windshield wipers and one promptly broke. I pulled into a gas station and got a new blade, then started home again. The normally 30-minute drive took me more than two hours. The downpour was so thick I couldn’t even see the front of my car let alone the road. So, I drove very slowly. I drove around a couple small mud slides, other road debris, etc. I don't remember seeing any other cars at all (who would be so stupid as to be on the road in THAT weather?).

Finally, I got close to home and came over the hill that would lead me down into Pinole. I looked and saw nothing. Nothing at all. Where there should have been lights (from the houses and the huge oil refinery near by) there was nothing. I was disoriented until it dawned on me that the power had gone out in all the cities in the area (San Pablo, Richmond, Pinole, Hercules, Rodeo, etc.). I made my way toward my apartment through the rain and howling wind. I got into my apartment and relished being safely out of the storm for the first time in hours. It was nearly 9:00 p.m.!

Later I found out I had driven through the biggest storm to hit San Francisco in years. It was the first storm identified as part of what would later be known as the "El Nino" affect.

07 December 2014

“A Chorus Line” and Me

There was a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s that I ate, lived and breathed “A Chorus Line” -- Michael Bennett’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical from 1975. I can’t even tell you what about it drew me in. When it opened on Broadway, I was an impressionable 15-year-old boy who had been active in grade-school and high-school theater for years. I loved being part of the world of theater: I loved singing, I loved dancing and I loved acting.

And then came “A Chorus Line.”

Everyone knows the story: an audition for dancers for a new musical, the appearance of a once-great dancer who had fallen on hard times and needed a job, and the director who was once in love with the dancer who had the power to give her a new life. It’s so simple and yet, at the same time, incorporated every hope, dream and disappointment ever felt by anyone who ever wanted to achieve anything.

The characters in the show were all me, one facet or another of the young boy in Phoenix who wanted nothing more than to perform on a stage. I had parents who didn’t understand it, friends who made fun of it, and a fantasy world where it all became real.

I watched excerpts from the show on the Tony Award telecast in 1976. I bought the record and sang and danced to it “around the living room” every chance I got. I sang songs from the show at auditions. Everyone around me got sick hearing about “A Chorus Line” and I don’t blame them. I talked my chorus director into letting me do a solo of “The Music and the Mirror” at one of our shows; and my theater director in high school gave me the final song at a variety show. I stood on stage and sang “What I Did for Love” like I was on the stage at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.

Then, after months of begging, my parents took me to Los Angeles to see the Broadway cast at the Shubert Theater at Century City. The anticipation virtually made me sick. We drove to California. We arrived at the theater only to discover that some of the original cast had just left the show -- including Tony Award-winning star, Donna McKechnie, who left to marry Bennett. I was crestfallen; but the show was still phenomenal.

I dropped out of college after a few years, determined to go to California and make good on my theater dream. Instead of heading right to the Great White Way in New York, my plan was this: go to San Francisco and make a big noise in theater there. Then head down to Los Angeles and became someone. THEN head to New York with one foot on the stage, ready to conquer the theater world with an audience ready to embrace me.

Quite quickly reality crept in. I was in San Francisco only a little while when I saw the kind of talent I was up against. Wow! I was nowhere near their level. My lifelong, dearly cherished dream died a quick and painful death.

On one return visit to my home in Phoenix, I happened upon a small antique store. I was chatting with the owner and kept thinking he looked really familiar. Turned out it was Cameron Mason who played Mark in the original company. We chatted briefly about the show, but I got the impression he didn’t want to talk about it.

My life’s ambition turned to writing shortly after that. I found in writing the successes I was never to find in theater. I got a couple newspaper columns and began reviewing theater. I found it to be nearly as rewarding as performing.

Through all these years “A Chorus Line” has remained an integral part of my life. I saw the show performed six times, including finally getting to see McKechnie in 1989. I interviewed her twice and got to meet her backstage after one performance.

“A Chorus Line” eventually closed on Broadway, but not before becoming the longest-running show in history.

02 December 2014

A Woman Named Betty

In my elementary-school years, we lived down the street from a woman about my parent’s age. Her name was Betty. She was German and had a very thick accent. She and her husband were very gregarious, invited my parents and me over all the time, especially for a lavish holiday spread each December.

One time, she was very somber and began to tell us a story that has haunted me ever since.

When she was a very young girl, her family was hounded by the Nazis because her father published a newspaper. Betty and her family were sent to a concentration camp. She managed to escape the camp thanks to a group of nuns who had come to visit. The plan was for one of the sisters to secrete her out of the camp under her vestments. The other people in the camp scrawled messages to their families all over Betty’s body. The nuns hid Betty and they exited the camp. The nuns put her in a suitcase and put the suitcase under their seat on the train. And this was how Betty was able to leave Nazi Germany.

If I remember the story correctly, she was the only member of her family to survive the camps.

26 November 2014

One Thanksgiving

Here’s a story I think about every Thanksgiving:

I lived in a certain house for the first six years of my life. In the house directly across the street from us lived a man and woman significantly older than my parents. The woman was really nice. She was constantly inviting me into her house to take my pick of candy from a giant bowl she had that was always filled -- almost as if it was forever Halloween.

I remember her very clearly. Here is an image of her (with me and my mother) from a home movie from about 1963.

Many years after we moved from that house, my parents told me about this older couple. They had a child, a boy, who had grown up, gotten married, moved away and had at least one child. One Thanksgiving, the son and his family came to visit. Driving home, the entire family was killed in a horrible car accident. The parents were devastated and apparently never recovered. I guess this is why she was always so super nice to me.

20 November 2014

A Most Important Person

Everyone has someone in their life who was important to them as a child, aside from the obvious of the parents. For me, that person was Gwen Lysek.

She was born in 1928, the youngest of nine kids who moved with their parents from Alabama to Phoenix in 1935. Her father was a farmer.

For the first six years of my life, Gwen took care of me during the day because both my parents worked. She was like my nanny and was always cooking really great southern food including fried chicken, real mashed potatoes, peach pie, vanilla pudding with banana slices and "Nilla" brand wafers around the pie edge, black-eyed beans and real fig jam.

Many years earlier, her older sister Rose was dating Ed Lysek. Ed sent to his brother Joe a picture of Rose’s sister Gwen. Joe was in the military and they began a correspondence. In 1946, Joe moved to Phoenix and in August they were married.

Gwen and Joe moved into a house in 1957, and my parents moved next door a couple years later and a few months before I was born. My mother took a bus to work and was concerned about taking me on a bus. So, she arranged to have Gwen take care of me.

Rose lived with them at some point. She made really neat pleated pillows which I really loved. At some point Joe had to have his feet and then legs amputated because of diabetes. He was in a wheelchair for many years. After he died, Gwen lived alone. I kept in touch with her for years, and then suddenly she never answered the phone again. I went to the house to see if she was there and it was empty. I know she had family who lived near by, and they knew about me. I guess she died and no one thought to call me and let me know. It was very sad to have missed her last days.

Some years before I lost touch with her, I took my spouse, Matt, to meet her. She was very old and frail, but I am glad the two of them met before she died.

01 October 2014

Death in Palm Springs, A

I recently returned from a couple days in Palm Springs, California -- the land of movie stars, golf courses, desert landscaping and storage units. I was not involved with any of the former, but lots and lots of the latter.

The reason for my trip was the untimely death, a couple years ago, of a friend of mine. We had known each other more than fifteen years and shared a common passion for vintage melamine. It was something I’d been interested in for about fifteen years; but he had me beat: he’d been collecting and researching it since the mid-1970s.
 
His intent all these years was to write the comprehensive encyclopaedia of melamine to be exhaustively researched, documented and compiled with the help of several other researchers, including me. We exchanged notes for more than a decade. I, and the others, kept encouraging him to get going on the encyclopaedia. Despite the fact that he had thousands of pieces of vintage melamine stored in two huge storage units, he didn’t yet have enough. He kept buying and assembling, hoping to have everything in place before he started writing.

Then, one day, he cut his leg at work. It wouldn’t heal so he went to the doctor. They said he had an infection and gave him some medicine. When it still wouldn’t heal, they said it was a different infection and gave him a different medicine. Long story short, turns out he had stage-four pancreatic cancer. He underwent treatments, including proton beam therapy, and came out all cured. Six months later he was dead. Apparently, he hadn’t been as cured as the doctors thought.

Despite the fact he insisted he had a will (years before all this happened), he died without one. His family wanted to sell the contents of the storage units, but no one who had the money was interested in the contents, and no one with interest in the contents had the money. Frustrated after two years of no sale, they told me they were going to abandon the units and I had a week to go there and take whatever I wanted. Living a few hours drive from Palm Springs I leapt at the chance. My spouse and I went over, spent two days going through many hundreds of boxes, found lots of stuff and came home.

From this exhausting exercise, I learned a great many things: have a will (I do), do not have a storage unit (I don’t), if you have to store and organize research materials do not combine many subjects into a single box (each subject gets its own box) and make sure to give people what you want them to have when you’re still alive and not after you’re dead -- that’s the only way to guarantee they’ll get it, will or no will.

But, most important I learned that, if you’re researching something in which you have a passion, don’t wait to publish until you have every last speck of information on the subject. Publish now, either online or otherwise, and change it as new information comes along. No sense spending thirty years researching something only to die before you’ve printed a single word.

You can find my research into mid-twentieth-century plastics here.

22 July 2014

Art Imitates Life or How I Created one of the Main Characters in “Murder at Eastern Columbia”

I had already written six books when I began organizing the mystery novel Murder at Eastern Columbia. I had not yet come up with the “novel within a novel” feature, but I did know my main character would be a writer who would have a fictional alter ego. Through much thinking and planning, this alter ego turned into the unnamed detective who has now co-starred in three of the James Murray Mystery novels.

The main character of the novels, writer James Murray, is a huge fan of the mystery novels of Dashiell Hammett. That mirrors my fascination with the detectives that appeared in film, books and especially radio in the mid-twentieth century: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Barrie Craig, Johnny Dollar, The Falcon, the Thin Man and countless others. That fascination was channeled into James’s alter ego -- but with one big difference: he’s not a detective and he’s not a police officer. He’s just a guy who wants to help.

And help he does.

He follows James’s lead (literally) in three adventures (so far) starting with the murder of James’s co-worker that sends James and the unnamed detective on a whirlwind tour of 1930s downtown Los Angeles as they each try to solve the murder of the girl with sorrel-colored hair. In the second book, Sabotage at RKO Studio, he goes to work at a movie studio when James gets hired as a junior script writer. They both try to find out who’s sabotaging films being made on the lot -- including the big blockbuster King Kong. In the third book, Abduction at Griffith Observatory, James’s life continues on an upswing, but he’s soon drawn into trying to find the person who was kidnapped from the grounds of the new observatory.

I love writing this unnamed detective because he’s all the things that James and I are not. He’s tough, he’s a chick magnet, he’s good with his fists when he needs to be. But, like James and I, he’s also intuitive, smart, and has a good heart.

My detective also bleeds when he’s wounded -- literally and figuratively. He’s had a tough life, but he’s trying to make it better, to rise above the hand dealt him. He survived an abusive mother and an uncaring father to mature in college. He then struck out on his own and accidentally got into the detecting business trying to help a wealthy society dame find her kidnapped pooch. One investigative job led to another, then another -- and now he’s known around Los Angeles as a man who can get the job done.

What adventures await the unnamed detective? That all depends on what happens to James in his life because, as we all know, writers take the adventures of their lives and turn them into their fiction.

There are some pretty exciting adventures in store for James, and he’ll have his ups and downs -- but so will the unnamed detective. So, is it a case of life imitating art? For the unnamed detective, it’s a case of art imitating life.

Books I’m Reading

Am reading this.

Just finished reading this.