At the end of my last semester at University, a good friend gave me a Saint Genesius medal as a bon voyage gift, telling me the story of the ancient Roman actor turned patron saint of theatre. It was a neat little treasure and although a lapsed Catholic, I nevertheless had great faith in charms and trinkets, trusting anything might help launch my acting career. I wore it around my neck to every audition I went to my first few months in NYC. No luck – it wasn’t even bringing me call-backs. Deciding it might heighten the powers, I tucked it chain and all into my shirt pocket, closer to my heart, but this brought no detectable changes. Every several weeks I relocated him: right front pants pocket, left back pocket and so on and so forth. Still at each audition I was just another face, a dark brown, curly-haired, big nosed “18 to 25-year-old” skinny guy who showed up, as did dozens of a remarkably similar description for the same ONE role. I didn’t seem to elicit anyone’s interest - could not stand out from the crowd.
I had auditioned for what seemed like every non-union dinner theatre from New Jersey to Kansas. I sang out brightly when it was a musical, or acted (quite possibly over-acted) scenes from the many popular contemporary comedies which were the typical fare of this popular American theatre genre. To paraphrase a dear friend who made a lucrative living during these times, dinner theatre was most often a bad smorgasboard interrupted by two hours of mediocre entertainment where the rolling in of the dessert cart got more applause than the curtain call. I wanted at least a chance to judge for myself, please Saint Genesius.
Somewhere around month five or six in my life in The City, I spotted an ad in Backstage for an audition for replacements in a production of “Lovers and Other Strangers” at Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos, the honeymoon haven. I believe it was for ten or twelve weeks and it alternated with another production of a similar comedy during each week. Casting would be by a guy with a name like Jerry Silver or something, a supposed comedian who I don’t think anyone but a Borscht Belt aficionado might possibly have ever heard of. I reminded myself that this time could be the time and I remember struggling with leaving my questionably not-so-good-luck medal home, in the event it might be working against me. As I put my key in the door to lock the apartment, an uncomfortable sensation went down my spine. I shook off the feeling and ran back in to grab Saint Genesius. I closed my left fist around him, where he stayed the entire trip uptown, opening my hand periodically to focus on his martyred face. Once I entered the rehearsal studio, handed in my picture and resume and got an audition form to fill out, I had to put him somewhere, so I stuffed him into my sock against my ankle where he’d never been before.
In from the hallway bounded Jerry Silver or Something, a small, slight man most probably mid-forties, radically thinning hair brushed back in the hopes of still being considered a pompadour and what was there a noncommittal grey. His face was unmemorable even then. He acted hyper, but was using the energy in hopes of coming off zany and effusive and funny. He was none of these things. What he was, was the man with the jobs, which all of us actors instantly understood and so politely we chuckled at his sham. He was dressed in a beige or brown pure polyester blazer with some uncoordinating colored trousers and a very noteworthy paisley print shirt. The entire ensemble looked as though it had been slept in numerous nights. For certain he resembled none of the directors I had become used to seeing in my brief audition experience. Typically they were hip looking, or had some wacky ‘theatrical flair’. This guy could well have been mistaken for a Soviet refugee.
He explained the show had been up and running for several weeks, but some actors were leaving for other commitments. They were looking for one guy in his early twenties and two women. The resort was also putting together a new brochure and they would be using the younger actors to model as honeymoon couples, paying a separate per diem modeling fee. Surveying my competition, there were no Robert Redfords, thus I felt I stood as good a chance as any of them. There were many more women than men, so each of the guys got to read several times before being given the “thank-you-you’ll-be-hearing-from-us-soon” spiel. By the end of the afternoon it got down to about a dozen women and five or six guys. He asked that we come back the following afternoon. I promised myself to not say a word to anyone or get my hopes up the least little bit, yet my heart was doing a little song and dance inside about what a great job I must have just done.
I told only my roommate about the call back, though wrestled with calling my parents in Cleveland. If I did call and then wasn’t cast, it would have stung even the harder. I longed however, to make my theatrical un-career seem more plausible for them. The next morning seemed to take an eternity, but as it turned out, I needed the time to put together the best possible wardrobe to make myself look believable as a “straight” newlywed. Lines in a script I knew how to interpret, but this honeymoon brochure thing had me a bit concerned. Whatever I ended up wearing, it also included Genesius tucked back into my sock, because he truly must have possessed powerful magic to get me this far.
Waiting for Jerry Silver or Something at the studio, I recall chatting with a couple of the actor wannabees outside in the hall. They were questioning his competency. No one had ever heard of him and the image he projected, or lack thereof, was also unsettling to say the least. We all came to the same conclusion, that being, a job is a job and ten or twelve weeks is hardly a lifetime. He arrived manic and as disheveled as the day before – same jacket and pants, different ugly shirt. We read scenes, changing partners as he carried on his tired banter and delivered new, bad one-liners. He temporarily excused the women and asked that the guys remain in the room.
He announced he wanted each of us to tell him a joke before we left. We looked at one another, thinking this was the joke. It was absurd; we weren’t stand-up comics. My thoughts raced when I realized the only jokes I knew were filthy and most of them trashy gay ones. He called on each of us like an elementary school teacher. No one’s joke nor their delivery was terribly funny and each was excused once he’d finished. It left me the last man in the room. “You…..are a funny guy”, he delivered at me like Jackie Mason. “I could tell the minute I saw you. Come on”, he beckoned curling his fingers towards his face, “make me laugh”. I had decided on doing a joke an uncle used to tell when I was a kid. Now my uncle was not a terribly funny guy, but he could make the entire family roar whenever he told the joke about “this guy who saves up his money and buys a custom-made suit”. It’s an oldie that requires the teller to stand and do a lot of physical, body-posturing, but I was desperate and had pulled it out of my ass at the eleventh hour. Jerry Silver or Something went hysterical, just like the first time my eight-year-old-self had when Uncle Mike first performed it.
“You could be a tummeler!” he announced. “A what?”, I questioned, not knowing if that was a word or perhaps just a crude noise emanating from somewhere in his gut. A tummeler, he went on to explain, is a funny guy who works the hotel lobby or the dining room before the show, warming up the audience and creating interest to sell tickets. “You…are a natural. You would be bee-oo-ti-ful” he added, obviously trying to sell me on his idea. He told me there was no role for me in the other production, so this would justify my hiring for the people paying the bills back at the resort. I had the role in “Lovers and Other Strangers”, the modeling brochure gig and the tummeler job – $175 a week, room and dinner nightly. It happened just like that. I was beyond elation; I floated out the door. Saint Genesius, having worked his way down my ankle, now rested between my heel and my sock. I tromped on him with every other joyous step I took to the subway home.
Within one hour’s time I told: my roommate, my downstairs neighbor, the guy at the deli, my super’s wife and my handful of New York friends. I called my parents that night, telling them I was off to Mount Pocono, PA in less than two days. My mother didn’t want to talk too long, not because I was calling collect, but because she needed to start dialing the rest of the family in Cleveland. It was as though I’d won the Nobel Prize, only better. There was now a professional actor in the family. I had to take the bus Sunday evening to be there bright and early Monday morning to meet the man who signed the checks and the rest of the cast to start rehearsals. I would be on stage the following weekend. To this day, I can still summon a flavor of the euphoria and excitement I experienced by landing this job.
All the way to the Poconos I tried to envision what this honeymoon lodge might look like. I had never stayed anywhere except an economy hotel in Manhattan (twice) and a few cheap roadside motels in Ohio and surrounding states as a kid with my family. I didn’t expect Vegas style splendor, but I decided I would settle for no less than semi-posh. A banged up van was waiting to take me to the resort when I pulled into town that night. I remained positive during the short drive to the place. In the dark, lighted up in the distance through the trees, it looked quite promising. It was overdone for sure but thankfully not a run down dump. Once inside the lobby and walking to the front desk, I got a better sense of the flavor. It was very sixties – lots of dark, faux wood paneling and fake beams with an abundance of glittery lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling and mounted to the walls. I was shown my room and told I should meet the other “entertainers” in the dining hall for breakfast the next morning. Both the public areas and my room had that lingering heavy odor of stale cigarette smoke and mustiness that simply opening windows would never clear away. The place did not live up to its name; Mount AIRY it was not.
It was easy to spot my fellow actors at breakfast. Taking-over one end of the dining room and crowded around two tables, a cloud of chain smoke hovering over both, they were the ones looking half asleep and slightly hung-over. As I introduced myself to the group, they sat me down and immediately began to fill my ears with advice and complaints from all directions:
“Don’t sign anything. This gig is the pits.”
“Our checks are never on time and when they are they’re post-dated.”
“The resort hates the shows and is trying to get rid of all of us!”
The best came from this silky, long-haired beauty – sultry, tall and lean: “Get your ass back on the same bus that brought you here and go back to NYC where it’s safe!” And at that moment Jerry Silver or Something magically appeared and asked me to follow him to the office of the Big Boss. I wanted to believe the actors because they had no reason to be anything but truthful with me, but I needed this job to fulfill my dream of so many year’s waiting. Nervously following him down the dark hallway I called him Mr. Silver or Something and warmly he asked me to just call him ‘Jer’.
We entered a tiny hole-in-the-wall office, windowless and very dark, barely wide enough to accommodate a large wooden desk, laden with piles of receipts, bills and invoices. The figure who sat behind it, hunched over this mess of papers was so acutely round-shouldered his face could not be seen. “Close the door”, he barked at us. “I wanted you to meet our tummeler”, Jer cheerily announced. He also explained I was replacing actor X in the first show and would probably work well in the skiing shots for the brochure. At this suggestion, the Big Boss jerked his neck to twist his head up and I was able to this time glimpse just a portion of his face. He was reminiscent of an illustration from WIND IN THE WILLOWS or Lewis Carroll – a shrew-like, bespectacled animal dressed in men’s clothing. Leering at me for only a millisecond, he dropped his head back down onto his work. “He’s wrong”, he growled and my stomach knotted in disbelief. “But he’s a funny, funny guy”, Jer began in my defense, “and he’s gonna’ work really well in the scenes with …”. Cutting him off mid sentence Big Boss definitively repeated “He’s wrong”, never shifting focus from the papers before him.
Once again Jer began justifying why I was such a good choice, however Big Boss continued working, now as though neither of us were even in the room. I was growing uncomfortable both with my situation and the fact I was being discussed in the third person as though I were either absent or invisible. “Sir”, I entered into the fray, “can you tell me why I’m wrong?”. He snapped his head up abruptly and glared at me as best he could with his tiny, close-set eyes. “Yer’ ugly”, he stated with neither venom nor hostility, but rather as one might state any great truth such as the earth is round or fire is hot. My question had been answered and I had been dismissed with two words. Worse than that, as quickly as Jerry Silver or Something had handed it to me, Big Boss had taken away my job and killed my dream.
I remember so much of my distant past, and yet the bus ride back to Manhattan that same afternoon is a total memory void. I can only guess it was tearful and long and lonely and all those things that were the antithesis of what the ride to Mount Pocono had been the day before. I do remember being back in Manhattan, embarrassed to face the people who had cheered me on only days before. And totally letting down my family and the countless people wonderful motor-mouthed Mom had bragged to in Cleveland – people I didn’t even know. Once back among the living and facing the reality of what had all gone down, there were times I blamed Jerry Silver or Something and other times I cursed Genesius and the entire Catholic Church. The worst was the sting of that gnarled little man’s succinct diagnosis, “Yer’ ugly”, which had fractured an already tenuous ego. Here was truly one of the ugliest creatures, both inside and out, telling me it had nothing to do with talent, or timing or anything I could have changed, but simply how I was perceived. In time I went to plenty other auditions. He hadn’t dampened my desire. Still I carried his words with me as baggage for years after.