Sunday, September 07, 2008

Out of the Past: When Artist and Audience Share Illusions ...

Illusions: without them most of us would have little will to live. Poor Judy Garland, nearing the end of her troubled existence, there she was, all alone curled up backstage in the womb of a theatre dressing room, unable to get up and leave and go out and face the real world. Remembered talk show host Dick Cavett, on whose morning program Garland had just appeared, “I couldn’t get her out of the dressing room. I left the theatre and later walked back well after tape time. And she was still there.”

Still lost in her life-saving fantasies. Judy survived on them just as we the audience do. And so she clung to the world of make believe. Clung to the stage, the dressing room. “She was home in those two places,” remembered Cavett. “Leave them and you are back in so-called life, where it seemed poor Judy made only false moves.”

Poor Lucille Ball, who had to suffer husband Desi Arnez’s numerous affairs. Nearing the end of their successful TV run, Ball all but admitted that only when she was filming another “I Love Lucy” episode did she feel a semblance of love between herself and her estranged real-life husband. How sad that what she felt was scripted.

Performer and spectator are sometimes never very far apart ... When we watched Lucy every Monday night in the fifties, we believed that she and Ricky were a happily married pair. So too, while the show was being filmed, did Lucy.

Ricky Nelson, who in better times enjoyed record sales second only to Elvis Presley, could not stop flying across the country in dinky little airplanes to dinky little night club dates where a handful of “fans” might show up to cheer the aging rocker on. I ask you, who was more lost in their illusions — guitar player or small crowd of devoted acolytes? Nelson died in a plane crash daring a dangerous storm to make another token appearance. He couldn’t let go ...

They all live for applause, for a packed house of happy enthralled fans. From Broadway to big tops, everything else in between is just a waiting game. We dream of the next big one, and when it comes we believe in our illusions all over again. For after all, without them, what drive would there be to succeed? As Oscar Hammerstein II put it, “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Showbiz Snaps: Both Cirque du Soleil and Big Apple Circus sporting ads in today's New York Times . Cirque's full page heralds the return of Wintuk, while Grandma’s Big Apple ad, much smaller, touts its next offering Play On! ... On the radio, news of Vegas hotels reporting a 15 percent drop in reservations. So maybe what Nancy Gaona told me is spot on ... Don Marcks (as did Dory Miller, if I am not wrong) used to say that presidential election years crimp circus business ... in the Bay Area, according to one source, some blogs reported the Circus Vargas cast outnumbering the folks in the seats. I surely hope not ... Why is big top biz, overall, never reported or known, unlike virtually all other avenues of entertainment? The old Billboard once did a worthy job, week by week ... Not a very cheery Sunday report, this? ... Okay, everything’s coming up straw houses again, promise you, once I release my ground-breaking Recipe for Revival. Sure. Ooops, are my own precious illusions showing? Please close the door on your way out and let me stay here in my private dressing room ... I can't bear reality right now ...

First published  September 7, 2008


Wade G. Burck said...

Show Biz,
Move over and let me crawl in beside you. I think buying a plane ticket and flying to Vegas for the soul purpose of spending money, is affected by the economy. I don't think a tent set up 4 miles from your home is impacted as much by it. I think that is avoiding the big picture of "what's to go for anymore".
Wade Burck

henry edgar said...

david -- another column from the heart, facing the truth about reality vs. illusion.

judy garland was the most tragic; liza and lorna were often more mother than daughter for this woman who grew up in a cocoon never seeing life away from the spotlight until the spotlight started dimming. much like the center ring stars who don't realize the center ring is no longer theirs until they have trouble getting booked on a tiny mud show.

ball, on the other side, was, no matter what else, a survivor. no matter how devastated she might be by death of the perfect marriage, there was always the comfort of commercial and artistic success, no matter what else. it's common knowledge that she and desi never stopped loving and respecting each other until death finally separated them, even though they bothe realized that there was no way to keep the marriage together. ball was a true workaholic who found a degree of comfort with a second husband whose primary job was to be her matter what happened, every time she stumbled slightly, she picked herself up professionally with another success, with no failures until the disastrous mame. she followed this by an artisic highlight of her life, triumphing in a tv movie drama, "Stone Pillow," working without
the big eye lashes, the exagerated facial and physical expressions or even the trademark flaming red hair, bringing tears as a homeless woman on the streets of new york. everyone agreed she deserved an emmy and she hoed to add the illusion of a great dramatic actress to her well-respeced resume. with the death of sidekick Vivian Vance, along with the more titillating paths that comedy was taking, she feared her arena for comedy was closed. still, she bounced back for one last series try, which was probably the biggest failure of her life -- and the most heart-breaking. despite life for lucy without ricky, she remained the world's greatest female comedienne, the queen of TV, until a series that was so embarassing even the critics wouldn't tell her how awful it was. a lot like the circus star or owner who keeps re-inventing their illusion to even more applause and riches until finally there's nothing left but an empty ring and empty seats. at least she understood business enough to always keep a healthy bank account rather than flirting with near-homelessness and near-starvation as garland did, who was forces to sneak out of hotels in the wee hours to avoid a bill she couldn't pay in her final years.

finally, with ricky, he chose a life of his own, destroying his original illusion to change music styles and lifestyles to always remain true to himself rather than taking the easy way out and spending his last years playing vegas and the oldies circuit, as so many of rock's other legends are still doing. he let his hair grow long instead of fighting to maintain the look that earned him fame. even shortly before his death, there were rumors that col. parker, bored after elvis died, discussed taking over nelson's careet to try to re-invent the former superstar for a new fan base that had no idea who he was. financially, he was between garland and ball. he kept his price affordable so he kept working, without the financial highs of lucille ball or the lows of judy garland. kind of like the center ring star who takes a cut in pay and moves to an end ring voluntarily before being pushed there, happy to be in an end ring rather than home in sarasota.

your comparisons of the three legends is brilliant.

now our business must decide what can be learned from the three. do we go out leaving the lot with only a few wagon tracks and popcorn sacks, but knowing we've made a few people happy even though we didn't make enough to pay the bills? or do we continue doing what we've always done, investing profits wisely and keeping the makup and sequins perfectly in place until finally nobody wants the perfect show at any price? or do we change the image, shifting the ilusion closer to reality, dropping the sequins and feathers for more casual attire, giving up the glamour and illusion to appear more real to the audience, giving them our new ideas rather than what they expect (3 rings of elephants, cats, flying trapeze, etc)

the bigest difference in our business and the careers of these three legends is that we no longer attemnpt any illusions. we go into the ring in jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes, we lazily expose our secrets to anyone who watches carefully because unlike those before us, we weren't taught to hide the flaws and we don't care enough to learn, killing the illusion completely.

maybe worst of all, we let money take over and shamelesssly cut costs and add more greedy but sometimes necessary husling for every last penny, all the while forgetting that no matter what else, we must always put forth the illusion that we're still the greatest on earch, always bigger, better and grander than ever.

that, i'm afraid, is why so many of us will die quietly in oblivion, forgetting that we were once a star brighter than any in heaven.