Saturday, March 18, 2006

Special Guest Star: Laraine Newman




Sometimes celebrities make guest appearances in the otherwise mundane lives of those of us charmingly known as The Great Unwashed. It’s become more common since we occupy the same planet that they do (When Celebrities Walked the Earth!). But let’s face it, since the standards of becoming famous have hit new lows, the experience isn’t quite as rare as it once had been once upon a time. But when we, the low-based rabble, are graced by the celestial presence of the Stars, it lifts us up where we belong.

That is why I prefer to call them My Special Guest Stars.

In this installment, my tête-à-tête with, Laraine Newman, one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, a story with some many dropped names it’ll seem like an obstacle course.

Off and on since I was sixteen years of age, I had worked at a roadside attraction outside of my hometown of Stockton, California called the Pollardville Ghost Town. An offshoot of the Chicken Kitchen, an institution on Highway 99 owner by the Pollard family, the western town itself was pieced together with set pieces from the locally filmed William Wyler film entitled The Big Country. After purchasing these buildings and a few others such as the original Jamestown jail, they were transported to the property behind the restaurant and transformed into the amusement park known as the Pollardville Ghost Town. It was there that I operated the train ride that carted passengers around the back of the property (a couple of times off the tracks). But mostly I performed in western skits performed on the main street of the town. In essence, since the town was only open on Saturdays and Sundays, I was indeed a weekend cowboy.

In 1979, the town had been leased to three entrepreneurs who had high hopes of expanding the Ghost Town into a major attraction. They inexplicably changed the name to the Tule Flats Ghost Town and hired an all-new crew to make the place over. While the name change was a curious choice, to say the least, one thing was certain; new blood needed to be pumped some life into this operation in order for it to survive. This was not a cash cow by any means, but it sure had potential. Once I was re-hired and reclaimed my part-time gunfighter status, I saw the town in a completely new light.

At the same time, my friend Bill Humphreys, an actor and honest-to-goodness TV director who had worked with, among others, Ed McMahon and Dennis James, also became part of the new crew after he had returned to Stockton for a spell. Bill and I befriended another new member of this year’s version of The Wild Bunch, a strange yet hilariously brilliant fifteen-year-old named Grant-Lee Phillips. A musician, magician and extremely inventive comic, Grant had recently become the youngest finalist in the Steve Martin Impersonation Contest in San Francisco, finishing third in the competition.

In between our regular weekend gig at the town, Bill had to take a business trip to Los Angeles for his father. I, with certainly nothing better to do at the time, tagged along for what we used to call “shits and giggles”. Besides, one of the incentives was the promise of revisiting some of Bill’s old stomping grounds in Hooray for Hollywood. We asked Grant if there was anything we could bring back for him from the Land of La.

“I want any autographs you can get and a pack of gum from some place really neat.”

Right.

This turned out to be quite the adventure. The shits and giggles were plentiful. Being more connected than I actually realized, Bill was able to visit a friend of his at ABC on the set of General Hospital, schlepping me along for the ride. Then along with another couple of old cronies, we snuck onto the back lot of Universal Studios dropping some jasper’s name at the gate and popping onto the tour. Then after a trip to Disneyland where I hadn’t been since the age of eight and a stop at Pink’s for a famous chili dog, Bill introduced me to a local L.A. TV celeb that used to be a kids’ show host named Hobo Kelly.

Still, no autographs of any note to bring home to Grant and a goose egg seemed to be in the offing until we had lunch at Musso and Frank’s, a true Hollywood landmark. I looked up from my cheeseburger to spy the one and only Laraine Newman, a honest to Buddha Not Ready for Prime Time Player, walking in all by her lonesome self, not appearing to be in a very good mood and plunking down at the counter. Aha! Here was my chance and with pen and paper in hand, I seized the moment.

There was no reason to be intimidated by her, especially since she was so unimposing. In fact Laraine didn’t make much of an impression at all and I felt I could just approach her, but not so much as one would a star of still a very TV hot show. Somehow, because of the age range we were both in, I considered her more of a peer. Ah! The arrogance of youth! Here I was, a guy who performed little cowboy skits in a podunk western amusement park in STOCKTON comparing myself to one of the stars of Saturday Night Live, probably the defining television show of my generation. But what the hell. It wasn’t Belushi. Or Chevy Or Gilda. Or even Garret Morris. It was Laraine Newman, for God’s sakes. I’m only grateful it wasn’t Al Franken.

Still she seemed out of sorts. I could theorize that maybe she took the red-eye in from New York and was still on East Coast time. Or perhaps she had been binging on one substance and/or another until the wee hours of the morning. Or should have just been tossed to the curb after an all-night Crisco party with the members of The Starland Vocal Band. Whatever the scenario that brought her to Musso and Frank’s that day, her eyes rested at half-mast and she definitely needed some sort of stimulant to kick-start her life and her attitude.

I know! How about some adulation from what would appear to be an adoring fan?

“Hi, Laraine. Can I trouble you for an autograph?” I asked friendly enough.

With abrupt exasperation, Laraine turned without looking at me at all and snatched the pen and paper from my mitts. Alas, the pen didn’t write. She spun about, still not looking directly at me, yet with a look on her face that could only be described as lethargic rage. She raised the faulty writing implement and cocked her wrist back as though she had a throwing knife and I had an apple on my head.

A gentleman, a complete stranger sitting next to her, interjected, “Here. You can use mine.”

Without changing her pout, Laraine slammed my pen on the counter and grabbed the kind stranger’s instead to write “L_______ N__________”. She thrust it all back at me and turned back to face the lunch counter. Her ordeal was over just like that. Thank God she survived it all. I handed the stranger back his pen and after thanking him, went merrily on my way, grateful that not only did I avoid injury at the hands of a founding member of SNL, but also that I didn’t have to bitch slap said TV star for bad manners.

Upon returning to Tule Flats, we gave Grant his autograph from a bonafide star as well as some gum I think we bought at a truck stop on the Grapevine on the way back. In typical Grant fashion, he cherished them both. We also brought home a Pink’s chili dog for my friend, Max. Even though it was purchased two days before and kept in conditions in direct violation of any health code anywhere, Max stuffed down his gullet without a care in the world.

Our task completed, we strapped on our six shooters and proceeded to return to the Old West for some gunfightin’, train robbin’ and whoopin’ it up like the cowboys we were. It was, after all, Saturday.

EPILOGUE

This incident was merely a side note of that year. The rest of that summer in 1979 turned out to be one of the best times in my entire life, primarily as a result what occurred in the Ghost Town during that season. It was a period that helped formed the framework of what we would all eventually become.

Grant eventually went on to L.A. himself, diving headlong into the show business. He fronted the band Grant Lee Buffalo (Fuzzy, Mighty Joe Moon, Truly, Truly) and is now a successful solo artist in his own right. I would have to say he is the single most famous person I know.

Bill moved back to L.A. for a spell, then ended up in New England where he has had continued success as a stage actor and director and working in public television, earning himself an Emmy along the way.

Laraine Newman lasted one more season on SNL and then went on to…well, pretty much obscurity.

As for me, I lived to tell the tale.

This is what is known as descending order.
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