Gilda

November 23, 2014

I have written about the late 70’s, when I was suffering from scars on my vocal chords, from screeching my trained tenor voice out, in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I lost my drive to be an actor/singer, and I started writing my first play, which would end up on Off Broadway in New York, in 1983.

I got a job as a driver, school bus and celebrity van, as in Rock Hudson, Angela Lansbury, Mickey Rooney and my beloved Ann Miller and many more (the asshole Yul Brenner had an armed bodyguard who instructed me never to look at the King), those stars requiring rides from Chicago’s Arie Crown Theatre, south of the Loop, to north side actor housing in hotels. My boss gave me the latter job because “You are in show business, Eugene.”

Thanksgiving week in 1979, Gilda Radner and her then husband, G.E. Smith, who would become the band director for “Saturday Night Live,” and Don Novello, “Father Guido Sarducci,” came to Chicago to appear at the Arie Crown for the “Gilda Radner—Live From New York” Broadway show. Yours truly was their chauffeur.

Pause, to reflect on driver tipping. Ann Miller, while she and I got along famously (we even dined together at the Pump Room, in Sinatra’s booth!), even singing some of the storied songs from her extraordinary film career (“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town; the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down”), would slip me a dollar bill every night I was with her. She would open a purse, shuffle a parcel of bills, and fetch a one and press it into my palm with both hands. Rock Hudson would nod to an associate, who would dig in a pocket and come out with a fiver—or less. Mickey Rooney would talk my head off—the little man talked everyone’s head off—always holding folding money in his hand, never parting with any of it. But Gilda . . . Gilda slipped me twenty-five dollars every night we were together, one hundred dollars for the three nights I was sick and not driving. (OMG: it has just occurred to me that they’re all dead.)

Radner was promoting her comedy album, “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” (“Oh the animals, the animals, let’s talk dirty to the animals; fuck you, Mr. Bunny, up yours, Mr. Bear”). Father Sarducci was being his intellectual, hilarious, monologist self. Smith and a small band played for the show. My interaction with Novello was limited to “How you doing?” “Good. You?” Smith just smiled. Gilda, who was very petite and pretty—she was obsessed with fat; she ate nothing but tuna fish; on her deathbed, sick from cancer, she worried that she had mercury poisoning—treated me like I was her brother. We chatted backstage, at her hotel and at restaurants, as several times she invited me to join her and her retinue for dinner.

There was heavy drug use going on at all times but it didn’t seem to affect anybody’s performance. Father Sarducci kept to himself, always walking down backstage corridors before the show, head down, and smoking cigarettes end to end. The rest of the cast and crew did a lot of coke. Whether things went better with coke, I can’t say.

That Tuesday, Gilda invited me to a catered, traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I was stoked. I even bought a sport coat. And then I got sick—as sick as I have ever been. I vomited for three days straight. And I missed the Thanksgiving bash.

Upon returning, the Saturday matinee after Thanksgiving, I walked into the Arie Crown and Gilda, dressed as Lisa Lupner, took me by the hand and led me into the green room. There was a Thanksgiving buffet laid out on tables in the center of the room. I was placed first in line and handed a plate by Ms. Lupner. “Happy Thanksgiving, Gene,” Lisa Lupner said. She kissed my right cheek and handed me an autographed copy of Gilda Radner’s “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” (which I loaned to an old girlfriend’s daughter, who never returned it–damn you, Mandy).

Thanks to a friend, I’m not alone this Thanksgiving, but I’m almost always alone—it’s the writer’s way, or the Gene way or both. My dear Chicago friend Kathy used to host a Thanksgiving dinner for “orphans,” and it was jolly, and some people would drink too much vino and start saying what they really thought, about other guests at the table. It was horrifying and exhilarating, all at the same time. My childhood Thanksgiving was mostly conducted in silence, my father’s peoples’ way. The Radner Thanksgiving was way the coolest of them all, man, though I was on duty and couldn’t imbibe.

Things did go better with Coke.

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